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Turning Goblets From a Tree
By Temple Blackwood
Castine, ME

I am a longtime believer from my days on the farm that the trees communicate with each other and that their body language both below the ground as well as above has meaning within their special community. In one of my most revered books, The Soul of a Tree, George Nakashima captures the essence of the energy/life-force within trees that draws so many of us to work with wood with a respect and reverence that matches the inner code that drives decisions of character. Not only is this amazingly versatile material plentiful and self-regenerating, wood has long provided the core material for sustaining life – shelter, tools, heat, shade, food, and so much more. For woodturners, cutting down a tree becomes the first step in that tree's transformation (metempsychosis). Whether those pieces of tree become a newel post, bowl, table, throne, or simple walking or candle stick supporting a single flame of light, the enduring spirit within that tree continues in a healthy, natural, and compelling way to serve and partner.

In the course of my annual summer twice-weekly woodturning demonstrations in the Living History program at the Wilson Museum in Castine, Maine, I meet many experienced woodworkers as well as even more who are drawn to become woodworkers.


In an effort to share my own passion for wood as a sensually rewarding material to work with in a concrete way and to communicate with both other people as well as with the source-trees, I developed a series of demonstrations using wood that clearly comes directly from the tree.


This works extremely well for everything from "Harry Potter wands" (very popular, especially if you add the "magic" friction-polish finish at the end) to a variety of small, live-edge goblets and cups. With an assortment of beautiful trees all around my shop and home, I enjoy a never-ending supply of fresh wood and find that freshly cut branches of oak, cherry, and birch lend themselves best to make the demonstration quick and interesting. Maple, beech, and softwoods do not usually include the delightful surprise of an irregular, dramatic collection of grain, figure, bark, and color in the finished product.


In the process of setting up for demonstrating turning a live-edge goblet from a newly cut branch of oak, you must first acquire the branch (ask permission from an owner when appropriate), and using a bandsaw, cut a blank about 6" or 7" long. Do NOT cut these directly at the bandsaw because the irregular blank shape, its round nature, and the cutting action of the blade can produce nasty surprises that at least might break or kink the blade and more likely might include your fingers or hand in the cutting action.


If you choose to use a sled for these cuts to square the ends and size the piece, you will be better off but still dependent on using your hands to support the blank properly, a daring and dangerous proposition.


The best and safest method for cutting round items whether irregular or not, on the bandsaw is to use an easily made "V-block" that can fully seat and support the blank while being cut.


Once you have the blocks squared (more or less) and sized, it is worth preparing them with a tenon to mount in a four-jaw chuck for turning. This advance preparation of several blanks speeds up the demonstration process and avoids the boring parts that may cause a demonstrator to lose the attention of the audience.


After deciding which end will become top and bottom, mount each block between centers.


Using the ever-handy 3/8" Beading and Parting Tool, mark and then part to a suitable tenon sized for the largest cylinder for the specific chuck (remember do not "bottom-out" but only use the sides and tops of the chuck's jaws to grip the blank).


With all the pre-show blanks prepared, the demonstration is ready.


Begin by sizing an appropriately sized Forstner Bit mounted on a #2 Morse Taper Drill Chuck to capture the depth of cut.


One way to make that depth consistent is to mark the bit with either a piece of tape or with a black marker. This is particularly true if you are making multiple "matching" pieces but also offers itself as a convenient measuring tool.


Drill the piece to the chosen depth with the lathe on a SLOW speed. Forstner bits do not do well with high speeds, and they are definitely a challenge to sharpen – a worthwhile endeavor always, but that is an interesting demonstration reserved for those who are desperate to learn that singular skill.


The other advantage of marking the drill bit for depth-of-cut is that you can use that to help mark where on the outside of the blank you want to avoid making a poor cut, particularly when you are "design-on-the-fly" for your goblet, an exciting and creative feature of doing the demonstrations with wood that has unpredictable figure and color.


With the bulk of the goblet hollowed nearly to depth, use the long point of a substantial Skew Chisel, 1" or larger, to trim and square the top rim.


Depending on the length of the blank, a novice turner might consider bringing up the tailstock with a Live Center to stabilize the piece while shaping the transition between outside and top rim, another design feature to consider and experiment with on various pieces in this series.


Having roughly measured the inner hollow, this is also a good opportunity to rough out the "stem" portion. In this case, the plan is to keep an outer layer of bark on the base. With the long point of the skew, this is an opportunity to cut the bark and also mark the actual bottom, again not deeply so as to weaken the vessel before the stresses of hollowing but enough to make the visual design decisions for how the piece will ultimately look.


Final hollowing to size of the wall thickness goes quickly (remember, the audience needs to be kept attentive during parts where they cannot see anything but chips) with an especially ground scraper.


This profile of sharpening at a slight angle across the end and sharpening the left side at an acute angle allows the turner to steer the cut with the extended front-left point, the flattened end, and/or the side with some ease. As is the case of all scrapers, the burnished spur must be kept sharp so as to cut rather than grind away the undesired wood.


When beginning to hollow, pay special attention to the transition from top rim to the inner wall and be thoughtful about how to include or exclude the occlusions of the irregular roundness of the blank. With this piece of oak, the Cambrian is fairly thin and the seam between softwood and heart presents a nice inner character. Leaving so much of the bark on the piece accentuates the inner exposed figure and color.


Once the walls are properly hollowed to where the drill bit stopped, use a well-sharpened Round-Nose Scraper and round the inner bottom to promote a smooth curve that includes the center. Note on this scraper a black marker line that helps the turner keep track of how deep the goblet might become? Should be? Is? (The turner's choice, but a helpful measure).


The too-often dimple (in) or nipple (out) of a poorly managed center diminishes the final goblet and is an area where the demonstrator should concentrate a skillful finishing cut.


In the spirit of "measure twice, cut once," that black marker check can be helpful as the turner finally retreats to finish the outer stem and bottom cut-off.


Because of the earlier rough design feature, the small Detail Gouge can make short work of finish-turning the goblet's stem. For some turners, the safety of packing the hollow goblet with toilet paper (by far the best to use) and using the tailstock to stabilize the heavier goblet end while turning the stem adds a measure of safety. This practice is essential if the wood of the stem seems particularly fragile or if the plan is to make an extremely thin stem – not the case with this example. This is also an excellent time to add a few drops of Thin CA Glue to the pith as prevention in anticipation of the piece drying and potentially cracking.


Sanding the inside of the goblet with 180 then 220 then 320 makes for a nicely prepared piece. Thinking again about the naturally rough bark and irregular outside features preserved by the blank while sanding avoids some unhappy and embarrassing finger bruises.


With care, the sanding operations can impress the audience while actually polishing the piece, even with fresh wood. This is an area where cherry blanks excel and oak is less desirable. The fresh cherry smells lovely; the oak, not so much.


Carefully sanding the stem without disturbing the bark is a trick that benefits from first removing the toolrest.


A finish of friction polish (1/3rd each of shellac, turpentine, boiled linseed oil—shake between every use) shines and seals even the greenest wood and adds luster, accentuating the wood's character. The shellac acts as a mild adhesive for the bark.

CAUTION – while this type of finish dries quickly from the heat of friction where you can rub and warm it while turning, adding it to the bark will cause the spinning action to coat the turner, tools, lathe, safety shield, and even the audience. If this happens, a quick rub with denatured alcohol can clean it up, but it is best to avoid this. One way is to use it with the lathe stopped just on the turned parts, spin and dry that section. Add the finish to the bark once it has been parted off the lathe. The BENEFIT of using this finish is that nearly everyone who has ever attended my demonstrations or visited my shop voluntarily comments that the smell is agreeable. On some occasions, when I hand a finished turning, on which I have just used and talked about the finish to an onlooker, the comment is, "I love the smell of wood." I have learned to appreciate their sentiment without comment.


With the finish applied and dry, the piece needs to be parted.


Using a thin Parting Tool at a slight under-cut angle to part the piece helps dish the bottom and promotes its stability sitting on the outside rim of the base. This is particularly important with fresh (green) wood which will shrink and warp in odd ways (artistic flair), sometimes even bending at the stem in a graceful way.


One of the fun things about doing demonstrations such as this from live-edge full branch parts is that young people (and young at heart) can identify with the initial "branch of a tree" and then watch it "become" something else identifiable and maybe even useful. For some, this turns out to be an enlightening and ever-fascinating experience.

The other benefit of this practice is to the turner/artist/craftsperson who is free to experiment and play with different design elements in creating a powerful piece of art while demonstrating the techniques and practiced skills in a quick and impressive way.


The design possibilities endlessly challenge the artist/craftsperson to enhance what nature seemingly has created in tree-growth.


Leaving a live-edge rim and accentuating the actual goblet shape reveals far more grain and figure on the outside and actually shortens the turning time because the artist is doing less hollowing, typically the longest part of this kind of demonstration.


In the case of this blank, the figure and grain are more interesting.


The significant occlusion renders the cylinder out-of-balance.


And this presents an opportunity to better use the shape and form of the turner's skill at design, avoiding the dependence of using the larger section of natural shape and form as presented by the bark-covered area to create the pleasing shape.


While drilling the center to depth is not essential, it does move the process along beneficially. From experience I have learned that demonstrations need to be about 6-10 minutes from start to finish, otherwise many in the audience drift away (sometimes to their cellphones – a crushing blow).


Adding the tailstock to rough out the shape adds a note of safety while freeing the woodturning artist to think more about shape and form for the on-the-fly design.


With the general shape and form in vision, leaving the bulk of stock on the piece before hollowing is essential.


Practicing the cuts and scrapings leads to confidence and skill.


Learning and remembering the basic principles of what makes a good demonstration and balancing that with reaching for a pleasing shape and experience in all senses brings the enhanced satisfaction that many of us seek.


With an infinite variety of shapes and forms already created by the natural growth in the forest of trees, the craftsman/artist woodturner enjoys the advantage of discovery, creative satisfaction, and project completion in an unusually short period of time. Making a public demonstration of this is particularly rewarding to the turner/demonstrator as well as to the audience, however (in)-experienced they might be.

Lucky be he or she who is handed the newly shaped and finished naturally live-edge goblet of oak.


Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com . Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/.

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