Bowl Turning – Getting Started

In the winter of 2010 I decided to pursue a private study of bowl turning. I read every book I could find and watched YouTube videos over and over before I purchased my Nova DVR XP lathe, a 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch Crown bowl gouge, a parting tool, a large scraper, a Makita right angle drill, belt sander, orbital sander, grinding wheel, Sthil chainsaw, buffing wheel, sanding discs, sand paper, CA glue, walnut oil, lacquer, beeswax, rags, wood to build a heavy duty mounting surface for the lathe and sand bags to stabilize the table. I never took woodshop nor did I have any previous experience turning bowls. I had built a 2 story log cabin in Canada and always nurtured a love for wood and trees.

I ordered most of my turning equipment from the wood turners catalogue and have been amazed ever since on how the tools and equipment lived up to my expectations and arrived lightning fast.

At the same time that I built my lathe table (per Nova DVR specifications downloaded from the internet), I set out to find sources for logs. I placed free ads on craigslist asking for large logs which resulted in my acquiring some very large Dutch Elm logs and some medium size Cypress logs. I also called various firewood suppliers, most of whom did not have whole logs available or wood that was favorable to wood turning. However, one tree cutter did contact me and he expressed a true love of wood and interest in helping me to find good wood. I drove out to his storage yard where I found large diameter logs of cedar, oak, pecan and massive slabs of black walnut that his father had saved and protected.

On another occasion I stopped by a firewood yard in the foothills and looked out upon an endless supply of huge rounds of ash, oak, and species unknown. I soon had a good stockpile of logs which I stacked in the shade of an avocado tree in my backyard and loosely covered with a plastic tarp. I kept the logs off the ground with pieces of firewood and timber I had lying around. On average, excluding the black walnut which was expensive, I could fill my Ford Explorer with large chunks of wood for $40 to $60. In comparison, upon visiting stores that supply bowl blanks, I found that most resale blanks were both small and expensive. One blank could cost as much as a truckload of un-split firewood.

Not having a garage to house my equipment, I built a small shed using plywood and a tarp to protect my work area. I use a small BBQ cover to protect my lathe within the shed. My tools are readily available from a shelf below the lathe bench.

I purposely avoided purchasing costly equipment like a band saw or unnecessary tools like grinding guides, etc. My intention was to create natural looking rustic bowls using the least amount of equipment as possible.

There are so many opinions on what equipment and tools are needed, how to manipulate your tools, how to sharpen your tools, what is the right wood to use, and what constitutes an acceptable bowl…I decided to just plow through it, do my own thing, and learn as I go. The chain saw, lathe, bowl gouge, sander and grinder are at the heart of everything I do.

I began looking at other artist’s bowls in artist shops and online. I saw the most beautifully finished hollow forms sitting behind glass on shelves…only $800.00! I also found web sites with really nice bowls for sale for such a low price that I can’t imagine how the artist could pay for their turning supplies. These observations left me perplexed and, again, I just decided to do my own thing and see what happens.

My lack of experience and utilitarian interest in bowl turning caused me to think that my work would be sneered at by seasoned professionals. And so it was to my amazement that several of my bowls, sold privately or through silent auctions, were pieces that had visible sealed cracks, surface irregularities or warped sides. That’s when I realized that I don’t need to please other artists; there are people who find imperfections most interesting and I must admit that when fruit or a salad mix is placed in a bowl with various imperfections, the overall look is very appealing. I’ve had friends remind me not to move too far away from the rustic appeal of my first pieces and I have taken their suggestion to heart.

The Lathe

I love my Nova DVR XP. I looked at many other models including ones that I could not afford and inexpensive ones that required moving the belt across pulleys to change the turning speed. Now that I’m actually turning bowls I can’t imagine using anything but a constant variable speed direct drive lathe that allows you to change speeds with the touch of a finger on a digital pad. This doesn’t mean that the DVR XP is absolutely perfect…large out-of-round blanks can cause my heavy work bench to jump around at higher speeds, the safety mechanism that stops the machine during a significant “catch” can kick in too easily with large blanks turning at lower speeds, and there have been minor issues like a nut coming loose inside the housing. I’ve learned to correct or work around these issues with great satisfaction. I have NOT tried the add-on support for turning bowls over 16 inches in diameter but would imagine there will be some taxing of the lathe and my work station. The DVR was under $2200.00 and was my only large ticket purchase. It was delivered by freight to my driveway and the delivery man helped me lift it onto my work station.

Why is it so important to be able to change speed quickly? You’ll know the answer to that question when you make your first bowl. Initial gouging, finish gouging, scraping, sanding, applying a finish, buffing…you’ll use a wide range of speeds to perform all these tasks.

Breaking the Rules

There’s nothing wrong with being a strict disciplinarian. There’s nothing wrong with proper training and education. It’s in my nature to go-it-alone and a big part of the fun is learning as you go and experimenting with your own ideas. As an example; Everything I’ve read and watched on video about turning bowls showed mounting the bowl to shape the outside of the bowl, then remounting the bowl to shape the inside of the bowl. This involves using a faceplate and then using a chuck for the remainder of turning. I was amazed to learn that I could cut both the outside and inside without ever removing the faceplate and still NOT have screw holes in the bottom of my bowl. Why didn’t anyone mention this?

Using firewood rather than expensive exotics, I am at liberty to increase the depth of my bowl blank by the length of screws used to secure the faceplate. I shape the outside of the bowl, including 75% of the bottom, leaving only that section of wood at the faceplate un-tooled, avoiding cutting too close to the plate. I then, without dismounting the blank, shape the rim and inside of the bowl and follow shaping with sanding and polishing. I then use a parting tool and finally a hand saw to separate the extra wood at the faceplate from the bottom of the bowl. A belt sander will level out the bottom.

Another rule breaker involves turning green or wet wood. I’ve found that the results depend on the wood, the amount of moisture and your willingness to deal with warping issues. Available data shows that you can turn a rough version of the bowl with even wall thickness and set the bowl aside for a few months in a cool area. I’ve read that you can put the bowl in paper bags until moisture is no longer evident on the bag. I am, at this point, too impatient to wait a few months and the only time I tried the paper bag trick, the bowl was covered in mold when I brought it out.

When I turn a damp or wet wood, one of three things occurs. 1) The bowl warps. One of my most treasured pieces was a deep warped Dutch Elm bowl. 2) Cracks develop. That’s what CA glue is for. It works fantastic and the more you learn to use it the better the results. You can hand rub fine sawdust into the CA glue-soaked crack, apply additional thin CA glue then a dusting of more fine sawdust with a light rub to even things out. You will be able to sand the filler in less than an hour. I CA glue and/or fill all visible cracks immediately during and after turning and as needed during the drying process. OK, if you want to turn precision pieces free of any defects then this is not going to work. 3) The finishing process must be delayed. Lacquer finishes will dull from the moisture. Hardening oils will lock in the moisture. Set the bowl aside until finishing can take place. Depending on the amount of moisture and type of wood this may only take a few days or a few weeks. However, I have been applying a coat of walnut oil on all my green bowls immediately after turning and sanding. I have been sanding the green bowls with 80 through 400 grit, wiping on a coat of walnut oil, re-sanding with 220 through 400 grit to take down any raised grain and then setting the bowl aside. The longer the bowl is set aside the more chance that the bowl will warp and, thus, you will not be able to remount the bowl on the lathe for additional gouging or lathe sanding. 4) Nothing bad happens. I’m stupefied but it’s the truth…it’s happened many times. I turn a damp bowl, finish sand it, buff it out, wipe it down with walnut oil, leave it in a cool area of the house, turning it on top of paper bags and the bowl comes out fine. I’ve even applied coats of spray lacquer shortly thereafter. Ok, the lacquer may dimple or dull if water is evident and further finishing or buffing will be required. I had two bowls develop dark dotted lines under the lacquer finish and I’m having a hard time removing them. I’m now leaning towards letting the bowls dry after sanding, with a single coat of walnut oil rubbed into the wood.

The bottom line: other than some issues with cracks, which I repaired as needed with CA glue (fine, medium or thick), and some warping which I kept or re-tooled to remove, I’ve turned many really cool looking green bowls without any problem. I turned 3 bowls that were damp or wet in the past week. One has gone oblong, one has rim edge bumps, two are in fine condition. The two that have minor disfiguration were so wet that my face plate was opaque during turning. The two that came out normal, except that I re-turned the rim, were damp but not saturated.

Finishing

I’ve experimented with walnut oil, which I’m told will not go bad, various hand rub finishes, polyurethane, lacquer, bees wax, carnauba wax, buffing compounds, etc. Lacquer (3-4 coats) gives a hard glossy finish and if you wait a few weeks it will buff out like glass. I use spray cans purchased at 10$ a pop from Rocklers. It took a while to get the technique down, don’t be discouraged.

I was buffing the lacquer finish, walnut oil finish, and/or carnauba wax finish out as early as possible but nothing can beat applying the finish and allowing it to harden or set up before buffing. I just received a Beal buffing system that I’m trying out on the lathe. It’s unbelievable! There are 3 large thick buffing wheels, a large bar of tripoli compound for taking out fine scratches, a large bar of white diamond for polishing and a thin bar of carnauba wax for finishing. I tried it on a lacquer finished bowl which had previously been buffed using a small wheel, tripoli compound and then carnauba wax. The difference between using separate wheels for each compound and the tripoli, white diamond, carnauba combination was amazing to behold. The bowl has a true glass finish.

Most recently I have been watching Elmer Adams (now deceased) videos on YouTube. The way he finished his large bowls is to soak the bowl in a 4 part Deft clear Danish oil and 1 part Defthane solution in a tub for 12 hours, completely saturating the bowl. He drains off the oil and then applies 5 coats of the same mixture by hand, buffing out each coat with Tripoli compound; using white diamond compound and Renaissance wax on the final coat. No spray, no lacquer…People have told me that a bowl saturated in oils take forever to dry. I am going to try a more conventional approach, applying pure tung oil cut 4/1 with a thinner to promote penetration, followed by 2/1 thinned tung oil applications with 24 hour drying and sanding in between coats.

Spending Money vs. Making Money

My motivation for making bowls is NOT making money. However, I don’t want this hobby to be a hole that all my extra cash disappears in. I DO want to sell the bowls I make. When you first start out it seems that you’re experimenting with equipment, tools and supplies that keep piling up the charges on your credit card bill. By avoiding purchasing fancy equipment I can do without and refining the turning and finishing processes, the amount of time and effort I put into a bowl is diminishing. Once I know how to select and sharpen my tools for a particular task, how to most effectively shape and hollow out the bowl, and understand the most direct method of developing a nice finish I will have a systematic approach to creating a bowl that others will find pleasing. At this point the cost per bowl will stabilize and I should see the returns grow accordingly. OK, this isn’t a one year turn around but I’m in this for the long haul and I love doing it. I told my wife, when I retire, every bowl I sell represents a dinner for two or a night out on the town. I also intend for the returns to pay for supplies including raw wood for turning.

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