Making wooden bowls starts with preparing the wood. A log arriving at the workshop will be ‘green’, or completely unseasoned. Before it begins to dry and split, I saw it into blocks. One of the most important steps in making wooden bowls is deciding what the wood is capable of. Then I can decide what can best be made from it, and how to cut it.
Straight sections of log are the easiest to work. But the more gnarled and difficult the log, the more attractive the timber may be. I don’t usually make bowls from round slices cut from the log. That’s because the tension in the tree’s growth rings could not release during drying, and they would too often split. To avoid this, I usually cut the bowl blocks avoiding the centre of the log. The grain of the wood usually runs from side to side across the bowl.
Roughing out the bowl
While it is still fresh, the block spins at high speed in a lathe while I cut it into shape with sharp-edged gouges. The tools have support from the tool rest, but I guide them by hand. The tools might have to cut through a mile of wood every four or five minutes, so their edges needs frequent sharpening.
Making wooden bowls is a skilled craft, needing long practice to do well. The piece rapidly takes shape while streams of shavings fly across the room. Sap sprays from the spinning wood. I have to decide the shape of the finished piece at this stage, although fine tuning is possible later. One of the best moments in making wooden bowls is when I switch off the lathe. Then I see the colours and grain for the first time. Often I am the only one to see them before the first richness of colour fades. When the block is hollow the wood can move, releasing the tensions as the moisture evaporates. I put the part-turned bowls aside for months or years to dry before finishing. Most survive but, in spite of all precautions, some do split and go to waste.
When the piece is dry, it goes back on the lathe for final turning. This is when I refine the shape. Sharp tools give the best possible surface on the wood. But it is almost always necessary to sand, using a power sander on the spinning wood. When the sanding is complete, the finishing begins. This can take longer than the turning itself. The surface treatment highlights the grain and brings the piece to life. It also protects the surface. Usually I use good quality Danish oil, which is plant-based, and food safe when dry. I apply the oil liberally, then wipe off the surplus. Depending on the wood, I may give it several coats. When the oil is thoroughly dry, I buff the piece, and sometimes polish with wax. Finally, at the end of a process that began months or even years before, the item is ready for sale.
Most of my bowls are ‘twice turned’ in this way. They warp in the drying, but their shape doesn’t change after I finish the turning. The walls are left thick enough to remove the distortions and refine the shape during the second turning.
I turn some bowls to completion while they are still green, without waiting for them to dry. Green wood comes from a freshly fallen log, full of sap. Unseasoned wood is softer and turns more easily than dry wood, but it’s a messy business. The sap can drip from the ceiling. I put up shower curtains to limit the mess.
Making wooden bowls by this method is similar to the roughing out stage in twice-turned bowls. The difference is that I turn the bowl to its finished shape. I leave it thin-walled so it can dry quickly. The thin wood is able to move, relieving the stresses that develop. I have to work fast, because if the bowl changes its shape before I finish the turning I may not be able to complete the bowl. Sanding green wood is difficult, because the abrasive clogs. I prevent this by spraying the wood with water. This wet sanding turns the sanding dust into ‘mud’ that the water washes away. It also keeps the sandpaper clean.
When I have finished the turning, I put the bowl aside to dry. Over a few days, the bowl becomes oval or irregular in shape, often with a wavy rim. Areas of burr and distorted grain that were smooth may develop a leathery texture. Sometimes cracks develop. When the bowl is fully dry it stops moving. I can then true up the base so the bowl will stand without rocking, and apply finish. The completed bowl may have a very ‘organic’ shape and sometimes an ancient, distressed appearance. This appeals to many. Others prefer the more formal shape of a twice-turned bowl. I like both.