Making wooden bowls

This page is about making wooden bowls, and also about their design features. If you are interested in buying a bowl or would like to see my work, you can go straight to my sales page. To find out more, go to my home page.

Why I enjoy making wooden bowls

I’ve been turning wood and making bowls for a long time now. I enjoy the process of making wooden bowls. I like the physical work of sourcing and preparing the wood. The gentle routine of sharpening the tools. The sight and sound of shavings streaming off the cutting edge. The scent of the timber, each species different. Discovering the figure and grain in the finished bowl. Watching the bowl come to life when I apply the oil finish. Finally, I like the sense of accomplishment when the bowl is complete.

But one of the best things about making wooden bowls is simply knowing that there are bowls to be turned. They are waiting inside the log,  in material that others would consider waste or firewood. It’s fresh from the woods or the tree surgeon, ready for work to begin. Inside it are many potential bowls, each one impressive, useful, polished and unique. They are waiting for me to find and release them.

Each will be an object of my design, dependent on my own skills and resources. Someone may see it here and like it enough to buy from me, on the strength of a photograph and brief description. I hope it may in time become an heirloom.  

I enjoy teaching woodturning too.

Making wooden bowls

This is how I make the wooden bowls that I sell. The process begins by preparing the wood.  A log arriving at the workshop will usually be ‘green’, or full of sap, completely unseasoned. One of the most important steps in making wooden bowls is deciding what the wood is capable of. Then I can decide what to make from it, and how to cut it. Before it begins to dry and split, I saw it into blocks with a chainsaw. Then I cut each block into a disc with a band saw, ready for turning.

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, with the bowl’s rim on the diameter of the log, and the foot at its surface. If you were to hold it in the orientation it had in the living tree, the bowl would be standing on its side.

Roughing out the bowl

Lathe for making wooden bowls
My lathe

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.   They 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 craft needing skill and 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.

Twice-turned bowls

‘Twice turned’ is a description of the process, not a kind of bowl. A twice turned bowl can take various forms. The common factor is that the maker allows the part turned bowl to dry before turning it for the second time. Often such a bowl could have been turned in one session from a piece of kiln-dried timber, but suitable timber is rarely to be had.

I make most of my bowls this way, often of highly figured timber. They warp in the drying, but I leave the walls thick enough to remove the distortions and refine the shape during the second turning.

I put the part-turned bowls aside for months or years to dry before their second turning.  Most survive, but some split while drying and go to waste.

Part-turned wooden bowls ready for completion
Bowls ready for their second turning

Final turning

turning a seasoned bowl
The second turning begins

When the piece is dry, it goes back on the lathe for final turning as in this example.  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 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 bowl is ready for sale.

 

 

Green-turned bowls

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 making wooden bowls with green wood is 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 and taking up the shape that it wants. 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.

There are usually examples of green-turned bowls on my sales pages. They are simple in shape when turned, but may distort considerably as they dry. They have an appealing,  organic look. I enjoy making them, and hope you like the results as much as I do. Green-turned bowls are usually light in weight, but strong. They can be useful and practical items. Because unseasoned wood is so much easier to turn than dry wood, most woodturning of old times was of this kind.

Drying the bowl

green turned holly bowl
A green-turned bowl made of holly

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 tactile, leathery texture. Sometimes cracks appear. 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.

 

 

All kinds of wooden bowls

Countless craftspeople all over the world have made bowls for millennia. Here is my article on the history of woodturning. They worked in ceramic, stone, glass, metal and wood. I work only in wood now, although I have made some small bowls in marble and alabaster.

Turned ornamentation

As a general rule, the more highly figured the material, the less the need for turned ornamentation. A bowl can have lots of turned beads and grooves, but this can look a bit ‘over the top’ if the wood itself is highly figured. I often do add such features, but always with this principle in mind. Simple, classic designs are often the best. If the wood is fully seasoned before the bowl is finished, it can have a more ‘formal’ look, with accurately cut curves and precisely applied detailing.

My bowls usually have out-curving walls. Some turners like to make bowls with in-curving walls and undercut rims. They can look very good, and are nice to handle. But their inner surface is partly hidden from view. This is where the grain and figure are best displayed.

Segmented bowls

Some turners make segmented bowls. I don’t have the skill to make them, nor, I admit, do I have the patience. They contain many small blocks of wood, sometimes numbering thousands. The maker carefully cuts and glues them together to make a large turning blank, then turns it in the usual way to make a bowl. They are often very striking, and I have to admire the work that goes into them. But the main difference between them and any other bowl is simply the wood used. Simplicity of design is important in segmented bowls too. The complexity of the construction provides plenty of interest without adding detailed turning.

Staved bowls

The mass-produced stave-built bowls you see in the shops can be called segmented. That’s not primarily for the sake of appearance. With a mechanised assembly process, it’s easier to turn such bowls than those made of solid timber. That often has natural defects and features that need individual, skilled attention. They are often quite well-made, but have little in common with the highly complex work that is mainly done by skilled amateurs. The best examples of these bowls are seen in galleries and private collections.

Natural edge bowls

‘Natural edge’  bowls are cut from the log so the rim retains the surface of the log, often including the bark itself. What is now the rim of the bowl was once the surface of the living tree. The rim is uneven, often with two high spots and two low, because of the round shape of the log. But I think that the rim looks best if it is all more or less in one plane. This is achieved by selecting a log with a flat surface on one side. The foot of these bowls is at the centre of the log, the opposite of most bowls. This makes a difference to the figure of the wood  as seen in the finished bowl.

Natural edge bowls can be attractive, and I make them myself. But they are normally smaller than bowls made to give the largest size that the log can yield. The bark is fragile, which limits their use. Making them presents some problems too. Cutting the irregular rim without damage to the bark needs care, and grit in the bark blunts the tools quickly.

Decorated bowls

Many turners decorate their bowls with carving, textures, scorching, transparent dyes and paint. Some effects completely obscure the wood, making it look like ceramic. Some turners pierce the bowl, leaving it an open network.

When I started woodturning, applying decoration to the surface of a bowl was thought to be unnecessary and somehow disrespectful of the timber. Some still hold this view. I have experimented with carved, textured surfaces on bowls, but didn’t like the results. I’ve used colour too, and thought that much more successful. I shall be doing more of this work in future. Surface decoration can’t hide poor turning, but I believe it has a lot of possibilities for enhancing good work.

Thick and thin

Some turners make bowls with very thin walls, thin enough to let light show through. They can impress other turners with their technical difficulty. It’s all too easy to cut just that little bit too deep. Then you don’t have a bowl any more, you have a funnel. Eggshell bowls are very light in weight and often unstable. They can be impressive, but aren’t usually functional pieces.

Turners sometimes make bowls with unusually thick walls, giving an appearance of strength and permanence. Burr timber lends itself to this treatment. These bowls feel good in the hand, weighty, usually rounded, smooth and polished.

Wide rim or narrow

You will see bowls made with wide rims, sometimes as wide as the hollow of the bowl itself. The rim may show off the natural figure and grain of the wood. But it can also be a surface for decoration with colour or texture. Often the maker scores or gashes the rim in a spiral pattern. Both the  cutter and the bowl are rotating when the pattern forms. Sometimes the turner will apply colour to the pattern to emphasize it. A bowl with a wide rim is of course smaller in capacity than one without.

The foot

Some bowls have a foot to raise them from the table. Others have no foot, just a flat area so the bowl sits low on the table. A few have curved bottoms so they have no fixed position when put down. They are unstable, and will tilt and roll, depending on what they contain. Some bowls have a wide foot for stability, others a narrow one for elegance and artistic effect. The foot is an important feature of any bowl, and greatly affects its potential use.

Sometimes, the turner shapes the foot after the bowl is finished. This is often done by reversing the bowl in the lathe in a special chuck. I use a homemade chuck. Some turners use a vacuum chuck.

Part-turned bowls

A bowl is not necessarily turned all over. For example, the bowl may be square. The maker may turn only the interior. Or the outside may be irregular, with natural surfaces. Some turners make a bowl then carve all or part of it to a different shape. These are often impressive, sculptural pieces, but may still be functional.

 

If you want to see some of my bowls, go to my sales page.