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Taking up woodturning

Using a lathe, you can make objects that are both beautiful and useful, often taking only a few minutes from start to finish. The process is fun, and no other form of woodworking is so immediate in its results. But if you are thinking of taking up woodturning, how do you start?
There are four things you need to become a woodturner: a workspace, the equipment, some timber and the necessary skills.

The workspace

This you probably have already, or you would not be considering taking up the craft. The space determines what you can do. Woodturning can be messy, and you need somewhere to store materials and valuable equipment, so the workspace is the first thing to sort out. A proper building that is secure, insulated, heated, powered, dry and well lit is ideal. But most people get by in a garden shed, basement or garage, and do great work.
Whatever you have, do your best to allow nothing in your workspace that does not relate to turning – no bicycles, lawnmowers etc. They take up the space that you as a turner will need, and detract from the proper dignity of the craft. And unless your workspace is large, try to find somewhere else protected from the weather for the wood pile.

The equipment needed for taking up woodturning

When you are taking up woodturning, the essentials are:
  • A lathe with a stand or a bench, and a chuck. The lathe should be the most substantial one possible. If you start with a cheap, flimsy machine, you will soon want to replace it. If space and budget are limited, a good quality mini lathe is fine, though it will restrict what you can do. A good used machine is much better than a poor new one.
  • A grinder for sharpening. Blunt tools will not give you the results you want.
  • A sharpening jig for gouges, though you can learn to sharpen gouges freehand if you take the trouble.
  • Some basic turning tools – a good start would be a small spindle roughing gouge, a 3/8″ spindle gouge, a small and a larger bowl gouge ground at different angles, a square nose scraper, a round nose scraper and a parting tool
  • An instructional DVD or book.
  • A¬†face shield and dust mask
  • Sandpaper and the usual workshop tools – screwdrivers, power drill, tape measure etc.
With these, you can make bowls and vases, boxes, all kinds of spindles, and lots of shavings. Later, you may need a bandsaw, a chainsaw, a drill press, a dust extractor, power sanding equipment, additional turning tools, buffing equipment and lots more. No woodturner ever has all the equipment they would really like.

The materials

In the beginning, you can buy ready-made turning blanks. It’s what many people do when first taking up woodturning. But this is the most expensive way to buy wood. It is better to convert small logs and branches to turning blanks yourself, at no cost. You will enjoy turning unseasoned timber, and found timber can be the most beautiful. A band saw will pay for itself. You will soon find you have more timber than you can turn, and will need somewhere to store it, protected from the weather while it seasons.
For practice, almost any timber will do. But it is easier to turn wood that is straight-grained, free of large knots, decay and splits, and not too hard. It’s a mistake to buy tropical hardwoods when you are starting out. They are beautiful, but harder to turn than species such as oak and ash, which are just as attractive.
You will also need finishing materials, such as a can of danish oil.

The skills

A turner must be able to prepare the wood, sharpen and use the turning tools properly, and come up with pleasing shapes for the finished items.
When you are taking up woodturning, you have to develop these abilities. Study the books and magazines, watch the DVDs, take lessons from me or anyone else with the experience, and join a turning club. If you practice, you will improve. Practice some more. Eventually, practice makes perfect. Learn from people who have gone before, then go your own way to establish your own style.
There are two options for a turner. Some people use a lathe simply as a means to an end. They use any turning methods that get the result they need. As scraping tools are comparatively easy, that’s what they use. It’s a pragmatic approach that can make a lot of sense. With a little practice, and on suitable timber, scrapers can give excellent results. But they can sometimes leave a very poor surface, so that heavy sanding is needed. This can show in the finished product.
Others set out to learn the more difficult tools – gouges and chisels, as well as the scrapers. They value the craft for its own sake. These tools are quicker and more versatile in use. There are very competent turners who rely on scrapers and get great results. But getting to grips with the other tools pays off in the end.
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