This is a very simple workshop aid. So simple that I hesitated to post about it. But it eliminates the risk and possible errors associated with using dividers. I made some of these chuck sizing templates to help beginners during my bowl turning classes, but they are so convenient that I now use them for my own work too.
A chuck sizing template helps you to make the chucking tenon or recess on a bowl the right diameter for the chuck. It should fit when the chuck jaws are almost closed, because that’s when they have the best, non-marking grip.
The usual method is to use dividers set to the correct diameter to scribe a circle on the work. If the dividers are set correctly, if both points fall on that circle and if the points are on the diameter (that is, not too high or too low on the work), the circle will fit the chuck. This method works well, but takes practice. It can be risky, because only the left point should touch and it’s possible for the points to catch in the spinning wood.
As an alternative, I made some templates from offcuts of 6 mm MDF. They are just small rectangles, with widths to suit the chuck jaws. You could add a millimetre or two to the ‘correct’ size to give some allowance for error when cutting the tenon or recess. They aren’t adjustable, so each set of jaws needs its own templates for marking a tenon and recess.
Using the chuck sizing template.
The end of the template has a mark in the middle. I hold that mark to the centre of the spinning wood, which can be highlighted with a pencil if necessary. Then I use a pencil to make a circle the same diameter as the template’s width.
It only takes a moment to mark the circle. And it’s the same each time with no need for measurement or setting dividers. You need separate chuck sizing templates for each set of chuck jaws. But a benefit of that is you can try the templates against the bowl blank to select the best size.
Probably most bowl turners generally use blanks cut from green wood. They either make green turned bowls or rough outs to be turned again when dry. Some, particularly beginners, work with dry, seasoned timber, from which a bowl can be made in one session. Drying bowl blanks for that purpose may be easier and quicker than you think!
Most of my own work uses green wood. But in my bowl turning classes I rely on dry bowl blanks that I buy from turning suppliers. My students generally work with a blank of about 7 inches by 2 inches (175 mm x 50 mm), which I find is a good size for a beginner to make a useful small bowl. These blanks cost a significant amount, and sometimes turn out to have defects. So I have begun to make my own. Cutting and drying bowl blanks is a process that I quite enjoy.
Cutting the blanks
I start with a log big enough to yield the size needed. 250 -300 mm diameter is useful, and as long as I can handle, the longer the better because there is always some waste due to end splits. I use a small Alaskan chainsaw mill and my band saw to cut planks. There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing these mills in use, and even how to make them.
My mill is a commercially made one. I attach a plywood support to each end of the log and mount two wooden rails to the supports. The mill slides along the rails as the chainsaw makes the first cut, clear of the pith which is the main source of cracks in the timber. The saw cuts straight, leaving a flat surface that guides subsequent cuts. I use an inexpensive electric saw from Screwfix. It’s self sharpening, which is very helpful, because ripping is tough on the saw and grit in the bark soon blunts it. I haven’t found it necessary to use special ripping chain.
On larger logs, I use the mill to make further cuts, but if the pieces are manageable I take them to my Startrite 352 band saw. On the band saw, I trim the sides to about 180 mm wide, then saw planks 50 mm thick. I turn the log to its best orientation for maximum yield, and can usually go on to saw spindle blanks from the off cuts. The saw is somewhat underpowered, but does a good job as long as the blade is sharp. It’s quicker than the chain saw and makes a narrower kerf, minimising waste. I use a 12 mm 3 TPI blade.
Drying the blanks
I seal the ends of the planks with PVA, then stack them outdoors with spacers to allow air to circulate. After a few months, I cut discs from the planks, cutting clear of any cracks that may have developed. I microwaved a few discs in an attempt to speed drying, but not only was this a slow and labour-intensive process, those discs all split. I allow the other discs to finish drying indoors, but don’t seal the edges or give them any other protection.
Until I tried drying bowl blanks like this. I would have expected the discs to crack. But the process has been very successful. The woods I have used so far are apple and oak (both from standing dead trees, so probably already with a reduced moisture content before planking), ash and cherry. I weigh the discs at intervals until they stabilise, which seems to take about three or four months. I now have about a hundred bowl blanks either fully air dry and ready to use, or well on their way. Hardly any have cracked, and those used in my classes have been very satisfactory. All are similar in size. It may be that the process would not be so successful if the blanks were larger.
Some of the blanks warped as they dried, but I expected this. They are still usable.
Encouraged by this, I sawed some beech and cut some of the planks into discs immediately with no preliminary drying. Most of those discs cracked after about three or four weeks indoors. No surprise there!
It remains to be seen whether the beech planks now drying outdoors yield useful material. But I should be able to cut spindle blanks, if nothing else.
I shall continue to experiment, but at this stage my conclusion is that the discs should not be cut from wet wood. Some preliminary drying is necessary, but the planks don’t have to be fully dry. The total drying time is measured in months, not years.
I’ve written before about the need for regular dust extractor maintenance. An extractor with a filter is not ‘fit and forget’. My extractor is a cyclone unit and since I removed the internal wire grid that avoids the low risk of accidental contact with the fan, it is less prone to blocking up. After considerable use, it still seemed to be working OK. But when I checked the filter recently I found a great deal of fine dust in it. After cleaning it, the extractor worked a great deal better. Not really a surprise!
The deterioration in performance had been so gradual that I had failed to notice it. I needed an objective measure of performance and a proper dust extractor maintenance schedule. Just putting my hand in front of the inlet now and again to see if there is still suction is not good enough.
Measuring air flow
Performance equates to air inlet velocity and filter effectiveness. Dust build up in the filter actually improves its effectiveness, but it cuts the air flow. The flow can be assessed by measuring the vacuum in the pipe. A vacuum gauge permanently installed as part of the system, with an easily visible readout, would be ideal. However, I opted to measure the speed directly with an anemometer. A digital anemometer can be got very cheaply. I bought this one from Amazon.
It was impossible to get a consistent reading from it just by holding it in my hand. I folded a bit of steel strapping to make a holder for it, with a hook that clips on the edge of the extractor inlet to secure it at a fixed short distance inside. I take it out again after each reading.
The reading itself is less important than changes in the reading over time. So I noted the indicated air speed just after I had cleaned the filter. I can take further readings at intervals as dust starts to build up again. This will tell me how long it takes for the speed to drop by, say, 20%. Then I can schedule a regular filter clean in my calendar.
It was interesting to see how far from the inlet the suction extends. The answer is not very far at all. A small diameter inlet is only effective when very close to the dust source, which is not easy to achieve at the lathe. The 7 inch inlet I have at the lathe does provide quite good air flow at the tool tip where the dust is generated.
Cleaning the filter
Cleaning the filter was straightforward. I took the cartridge outdoors and stood it on end. Tapping it with a wooden batten dislodged the dust cake and it fell to the bottom. In some places the pleats were close together, and those areas took more tapping. I also used compressed air. At first, the supply of dust coming from the filter seemed almost infinite, but eventually it slowed down.
Something you definitely don’t want to do when hollowing a bowl is cut too deep. Less disastrous, but still a problem, is not cutting deep enough, because too much wood in the bottom leaves the bowl too heavy. Many turners assess the thickness of the bottom by feel. But on larger bowls, fingers don’t reach far enough. Even calipers, like these, don’t measure the thickness where the chuck prevents access. So a depth gauge can be useful when making bowls.
The simplest depth gauge is just a pencil. You sight across the rim of the bowl, put the pencil in contact with the deepest point, then grip it at a point that is in the same plane as the rim. Then you hold the pencil against the rim and sight across the bottom of the item. This works, but parallax error means it’s not very accurate. And if the chuck jaws are in a recess, you can’t see how deep that recess is.
A sliding dowel set in a crossbar will measure the internal depth more accurately. Such a simple depth gauge is very easy to make, and lots of turners use one. But there is still the same difficulty when assessing the amount of wood remaining in the bottom.
When making this gauge, drill a hole the same diameter as the dowel in a bit of scrap to make the cross bar. Saw a slot along the crossbar, dividing the hole and going an inch or two beyond it. Insert a screw (not visible in the photo below) on each side of the dowel to adjust the grip so the dowel is held with just the right amount of friction.
Make a measuring stick to suit the chuck
Using the dowel gauge with a separate measuring stick can greatly reduce error. Cut a wooden rod to length so that when placed in contact with a suitable fixed point, it extends about one inch beyond the chuck jaws. That fixed point may be most convenient if it is on the headstock, but it need not be as long as the distance from it to the jaws is constant. The contact point must be far enough off the lathe axis for the rod and dowel to clear the rim of the bowl while they are parallel to the axis. For wider bowls, or if the front of the headstock does not have a vertical surface, something standing on the lathe bed could act as a reference point for the stick, as long as it’s always put in the same position.
Mark a scale with 1/8 inch intervals on the last inch of the rod, beginning exactly level with the outer face of the jaws. You may need a separate rod for each different chuck.
Using the improved depth gauge
Place the crossbar across the rim of the item and adjust the dowel to touch the deepest point. This tells you the internal depth. Move the gauge so the dowel is outside the bowl, with the crossbar still touching both sides of the rim. The crossbar must be long enough to enable this. Put the measuring stick next to the dowel. The scale will then show the thickness of wood remaining above the chuck jaws.
You can also use the rod to preset the dowel in the crossbar. When the bar touches the rim, the bowl depth is complete.
If the jaws are in a recess but don’t bottom out in it, or if the inner surface of the recess is not flat, an allowance has to be made.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting the wall of a bowl the right thickness is very important. The wall doesn’t have to be the same thickness all the way down, but it must look right and feel right. An experienced turner would likely rely entirely on their sense of touch and not use calipers at all, at least for small bowls where their fingers can reach the bottom. But calipers can help, and simple, non-adjustable homemade calipers are useful. They are quick to make and use. Calipers are, of course, normally adjustable, and made of steel. But adjustability is only necessary if you need to get the wall to a specific thickness. I find that when using ordinary steel calipers to check the wall of a bowl, I usually set them to more than the thickness required anyway. By watching or feeling the gap between the point and the wall, I can tell how the thickness changes. I made a batch of these non-adjustable ones to help with the teaching I do at the Camden Town Shed, where money for equipment is limited. I often use them instead of normal calipers in my own workshop too.
Material for homemade calipers
I used scraps of 6 mm MDF. This is unlikely to scratch the finished surface of a bowl. But with care in use, other materials would be fine. Dimensions are not at all critical, as long as the central cut-out is big enough for the caliper arms to reach down to the bottom of the bowl. They could be made in any size.
Making the calipers
I cut the blank to a circle with a band saw and found the centre. I then pinned the disc to the jaws of a chuck with the tailstock. This is a very quick method of mounting thin discs in the lathe. Friction from the chuck jaws drives them. I trued up the edge of the disc. Turning MDF is dusty work, but very easy with a scraper. Then I marked an off-centre circle and cut the middle out with the band saw. The entry cut is at the narrowest point. I sanded the inner curve with a drum sander, but this, like the turning, is purely for appearance. Hand sanding, or no sanding, would work just as well.
Then I enlarged the entry cut and sanded the points. The gap should be a little more than the likely wall thickness, say 12 mm for walls of 10 mm. The size of the gap is not critical, but should not be too big. Although these calipers have no adjustment, it would be easy enough to cut them in half, glue a couple of scraps from the centre cut-out to sandwich the wide end of one of the halves, and drill for a small bolt, washers and wing nut.
When one arm slides down the bowl’s inside wall, the gap between the other arm and the outside of the bowl clearly reveals changes in thickness. I drilled a small hole for hanging the caliper on a nail – it slips off if the large hole is on the nail.
Faceplate rings are useful in bowl making, and also as a quick method of mounting things such as sanding discs in the lathe. They allow you to work on a batch of items over a period without having to remove the fixing. I needed a number of them, and now have a batch of homemade faceplate rings. They are a good alternative to a screwchuck
Making the rings
Instead of the usual steel or light alloy, I made my homemade faceplate rings from good quality birch plywood, free of voids. They are about 100 mm across and 12 mm thick, but other sizes would work, and hardwood could be used instead. After bandsawing the blanks, I marked the centres and pinned each one against the open jaws of a chuck with the tail centre. This is a quick and easy method of driving small items by friction. I turned the rims true, then gripped the discs by their rims in the chuck. For this I used an engineering chuck, but could have made a jam chuck from scrap wood. I used a small skew chisel to bore a tapered hole right through each one.
Just as when making a chucking recess in a bowl, the hole needs to fit the jaws of the chuck that will hold the rings. The diameter should fit the jaws when they are almost closed. The taper should match that of the jaws reasonably closely. And the depth of the hole should allow the top of the jaws to register on a true surface. That could be the surface of the bowl blank if it is reasonably true. Otherwise the hole could have a step to act as a depth stop. Alternatively the disc could be made thick enough for the bottom of the jaws to make contact on it.
I then mounted each ring in the chuck it was intended for and marked a circle on it. My lathe has an indexing ring, so I used that to divide the circle into thirds for the screw holes. Without that, I could have used a strut under the chuck jaws to locate the holes for the screws. I drilled the holes to suit the fixing screws. They have a countersink on one side for the screw head, and on the other to accommodate swelling in the timber made by the screws when in use.
Durability of homemade faceplate rings
I was slightly concerned that the expanding chuck jaws could cause the ply to de-laminate in use. However, the screws prevent the layers from separating. I put the screw holes fairly close to the recess, where the stress would be greatest. Wooden rings cannot be as strong as metal, but these are holding up well. They should be at least as strong as the chuck recess made in a wooden bowl.
With an offcut of plywood and a little time, I have a number of very useful homemade faceplate rings, saving the significant cost of factory-made ones.
Woodturners need cutting tools. In past times, they made their own tools, or went to the local blacksmith. Most people now buy their kit ready-made. But homemade tools are still useful. Some turners still make their own tools. They do it to save money, or because they need a special purpose tool that cannot be bought. Some do it because they enjoy the tool making as much as they do the turning.
I enjoy toolmaking, though I have to admit I don’t pay enough attention to the look of the finished results. I hesitated before posting photos on this page. None of my homemade tools will win a prize in a beauty contest. But they all work, and among the tools I use quite often, about half are either homemade or modified in some way.
Homemade tools for woodturning fall into three main groups:
scrapers and chisels (flat tools)
Homemade Tools – equipment and materials
Making tools needs some basic metal working equipment, such as a file, a hacksaw, a few threading taps, a grinder and a bench drill. Simple forging needs a makeshift anvil, vice, pliers and a hammer, and a source of heat such as a charcoal fire or a blowtorch. See my post on hardening and tempering steel for details.
Gouges and flat tools can be made from high carbon steel. This is now rarely used for commercial turning tools, apart from cheap starter sets. High speed steel has almost completely replaced carbon steel.
High carbon steel was known as tool steel, and once was the only choice for making tools. Carbon steel tools can take a very good cutting edge. They can do just about anything that modern high speed steel tools can do. But they are less resistant to abrasive wood, so need frequent sharpening. And they lose their temper easily with heat. So they need more care when grinding, and lathe speeds must be lower.
Tipped tools are usually scrapers, the tips being HSS or tungsten carbide.
Carbon steel, though rarely used for woodturning tools, is still widely used for other purposes. You can buy it, for example as silver steel, or find it as scrap. You can make cutting tools from old files, springs, motor parts and all sorts of other scrap. I have used the tines of a garden fork, the rings of ball races and screwdrivers and chisels.
Files are carbon steel. It was once common practice to make them into very effective scrapers and chisels, but there is a potential problem. The grooves between the teeth of the file can start cracks in the steel. Though I have not known it to happen myself, this could lead to the blade breaking under stress, which would be dangerous. If you choose to make scrapers from files, you should use only thick, heavy, fine-toothed ones. Grind away all the teeth and grooves and check carefully for any visible cracks. Then thoroughly anneal the tool, re-hardening and tempering just the tip.
A scraper made like this is unlikely to break in normal use. But you should not put it under severe stress, for example from heavy, intermittent cutting on an uneven blank. A bad dig-in could also break a weak tool. This problem can also affect corroded steel. So it is safer to buy commercial scrapers for woodturning, or use only sound, bright and thick steel if you want to make tools for heavy work (or think they might get used in this way at some future date).
You can use HSS tool bits to make gouges and all sorts of scraping tools. You just secure them in a holder that is usually made of mild steel or unhardened carbon steel. Some tool bits are long enough to fit into a wooden handle directly.
Tungsten carbide tips are becoming more widely used in woodturning. Not all grades of carbide are suitable however. Most tips available are for metal turning and cannot be made sharp enough for woodturning. But you can use tips of the proper grade of carbide to make scrapers that perform very well.
A homemade gouge ground as a beading tool
These at first sight may seem difficult to make. But there are several ways to make the flute of a gouge:
Forge the flute. It needs some skill to get an even flute, and more equipment, such as swages to form the shape. Good fun to do if you have the facilities.
Grind the flute. Make a small gouge by grinding or filing a flat on a carbon steel rod (such as a heavy screwdriver), then using the edge of a small grinding disc to form a groove. The flute does not have to be full length – 15-20 mm long will function perfectly well. You can use this method with high speed steel or hardened carbon steel.
Drill the flute. Use a twist bit to drill into the end of a carbon steel rod, making a hole at least 20 mm deep. Then just file or grind away half the hole, leaving a groove. This is the easiest method and gives a uniform semi-circular flute. The internal surface will benefit from light grinding or polishing to reduce the minor scratches left by the drill. Even better is to drill very slightly under size then use a reamer to clean up the hole. You must anneal the rod before drilling, grind the bevel, then harden and temper it later. I’ve made several of these drilled gouges in various sizes, and use them often. They are all small, but the method would work for larger gouges too. Ready-made small spindle gouges are often too thin and flexible for safe use.
These are very simple to make. All sorts of scrap are suitable. You just have to grind a carbon steel bar to shape, harden and temper it correctly, and fit it with a handle. A long and thick HSS tool bit will fit directly into a wooden handle and make an excellent scraper. You can make chisels in the same way.
These tools are also very easy to make. You just have to adapt a steel bar of suitable size to take the cutting bit, either of high speed steel or tungsten carbide. It’s easy to hot forge the bar into a curve to make hollowing tools.
You can buy square or round HSS tool bits from Ebay. All that is necessary is to drill a hole in the end of the steel bar with one or more tapped cross holes for grub screws that will hold the HSS securely in place. More simply, you can just glue the bit into the hole. Heat will release it later if necessary.
You can silver-solder or braze flat section HSS tool bits to the top of the bar, with or without making a step for them. I used this method to make a ‘fluteless gouge’.
Tungsten carbide cutting bits usually go on top of the steel bar, with a single locking screw through the bit into a tapped hole in the bar.
I made the lower of the two scrapers shown below from a solid carbide burr and shaped it with a diamond burr in a Dremel tool.
This is a tool like a woodturners’ point tool, with three flats ground on a round bar, in this case of high speed steel. You use a graver for turning mild steel freehand. See my post on turning metal in a wood lathe for details. Gravers work on wood too. You can make a graver from square bar by grinding a single diamond-shaped flat from one corner to the one diagonally opposite, at an angle. This gives two cutting edges.
Please pay attention to safety when using homemade tools. There can be risks if you exceed their safe limits. Don’t use homemade tools if you are an inexperienced turner because you may not recognise these limits. If you can’t rely on your own judgement, don’t try it!
The Tormek is one of the best machines available for sharpening woodturning tools. It has a slow-running wet grinding wheel and a honing/stropping wheel. It comes with many optional accessories. I have the ‘Supergrind 2000’ model. For a long time I used the machine for sharpening my spindle gouges.
I don’t recommend the special woodturning kit if you also have a high speed grinder. It includes things that you will probably use only rarely, if at all. The things I use are the adjustable gouge jig shown below, and sometimes the small stropping wheel for gouge flutes. I use the large stropping wheel for bevels.
The Tormek is robust, quiet and generally well-made. It does a great job, giving an edge straight off the grinding wheel that is a pleasure to use. The grind is accurate and consistent. If heavy grinding is not needed and you keep the jigs set up for a single bevel angle and shape, the Tormek is quick and easy to use. It will also sharpen bowl gouges very well. So far, so good.
I find that I often have to take more metal off a bowl gouge to restore the edge than I do with a spindle gouge. That’s because the greater diameter and larger amount of waste to remove means the tool has more work to do. Also, the bowl gouge is often used with a scraping or semi-scraping action. Bowl blanks are usually log sections with bark, and usually have grit in or on them. In addition, we tend to tolerate blunt gouges until the final cuts on a bowl. Having to grind for longer makes the Tormek slower than a high-speed dry grinder set up with a bowl gouge jig. I have such a grinder and find that I prefer that for my bowl gouges. Similarly with scrapers, which are sharpened very often. A dry grinder is fine for those.
The Tormek is expensive for what is really a very simple machine. Its performance is in some ways disappointing, with a number of minor problems:
the drive slips. When the machine has been used for a while, pressure on the grinding wheel begins to make it slow down and stop. This gradually gets worse until it becomes a problem. It is easily remedied by cleaning with abrasive the rubber friction wheel on which the motor spindle bears. Then it starts gradually getting worse again. The friction drive is an extremely simple way to get the very low speed. But I can’t help thinking that there should be a better arrangement with a more positive drive.
The stone wheel
The stone wheel is soft, wears rapidly, and is strangely expensive to replace. Harder wheels are available, including diamond faced ones, at an even higher price. If you use a Tormek for gouges, especially bowl gouges, you have to keep them moving across the grinding surface to spread the wear. Even so, the wheel will soon develop grooves, and is then harder to use for flat tools such as chisels. You can still sharpen them by sliding the tool sideways so the high spots of the wheel do all the work. Indeed, this will tend to correct the uneven wear. If the tool remains still, its edge will be ground unevenly and will not be straight. You can buy a diamond tipped tool for truing the surface. The old model truing tool I have is not easy to use, because the slow speed of the wheel makes the diamond cut a spiral. And of course, each time you use it the wheel gets smaller. I sometimes use one of the diamond matrix dressers sold for high-speed dry grinders, using it freehand. Its wide contact area prevents the spiral grooves forming. The Tormek ‘stone grader’ block is used to dress the wheel, but soon wears hollow and begins to lose its accuracy. I have not found the stone grader useful.
To set the gouge jig to the angle required needs an Allen key. A thumb screw or wing nut would be more convenient. But if you normally leave it at the same setting, the key is not a problem.
The swiveling gouge jig has plastic bushes that slide on the tool rest bar. They are not secure in the jig, and can fall out and get lost, though in fairness I should say that this has only happened once (so far).
This jig clamps over the gouge flute. It has a brass disc that bridges the side wings and a small brass peg that goes into the flute. When the flute gets shorter, the peg starts to contact the flute bottom where it curves up at the handle end, and the jig loses its grip on the gouge. This can affect the grinding angle because it allows the gouge to slip backwards if you don’t notice it is loose. You can grind a flat on the tool for the jig to clamp on, and extend and deepen the flute, letting you carry on grinding short tools, but the grip is not as secure and the self-alignment is lost.
The motor is not reversible. Making it so would remove the need for two tool rest bars. And the motor is single speed. Variable speed would make the machine more versatile. These are common features in many electric tools now.
The water trough is a little awkward to take on and off, and easy to spill, so you may need to stand the machine in a tray.
After grinding, you can strop the tool on the leather wheel. But you first have to re-set the jig. This is because the two wheels are not the same size. The obvious answer, making the honing wheel bigger, would not solve this problem as the grinding wheel soon wears down. If you grind with the wheel running towards the tool edge, you will have to turn the machine round and move the tool bar to use the honing wheel. And only one tool bar is supplied as standard. Usually I skip the power stropping, though sometimes I use a hand-held leather strop. With care, you can strop tools on the Tormek freehand, and it gives a really sharp edge. But it is easy to dub the edge over. The edge straight from the grinding wheel is very good for turning tools.
One of the main selling points of the Tormek is the water bath for the grinding wheel. I find that the water evaporates quickly. Rather than have the wheel clog up with salts from our hard tap water, I use rainwater from a butt next to the workshop. Carbon steel is easily overheated on a high-speed dry grinder if you are heavy-handed. It turns blue at the edge and loses its temper. The tool is not ruined, but that part of the edge will not stay sharp very long. The Tormek will not blue the edge, because of the water flowing over the tool, and because the stone turns slowly. But with care, a high-speed dry grinder will not blue the steel either. You just have to keep the wheel clean, keep the tool moving, and avoid pressure and dwelling on one spot too long.
When I started turning, many years ago now, carbon steel tools were the norm, and modern grinding jigs were not available. I learned to grind them freehand on a high-speed grinder with long-lasting hard grey wheels. Almost all turning tools now sold are high-speed steel. This is very resistant to heat, and will not lose its temper in grinding.
So it seems to me that the principle feature of the Tormek is not really essential, for turning tools at least. The water doesn’t do any harm, and it does carry away the grinding dust. Without water, the dust would cling to the cutting edge, because steel tools often become magnetised. The water keeps the grinding wheel clean too. Using water could be a problem if it freezes.
I normally use only the gouge jig, keeping it set for my spindle gouges. It is easy to make setting blocks for it, with different angles to suit different gouges. Then you just have to slacken the screw, lay the jig on the block, and re-tighten. I also use this jig and the platform jig on my high speed grinder which I have set up with a Tormek tool rest bar.
You can also make a stop block to get the gouge projection the same each time, one to set the tool rest bar position, and another to set the position of the height adjustment clamp (though I never change this). These setting jigs (or simply not changing the settings at all) are the key to getting a quick result from any grinder. The one below for setting the gouge jig has two different angles, one side for bowl gouges and the other for spindle gouges.
Sharpening woodturning tools
The Tormek puts an extremely good edge on turning tools, and being slow running, it is easy to use for a beginner – you’re less likely to accidentally grind away too much metal in the wrong spot, though even with the jigs it is still possible to end up with the wrong shape. With setting blocks, it is quick to set up, and quick to use for sharpening. It will not burn the tool edges. Tools become really sharp, a pleasure to use.
However, it is very expensive. Grinding is painfully slow if re-shaping a tool. You have to maintain the wheel and the drive. And you have to top up the water bath often, and clean it.
It is perfectly possible to sharpen turning tools, including spindle gouges, with just an ordinary high-speed dry grinder. You can do it freehand or with simple jigs that can be homemade if necessary. The tools will not have as good an edge as the Tormek gives. But they will be sharp enough for good work.
Both machines are useful and I like having both. But if I had to choose between my Tormek and my high speed grinder, I would keep the latter. If you want to do more than just sharpening, the high speed machine is more versatile. And you can always use a diamond stone to hone the edges after grinding. And you can strop them with polishing compound on a bit of leather glued to a strip of wood. This can give an edge as good as the Tormek. Here is a post on using Tormek jigs with a high speed grinder
There – perhaps this Tormek review has just saved you some money!
Here is a useful tool for turners – a giant pair of homemade compasses. When preparing large bowl blanks the usual commercial compasses may be too small. I made a large pair from scrap wood. Opened to 90 degrees, they can make a circle of 800 mm radius. You could make them any size you like.
My pair has arms about 550 mm long, made of planed scrap softwood. They are joined at the top by a small coach bolt, washer and wingnut. One arm has a pointed nail inserted, the other has a simple clamp to hold a pencil. Drill the hole for the coach bolt the same diameter as the bolt. The square part of the shank will pull into the hole when you tighten the wingnut, and stop the bolt turning.
To insert the nail, drill a small hole in the end of the arm. The hole should be just a little less in diameter than the nail, to make it secure without splitting the wood. Cut off the head of the nail and grip it point down in a vise, then tap the arm down onto the blunt end. Cut the arm to a blunt point so the corners don’t get in the way.
The pencil clamp
To make the pencil clamp, drill a hole for the pencil first, making it a sliding fit. I shaped the end of the pencil arm a bit, but that isn’t essential. I just thought it would look better that way. But a blind hole for the pencil might make it less convenient to adjust. Then drill a cross hole, close to the pencil hole but not intersecting it. Now make a saw cut to split the pencil hole down its middle. Go a bit past the cross hole so there is some spring in the wood. Fit a small coach bolt, washer and wingnut in the cross hole. When tightened, it will close the saw cut and pinch the pencil to stop it moving.
Smooth off any rough edges, drill a hole through both arms near the pivot so you can hang it up, sharpen the pencil, and your homemade compasses are finished.