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Making a wooden bowl from Kennington sycamore

Making wooden bowls is the turning I most enjoy. The wood for today’s job came from a dead tree that grew in the garden of an old house in Kennington. I didn’t see the tree standing, but the owner said it was a sycamore. As I turned it, I thought it might be maple, which has a darker tan colour. The standing trees are similar in appearance. Later though, after turning more pieces, I concluded that it is sycamore after all. I’m still not certain – different parts of the tree could almost be different varieties! A tree surgeon cut the tree down and saved the log sections for me.

At first I wasn’t sure how good the timber would be for making a wooden bowl. But it soon revealed some nice early spalting, with all sorts of staining, and some ripple grain. I converted it into some quite large bowl blanks and made the rough-outs. They have been drying for months. I think they are ready now, so made this one to see how they turn out.

I roughed out the shape of the bowl with thick walls, so it could dry without splitting but leave enough thickness to re-turn it. All have survived the drying intact, which is not always the case!

Then, when dry, they go back on the lathe for final turning. I do the outside first. Next, I reverse the bowl on the chuck and turn the inside.

Now the bowl is ready for finishing. Several coats of Liberon Finishing Oil, then buffing and waxing. It will be several days before this is complete. The bare wood looks quite dry and dull at  present but the oil will bring the grain and colour to life. I am looking forward to seeing the bowl with a polished surface. It will be a fine fruit bowl.


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Finishing aids make it easier to handle items before they dry.

I’ve been making some more globe stands. I finished some that I turned earlier, and made up a variation on an existing stand, three wanted. To make the job easier I use a couple of finishing aids.

I make holders to help with finishing the stands. Most of the stands that I make have a spindle fitted to a disc at the bottom. I paint them before applying shellac. Before they dry, they are difficult to handle. I made some little blocks with a hole to fit the spindle tenon. They are handles to hold the spindles by. I put the spindle and block in the lathe together to apply the shellac evenly with the lathe running at low speed. The holes in the blocks go right through, so I can use the original centres on the spindles. When the finish is on, I can hold the blocks while the spindles are wet, and the blocks stand the spindles safely while they dry.

The second of my finishing aids are holders for the discs. The holders are square blocks with a small central peg. The peg fits in the screw chuck hole in the underside of the disc. I put the disc and block together on the lathe by pinning them against a small faceplate with the tailstock. I apply the shellac with a brush while the disc is slowly spinning. Without the holder, the disc would have to stay in the lathe until it was dry enough to handle. This is not practicable when doing batches.

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Making a batch of satinwood cord pulls – Woodturning by Terry Vaughan

Today I have been making a batch of satinwood cord pulls. Satinwood is a tropical timber, and I rarely buy such wood now, normally relying on old stock or reclaimed wood. This piece came from Axminster Tools. They told me that it is from India and to the best of their belief is sustainably harvested. It is quite hard, and smells of coconut. It has a golden-yellow colour and reflects the light like satin.

Making the blanks

I started by sawing the blanks, about 30 mm square and 60 mm long. I drilled the hole for the cord knot next, using a 6 mm drill and going about 45 mm deep. Then I changed to a 3 mm drill and completed the hole right through the blank. A normal 3 mm drill is not long enough for this, so I used a special long one. Long, thin drills like this tend to go off centre, which is why I drilled the larger hole most of the way through. Drilling deeper holes this size often makes the hole go too far to one side, and sometimes the drill bit even comes out of the side of the blank instead of the end.

Then I put the drilled blank in the lathe with the small hole at the headstock end, and quickly rough the square blank down to a cylinder, using a shallow roughing gouge. I normally rough down the whole batch before going to the next stage.

Shaping the satinwood cord pulls

Now I swap the drive centre (I use a Stebcentre) for an ordinary cone dead centre that drives the blank by friction only. This time, the larger hole is at the headstock end.

I can then rough out the shape using a small spindle gouge, and refine it with a small skew chisel. I like to use a 10 mm beading and parting tool ground into a skew.

Shaping the cord pull
Shaping the cord pull using small spindle gouge
Refining shape of cord pull
Refining the shape with small skew chisel

Then I use a very small spindle gouge that I made from carbon steel to cut the two tiny coves near the top of the cord pull. A gouge this size cuts very easily and doesn’t seem to need the complicated movements that a normal gouge requires to cut a cove without digging in.

Cutting coves
Cutting two tiny coves with very small homemade spindle gouge
using skew chisel on cord pull
Further refining the shape with skew chisel

The turning is done, including cleaning up the ends with the point of the skew. They are ready for sanding and finishing with Danish oil.

I used a different method for the next lot of satinwood cord pulls. Instead of using the small spindle gouge and skew as before, I switched to an 18 mm skew chisel. This did a nice job. I like to use different tools so I get the practice. But I had to take it slowly with the wider tool because the cord pulls tended to slip on the friction drive centre.

Here they are after polishing.

satinwood cord pulls
A batch of satinwood cord pulls


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Woodturning club night

Not much time spent in the workshop today. I roughed out another bowl from one of the blocks of yew left over from a few days ago. This one is smaller than the others, only about seven inches in diameter, and has a bit more of the orange colour normally seen in yew heartwood. The bandsaw blade is blunt, and would not cut straight. With the blank on a small faceplate, it was very crooked. The outcome from this would have been that the bowl was shallower than it needed to be. My solution, which I used for the others in this batch too, was to put a wooden wedge under one side of the faceplate to true it up. I made sure that one of the fixing screws went through the wedge to keep it safely in place.

I also cut a block to size for a friend at my local club. He wants to make a finial for a newel post and needed a large block cut to a cylinder as he doesn’t have a bandsaw. It was a glue-up from sections of reclaimed softwood joists, and will be fine when painted.

It was woodturning club night tonight. No special event was organised, just a group of woodturners doing the usual show-and-tell. I took my ornamental-turned square teak bowl that I have written about before and it sparked some interest. Ian suggested that the decoration could have been made with a hole saw instead of the fly cutter I used, but it would still need some indexing arrangement to get the spacing right, and a way to control the depth of cut. Other people brought some wooden whistles, and a very nice small laburnum bowl of very simple design.

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Pole lathes

I have been reading a very interesting blog by someone who is keen on wooden bowls. The author has done research on Viking woodturning, and has built a pole lathe in connection with her research, though she has not yet got to grips with the craft itself.

I’ve tried using a pole lathe and found it very difficult. You have to stand on one leg while thrusting the treadle with the other, and it is hard to keep steady. The rotation is slow and intermittent, the lathe rocks, and you have to keep advancing and withdrawing the cutting tool in time with your leg thrusts because the direction of rotation keeps reversing. And these lathes don’t have modern chucks etc. So, although the old-time turners did pretty well, and there must be a knack to it, it is no surprise to me that I have never seen any good quality modern turning produced on these primitive machines. (There are some skilled exponents, but the work you see at country shows etc is normally dire, of curiosity value only). Modern turning gear is much more effective.


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Yew and apple bowl blanks

Today I sawed the two logs I found yesterday to make some bowl blanks. Here are the two logs, the “yew” on top.

yew and apple logs


I am fairly sure that the bottom one is apple. Its bark looks right, and it has the odd little mushroom shapes in the wood that seem to be almost characteristic of applewood in my experience. At least, it had them when fresh cut but by the time I got the camera to them they had faded. I will take a shot when I cut into the surface again – see below.

The other, which I was initially sure was yew, now gives me doubt. Its leaves look like yew,

yew leaves

and the exposed end grain has a definite red colour that I would expect (you can see that in the top picture). But when cut, the colour is wrong. Yew typically has a bright orange/red colour when freshly cut but this has pale brown heartwood. I cut the logs in half using my Startrite 352 bandsaw. The cut was about 11 1/2 inches deep, with approximately no clearance under the guides. It only just fit and I had to take it slow. It was hard to keep the cut straight and the pieces don’t have very flat surfaces for the faceplate. I should use a sharper blade next time. Here is the yew:

yew log cut for bowl blanks


and below is the apple

I cut these halves into bowl blanks. Here they are, with the apple on the left:

applewood and yew bowl blanks

I started roughing out one of the ‘yew’ bowl blanks and found it had the small dark knots common in yew, so I think that is what it is. There are many varieties of yew out there. It looks good anyway.

Here is a photo of one of the odd little mushroom/arrow markings that are found in apple and related species. (This one is perhaps too tall to be a mushroom, more a sort of Xmas tree shape). I don’t know what causes these marks in the wood, but I haven’t seen them in other species. The sap in the green wood darkens quickly, just as cut apples do, and these marks soon fade. They do show in the finished bowl though, as the wood is stable then.

odd mark in applewood

Here are photos of one each of the yew (upper) and apple wood bowl roughouts, ready for drying:

yew bowl roughed out

applewood bowl part turned

All four of the bowls are promising, with good colour and figure, though the yew has some heart shakes (cracks) that if turned away will make the bowl much shallower. Yew is very prone to cracks like this in the wet wood. Fruit wood often cracks on drying, so I shall seal these to slow the process and hope for the best.

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Making wooden mice for my sales page.

two church mice
Two church mice

Today I was making wooden mice, a new batch of church mice. I call them church mice because I make them from pine reclaimed from old church pews. I don’t often use pine for turning, but this stuff is excellent quality hard pine, with its narrow annual rings showing it was from old, slow grown trees. I don’t know how old the timber is. It’s hard to find modern pine of this quality.

The process of making wooden mice starts with cutting up the wood into small blocks. I drill a small hole in one end. This serves as a location for the lathe centre and later the tail will be glued in this hole.

pine blocks for wooden mice
Drilling holes for tails

drilling holes for tails


Turning the mouse

The block goes on the lathe and I turn it to a cylinder with a spindle roughing gouge. I prefer a shallow flute roughing gouge.

block ready for turning
Ready for turning
roughing to cyclinder
Roughing to a cylinder

Then I cut in with a parting tool to make a clearance for the spindle gouge to work. This is not an essential step – many turners would go straight to the spindle gouge – but I find it helpful.

cutting in with parting tool
Cutting in with parting tool

Below is the result of the parting cuts. I make a small chamfer on the sharp edge of the small disc that remains on the left. If I don’t do this, sometimes it catches the back of my thumb like a little spinning sawblade when I do the sanding!

I can then round over the tail end and form the body and head with a small spindle gouge.

shaping wooden mouse
Shaping with spindle gouge

After sanding and parting off at the mouse’s nose with a skew chisel, the lathe work is complete. It doesn’t take long to make a roughed-out mouse. The mouse is far from finished however.


The next stage is to sand a flat for it to stand on, which I do with a bench-top belt sander. Then I apply finish, which needs time to harden properly. Then I buff the mice to a shine. When buffing, I hold the mouse against a cloth wheel that spins very fast, and if I’m not careful the wheel grabs them and hurls them to the floor.

I made a little tool to prevent this – a short steel rod, set in a handle (actually an old golf ball, they make good handles for things like this), with the end turned down to fit the hole for the mouse’s tail. I insert the rod into the unfortunate mouse, then I have something to grip it by. Next, I drill holes for the ears, glue in the ears, which I punch from thin leather. Then I fit the tail. The last stage in making wooden mice is to mark the eyes. The church mouse is ready for my wooden mouse page and then, if you buy it, a new home.


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Carbide gouge – Woodturning by Terry Vaughan

Today I have made progress with my giant chess piece globe stands. The material I use for these is very abrasive and blunts the normal gouge quickly, so I got out my tungsten carbide gouge. This is a true gouge with a flute, not a scraper. It has a curved piece of carbide inserted into a groove in a steel shaft. It’s one of those tools that ought to be useful, but isn’t. I bought it years ago for this purpose. Every once in a while I get it out, only to rediscover its fault. Today I once again confirmed the reason I don’t use it much.

Carbide grades

There are different grades of tungsten carbide, some suitable for cutting wood. The grade used for this tool is not one of them. The best edge that I can get on it with my diamond hones is still blunt. People do say that carbide stays blunt much longer than high speed steel! The turning is hard work, either using the carbide tool or a normal HSS gouge – that is at least sharp when it begins to cut, but blunts very soon.

Carbide scrapers

There are now carbide tipped scrapers sold for turning, with a sharper grade of carbide. I bought some tips allegedly similar to the popular brand and made them into similar tools. They cut a lot better than my carbide gouge, but soon became blunt. Where are the woodturning tools with diamond tips? Now they would be real progress!

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Workshop storage – Woodturning by Terry Vaughan

Workshop storage is important. A tidy shop makes us much more productive. There is nothing worse than spending hours hunting for some item that you know you have in the workshop somewhere. And if tools don’t have a proper home, they get left on the work surfaces where they are in the way.

Drawer units are best

In my experience, drawers are the best workshop storage option for small items. They don’t trap dust and shavings, they hold more than cupboards, and stuff is easier to see and get out than it is in cupboards. I currently have 84 assorted drawers in my workshop, mostly homemade, but it’s not enough. Today I started on another 4-drawer unit that will fit into a rack of steel shelves that I have. The drawers will hold more than the shelf did and be more useful. I already have a similar unit on the shelf below. They are quick to make, and very rough and ready – I don’t make furniture, just somewhere to keep things.

I make them out of whatever board I have spare, MDF or ply. This unit has sides and a vertical divider of 25 mm MDF and drawers made of 12 mm ply. It’s just a question of sawing the panels to size and cutting rebates and grooves, then assembling with glue and pins.

Make the joints with a router

I made the grooves with the table saw. I used my router table to make the corner joints in the drawers. There is a simple interlocking joint that you can make with one setting of the router. It cuts both parts of the joint without having to change anything.

Dust collection for the router is not good at present. I don’t use it often, but want to improve the enclosure of the table so I can connect it to my dust extraction system. Because it has a sliding insert in the top, I am not sure how to seal it. I want the air flow to pull dust and chips down into the cabinet and away to the extractor. If there are openings in addition to the one where the router cutter is positioned, the suction will not be effective.

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Do Axminster clamps cause stains?

Some Axminster clamps I bought recently have a potential problem. The metal jaws have plastic shoes to soften the grip on the wood. This saves putting a pad between the jaw and the wood. It makes them easier to use because clamping with pads can be one of those jobs that need more hands than most people possess. The problem is that the shoes mark the wood with what looks like a grease stain. The plastic looks clean and dry, but keeps making these ‘stains’ as if something is seeping out of the plastic. Is that possible? My old clamps don’t do it. The Axminster rep says this has not been reported to them before, but he is looking into it and promised to get back to me. If the marks are oily or greasy, they could interfere with gluing and finishing.

Later I had another call from Axminster Tools about my clamp problem. Their theory is that the clamp pressure is burnishing the wood surface. I don’t think this is right so I did some tests.

I put one of my Axminster clamps on a piece of MDF with thin polythene under one of the plastic shoes. The pressure must have been the same on each side. The side with polythene is unmarked, the other has a very prominent stain.
I put on another clamp with a small MDF pad under one plastic shoe and nothing under the other. There is a heavy stain on the top of the pad, nothing under the pad and a heavy stain under the other shoe. The pad was the same size as the shoe so the pressure must have been the same on all three surfaces.
I think these results strongly indicate that something from the plastic shoe is staining the MDF.

I spoke to Axminster Tools again about my problem with their clamps. I had to call them again, although they had promised to call me, and found they had done nothing about the issue. Disappointing, as they are normally very good at customer care. This is an example of what the clamps do to a bit of MDF.

Stain on MDF
MDF marked by clamp