Live-Edge Bowls

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This article is from Issue 48 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Turning to the natural look

There’s something particularly satisfying about turning a “natural-” or “live-edge” bowl. First of all, the scalloped lip and the elongated grain on the bottom of the bowl give it a pleasing oval appearance, and the intact bark on the edge imparts a distinct character not seen on typical bowls. Secondly, there’s a real joy in creating a bowl completely from its inception–beginning with selecting the log and “finding” the bowl within it, to bandsawing the blank and turning it into an object of beauty.

Many novice turners are mystified as to how the unusual shape is created, but there’s no magic involved. It’s really all in how the bowl blank is cut from the log (see Figure 1 on page 40) and how it’s oriented on the lathe. There’s nothing particularly difficult to the technique, but there are a few tricks involved that I’ll explain, including how to select and cut an appropriate turning blank and how to best orient it to maximize aesthetics. No special tools are needed–just a 4-prong drive center, a 4-jaw chuck, a cup center, and a few typical turning tools.

Select, prepare, and mount the blank

1 Select wood such as cherry, ash, oak, or box elder with an attractive bark. To ensure intact bark, harvest the log during late autumn through early winter, before the new cambium layer starts forming.

2 For a symmetrical bowl, select a section of the log that includes a broad surface that approaches a true arc. Then crosscut that section to a length slightly more than the diameter of your desired bowl. Next, rip the desired section of the bowl blank from the log, supporting it between wedged chocks, as shown in Photo A. It can help to first mark out the rough profile of the bowl on the end of the log and to strike a chalk line across the bark to guide your cut.

3 Rough-out the blank’s circular shape on the bandsaw. I guide the cut using a hardboard template centered on the half-round log. I use an awl to pin the template in place, sawing just outside its perimeter (Photo B).

4 Use a Forstner or multi-spur bit to drill a shallow blind hole through the bark at the former location of the awl to allow your 4-prong drive center to bite into solid wood.

5 Mount the blank by placing the drive center into the blind hole, center-balancing the blank, and pressing the tailstock against the blank’s sawn face using a live center. Use the locked tool rest as a reference for center-balancing the blank. With the tailstock pressed lightly enough against the blank to allow adjustment, begin by setting the opposing “low” walls of the bowl equidistant from the tool rest (Photo C). Follow up by adjusting the “high” walls in the same manner (Photo D). Then fully engage the tailstock center, and lock it in place. Check the balance of the mounting by running the lathe at a low rpm.

Turn the outside

Note: All of the shaping–inside and out–on this bowl was done with a 1⁄2" bowl gouge, except where noted in the text.

1 With the lathe spinning at a speed appropriate to the size of the blank, waste away much of the lower outside of the bowl (Photo E). (For this 11"-diameter bowl, I began with a speed of 500 rpm.) Once the bowl is mostly concentric, you can increase your lathe speed.

2 Flatten the bottom of the bowl, and turn a tenon to suit your 4-jaw chuck (Photo F). Make the length of the tenon equal to the depth of your chuck recess minus about 1⁄16", refining the shape with a 1⁄2" spindle gouge.

3 Begin refining the outside shape of the bowl, working from the center outward (Photo G). When you reach the lip of the bowl, keep a very firm grip on the tool, as its tip will be suspended in midair during some of the bowl’s rotation (Photo H). Keep an eye on the spinning ghosted form to monitor your tool travel.

Turn the inside

1 Remount the bowl, inverting it and securing the tenon in a 4-jaw chuck. Hold a long drill bit up against the “high” side of the bowl, with the tool’s tip about 1⁄2" away from the intended bottom of the bowl. Wrap tape around the shank of the bit at the highest point of the bowl to serve as a depth gauge. Then drill a hole to that depth using a drill chuck on the lathe (Photo I).

2 Begin shaping the inside of the bowl, moving inward toward the center in a series of successively wider passes (Photo J).

3 While removing most of the interior mass, leave the wall relatively thick. Then begin taking it down in sections to a final thickness of about 1⁄4" (Photo K). The reason for taking it down in sections is that the uncut mass toward the bottom of the bowl helps support the projecting thin section of the wall as it is being finessed. Taking the wall down all at once would invite flutter and rough cuts.

4 As you approach the final thickness of the first section, stop the lathe, and check the measurement with calipers (Photo L). Then refine the cut as necessary to bring the whole section to a consistent thickness.

5 Now move down into the bottom of the bowl in the same manner, bringing the wall to its final thickness (Photo M). Angle your tool rest as deeply as possible into the bowl to provide good tool support as you turn. When you’ve finished the wall as well as you can with the gouge, switch to a scraper to clean up (Photo N).

6 Finish-sand both the inside and outside of the walls through 220 grit (I use a foam-backed disc mounted in a drill). You can sand the spinning bowl up to the lip section, at which point you’ll need to stop the lathe and sand the projecting sections of the lip individually (Photo O).

Twice-Turned Bowls

A bowl made of wet wood can either be turned to completion at once (and left to dry in finished form), or it can be turned oversized, left to season, and then re-turned afterward. Finishing a bowl in one shot is faster, but the piece is almost certain to warp some afterward, which may or may not make it more attractive. On the other hand, a “twice-turned” bowl is roughed out to expedite drying, then set aside wrapped in newspaper to slowly season before performing the final shaping, at which point the piece will retain its concentricity.

Turn the foot

1 Dismount the bowl, and make a jam chuck like the one in Photo P. It’s nothing more than a turned concave cylinder covered with thin rubber. (I cut the rubber away here for a better view of the turned section.) In general, the diameter of a jam chuck like this should be about half the diameter of the bowl.

2 With the jam chuck mounted in your 4-jaw chuck, mount the bowl bottom-side-out, bringing a tailstock cup center against the residual divot in the bowl bottom.

3 Using a 1⁄4" bowl gouge, reduce the tenon to the diameter of the cup center, creating a slightly concave “foot” in the process (Photo Q). Sand the freshly turned area with the lathe spinning.

4 Dismount the bowl, chisel off the remaining tenon waste, and sand any nub smooth.

5 Apply the finish of your choice. I wiped on two coats of Danish oil, buffing afterward to create a low-luster sheen.

About Our Author

Michael Kehs has been carving and turning wood for 30 years. In addition to creating award-winning designs for commission and exhibition, he teaches woodcarving and turning at his studio in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and at the local Woodcraft store in Allentown, Pennsylvania.


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