Turning Basics: History, Tools and Safety

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Turning Basics

Woodturning goes back a few years: in the good old days, there was much art and much less speed than we get today. Old spindle and bowl lathes used various sources of power, but often had low end speeds of 75 RPM--and high end speed of 75 RPM! There were treadle models and pedal models--with pedals designed to work as they did on the velocipedes of the time (late 1870s in the cases mentioned…recent research indicates that woodturning may be about 3000 years old, originating, presumably simultaneously, in Great Britain [Celts], Italy [Etruscans] and by inhabitants of the Crimea). 

Today, we have to look hard to find low speeds that slow, and higher speeds can range up to those that will toss even the smallest work right off the chuck if it is not securely fastened. Part of the art, and skill, of woodturning is learning the techniques that keep you safe.

Woodturning is being discovered by many more people each year, and quickly shows itself deserving of a reputation as an art, though sometimes a simple one, in addition to being known as a complex and satisfying craft.

Turning Basics

Given enough skill from the woodworker, turned wood objects do not have to be simple, in any way. Art is at least partly in the eye of the beholder, so whether or not your work is art is up to you and its other viewers. One of the greatest features of turning is the chance to gain enough knowledge in short order to make finished projects in just a few hours--lathes give us the possibility of completing, including finish, many worthwhile projects inside a single evening. We can turn out good looking, useful projects after work on almost any day. Short of driving nails in a plank and then nailing the plank to the wall to hold coats and sweaters, there's nothing much else out there that allows shorter times from start to finish in woodworking projects. And the best part is, the projects are both attractive and useful--or can be!

Choosing Your Lathe

Selecting a lathe and turning tools is a real chore today. Inexpensive new lathes are available  almost everywhere, while top quality full-sized lathes are found in more places than ever before, and in a greater profusion of styles. New technology is now being pressed into use, the Teknatool's Nova DVR lathe being one of the latest showcases of improvements from the Digital Variable Reluctance motor. You can check it out here, to see what the new technology has to offer. Lathes come in a variety of sizes and styles, which tends to force the beginning turner to start out specialized in some manner, though general use lathes, such as the JET 12" Variable Speed Wood Lathe, offer good service in numerous modes, from excellent spindle turning capacity to reasonable bowl turning capacity.

Of course, small projects are readily turned on any good lathe, so the JET will do that job, as well. For those interested only in bowl turning, or only in small item turning--pens, letter openers, perfume atomizers, yo-yos, small vessels and whatever you imagine, there are specialty bowl lathes and mini-lathes all over the place. You can spend $175 or you can spend $7500 (and more) for your lathe. And, if you are like most turners, after a time you'll have more than one lathe. Turning is tool heavy in the sense of a need for a lathe for each type of project--min-lathes for pens and small goblets and other tiny projects, a mid-range lathe for most spindle turning, and some bowl turning (and more than some when the headstock turns outboard to handle larger bowls), and a bowl lathe for the really huge container jobs.

Selecting Tools

Cutting tool selection is a tiny bit easier: you can look for a five piece HSS (high speed steel) beginner's turning set, usually consisting of a 3/8" spindle gouge; a 3/4" roughing gouge; a 1/2" skew chisel; a 1/2" round nose scraper; and a 1/4" parting tool. For turning small projects, a mini turning set consists of 1/8" and 1/4" spindle gouges (no roughing gouges in mini sets); 1/4" round nose scraper, 1/4" skew chisel and a 1/8" parting tool. As with any other cutting tool, make sure to sharpen and hone turning tools before starting work. This, of course, is going to require specialty sharpening stones, as some turning tools are shaped so as to ruin a good waterstone--or even a harder oilstone-- that is not shaped correctly (and vice versa: the incorrect shape on the stone may ruin the edge of the turning tool). As you gain experience, you'll buy or make specialty tools to suit your interests.  

The beginner's tool categories are simple, but some tools may not be present in every beginner's set--roughing gouges are a good example, because they're not much help in light duty and miniature turning. And, of course, each turner develops custom configurations from the basic tools as they learn the craft, and their own needs. But for the beginner, confusion may rule more often than not, so a look at the different jobs of gouges, skews, scrapers and parting tools may help a prospective or new turner select a decent set, or a decent array of single, turning tools. 

Start by checking the difference in size of the varied tool types--mini versus standard. Most of the mini tools are about 10" long, while the full-size tools are no smaller than 15" and may range up to 24". Given enough time, you'll discover that there are a great many other tools, both smaller and larger, than those described here.

Start with the roughing gouge: this gouge is square across the tip--that is, the arced shape has its edge on the same plane all around. The roughing gouge is the tool used to take the wood from square (or other non-round shape) to the early round stages, and is designed to remove material quickly. As roughing gouges get wider, their arc tends to become flatter.

Bowl gouges have deeper flutes and remove wood faster than spindle gouges, but are meant mainly for use in end grains, unlike the roughing gouge. The results tend to be smoother than those left by roughing gouges. This is a gouge type that creates a lot of different opinions as to what angle of flute is best: the simplest procedure is to get a standard gouge (HSS) and try the original angles. If those don't suit, start grinding different angles until you reach one that you really like, that really suits your style of bowl making.

Spindle gouges are more refined versions of roughing gouges, removing less material--usually--with each pass and bring round objects closer to their final shapes. They may also have fingernail shaped noses, in a half arc, versus the flat nose of the roughing gouge. Diameters are usually smaller. Like the roughing out gouge, the spindle gouge is used to quickly remove material. Spindle gouges retain their utility even in finishing up the surface, as they're needed to clean up hollows and similar spots where skews don't work.

Skew chisels are used to refine the surfaces produced by the gouges. Properly used, a skew chisel can take a long, long ribbon of wood from the piece the gouge has turned round. Turn as long a strip of pared wood as possible if you want to test your own skills and tools. It quickly becomes evident how the tool cleans up the surface (more easily illustrated with the woods listed than with woods such as red oak or pine).

Scrapers are clean-up tools for those doing face turnings. Scrapers do a nicer job on end grain woods than most other lathe tools. This means face turning, of course, but may also mean the edges of raised bands on spindle turnings.

Parting tools are useful in several areas that have nothing to do with their names. They do nicely in cutting deep grooves, and cleaning up the bottoms where skews may narrow things down too much. And, of course, parting tools are used for parting your finished work from its resultant scrap that remains on the lathe.

Steels: Today, high speed steel (HSS) is almost the de facto standard for turning tools. Carbon steel, which will take a finer edge faster, is cheaper to make, but blunts more easily when woods being turned are abrasive, as is often the case with exotics today (teak is an excellent example, as is cocobolo, rosewood--both have mineral inclusions). Carbon steel tools are more easily sharpened, but don't hold that super sharp edge as long, though they do work better in woods, such as Tigerwood (Lovoa klaineana) and Zebrawood (Microberlinia brazzavillensis) and black walnut (Juglans nigra), that tend to tear with less sharp tools.

Once you've selected a lathe and the tools you need to get started, it's time to take a general look at the basic rules of turning. Regardless of what other rule you're observing, remember that safety is your primary consideration. Woodworking is no longer fun when you take unnecessary risks…injury lurks for the incautious and inattentive woodworker.

Lathe Safety

Lathes are unforgiving of unrestrained long hair, dangling jewelry or sloppily rolled sleeves which can easily get caught in the spinning assembly. Neat is not only nice with a lathe, it is also safest. Wear short sleeves, ditch the necklaces, charm bracelets and bangled wristlets before turning. If you even think it might create a problem by getting caught, then remove it before you start work. That's much simpler, and easier on various body parts, than having the machine yank it off.

Check headstock and tailstock to make sure all tools--chuck keys, Allen wrenches, etc.-- are removed. Check security of the mounted wood. Rotate any newly mounted wood through at least one full revolution to make sure it isn't hitting the tool rest. Start the lathe at its slowest speed. And stand to one side when you first start the lathe. You could easily have missed a loose knot or chunk of bark that will now come flying. Don't be there for it. 

Use all applicable guards, all the time.

Lathe speed is critical. Select speed to suit the size, balance and length of the piece to be turned, keeping in mind, too, what shape that wood is in. For large works, slow the lathe down, often as slow as it will go. Out-of-balance pieces also need really low speeds until your tools start the work of rounding. Long, slender pieces need slow speeds, too: these pieces are whippy at high speeds. At this stage of your turning career, I strongly suggest you avoid working with problem woods, including those with unbalanced loads across the wood. If you have to turn such severely out of balance woods, do so very, very, very slowly until they are in balance. A bandsaw serves extremely well for cutting out-of-balance shapes to octagons or other shapes that turn more smoothly and are less likely to create extreme stresses.

Keep the tool firmly on the toolrest when it is in contact with the wood. And hold on to that tool. Use the tool bevel, keeping it touching the wood when the tool is cutting (over-simplified, as scrapers and one or two other tools do not have bevels in contact, but for gouges, skews and similar tools, accurate).

Cut from the largest diameter to the smallest diameter. Start removing wood from areas where the most wood is to be removed. This is not always the same as the above rule, though it's very close. There are times when you are only removing a small amount of wood from the largest diameter, though this is usually only obvious as you remove the first layers of waste.

Remove waste gradually, along the length of the work. Trying to gouge out too much wood at one spot can create a multitude of problems, including an out-of-balance condition, or a workpiece that becomes whippy because it is too thin to hold the uncut areas safely . Work slowly, but surely, along the length of the workpiece.

Scrapers are used with the point below the centerline of the work when doing the outside of a piece. They are used above the centerline of the work when doing inside work on a bowl, goblet or similar piece.

In general, slow and steady does it. Use the slowest possible speed to start, and then remove waste evenly (or as evenly as possible given material shape and condition and the desired result) and slowly, without over-emphasizing one spot on the wood.

None of the above information can instantly turn you into an artist on the lathe. It should make it easier for you to determine your needs and make your tool selection. After that, it will help you keep your fingers on your hands, and your hands holding tools that will allow you to become a superb turner.

Woodturning is a great recreation, even if you don't aspire to artistry. And you might well be surprised how your aspirations change as your skills increase.


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