Workshop Mishaps: Issue 24

The Story

A woodturner’s close scrape

I was finishing up my very first segmented turning–a 10" bowl–on my lathe. I had turned solid-wood bowls before and had always used sandpaper to remove tool marks, but to avoid cross-grain scratches I had the bright idea of scraping...using a handheld card scraper. Because it was a wide-mouthed bowl, it appeared that I had plenty of room to safely maneuver the scraper against the wood.

Everything was going fine...until I stuck the card too far down into the bowl’s taper. The instant that both ends of the scraper made contact with the inside of the bowl, the metal started spinning like a propeller. The first spin slammed against my thumb and knocked my hand right out of the bowl. Stunned, I soon discovered that the steel had flayed open the tip of my thumb almost down to my wrist. The staff at the emergency room said I was lucky; the cut was a few millimeters shy of severing a tendon.

From now on I’m sticking with sandpaper!

The Victim

Tom Balzamo of Macungie, Pennsylvania, considers himself to be a traditional woodworker, using mostly hand tools and preferring 18th century style furniture. He’s only been turning wood for about three years, having started by turning pens at a Woodcraft Turn-a-thon. In real life, he’s a diagnostic imaging technologist at a Pennsylvania hospital, but he has hopes that his new Web site,, will kick-start another career.

Case Analysis

It turns out that Tom owned a bowl scraper that he could have used to finish the inside of his bowl. Properly sharpened, a bowl scraper will leave a surface finish that requires almost no sanding. But Tom’s bowl scraper was dull, so he picked up his card scraper, assuming that the wider blade would cover a larger area more efficiently. Holding that scraper inside the bowl was an invitation to disaster. A little time spent at the grinder with the bowl scraper, and maybe a tip or two on its use, would have saved his hand (and his pride when he had to show up at his own emergency room).

Shop-Smart Strategies

Interest in woodturning has increased exponentially in the last few decades, as have lathe-related accidents. Experienced woodworkers quickly discover that the lathe is not like other woodworking machinery. Guiding a turning tool against a spinning blank is much different than paring a dovetail or planing a board. Following are a few tips to make sanding and finishing at the lathe safer:

  • Don’t wrap abrasives or finishing rags around your fingers. If the free end gets caught by the spinning workpiece, you could lose a finger.
  • Paper-backed sandpaper is preferred over cloth-backed. It will tear instead of pulling your fingers along with it.
  • Grind your scrapers to an 80° angle and leave the burr on the cutting edge. It’s the burr that’s cutting, not the edge.
  • When cutting with a scraper, point it slightly downhill and touch your work lightly. Too high an angle and it won’t cut; too heavy a hand and it will dig in.
  • When scraping inside a bowl, move the rest into the bowl as far as possible. If your tool is not supported, it may catch. This will ruin your work and can even snap your tool.
  • Learn to use a bowl gouge. Properly sharpened, it will do 95% of the shaping of your bowl, both inside and out, leaving just minor touch-up.

Good books, such as Turn a Bowl with Ernie Conover (#140927, $19.95), provide valuable reference, but the personal instruction available at your local Woodcraft can help you understand the intricacies of stance, tool angle, and cutting motion, and develop your turning skills in record time.

Back to blog Back to issue