Kent Harpool – Carved Bowls

Sometimes, when you’re looking for interesting woodworking stories, they end up being right under your nose. Such is the case here. A co-worker of mine, Kent Harpool, as it turns out, is quite good at making carved wooden bowls. We were kicking around the idea of using a carving theme on the front cover of our catalog and Kent’s bowl making came up in the conversation. We asked him to bring his bowls in and I was amazed with the craftsmanship and beauty of them. Who knew he had this talent? I’m glad he shared them with us. We ended up using some of his bowls on the July/August Japan Woodworker catalog cover.

Kent Harpool is a product manager at Woodcraft and Japan Woodworker. He actually started carving bowls when he was 21. Kent lived in New Jersey at the time and was able to get a big chunk of wood from a huge limb that fell from a cherry tree in a church cemetery close to where he lived. From that branch, Kent made his first bowl.

Kent Harpool, the special Maple bowl that he made for his wife Tonie as a wedding gift and the Cherry bowl with the knot in it that he finished years later.

“I’m not sure even why I decided to make that first bowl. I had a big chisel that I found, I had some time and I would carve on it,” shared Harpool. “I’d then put it away for a while and work on it later. I kept doing that until I had a bowl.” 

Unfortunately, Kent doesn’t have that first bowl anymore, but he does have what he calls a “sister bowl” that surprisingly he made from that very same huge old cherry tree limb but he didn’t finish it until many years later. When Kent first started on it years ago, he ran into a large knot that cracked and he thought it would eventually fall out of the piece so he decided at the time not to finish it. However, for some reason, he kept that unfinished piece over the years and through several moves and then finally had inspiration to finish the bowl. The knot distressed him, but he ended up filling in the cracks with wood scrapings, dust and finish. The bowl came out awesome, and with an added beauty that only knots provide.

Harpool prefers to work with green wood. “I like to work green because it’s easier on me and the chisel. When you work green, you have to start out with more wood than if you work with dry wood, because you’re fighting the checking of the end grain,” Kent said. “You’re hoping to gradually pare away the exterior of the wood so you end up with a bowl.”

When working green, Kent works on the bowl for a while, puts linseed oil on it, puts it in a plastic bag and then works on it later. By doing this, he explained, the oil replaces the moisture that the bowl loses from being worked on, and the bag slows down the moisture loss. Kent said that eventually you reach a point where it equalizes out.

Harpool explained that when carving a bowl, you use your gouge with a mallet and gradually use less sweep. Then you start scraping. Generally speaking, there will be a lot of scraping and that will get you a long ways. After a certain point, you can begin to sand the piece.

“You should keep your gouge sharp,” suggested Kent. “How often you need to sharpen your tool depends upon how much you use it and how hard the wood is. I personally like to use a felt wheel and gray compound.”

Carving out the inside of the bowl with wood gouges, then flipping it over to work on the bottom.

He also stressed being careful with your sharp tools, because they can be dangerous. 

“I was using a chisel one day, working the end grain of the wood, and I hit my leg out,” shared Harpool. “I hit it really hard, and the gouge skipped off the end grain and flipped out of my hand and into my leg.” 

Kent said the cut was about an inch deep. From that point forward, he changed how he handles the chisel so it doesn’t flip out any more.

“Stay out of the way,” emphasized Kent. “That’s always important when you’re carving wood.”

As far as wood, Kent likes using “found” wood for his bowls. Over the years, he has made bowls from Holly, Apple, Cherry, Butternut, Walnut and Oak. And, he mentioned you don’t necessarily need a special place to carve bowls. “Oddly enough, I carved one bowl in a trailer in Morgantown. I sat on the floor and carved it.” Kent now works in his garage on his old workbench.

Harpool’s first chisel was one that he found. Later, he started buying and using pfeil carving tools. One of his most used tools is a pfeil #7 Sweep Bent 35mm Gouge. As far as mallets, he likes to use a Wood Is Good 20 oz. mallet with a head made of a tough urethane material. He’s tried carving gloves, but prefers not to use them.

Beautiful scooped look of a carved Walnut bowl and a look at the bottom side.

Kent doesn’t really have a specific plan when he carves his bowls. He prefers to let the bowl develop as he works on it.

“You work the inside of the bowl first,” said Harpool. He explained that you get the inside 80%-90% done first before doing the underside. That way you can maintain stability later. Dig the inside of the bowl out, he said, and then when you can flip it over. By doing that, you still have a wide bowl that allows space for bench dogs or something to hold it down and prevent it from sliding around. 

As far as finishes go, Kent prefers linseed oil, but also likes Walnut oil. You can even use vegetable oil, he said. It won’t go rancid unless you have food particles in it. By the way, he said never to use metal utensils in a wooden bowl as the metal will scratch the bowl.

Like most woodworkers, he finds that woodworking has a calming effect on him. “It’s therapeutic to make a bowl,” Harpool shared. “I find it relaxing.”

“Some of these bowls can take a couple of months to finish. You just keep working on it,” he said. “It’s a satisfying accomplishment when completed.”

Carved bowls make great presents because they come from the heart. Kent even carved a special Maple bowl for his wife Tonie as a wedding gift. She was unaware that he was making the bowl, so it came as a total surprise. It’s a present that she cherishes.

Here are some rockers and a bed that Kent fixed and refinished.

Harpool also enjoys fixing and refinishing furniture. Among items that he has refinished includes a bed and several rockers.

On a recent rocker that Kent refinished, he scrapped and sanded it and had to rebuild the bottom runners with three applications of SculpWood, since part of the wood was rotten. Kent completed the project by staining, finishing, and putting new caning on the seat. The detail of the rocker came out great, and it looks beautiful.

As far as advice on tools for anyone who wants to start carving bowls: Get a Wood Is Good 20 oz. mallet (13T51) and a pfeil Swiss Made #7 Sweep Bent 35mm Gouge (05N06). These two tools would be great to get you started if you want to make large bowls. You can always add to your collection of tools as you go.

Harpool advised not to be overwhelmed or intimidated. “Just start digging in and experiment,” encouraged Harpool. “Don’t be afraid to know more than you think you do.”

Some beautiful finished bowls by Kent Harpool.

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