I do not intend to try to teach wood turning but to offer some suggestions and advice that I hope will be helpful. It is possible to become a good woodturner even if you cannot saw straight. It is a unique hobby that allows you to develop at your own pace and the more you do the better you get. I describe it as being 10 percent theory and 90 percent practice. What tends to happen is the more that you do, the more your general hand skills improve. As a result begin to use other tools, like a bandsaw for example. And as your woodturning design skills improve you are likely to start to find ways of enhancing your work and expanding your repertoire to include things like simple carving.
Where to start.
Before you spend any money on equipment, try to find a woodturners club. These clubs pre-dated Men’s Sheds by at least twenty years and were usually started by a few blokes with a common interest in wood turning. I have belonged to two. I started with the WA Woodturners Association (WAWA) in about 1993. Like so many of the important moments in my life it was my wife, Christine, who was pivotal. Even though the idea of woodturning had never even crossed my mind, she bought me an inexpensive Chinese lathe as a birthday gift. She said that if it turned out to be something I enjoyed we would upgrade at a later date which is exactly what we did.
One of the best ways to improve your skills is to compete. You may have never entered any sort of craft competition in your life and may baulk at suggestion that competing helps but it does. Nothing focuses your mind and lifts your skill levels quicker than making a piece for a competition. You will begin to discover abilities that you probably didn’t think you had. My first competition was as a novice who was in awe of all the experienced woodturners around me and I was terrified of making a fool of myself. But all I ever got was encouragement and during the ten years I was a member of WAWA went from being a competitor in the Novice section to being a competitor in the Masters section – I understand WAWA no longer has Masters competitions. What I was able to achieve was a direct result of the help and advice experienced members gave freely and without reservation. I will always be deeply grateful to the WA Woodturners Association.
In 2002 after we had moved to Brisbane I joined the Bayside Woodturners and Woodcrafters Club. It has an excellent workshop with a number of lathes and related equipment. Like WAWA the club is populated by open hearted and generous people who share their skills and willingly teach anybody who wishes to learn how to work with wood.
In addition to the skills you will pick up as a club member you also have access to free wood. Before I joined WAWA I tended to buy wood but I discovered that woodturning clubs are often inundated with free wood although you may have to be prepared to help go an get it and cut it up.
When to start.
The simple answer is as soon as possible. While the truism of better late than never is not in dispute, starting early is a distinct advantage. I once read a of a conversation between a master canoe builder and a lawyer. The lawyer told him that he intended to become a canoe builder when he retired. The canoe builder said that he planned to become a lawyer when he retired. It was an apt response.
While becoming a woodturner is not difficult, becoming a good woodturner is more so and requires a willingness to become your own critic. If you are prepared to be forensic in your assessment of your work, because you always find a way to improve every item you make, your output will simply get better and better.
What to make.
Obviously that is a “how long is a piece of string” type of question. There are two basic types of turning. Face plate turning and spindle turning. Most people start with face plate turning by making a bowl. My first serious project was a standard lamp and that involved both face plate (the base) and spindle (the tall bit) turning. It doesn’t really matter what your first project is, it is just important that there is a first project. Your early projects will be dictated by number of factors including the type of wood you have access to and the culture of the people you are working with. Always listen to what others tell you because you often get good advice from the most unexpected source. Occasionally advice will be in conflict and that is when your own good sense will be required.
Safety – a vitally important consideration.
Always wear a face mask. I have avoided a couple of serious facial injuries when stuff flew off the lathe into my face mask. Wood is the unknown element of woodturning and a seemingly stable piece of wood can have flaws you do not see until it is too late. So I repeat, always wear a face mask.
And always use a method to get the dust away from your face. This can be achieved as simply a having a fan behind you blowing the dust away from your face, particularly when you are sanding.
The decision about which lathe to buy is largely subjective but there are some important points to consider.
The choice of wood lathes now available is approaching the bewildering stage with most made in China. When you are trying to work out what size lathe you might need, remember that you can turn really small stuff on a big lathe but you cannot turn bigger stuff on a small lathe.
At its most basic, a wood lathe has:
A head stock (the bit on the left/top of the lathe in the picture) a tail stock (the bit on the right top of the lathe in the picture) a banjo (in the middle to hold the toolrest) and a motor preferably with a variable speed control.
The most important part of the lathe is the bed because while everything else can be repaired, the bed cannot. If it is crook then it is crook and there is nothing the ordinary mortal can do about it. The bed should have been cast in a good quality foundry from good quality materials. Avoid lathes that have beds made with metal rods or those that have been bolted together with plates. Otherwise you will spend your life making corrections and alterations.
My wood lathe is a Woodfast that was made in South Australia to which I fitted a VSD (variable speed device). It is mounted on a heavy bench I constructed with 4 x 2 inch Jarrah with bolted joints. It is also bolted to the floor. Fitting a VSD to my woodlathe was made a little simpler because I have three phase power in my workshop and a three phase motor on my lathe. My lathe has an outstandingly accurate cast metal bed which I used test on a regular basis until I was finally convinced that it was not going to move. Woodfast lathes are now made in China and I have no experience with them..
To test the accuracy of the lathe bed, place a live center in the headstock and a drive center in the tailstock, then slide the tailstock up the the headstock until the points of the live and drive centers meet. If they do not meet precisely, do not buy the lathe.
A very high priced lathe is not necessarily going to give you a better result. Personally I have come to the conclusion that some of the wood lathes now on sale have been designed by engineers who have never made anything on a wood lathe in their lives. They appear to have canvassed every wood turner who would provide them with a wish list and then incorporated the wish list into what I regard as over-designed monsters that are almost twice as expensive as a good quality metal lathe out of China. And you are paying for functionality the normal wood turner will never use.
Whatever you do, don’t rush because you may find second hand lathes for sale by club members who are no longer woodturning.
One of the first things new wood turners do is go and buy a box of cutting tools. My advice is don’t. In many cases the box will contain tools you will not necessarily use or may not be the best gouges. Many of my cutting gouges are PNN. They are not cheap and you usually have to make your own handles but it is likely to be a better way to go. In my case I have been using many of the same tools for over 20 years and regular grinding has really only worn out one skew chisel (which I use a lot) and one bowl gouge.
Wood turners tend to be scared of the Skew chisel because it can do all sorts of damage to a nicely turned spindle. But there are usually a couple of reasons for that. One is that they tend to purchase a bigger skew (25mm) than they will ever need, mine is 12mm. And the other is bad technique. Small gouges, say 8mm or 10mm will do a perfectly nice job on anything you care to name. I knew a turner who used to turn verandah posts with an 8mm spindle gouge.
Once you start to develop competence, you can think about making your own tools. I have a friend who makes stuff for a market stall. His is very fine work and he uses screwdrivers that he has sharpened.
If you can get your hands on some high speed steel and a grinder you can make a gouge with an edge than cannot be destroyed. When you heat normal carbon steel to blue or near red by leaving it on the grinder for too long, you destroy the carbon in the steel and it is no longer much use to you because without carbon it will not hold an edge.
But high speed steel is different. If you over-grind it to the point that it becomes blue, you can cool it down in water and simply grind the blue away leaving a perfect edge that will cut normally. I make many of my tools from bits of high speed steel (for example old thicknesser blades) and you can cut both wood and metal with this steel. It really is one of the wonders of modern metallurgical science.
From time to time, clubs hold tool auctions so this may also prove to be a source of supply.
To sell or not to sell.
Finally I just want to talk briefly about what you do with your output. At some stage you will confront the sales question which can also be an economic question that only you can answer.
For a while I did sell a bit of stuff but I now regret doing that because everything I make tends to be a one-off and I would prefer to have a number of the pieces I sold in my own collection. At one stage I even started to supply a small gallery and also took a few commissions. But one day I suddenly realised that I was turning my woodturning into a job and was becoming preoccupied with the objectives of other people which eroded the pure pleasure of creating something relatively unique for the simply joy of doing so..
If it is economically possible give your creative juices to the freedom to flow and don’t allow yourself to be restricted by conventional wisdom or the acclamation of others. If I had continued with the process of making to sell, I would have missed one of the most important journeys of my life.