Working wood with a lathe is not only surprisingly easy to learn, it’s addictive too!
Woodturning is an immensely rewarding hobby that can be enjoyed by people of all skills and ages – those struggling to cut a straight line with a saw can turn exceptional pieces to gallery standard in no time.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that watching a piece of timber destined for the fire being turned into a beautiful fruit bowl is relaxing, rewarding and believe it or not, very therapeutic.
What is woodturning? It involves placing a piece of timber onto a machine called a lathe which rotates or turns the timber towards the user. Specialised woodturning tools are held against the rotating timber to cut it into shape. It’s as simple as that!
Here’s what you need to know to get set up, decipher the terminology and start on a nice simple project for use in your garden this summer.
The lathe, a set of woodturning tools, a sharpening system and safety equipment will complete your starter kit.
The woodturning lathe can vary in size, power, weight and operation. Buying new, you could pay anywhere from €250/£195 to €10,000/£7,820 depending on the functionalities and brand you choose. For the average DIYer looking to start this hobby I would recommend a machine at the lower end of this scale to hone your skills.
Woodturning chisels are specifically designed for woodturning. There are hundreds of chisels on the market that all do different and specific jobs but a beginner will only need four or five. You can always add more to your collection as you advance and delve into more sophisticated turnings. A good beginner’s set will set you back between €100-€150/£80-£120.
Keeping your tools sharp is an extremely important aspect of woodturning. A sharp tool will slice through the timber easily and leave a smooth surface behind. It is essential to perfect your ‘sharpening skills’ and keep your turning tools in top condition to produce the best work.
There are several ways to do this; there are slow grinders, water cooled sharpening systems and even a system that uses abrasive paper similar to sandpaper to produce a sharp edge.
As a beginner, my advice would be to choose something that isn’t complicated to set up and that will do the job quickly.
The next and most important part of your kit is the safety equipment. A face shield is required as it covers your whole face as opposed to just your eyes; it should preferably have a chin guard. This is important in case big pieces spin off the timber, a rare occurrence but it is possible. A dust mask is essential for sanding the finished piece, especially for timber that may contain hazardous dust such as teak or mahogany although fine dust of any kind can be harmful to your lungs
Parts of the lathe
The lathe is made up of four main parts. The headstock is the engine room of the lathe, where the motor is housed. This is where you will control the speed, which you will need to change according to what you are turning.
The general rule is that the bigger the item the slower the speed. An egg cup for example can be turned at a high speed whereas a bowl needs to be carved more slowly.
Depending on the type of machine you are using the speed will be controlled in one of two ways. In a manual ‘belt and pulley’ system you will have to open the machine (after switching off the motor) and loosen the belt to move it from one pulley to the other. This can be time consuming but depending on what you are turning you mightn’t need to change belts too often.
With an electronic system you simply turn a knob on the control panel to regulate the speed. Much easier than manual but obviously you pay for the privilege.
The tailstock is at the opposite end of the headstock and is used to clamp the workpiece. The tailstock is fitted with a revolving centre whereas the headstock is fitted with a drive centre for driving the piece.
Both the headstock and tailstock slide along the bed. The bed is the base of the lathe and can be either steel tubes or cast iron rails. The more expensive models will be of heavy cast iron that adds to the overall weight of the lathe and reduces vibration.
The last piece of the machine is the tool rest. As the name suggests, this is where the turning tools are laid as they are held against the workpiece as it turns.
As mentioned above, the sky is the limit when it comes to turning tools but all you will need to get started are the following:
Roughing gouge: A U-shaped chisel with plenty of steel to combat vibration, this is the workhorse of the turning tools. It is the first chisel you would use to rough a square blank (cut a square piece of timber) into a cylinder, quickly and efficiently. It is however NOT to be used for bowl turning as it isn’t designed for this process and using it for this purpose can lead to accidents.
Parting tool: A diamond shaped tool that is extremely versatile. Used for cutting grooves, parting the timber away and creating coves.
Scraper: Used for smoothing or scraping the bottom of bowls.
Spindle gouge: An extremely versatile tool and can be used for rounding stock, cutting hollows or cutting beads and coves.
Bowl gouge: Having been designed for turning bowls, this heavy-weight chisel can overhang the tool rest without snapping.
There are two methods; turning between centres, also known as spindle turning, and faceplate turning. Turning between centres is where the timber blank is held between two points – the drive centre in the headstock which is the one that turns, and the revolving centre in the tailstock which acts as a support. Projects that fall into this category are lamps, candle stick holders and stool legs.
Faceplate turning involves a timber blank being attached to a faceplate or chuck and fixed only to the headstock. The tailstock is not used in this case, allowing you to hollow out bowls, make platters and discs, etc.
For the purpose of this article I am going to concentrate on turning between the centres, the reason being that I feel the scope of what can be produced is far greater than that of faceplate turning, it’s also easier and safer for a beginner to learn.
Garden dibber project
The project to demonstrate this approach is a garden dibber for sowing bulbs and seeds. You push it into the ground at the desired depth, as marked on the dibber, and when taken back out you are left with a perfect hole to insert your bulbs.
To make the dibber you need to select your timber. The piece you choose can be branch material from your garden, for instance from an apple tree or a waste piece of timber that is 40mm x 40mm (1.5” x 1.5”). The beauty of woodturning is that you can use recycled materials from old furniture or small logs in your firewood pile.
When you choose your blank, you must mount it onto the lathe between the centres. The blank has to be centred on both ends so if you’re using a square, cross the diagonals to pinpoint where to attach it to the drive centre. Then move the tailstock along the bed to attach the opposite centre. Tighten the tailstock and rotate the hand wheel until the blank is secured tightly.
To set the tool rest, move it as close to the blank as possible without it touching and set the height to approximately half the thickness of the piece. Give the timber blank a free spin with your hand to make sure it doesn’t strike the tool rest at any point.
With the piece secure and the tool rest set, it’s now time to talk about safety before turning. The main watch points are: no loose clothing, long hair should be tied back, use your protective gear, and work at a reduced lathe speed. By following these simple procedures you will enjoy your turning without injury or any nasty surprises.
The first tool you are going to use is the roughing gouge. As the name suggests, it roughs the timber down to a cylindrical shape. Switch the lathe on and rest the tool against the tool rest. Slowly move the chisel towards the spinning timber until it touches the piece. Move the gouge along the tool rest removing the outermost edges of the timber. Keep repeating this until the object has turned cylindrical. Only take away small amounts at a time, this will help you get a feel for the process. You will begin to see the timber edge getting smaller and disappearing. Use callipers (measuring device made of two steel legs hinged together) or a steel ruler to turn the cylinder down to approximately 40mm. For safety, always switch off the lathe before taking measurements.
The dibber is tapered at the top to allow easy insertion into the ground. To create the taper you have to focus on removing timber at one end and slowly working your way up the piece. Turn the tool rest to the angle of taper you require to help keep the chisel in the desired position; I find that turning my body to that angle also helps.
When the taper is complete, it is now time to mark the depths along it. These are indentations which will indicate how far you are pushing the dibber into the ground for a variety of different bulbs and seeds. The indentations are made using the parting tool.
Firstly, use a steel rule and a pencil to mark where they go. Then hold the parting tool against the tool rest and move it towards the timber. Lift the handle of the parting tool and create your various grooves. You don’t have to cut too far into the timber, just enough to create a visible line.
Up from the taper you need to provide a comfortable handle. Don’t be afraid to experiment here with the various tools. I used the roughing gouge in a sweeping motion to provide a hollow that fits comfortably in your hand. Feel free to use your spindle gouge to create some nice details. Remember it’s all for fun so enjoy trying out all the different tools. Just be safe!
When you are happy with your dibber, it is time to finish it. To begin, we must sand it down to make it smooth using various grades of sandpaper (remember to put your dust mask on). Slow the machine down and remove the tool rest. Start with a rough sandpaper such as 120 grit and hold the paper under the rotating piece until most of the tool marks are removed. Always sand underneath the piece as opposed to above it for safety reasons. Some teachers advise against turning on the machine, no matter how low the speed, to sand the piece.
Move the paper from side to side to prevent friction burns. Move down to a higher grit such as 240 grit and then 400 grit. You’ll be surprised at how smooth the piece will be after this treatment!
The final job is to apply a finish and this can also be done on the lathe. As this piece is going to be encountering damp conditions, an oiled finish is appropriate. Using Danish oil or similar, apply the oil with the lathe stationary, using kitchen roll (it will tear apart if caught up in the drives or chuck instead of getting stuck). Gives the oil time to penetrate into the wood.
Remove the piece from the lathe when finished and saw off the ends. Sand these smooth and apply oil to them. Your dibber is now ready for action!
This is a simple project to get you used to the workings of the lathe and tools. There are so many resources out there for the woodturning enthusiast, between the internet, books and monthly magazines you need never be short of inspiration. It is also a great idea to get involved in your local woodturning group where likeminded individuals meet up to discuss, demonstrate and also compete. It is at these meetings where you will learn the most. So what are you waiting for? Go make some shavings!
Before embarking on a woodturning project, consider enrolling in a beginner’s course to get to grips with safety, proper use of tools and to help you generally develop your skills; look out for studios or schools which run evening courses during term times.
Ambrose & Brid O’Halloran, O’Halloran Woodturning, Claregalway, Co Galway,
tel. 091 798 225, www.cregboy.com
Robert O’Connor, Gorey, Co Wexford, mobile 0872684488, www.thewoodturningstudio.ie
Glenn Lucas, Bagenalstown,
Co Carlow, tel. 059 9727070,