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New Woodturners Start Here
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Welcome
to the world of
Woodturning

If you are a newcomer to the great craft of woodturning, then these pages are designed to help you.  Whilst nothing can replace the benefit to be gained from working under the watchful eye of an experienced turner, we can at least try to help you avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

A common comment we get is "Fine advice but where do we get hold of these tools?".  Problem solved.  Click on the link and you'll be taken to the relevant page at
The ToolPost where you can place an order on-line, right away.

The pages may be read (and printed) as a continuum, but if you want to jump to particular subjects, this is how the information is organised:-

Remember, these tools, and many others, are available from our on-line shop, The ToolPost.

Background Reading

There are a good many excellent books on the subject of Woodturning, some of which are directed specifically at the beginner.  As a second to standing 'at the master's elbow', then reading these must be considered very beneficial.  A couple of my personal favourites are:  'Woodturning - Two in One'; by Phil Irons and 'Woodturning: A Foundation Course'; by Keith Rowley.  Both these are very readable books being presented in a 'light' style - but are no less helpful and competent for that.  If you are ready to delve deeper into the esoteric world of woodturning then an excellent place to start might be: 'Turning Green Wood'; by Michael O'Donnell, originator of many of the tools and techniques used many woodturners around the world.  (You'll notice from the titles of these three books how imaginative woodturners-turned-authors are when it comes to selecting titles for their masterpieces!  Happily their imaginative content belies their stolid titles - in my view.  At least this makes searching the catalogues at your library or bookshop easy.)  All of these authors are also teachers of woodturning of high repute and long experience, so they really know what they're talking about.

So that's two lessons already:

  1. Take lessons from an acknowledged teacher, or at least stand and watch an experienced turner at work.
  2. Read a good woodturning book; then another, then another, then………

The books mentioned are available from most good booksellers and woodturning suppliers.  On-line, they and many more, can be obtained from The ToolPost

Remember, these books, and many others, are available from our on-line shop, The ToolPost.

Safety Advice

All of these books spend some time covering the safety aspects of turning and should be taken seriously even if for this advice alone.  Much safety advice could be considered 'common sense' but, as we hear so often, common sense is a very uncommon commodity.  In general then:-,

  • Beware of loose clothing, long hair, dangling jewellery and any other object or part of the anatomy(!) which could get caught up in the revolving machinery. 
  • Make sure that the lathe and other power tools are properly guarded and that the guards are securely in place. 
  • Never attempt to change the speed of the lathe, or to adjust any part of the workpiece whilst the lathe is still in motion, even if it is 'only' freewheeling to a stop. 
  • Ensure that all items such as chuck keys, tommy bars etc. are removed before the lathe is started
  • Always stand to one side when you do start the lathe so that if anything does fly off - loose bits of bark, for instance - you will be out of the line-of-fire. 
  • When mounting a new job, rotate the job through 360 degrees by hand, then start the lathe at its slowest speed to allow you to check that everything is secure.  Only when you've done this test is it safe to set the lathe to the normal turning speed.  Always check the lathe speed before switching the lathe on to avoid the risk of starting it whilst it is set to run at too high a speed.
  • If all else fails read the instructions!?  NO! - read the instructions for any equipment FIRST .  When you understand them fully then, and only then, start to use the machinery.
  • Wear protective clothing, especially safety glasses.  With the increased awareness of the potential harm which can be caused by wood-dust most turners now wear an approved dust mask, especially whilst sanding.  Ideally, wear a powered respirator with integrated visor and know that you're safe.

In addition to these general safety rules, which apply equally to the use of any machinery, there are 'rules' specifically related to the turning of wood which need to be followed whenever you're at the lathe.  Although we're a way off the actual turning yet, let's lay them out now so that they have time to sink in before you need to use them!  Don't worry if you don't know or understand all of the terminology yet, it should all become clearer with time.  These basic Rules of Turning are:-

  • The speed of the lathe must be adjusted to suit the size, balance, length and condition of the timber being turned.  The larger the work diameter, the slower the lathe speed needs to be.  If the piece you're turning is out of balance, then you need to start turning at a slow speed, until you've evened it out a bit.  If the workpiece is long in relation to its diameter, then it is likely to 'whip' - or, technically to 'whirr' - if the lathe speed is too high.  Finally, look at the timber itself.  Are there loose bits of bark?  Is it in the process of decay?  Are any parts of it unsound?  Is it homogeneous - that is are some bits heavier than others (usually one side could be heavier than the other due to differing densities of sapwood and heartwood)?  If the answer to any of these is 'Yes', then you probably shouldn't be turning that wood at this stage of your development!  If you must, then take extreme care and start off very - very - slowly and carefully.
  • The tool must rest firmly on the toolrest before it is brought into contact with the rotating wood and must never be lifted off the toolrest as long as it is in contact with the timber.
  • All woodturning tools are ground with a bevel to produce the cutting edge.  This bevel must be in contact with the timber at all times whilst the tool is cutting, thus giving support to the cutting edge and controlling the depth of cut.  (The exception to this is in the case of scrapers and certain specialist tools, but let's keep it simple for now.)
  • The section of the cutting edge which is in contact with the work must be in line with the point of contact with the tool on the toolrest to gain adequate support.  This ensures that the tool cannot be twisted, or rotated, by the force of the timber against the tool acting to one side of the point of contact between tool and toolrest.
  • Always cut the wood in the way that it likes to be cut.  This is maybe the most frequently-repeated phrase in woodturning instruction and owes its origin to Frank Paine, the 'Father of Modern Woodturning'.   In essence, it means always cutting 'downhill'.  That is, from the largest diameter to the smallest diameter.  Think about the action of a plane on timber: you always cut 'with' the grain - if you don't, the wood splinters up and leaves a rough surface.  The same applies in woodturning.
  • When using 'scraping' tools, keep the point of cutting below the centreline of the workpiece when working on the outside and above the centreline when turning the inside of, for instance, a bowl.  These tools are always used trailing slightly (5 degrees) below the horizontal, in side elevation, and flat on the toolrest in section/end elevation.
  • Always remove waste from the areas of most waste, first.  If you're turning off a corner, start removing wood at that corner and gradually work your way back along the workpiece until you've reached the desired form.  Don't expect to push your way into the timber and remove all the waste in one 'go'.

That will do for now.  Is it becoming clearer why the best way to learn is to watch an experienced turner and to take instructions from a living, breathing human being?  Maybe now is the time to look at the list of instructors and courses.

Remember, these tools, and many others, are available from our on-line shop, The ToolPost.

Getting to know the tools and equipment.

The Lathe:

If you've taken the trouble to get this far, then it is probably safe to assume that you know - roughly at least - what a lathe is.  Let's get a little more familiar now with the anatomy of the lathe so that we can refer to it as we progress.

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The spindle on the lathe is mounted in bearings in the headstock and is caused to rotate by the motor.  The headstock assembly is mounted on the lathe bed, which is the support which keeps all of the components of the lathe rigidly aligned.  At the other end of the lathe bed is the tailstock, which supports the end of the workpiece and which can be moved along the bed to suit different lengths of workpiece.  The tailstock usually also incorporates a sliding barrel, or 'quill' which can be moved in and out by turning a handwheel, thus giving fine positional control and enabling end-loading to be applied to the workpiece.   Also movably mounted on the lathe bed is the toolrest saddle which supports the toolpost and toolrest.  The toolrest saddle - sometimes also known as a 'banjo' because of the shape of this part on earlier lathes - is moved into position such that the tool can be rested on the toolrest and reach the workpiece with full support.  And that's about it for the essentials.  Many lathes don't have any supporting structure beneath the bed and need to be mounted on a robust table or bench.  Others come complete with a floor standing frame, or may indeed be integrated designs.  Speed changing is normally effected by moving belts onto different-sized pulleys but many newer lathes now incorporate electronic variable speed systems and a few have mechanical speed variation systems - like the one in our photograph which shows a PooleWood PW28-40 heavy duty lathe.

Work-holding Devices:

The workpiece may be held in a number of different ways.  Most commonly, especially for 'spindle work' such as chair legs, the work is held between a driving centre mounted in the headstock spindle and a rotating centre mounted in the tailstock barrel.  For flat work such as platters and bowls, it is normal to use a faceplate onto which the work is attached by screws, before the faceplate itself is mounted onto the headstock spindle.  Most turners now also have one or more chucks, which are mechanical devices which hold the workpiece by either contracting jaws onto the work, or by expanding the jaws outwards to hold in a recess formed in the work.  Although the chuck is a relatively new addition to the armoury of the turner (in terms of a craft with a known history of more than three thousand years!), most would now say that their chuck is an indispensable, albeit somewhat costly, device.  Work of this nature, where the diameter of the workpiece is large in relation to its thickness and where the piece is normally mounted from only one side, is known as 'faceplate' turning - even if you use a chuck instead of a faceplate.

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Turning Tools:

Whilst many turners proudly get by - very successfully - using a small range of tools, most of us have an ever-growing arsenal and our tool-junkie habits (mine anyway) are avidly fed by the manufacturers who seem to think up a new specialised tool almost every other week.  There's no right and wrong in this: you do it as you wish and you buy whatever takes your fancy - this is, for most of us, a hobby or subsidiary occupation anyway.

The first thing that we have to do when starting to turn a spindle, is to 'rough' the wood from square to round.  The tools used for that are called, with staggering clarity, roughing gouges, examples of which are shown in the photo. These tools are generally formed from high-speed steel and are roughly U-shaped in cross-section.  Their cutting edge is sharpened at around 40-45 degrees and they are used to remove stock quickly, moving in either direction, but generally leave an inferior finish.  You need one of these unless you're only going to work on bowls and platters.
 Available now from The ToolPost

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Skew Chisels

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Having got yourself a cylindrical piece of wood by the use of the roughing gouge, you would probably like to 'plane' this to a nice smooth finish.  That is a job for the skew chisel.  These come in many forms and sizes and a few examples are shown in our next photograph.  You'll see here that we have chisels of both oval

and rectangular cross-sections and in both large (1"/25mm) and small (½"/12mm) sizes.  The skew chisel is used 'lying' on the workpiece with its edge forming an angle of around 45º with the axis of the workpiece; the bevel is positioned to rub on the rotating work and the point of contact/cutting should be in the centre to lower half of the cutting edge.  It's a tool that may be best left until someone can demonstrate it to you, rather than trying it out 'in the privacy of your own workshop'.  The edge of the skew chisel is normally ground to give an included angle between 60º and 80º although some turners prefer a much finer angle.  This is a very versatile tool which is also used for cutting across the ends of spindles to face them level, for making vee grooves - and even some things they were never designed for!  The name 'skew' chisel comes from the fact that the cutting edge is 'skewed' (angled) at around 70º to the longitudinal axis of the tool; there are also straight chisels (not to be confused with firmer chisels used in carpentry) but these are little seen these days and few manufacturers still produce this older design though they are available through The ToolPost

Spindle Gouges

Surely you'd like to put some shape into that nice smooth piece of timber you've just finished 'planing'?  Then you're probably going to need a spindle gouge, which is shown in the photo just here.  Primarily, the spindle gouge is used to turn 'coves', the term used to describe rounded grooves or scallops in the surface of the wood.  The picture shows three sizes of gouge, ranging from 5/8" (16mm) to ¼" (6mm).

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 Note that these tools, like the roughing gouges are of semicircular cross-section, but the 'flute' - the groove running the length of the blade - is shallower, thus leaving more material in the blade, making it stronger.  Such gouges are normally forged from solid high-speed steel (HSS) bars giving them great rigidity.  The cutting edge of a spindle gouge can be ground to any angle between around 30º to 45º, depending on personal preference and turning style.  Most turners now grind their spindle gouges to what is colloquially termed a finger-nail shape (a rather well-manicured lady's finger-nail, it must be said) as this makes the tool more versatile in use.  The gouges shown here are 'hot off the mill' and have not been re-ground to suit individual preferences yet.  However, if you look critically, you will note that even with this standard grind, the top edges of the flute are set back a little from the bottom centre of the flute.  The ToolPost

Parting & Beading Tools (including the Bedan)

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At some stage you'll need to cut your turning off square at the ends.  Or you may just want to turn a square-bottomed groove, or a short parallel 'tenon'.  The tool to accomplish all of these things is the parting tool and its close relative, the beading and parting tool.  In the accompanying photograph are examples of several common forms of this essential tool.  From the left, we have the good old vanilla-flavoured original

version of the parting tool.  It is parallel-sided, around ¾" (19mm) deep and 1/8" (3mm) thick.  It is used with the narrow edge resting on the toolrest and the broad side standing vertically; the presentation to the timber is perpendicular to the axis of rotation.  The next development is the diamond-section parting tool, developed to minimise the friction generated between the tool and the sides of the parting cut.  This is achieved by grinding the top and bottom edges of the tool away to leave a truncated diamond shape in cross-section.  Hence although the cutting edge is full width at the tip of the tool, the sides only contact the groove on the tool's centre-line.  Use is similar to the standard parting tool.  The fluted parting tool is a yet more recent development and is designed to give cleaner parting cuts which are less likely to need the attentions of a skew chisel to clean them up.  An example is shown third from the left in the photo and it has been turned slightly onto its edge to make the groove more obvious.  In this case the tool is presented with the groove downwards onto the toolrest and care must be taken to confine any grinding to the bevel only, leaving the groove untouched.  (the groove runs the full length of the tool blade).  All three of these tools are ground to give an included angle of around 60º to 90º, although the fluted version has only one bevel to grind.  Finally, we come to the beading and parting tool on the right-hand side of the photo.  This is like a square-section parting tool: it is broader and shallower than a parting tool, the example here being 3/8" (10mm) square in cross-section.  This tool is normally used for shallower cuts than the parting tool and is especially useful when forming 'beads' - convex humps standing proud of the surface of the workpiece.  It can also be used as a small straight chisel in place of a skew for finishing short tenons and parallel details.  I wouldn't be without one.  The grinding angles follow those for the parting tools.
Parting tools, beading tools and bedans are available from
The ToolPost

Bowl Gouges

Moving on now to faceplate turning and, in particular, bowl turning we come to the bowl gouges.  The accompanying photo shows two examples of forged HSS bowl gouges, one of 3/8"(10mm) and one of ¼" (6mm).  These particular gouges are called Superflute gouges and are forged in HSS by Henry Taylor Tools in the UK.  Compared with the spindle gouges, you will note - if you're very attentive - that these gouges

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 are ground square-across, not ground back towards the upper edges of the flute (the 'wings').  There are probably more variants on the grinding of bowl gouges than any other and I'll make no attempt to describe them here, but suggest that you go to watch as many good turners as possible and ask them how and why they choose the grinds that they use.  The essential feature of the bowl gouge is that it should be very rigid as it is often used with quite a lot of the tool overhanging the tool rest.  Bowl turning is also a pretty tough business, so the tools need to be robust if they're to perform well.  Such gouges are ground to a fairly obtuse angle, between 40º and 55º, depending on the internal form of bowl which you favour - we're getting into deep water here!  Every turner will have his own favourite bowl gouge style and much of the decision of which type to buy will depend on the shape of the internal flute and its effectiveness at clearing shavings.  Try as many as you can before making a final decision - if you can - and then learn to use your chosen style effectively.  Your local supplier: The ToolPost

Scrapers

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To achieve a fine internal finish to their bowls and to refine the internal shape, many turners choose to use scrapers.  Unlike all of the other tools reviewed thus far, these are used with only the tip of the cutting edge in contact with the workpiece surface and no substantial bevel rubbing.  Remember the notes above regarding the importance of the 'trailing' presentation of scrapers to the work.  The name 'scraper' is something of a misnomer as a correctly sharpened

and used 'scraper' should cut and produce real shavings - not just dust - just like any other properly-sharpened turning tool.  Scrapers come in many and varied shapes and are often reground by turners to suit individual jobs and special applications.  The examples shown in the photograph give some idea of the wide variety of shapes in common use.  On the left is the bowl-turners favourite, the domed scraper.  If you buy one, buy a big, heavy cross-section type: you won't regret it!  Lightweight scrapers are 'rippled surfaces looking for somewhere to happen'.  This particular one is 1¼"x¼" (32mm x 6mm); my favourite is 1½" x 3/8" (38mm x 10mm) and I'd buy even bigger if they existed - at an affordable price.  There is no substitute for rigidity in a scraper.  The middle tool is a box, or diamond side-cutting, scraper designed for - yes - finishing the inside bottom corners of cylindrical boxes.   Because such tools are often used in confined spaces, they are normally somewhat lighter in section than bowl scrapers; in this case ¾" (19mm) wide.  The final tool shown here is the square-ended scraper which is very useful on flat work such as platters and tabletops - if used with care and skill.  This is a partner to the domed scraper shown on the left and of the same heavy cross-section.  In addition to its use on flat surfaces, the square scraper can be used on the concave outer surface of bowls where you may find it useful to remove ripples and undulations.  (Sorry: I get ripples and undulations in my work sometimes, I just thought other folk did too?)  As for grinding, the scrapers are normally ground with a cutting edge just off vertical: that is, at 80º to 88º with reference to the top surface.  In fact it is the burr thrown up on the top edge by the grinding process that is the actual cutting edge, rather than the corner formed between the bevel and the top surface.  But again, as you get more into woodturning you'll find there are many opinions about that too.  For now, believe me, the burr theory works!  Many different variteies of scraper are available from The ToolPost

Well, that concludes the opening 'chapter' in this beginners notes section.  I hope that you found it useful.  If you need help with the sourcing, use, grinding, understanding of any of these tools, or others you may come across, I'll be glad to try and help.  Just drop me an e-mail at beginners_advice@woodworking.co.uk and I'll give it my best shot.  You'll also find lots of guys willing to help in the woodturning newsgroup rec.crafts.woodturning.  And if you want to purchase tools, as described above, you can do so through our on-line shop, The ToolPost.  Local to your favourite armchair!

The ToolPost - The Woodturner's on-line shop.

Soon we'll get information up here on the next stage of getting into this creative craft.  If you have comments or feedback, please feel free to e-mail, as above. 

Thanks for your interest. Peter Hemsley

©1997-2004 P. Hemsley.  The information on this website is the copyright property of Peter Hemsley.  Whilst reasonable efforts are made to ensure the accuracy of information presented, no liability can be accepted for errors in this information nor for contingencies arising therefrom.  If you are inexperienced in any aspect of woodworking, we would strongly counsel that you take a course of formal instruction before commencing to practice

The Floyd Consultancy

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