Of all the branches of woodworking, woodturning is easily the most overlooked. We use hand-turned objects everyday — salad bowls, tool handles, pool cues — rarely pausing to contemplate the origins of their rounded form. But after seeing professional turners demonstrate their quiet craft, it's hard not to shout their praises.
Put redundantly, woodturning involves turning wood into rounded shapes. At the center of every woodturner's universe is a lathe, a machine that rotates material on a horizontal axis. The Egyptians first developed the lathe over three thousand years ago, and except for some modern upgrades, their basic design has remained unchanged. (Sorry King Tut, but you just can't beat the convenience of an on/off switch.) For an explanation of the lathe's various parts, check out this video by veteran turner Rex Burningham.
With the introduction of lighter, more affordable "mini-lathes," woodturning attracted a bevy of amateur hobbyists. New to turning myself, my chief concern is keeping my ten fingers intact. Woodworkers love to scare beginners with horror stories of tools kicking back at turners and bowls flying off the lathe. But my teacher, the illustrious Alan Lacer (pictured at the lathe above), assured our class that if proper safety guidelines are followed, there is no safer woodworking machine than a lathe. Sure, woodturners use a set of sharp tools including gouges, scrapers and skews to shape their material, but it's dull tools that cause accidents. If you're considering turning, do your fingers a favor and read the American Association of Woodturner's official safety guidelines.
But folks aren't turned on by rules and regulations – woodturning's allure is in the simple, meditative nature of shaping a spinning piece of wood. Bowls are the most commonly turned item, but one can create countless objects including boxes, lamps, urns, chair spindles, table legs, pepper mills, goblets and baseball bats. But be warned, woodturning is deeply addictive — the first time I turned, I looked up and the seasons had changed. While my passion is in building furniture, woodturning is a thoroughly fulfilling way to work wood. And as Alan Lacer aptly puts it, "it beats pushing boards through a planer."
(Images: Johnny Williams)
Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student and amateur woodworker. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.