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Wood craft is as old as mankind. Until quite recently, wood
was plentiful and cheap. Because so readily available, wood was the
obvious material – especially in the thickly forested continents of
Europe and the Americas – from which to make everything from bowls and
utensils to elaborate ceilings and furniture.
It was in the 14th century that wood carving
developed its own style. Instead of using solid blocks, the carvers began
to build one layer on another to create more delicate effects and exploit
the natural properties of wood. Usually in Britain, oak was used. Older
churches and cathedrals are the best places to see wonderful medieval
The most famous wood carver since the middle ages is probably Grinling Gibbons, who worked with Christopher Wren at Hampton Court and St Paul’s Cathedral. Rather than exploit the woods natural qualities he twisted and spun it into wonderfully realistic carvings of fruit and musical instruments. Today the trend has gone back to styles that show the grain and texture of the material.
The woodworkers tools are often, in themselves, great works of craftsmanship. The variety of chisels, gouges and planes is vast and most people start by buying some secondhand, building their own collection as their needs and tastes develop. Many woodworkers who develop original designs also invent the tools to carry them out. The last 15 years have seen a revival in woodworking that has improved the range of tools commercially available.
Turning techniques – Turning is almost as old a technique
as carving. It was done by rotating a firmly held piece of wood in a lathe
and the principle remains unchanged today. Some professional craftsmen
still use a lathe worked by foot because it gives them more control and
can be stopped and started more quickly than a machine powered tool.
Most people begin with a power drill that can be adapted to
make a lathe, though this will only work for small items. It is worth
taking lessons from the outset, particularly to get access to a large
power lathe which gives better results because it is heavy enough to be
There are also important safety precautions which should be
learned early, along with the basics of a good technique. Like driving
instructors, most wood turners prefer to teach someone who has not had
time to develop bad habits.
Turning is done either with the wood held in the middle of
the lathe, which is called ‘spindle
turnery’, or on the end. This is
turning’ and is used for larger pieces because the
lathe bed is not in the craftsman's way. An experienced wood turner can
make a bowl about 3inches deep in little over an hour and give the
impression that it has just grown under his hand with no effort. The less
a turner appears to do, the better he or she is – the knack is in the
handling of the tools, not in the muscle power.
Turning a bowl – To make a bowl, a roughly cut disc –
either a section of a log or a piece that has been cut out with a band saw
– is fixed to the face plate with screws. It will be slightly deeper
than the finished bowl. The turner uses a long handled gouge to make it
into a true circle. He then begins gradually to shape the outside of the
bowl, smoothing the corner nearest the face plate into a curve. The
outline shape of the bowl begins to emerge. To work the inside the turner
may cut from the rim inwards, or make a valley in the middle first. Small
bowls that can be spindle turned are taken off the lathe with a cone in
the middle that is then cut out by hand.
The obvious danger is to let the gouge cut through the bottom
or the sides. Paper thin bowls are the sign of virtuoso
turning demonstrations also show how a set of bowls can be cut inside one
another from a single piece of wood.
Natural Effects – The rim of the bowl may be turned too. Or
it may be pierced for decoration. Nowadays there is a tendency to
emphasize the natural quality of the wood by leaving the edge uneven. The
finishing of the bowl is done with curved and domed
scrapers. Like all the
turners tools they are constantly sharpened and remove fine flakes to
perfect the surface.
The bowl is then taken off the lathe, the screw holes plugged
and sanded, and the whole thing sealed with a sanding sealer – if it is
to be polished rather than stained. The sealer acts as a good base for the
final polish. Many craftsmen have their own recipes for polish and work up
to a high silky finish on the lathe.
Leftovers – One of the advantages of small woodturning projects is that they can often make use of pieces of wood that would otherwise be wasted, such as leftovers from larger pieces. Many craftsmen like to use pieces of old wood, which started life as fence posts, for example.
Different woods suit particular purposes. Sycamore, for example, has been popular since the middle ages for food bowls because it takes no odour.
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