How To Turn Wood - man shaping a piece of wood

How to Turn Wood

Turning wood makes for a fun pastime if you can get past the fear of moving pieces of wood at a speed of 4000 revolutions per minute (RPM) on a lathe. That’s what it looks like to a beginner who doesn’t know how to turn wood.

Woodturning, however, is not as scary as it seems at first glance. It’s a great way of turning ordinary pieces of wood into artistic pieces. And it doesn’t have to be fancy pieces of wood either. In fact, you can even use waste pieces of wood that you would otherwise not use.

In this article, I’m going to get you acquainted with the basic woodturning tools, safety woodturning tips, and how to turn wood into awesome art pieces.

Basic Woodturning Tools

There are a lot of woodturning tools. If you’re a beginner woodturner, however, a collection of six will be more than enough to get you started. As you perfect the art, you can add more to your collection of tools if you need to.

How to Turn Wood

So, in this article I will list the six basic woodturning tools with which you can make just about anything once you master using them. Here they are:

The Lathe

If you know anything about woodturning, then you must know the lathe. It’s the star of the show. A lathe is a machine that rotates wood pieces as you work on them with other tools.

The lathe must be connected to power before you can start woodturning and you should know how to turn it on and off. Obviously, there’s an on and off button for this purpose — but it may not immediately be apparent where it is. Be sure to read your owner’s manual before you use any new equipment. You should also know how to slow down or speed up the RPMs.

When you’re new to woodturning, it’s advisable to start at lower RPMs and work your way up as your confidence to handle the tool increases.

Another important part of the lathe is the tool rest. You need to know how to rest different tools on the rest as you work on wood pieces to prevent accidents from happening.

Roughing Gouge

This is a tool with which woodturning starts. Just like the name states, a roughing gouge is used to roughly transform a piece of wood into a round shape.

It does most of the initial work by turning a square piece of wood round, but don’t use it for bowls as it can break at the handle.

Spindle Gouge

Also known as the detail gouge, the spindle gouge is used to smoothen things further after you have roughly shaped the piece of wood. You can also make more detailed cuts with a spindle gouge. You can turn curves too using this tool.

Depending on the size of the curves you’d like to make on your spindle, you might want to have this tool in different sizes. If you don’t have a roughing gouge in your tool collection, you can use a spindle gouge in its place. This may, however, make your spindle gouge blunt faster.

Skew Chisel

A skew chisel is another tool you will need in your collection as you set out to become a woodturner. It’s also one of the most difficult tools to master in woodturning. Once you have mastered how to use it though, there are a lot of great things you can do with it.

Mostly, a skew chisel is used to level rough edges made by the gouges. With a skew chisel, you can achieve such smoothness that you don’t need to sand the piece at the end.

To level the spindle, use the middle part of the chisel rather than the edges of the tool. You can use this tool to make finer details like planes and beads too. To make a bead, start with the corner of the tool and sweep it across the wood.

Parting Tool

This is another essential tool for woodturners. Mostly, a parting tool is used for cutting grooves into the spindle. However, it’s not safe to part the spindle all the way using a parting tool. Instead, use it to do most of the parting on the lathe, turn the lathe off, and finish off with a saw.

To know how much you have parted the wood, you might need a pair of calipers. These two, the parting tool and a pair of calipers, are always used together to let you know the diameter of the grove you’re cutting.

Other than parting wood, a parting tool can be used to make decorative cuts on the spindle. To do so, you will need to use the parting tool flat on the tool rest instead of on its edge. Just like when you’re using the skew chisel to make beads, start with the tip of the tool on the wood and sweep across.

Bowl Gouge

If you need to turn bowls, then this is the tool to use. It’s like a spindle gouge, but with a thicker shaft and a longer flute, which makes it suitable for turning bowls without breaking.

Tips for Safe Woodturning

Woodturning can be a bit scary if you’re new to it. People who have been doing it for a while make it seem easy and effortless. That takes a while and a bit of practice to achieve. With these tips, however, you will be closer to mastering the art.

How to Turn Wood

Safety Gear

First things first, before you can start woodturning, you need to make sure you’re protected physically. You need to protect your eyes, lungs, and feet.

Eye Protection

Before you start turning, make sure your eyes are protected. You can do this by wearing eye goggles or a face shield. I prefer you to use a face shield as it protects your whole face.

Foot Protection

When you’re woodturning, there are a lot of sharp tools involved. The vibrations from the lathe might tumble the tools and if they happen to land on your feet, there’s no telling the extent of the injury you could get. This is why you need to wear solid boots or shoes when you’re turning wood.

Lung Protection

There’s a lot of dust that comes off wood when you’re turning. Breathing all this dust in is not very good for your lungs so you need to wear a dust mask.

Lathe Speeds

Turning wood requires that you keep the wood piece turning at particular speeds to avoid accidents and to produce a good shape. Almost all electric lathes will have speeds varying from 200-4000RPM.

When starting, it’s advisable to start at slower speeds so that you can learn how to hold and position tools. As you proceed, you need to turn stocks at proper speeds. A good rule to follow is the wider the diameter of the stock, the slower you should turn it, and the thinner the spindle, the higher the speed should be.

Hand Positioning

Keep your hands clear of the lathe and the spinning wood, and also at a safe distance at all times. If you’re right-handed, the right hand should be holding the handle of the tool while your left-hand holds the tool down at the tool rest. Your thumb should be over the tool helping to steady and guide it while your forefinger should be under the tool. If you’re left-handed it’s vice versa.

When you’re using gouges and skew chisels, the hand holding the handle should always be below the hand holding the tool down at the tool rest. The right hand should be below the left hand in this case (if you’re right-handed).

If it’s the other way round, the tool will most likely catch or grab the wood and you will lose control, potentially causing accidents. When you’re using a scraper, however, the right hand should be above the left one.

Tool Rest Position

When you’re turning wood, the tool should always be resting on the tool rest before coming into contact with the wood. The tool rest should be as close as possible to the rotating wood piece without coming into contact with it.

To make sure you get this right, always spin the stock before you turn on the lathe. The closer the tool rest is to the wood, the more supported the tool is and the more control you have. The further the tool rest is, the less the tool is supported. It’s all about keeping the fulcrum as close as possible.

If you ever bring the tool into contact with the spindle before the tool rest, it will surely grab the wood, and aside from messing your wood piece up, it could also harm you.

The Bevel Position

When woodturning, the bevel position on the wood piece you’re turning is important. The bevel is the tapering surface just before the sharp edge of the tool. It should come into contact with the wood piece first before the cutting edge and should always rest on the wood.

Lay the tool on the wood first, then using the hand that’s holding the handle, pull back towards your body until the bevel, and eventually, the cutting edge comes into contact with the revolving wood.

Always Cut Downhill

When turning a cove, always cut downhill. This means starting from the edge of the curve going towards the deeper side of the curve, or the center of the cove. This makes it easy for you to control the tool in your hand and also much easier to cut.

Cutting uphill or the other way round will result in losing control of the tool and/or the wood.

Make Sure Your Tools are Sharp

Finally, sharp turning tools are a woodturner’s best friend. With sharp tools, making cuts is a breeze.

How to Turn Wood

With sharp tools, you have minimal chances of grabbing or accidents.

How to Sharpen Your Tools

As I have already mentioned, lathe tools are at their best when sharp. When sharpening the tools, however, you have to get a suitable sharpener for the tools. A bench grinder should do the job.

When you’re sharpening the tools remember to maintain the tool bevels at all times. Tools with a concave edge like the roughing gouge and the spindle gouge should maintain their concave edge too.

Any sharpening tool you use should retain these lathe tool properties.

How to Turn Wood

Now that you have met the tools you need to turn wood, let’s look at how turning wood is done in a few easy steps.

Step 1: Set up the Lathe

If you just got yourself a lathe, the first step would be unpacking the machine and setting it up. You will need to bolt it down to some kind of bench. Check to make sure that the bench is sturdy. You don’t want to screw your lathe into a wobbling bench as this can be unsafe.

You also want to make sure you set your lathe up in a well-lit spot. If you can, set it up close to a window. Natural light is generally best.

After you set the lathe up, ensure that the drive center and the stock center are at the center, especially if you’re going to be doing some spindle work.

Step 2: Choose a Piece of Wood to Turn.

When it comes to woodturning, any kind of wood would be good for it. If you’re allergic to some types of wood, stay away from those kinds. Rosewood, for instance, is known to irritate some people’s skin.

As to whether you should use dry or wet wood for turning, it will depend on what you’re making. Wet wood tends to shrink afterward, so if you’re making something where you will need the measurements to remain the same, you should avoid using wet wood. Dry wood, on the other hand, tends to remain the same after.

Turning wet wood is, however, a lot easier than turning dry wood because it’s softer. Any shape of wood will do but to make things easier, it’s better to use round or square pieces. When you’re new to woodturning, use a square piece because it’s easy to mark out the centers.

Step 3: Sketch the Final Piece on a Paper

It’s good to have the final piece that you want to end up with so that you have a clear picture of what you’re working towards. With this, you know where to put the curves, beads, or other designs.

Step 4: Mark Out the Wood Centers

When it comes to loading the piece of wood on a lathe, you will need to make sure you attach both ends of the piece to both the drive center and the stock center (this is why you need to establish the centers).

To draw the centers out, draw diagonal lines from one corner of the piece to the opposite corner: where these lines intersect is the center. Do the same thing on the other side. One of these will go to the tailstock center and the other one to the spur center.

Step 5: Mount the Wood onto the Lathe

Mounting the wood on the lathe should be easy. Take out the spur center and hammer it down one center of the wood. You shouldn’t use a metallic hammer to do this as it can damage part of the spur center that goes into the spindle. Use a wooden mallet instead of a block of wood.

Take the spur center while it’s attached to the wood and put it into the spindle. Now move the tailstock center until the tail center is attached to the other center of the wood on the other side. Tighten the tail stack and turn it in. Your piece of wood should be pretty secure at this point and you should be ready to start turning.

Step 6: Set up the Tool Rest

As I have already explained, you want the tool rest to be as close as possible to the turning wood so that you can have maximum tool support. However, you also need to ensure that the tool rest does not come into contact with the spinning wood while the lathe is turned on. To be sure, rotate the wood before turning on the lathe.

You can set up the tool rest at the center of the piece or on one end of it. Then you can move it as you work your way from one end to the other.

Step 7: Round up the Wood

The initial step in woodturning is taking out the edges and turning it roughly into a round spindle. You will use the roughing gouge for this.

Turn on the lathe and pick up your gouge. Resting the tool on the tool rest first, make first contact with the spinning wood with the bevel first. Pull back the tool until the sharp cutting edge is in contact with the wood and cutting away. Move it along the wood back and forth to smooth out the rough edges.

Move the tool rest to the other position of the wood and do the same and note that fine details are left to other tools.

Step 8: Smooth out the Remaining Rough Patches

After turning the wood piece around, you need to smooth out the roughness. This is done using the spindle gouge and the skew chisel.

Step 9: Add Decorative Details

Depending on how you want the piece of wood to look like, add decorative details like curves, grooves, and beads to the desired spots. You can use a spindle gouge, a skew chisel, a spindle gouge, or even a parting tool for this.

Step 10: Sand the Piece

When you’re done adding details to the piece, set the lathe at the lowest rotation and sand the piece. Start with coarse sandpaper and finish up with finer sandpaper. Once you have mastered how to best use the skew chisel, however, you may not need to sand the piece in the end.

There, that’s the basic process of woodturning. It may not turn out as great as you envisioned the first time you do it but with practice, you will find much better results. To get there though, you will need to keep practicing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the Best Wood for Turning?

When it comes to woodturning, any type of wood will do. As I mentioned earlier though, some types of woods like rosewood can be irritating if you’re allergic and other woods may be harder to start with than others.

Dry Wood vs. Greenwood: Which is Best for Woodturning?

Wet or green wood is always softer and as a result, considerably easier to turn. The downside of using green wood is that it tends to shrink once it dries up. Dry wood, on the other hand, may be harder to turn, but it stays the same afterward.

When you’re first turning bowls, greenwood is a lot easier to use.

What’s the Best Kind of Finish to Use?

The kind of finish you use will depend on the purpose of the item you’re making. If it’s a bowl for food, for instance, you will want to apply a food-safe finish. The same thing applies to toys as kids tend to put their toys in the mouth a lot.

This will help you decide whether you will use wax, oil, sanding sealer, or wood varnish.

In Conclusion

Woodturning is a very rewarding hobby, but it takes getting used to. You will surely not master the art of how to turn wood in one attempt but don’t give up yet. It takes a lot of practice to perfect it.

In this article, I have outlined all you need to know to get started. The tools you need, the safety precautions to take, and how to best make cuts while keeping safe. I hope it’s all you need to get started on your woodturning journey.