The Wood on the Lathe Goes Round and Round: A Beginner’s Guide to Wood Turning

What is wood turning?

Wood turning is the process of carving work from wood via a lathe. Spindle and faceplate work are the two main types of wood turning. Wood turners can make a variety of objects, from chair legs to wooden bowls. There’s no end to the possibilities with a wood turning lathe and a bit of creativity.

If you’d like to know more about wood turning, keep reading! We’ve gathered a plethora of information to not only help you understand the basics of wood turning, but to also encourage you to invest in a wood-turning lathe and try your hand at a few projects as well. Most importantly, as long as you respect the lathe and practice proper safety behavior, wood turning can be a very rewarding experience.

Wood Turning Career Paths

Though it may seem like more of a pastime or hobby, it is possible to make a career from wood turning. For example, there are quite a few artists out there who make a living from the projects they wood turn, each with their own set of skills, suggestions, and stories. Like the path a tree might take to soak up sunlight and grow, each woodworker carves out his or her own journey.

If you’d like to know more about what a day in the life of a wood turner looks like, check out HighlandWoodworking.com. George Chapman, the man behind the site, speaks his honest truth about his path and the many lessons he learned. You can also read up on the history of wood turning here and learn about some of the biggest artists who’ve made their mark.

For a more business-like approach, consult Dan and Kathy Ackerman, co-owners of Kyler’s Quills. The couple has successfully turned their hobby into a lucrative career path. The interview describes how Kyler’s Quills came to be and offers readers suggestions on how to get their name out there, such as going to trade shows and representing your brand in person.

If you’re looking for a broader scope of information on wood turning, check out Career Planet and Jobs & Skills WA. You can learn more about what tasks you’ll be tackling, how much you can expect to earn, and what education and/or training you need to become a successful wood turner. Most people stick to wood turning as a hobby but if you set your mind to it, there’s definitely room for succeeding as a full-time wood turner.

Wood Turning Types: Spindle and Faceplate

There are two main types of wood turning, each defined by how you use your lathe. The first type is spindle and describes the work you do when your piece of wood is spun between the headstock and the tailstock of the lathe. In this case, achieving a true-spinning part is key to making sure your cuts are symmetrical. Since the work is suspended between the two centers, you can easily make side cuts without fear of pushing the part off-center.

With faceplate work, or face work, you’re only working with the headstock. The piece is still spinning on the lathe, but there is nothing to support the other side of it. As a result, this can be great for making bowls and other circular pieces but isn’t advisable when working on long, thin pieces of wood you might use for chair legs, for instance.

Knowing these two types of wood turning work is critical to purchasing the correct tools for your project. In fact, we’re going to talk about those tools next. Remember these types as you read about what tools are required for wood turning.

Wood Turning Tools

Here are just a few of the tools you’ll want to invest in if you want to become a wood turner:

The Platform

  • Lathe: This one’s a no-brainer. The wood you work with is suspended between the headstock and the tailstock of a lathe, which spins the work at high speeds for maximum carving abilities. To learn more about lathes, visit com’s inclusive guide.

Gouges and Chisels

This is a great beginners set that has all the chisels and gouges you need to get started.

  • Spindle roughing gouge: This is likely the first tool you’ll use on your lathe. As the name suggests, the roughing gouge roughs in the shape of the project you’re working on. Wood turners use the roughing gouge to turn their square or oblong piece of wood into a rounded blank they can work with.
  • Spindle gouge: The main difference between these gouges and the roughing gouge centers upon how much material is taken off, that is, the depth of the cut. Spindle gouges are used for beads, coves, and spindles. You’ll use a variety of these gouges for getting closer to the final shape.
  • Skew chisel: These chisels are used for what’s called “planing.” The skew chisel is the hardest tool to master in wood turning. Capable of chiseling out fine details and planing the wood to where it doesn’t need to be sanded, skew chisels can be tough to work with and require a deft hand.
  • Bowl gouge: There are many types of bowl gouges out there, each of which cuts a different shape into the bowl you’re turning. Basic bowl gouges are often referred to as “deep fluted gouges,” while swept-back grind gouges have more of a U-shaped grind to them.

Finishing Tools

  • Scraper: Wood turning scrapers come in a variety of profiles. Used to “refine a surface,” these tools part the wood at a 90-degree angle, removing material across the work surface. Cutting tools remove large chunks of material to render a shape. Scrapers act as intermediaries before sandpaper comes in to smooth out any imperfections.
  • Parting tool: Simply put, the parting tool removes the work from a spinning lathe at a specific point. A parting tool uses a cutting edge to precisely split the work for a semi-finished result. Most importantly, the parting tool cuts most of the way while a saw finishes the job.

As always with woodworking, consider the list above a starting point, rather than a shopping list. For instance, wood turners often experiment with other tools for various effects. Just remember to practice safe behavior when manipulating wood, especially as it turns on your lathe.

Best Wood for Wood Turning

In theory, you can turn any wood on a lathe. However, there are some woods you’ll want to work with first as a beginner before you delve into wood types that require more skill and expertise. We’ve gathered a list below of the woods you’ll want to start with and included some tips whenever possible.

  • Ash: This wood is best used for high-impact applications.
  • Beech
  • Boxelder
  • Cherry
  • Ebony: Since ebony is so hard, it might be easier to finish this piece by hand rather than on the lathe.
  • Hickory
  • Maple: There are many varieties of maple, each with their own distinct grain patterns. Use linseed oil to bring out these grain patterns.
  • Mesquite
  • Padauk
  • Red Elm
  • Rosewood: A hard, dense wood, rosewood can exhibit various types of grain quality.
  • Sycamore
  • Walnut: Use a sharp tool to cut this wood, which turns best at 800-1,000 RPM.

As you work with each wood type, make notes of what speeds you used, what tools, how well the wood cut, and any other guidelines; these details will help you the next time you’re working with that particular wood or want to create a project with a specific type of wood.

A Note About Safety

It’s only common sense that, when working with large objects spinning at a high rate of speed, you should practice safe behavior. For example, this means inspecting your lathe regularly and maintaining it per the manufacturer’s guidelines. Keep your work area clean to remove any potential hazards. In addition, adequate lighting helps, along with keeping your tools sharp and stored properly when not in use. Avoid woods with knots or cracks that may catch your turning tools; alternatively, address those defects before beginning to turn your piece. Always wear eye protection and avoid loose clothing. Likewise, know that a tool or two may find its way out of your hands so be alert and focused when approaching the turning lathe. Set yourself up for success to be able to return to the lathe again for more turning fun.

Wood Turning Skills to Know

There are certain basic cuts and processes common to wood turning. For instance, each piece brings with it a new set of challenges. How will you make that shape or recreate that particular detail? You’ll learn new techniques as you continue to turn, but here are some of the basic wood turning skills you’ll want to master.

Common cuts include square, V-grooves, fillets, and coves. Each cut can be made using the tools we listed above. Moreover, these common cuts will make up the steps you need to follow when completing a project.

Striking the correct body position is key to success on the lathe. While you should make full use of the tool rest, move your body with the tool to decrease the possibility of losing your grip or allowing the machine to grab the tool from you. Cut downhill, or with the grain, to achieve maximum results. Always hold the tool with your dominant hand and guide with the other hand.

The more balanced your work becomes, the faster you can move the lathe. Another good rule of thumb is: “the wider the stock, the lower the speed.” In other words, work balance and lathe speed must sync in order to achieve the best results on a turning lathe.

Sharpen your tools. Use a bench grinder or a wet sharpener set at low speeds. Dull tools only make turning harder and can cause damage. Consequently, sharpening your tools before each lathe-turning session can increase the accuracy of your cuts and minimize errors.

These are just some of the basics you’ll want to master. Keep reading for ways to practice these concepts and implement them in your own projects. After that, it’s up to you!

Wood Turning Tips and Tricks  

Wood turning is a skill most easily improved with practice. However, you should return to this section of our article if you need to troubleshoot problems you may be running into. You may find the answer listed below:

Ready to make something on your wood turning lathe? Take a look at the projects listed in the next section for some ideas.

Beginner Wood Turning Projects

There are quite a few projects you can tackle as a beginner wood turner. For example, this Instructables page lists a number of projects, including step-by-step instructions. If you’re someone who likes to watch videos, check out the Woodworkers Guild of America’s website. They offer a library of resources; however, they require a membership for access.

A quick Google search for wood turning projects will likely return you some of the following sites, where you can create wooden spoons, Christmas decorations, bowls, bottle stoppers, goblets, and even pens, for example. If you’ve exhausted those resources, check any of the links we’ve included in the article above. There are countless ideas for what to turn on your lathe.

It’s Your Turn

In conclusion, now that you know more about wood turning and how it works, there’s no excuse. Look into what it takes to get a beginner’s wood turning lathe and start making your own projects. You never know, you may even turn it into a career one day! Happy turning!

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