Temple Blackwood

May 112023

In the lull between the frenzy of December/January holidays and the activities of the anticipated winter, the shop is relatively quiet. The backlog of architectural copy/multiple orders have all been completed and shipped; I have almost caught up with the several Christmas gift certificate lessons of 2022; and my grandson helped me give the shop its annual deep cleaning (not that that will last very long).  As a result and benefitting from the unusually mild winter thus far, I have some rare discretionary time to work on projects of my own while I build inventory for the upcoming summer season.  (In reality, Downeast/mid-coast Maine is known for only having two seasons – “off-season” of 10 months and “summer” of two months (July and August) when our population and activities swell geometrically.) 

This year, I decided to hone my basic skills by turning a series of calabash bowls waiting within several elm logs and four beautiful black ash tree logs dropped off by a friend whose conscience would not allow him to split them for firewood.  To vary my occupation, I also planned to turn a number of natural-edge hearts (Valentine’s Day is coming) by tackling a sizable pile of likely crotch blanks I had accumulated for “later.”  Now has happily become “later,” and with the calendar and a recent visit to the local pharmacy in mind, the avalanche of Valentine’s Day gifting is nearly upon us.

The popular calabash bowl distinguishes itself from a standard bowl by its smoothly rounded bottom.  The starting blank should be green (pictured in elm), should be turned to a smooth finish using only the bowl gouge (not sanded), and the sustained thickness of the thin wall should extend all the way around the rounded bottom.  The interior of the bowl should be a matched copy of the outside profile.

A more typical bowl (pictured in ash) has a flat bottom to keep it from rocking on the tabletop and might even include a foot or other profile decoration. While the interior of the bowl will be gently rounded, there is usually a thickened section of the wall where the inner side curves more severely to the inside bottom and the exterior profile of that wall extends to the flattened table-top outside bottom surface frequently with a reverse curve.

The beauty of the calabash bowls is that it is truly a “once-turned” bowl from green. As the finished wood dries, the bowl warps to an irregular shape giving each its own unique profile. Each bowl is characterized by its natural color, grain, figure, as well as its warped profile.

The skill challenge for turning calabash bowls lies in first establishing a pleasingly rounded curve from the sides through the bottom on the outside that in the second step when the blank is reversed for hollowing is accurately copied through the bottom on the inside. When the bowl is reversed to turn away the tenon required by the chuck in the final step of the process, the turner is challenged to accurately predict (imagine) where that inside curve runs as the bowl gouge carves away the tenon to complete the rounded bottom.

Like so many woodturning projects, the sensual return of handling the smooth, finished surface – using the hand’s palm to stroke the outside curve and then tracing the inside curve with the hand’s back – is enormously rewarding.  The creative insights come from studying and trying to anticipate how the drying process of only a few days will re-designed the shapes and curves of the carefully carved profile. The eventually finished dry bowl, sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle, affirms nature’s artistry well beyond the turner’s skill with the gouge.

Contrasting with the calabash bowl’s stringent tool-control and design discipline, the natural edge, heart shaped crotch pieces offer a different kind of challenge.  With these the final design begins with and is totally controlled by the selection and positioning of the blank at the beginning.  Many wood types lend themselves to making these, but oak, cherry, and maple seem to yield the most dramatic and pleasing results.  The goal is to display the clear outline of a bark-lined heart which at its center reveals the chaotic interweaving of grain where the two branches joined as the tree grew.  (Pictured – maple)

Identifying and harvesting the crotch in the woods is relatively easy, and the most desirable part is the swollen ridge of bark along the seam where the grain of the two branches converge/diverge (depending on your point of view). 

Ideally both branches should be of similar size, and the blank should be sawn on the bias before being trimmed to a rough circle for turning.

During my week of turning on my own for a few hours each day, I alternated between turning the green bowls of calabash and digging into my store of crotch/heart blanks.

Turning several bowls in the morning and several crotch/hearts in the afternoon encouraged me to explore different techniques and test the boundaries of my skills while building my inventory for the gallery and summer customers.  More importantly and beyond the simple pleasure of being free to spend the time turning, I know from experience that my sustained time practicing and experimenting with similar forms and projects leads me to a new level of performance.

Ultimately, the message I regularly offer my woodturning students as well as my readers is that focusing on each set of skills – regardless of the level of past achievement – and spending the time and effort practicing by setting new goals that replicate that rehearsal pays off in the clear gain over time.

In 1969, I vividly remember telling my (then) girlfriend (later wife) that I had decided I wanted to become “really good” at something that required skill in my life rather than hit-or-miss “pretty good” at many different kinds of things that I could see in others around me.  Fortunately, my wife and her mother, both of whom like me knew nothing about woodturning at that time, steadily encouraged and supported me from the beginning.  My adventure continues today as I happily spend hours each day working in my shop with the wood, the lathes, the tools, and a host of wonderful friends who share my passion.

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple’s Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

Oct 252022

As seems often to happen, I received an email from a stranger asking if I might be able to replicate a small a chess piece for a miniature set to replace a missing queen for his girl friend’s birthday.  Apparently the unusually small chess set was a favorite of hers that had been missing the dark queen for quite some time but fortunately still had the light queen, from which I could make a copy in black walnut.

Once I acquired the sample queen, I cut a slightly oversized walnut blank for turning.

After mounting the piece between centers, I turned a tenon, which I then used to mount the blank in a four-jaw chuck.

Using the original light queen as a story-stick, I marked the critical points.

The tricky part of this copying, especially on such a small scale, it to get the various diameters right for each of the points while balancing the physics of turning each detail on the right (tailstock) at a given diameter before committing to turn the next (left) detail.

With the bulk of the waste wood removed, copying each of the major details precisely from right (tailstock) toward left (headstock) with the detailed attention to curves, swells, and tapers that distinguish each point while maintaining the precise diameter of that aspect and its relationship to the adjacent detail creates a need for constant comparison followed by minuscule recutting until the profile is as near same as possible. 

Once the profile of that detail is suitable, it is time to move on to the next (left) detail.

When turning “multiples” of a profile as in many balusters or finials, the turner gains efficiencies through experience, muscle-memory, and the challenge of improving the process.

Turning only one or two copies of an existing item – especially in an atmosphere of something as exacting and precise as chess – presents the challenge of taking a different piece of wood and cutting it to appear to be identical, except, of course, by color.

At the end of about an hour and one-half, I achieved a close-enough replica queen.  There are some subtle differences, but when the fellow came to pick up his two queens in time for the birthday, he was delighted.

With the result of his planning, my turning, and his surprise gift for his girlfriend’s birthday.  A later email from him confirmed our success.

Oct 052022

One of my most admired local friends retired last fall from her 50 year career working for and running an amazing museum of global artifacts and colonial living history program.  Soon after retiring, she realized that there were parts of her life she did not want to leave behind.  As a result, she started up her own early morning (7:30AM) “Free Fresh Donut Tuesday” program and now finds herself and her own kitchen crowded with eager, hungry admirers each week.  Her community of followers smoothly followed her into her “retirement,” and she happily focuses on letting no visitor leave either hungry or without a brown bag of gifts for others and a cheerful dose of positive community.

Several weeks ago, when I visited to share in the rich flavors of her cooking (she regularly uses a white oak donut hook that I made for her) I realized that while I have turned many kinds of otherwise eatables – apples, pears, eggs, grapes – and in real time even potatoes to make potato-fries, I had never tried to turn a donut.  Turning to the Internet, I discovered that a number of folks had been turning donuts with some success, but all of the methods that I found seemed unnecessarily complicated.  This led me, of course, to figure out how I might simplify the process and turn up a half-dozen or so to take in a brown paper bag to my next Tuesday morning visit.

Choosing my wood from the firewood stack, I milled a small piece of black cherry scrap to a 3” cube, mounted it between centers to round, rounded it, and created a tenon.

Remounting the blank on a 4-jaw chuck using the new tenon and purposefully bringing up the tailstock to mark the out-side center creates a secure work-platform while allowing me to safely sculpt the new donut by eye and hand with the 8 mm (~3/8”) finger-nail grind spindle gouge.

As spindle-turners know, that small finger-nail ground gouge can move significant quantities of wood quickly and efficiently while leaving a smooth surface, especially when undercutting to open up the donut’s hole.

Similarly, rolling the gouge from the center to round the other side of the donut is an opportunity to round the blank fully to a realistic, mouth-watering fullness.

Working further to open up the interior hole while keeping the roundness of the profile requires a bit of patience and is critical to keeping the natural look.

Using a parting tool to open up working space, the full width of the donut is revealed and undercut as far as possible on the inside leaving a small tenon (spigot) for later remounting before parting off.

Given the already mounted blank, a second donut can be sculpted leaving another tenon formed for remounting.  Production turning is a constant search for improving efficiencies while upgrading the skills necessary to create “body” and a full diameter in the roundness of turning beads, spheres, jars, and tapers.

This time, the remounted blank can be turned nearly to finish.

With an inner shoulder scraped for remounting using the chuck’s ability to expand from the interior. 

Sanding the exterior diameter at this point is simple.

Using a straight scraper to form that inner shoulder prepares for remounting using the chuck jaws on the inside to expand for gripping which will allow the little tenon on the other side to be cut away with a final sanding to the outside diameter and finish applied (I prefer the inexpensive and satisfying shop-made friction polish of shellac, boiled linseed oil, and turpentine – 1/3 each in a closed container).

Before remounting the nearly finished donut on the chuck using the chuck jaws gripping the outside diameter (protecting the finished exterior with a layer of paper towel) to scrape through the center, sand, polish the inside on both sides, and add to the growing bowl of “fresh” multi-flavored donuts on the workbench awaiting a “trade” when delivered.

When I showed up the following Tuesday at my friend’s kitchen with my bowl of donuts, I was greeted with delight over the clear flavors of glazed cherry, chocolate, and old-fashioned.  We all agreed that these always-fresh donuts would add no pounds and would attract no ants if left sitting out.

Jul 162019

Did you know Temple Blackwood has a monthly woodturning column in Wood News? For the July issue of Wood News Online, Temple explains how he uses story sticks to reproduce a project multiple times:

My goal with this project will be to occasionally replicate this little chair without needing to have the original back and without needing a drawing – because by using a story-stick, I do not need to stop the lathe to measure and mark transitions and features.

Read the rest of Temple’s article

Read the rest of the July issue of Wood News Online

Dec 302016

Looking back at my resolutions for 2016, I happily scored high, about a B+, with my plan to stimulate my middle son with his birthday “gift of Time” to pursue time in his shop or at a workshop to learn more about his passion for tools and fabrication. Thanks to the generous support from his partner who agreed to the plan and who took on full family care and transport for the three-day event, all went extremely well. A+ for that one and hopes for a repeat this year. My youngest son was equally delighted with the gift but at this point has not defined his plan, and I may have to give it earlier in the spring to spur his creative thinking.

This year as I think about new resolutions for myself, I enter into a year of expanding my woodturning business. This requires renovating my shop to incorporate a new piece of laser equipment that relies on a dust-free environment to protect its optics. Thinking ahead about this, I have become particularly alert to the quantity of dust that rapidly accumulates, settles, and invades nearly every possible space – inside drawers, on and under every surface, all around the ceiling mounted Jet air filter, and neatly caked on the Bridgewood dust collector that is fortunately isolated in its own exterior shed addition on the shop.

The problem, as I look candidly at my typical shop rituals, is that except for days when I have woodturning students and focus on safe practices, I nearly always fail to turn on the air filter, a piece of equipment which I proudly tell others is the “best tool in the shop.” I am clearly lazy and too-frugal on my working alone days. Similarly, when by myself, I tend to make quick cuts at the bandsaw or sand turnings without turning on the big dust-collector, relying instead on a fan to blow the dust away from me, and I too often skip grabbing my clumsy 20-year-old green air-filtered face shield in favor of the lighter and more convenient Bionic Face Shield. I do know better. I teach others better. This year seems time for me to practice what I preach!

My resolutions for 2017 include continuing my “gift of Time” to my sons working for a self-award of A+ this year. With focus on my shop, I resolve to actually use and enhance the safe-practices dust management systems to improve the air quality in my shop as well as to provide clean, dust-free air within the new clean-room space.

One of the new practices I plan is to mount an additional air filter that will blow filtered air into the new clean space and provide a slight positive out-pressure from that space to reduce the possibility of dust invasion. By wiring both the old Jet collector and my new Rikon air filtration system into a lighting circuit, I will be sure to power them up and down with the shop lights.

Another device to defeat my innately too-casual practices is to add an i-Socket Auto-start switch to my shop-vac and discipline myself to move it more readily into positions by the planer, router table, and compound miter saw where it can make the one-switch-fits-all improvement to those dust-generators.

Finally, I have looked thoughtfully at the new Trend Airshield Pro but thus far have been too tight to spring for replacing my old helmet. I understand that I have not been using it because it is too clunky and awkward to manage, but it is time to retire it and move into the current light-weight, long battery life, improved modern solution. This item actually has the same draw-back that all of the other shields present to woodturners who demonstrate and teach – the user cannot talk through the shield. While I do not need a full sound-system of lavalier mike, amplifier, and speakers to communicate with the two or three students in my shop or the “crowd” of six or eight people who might be watching my summer living history demonstrations at the Wilson Museum, I would encourage some creative sound genius to figure out how to incorporate a Bluetooth microphone into one of these helmets that could broadcast to a Bluetooth speaker (my technological ignorance continues to blossom!) Many of us would be delighted purchasers.

Now the only thing left is to actually implement these great plans and use the technology to clean up my shop air and lungs. Resolutions are for setting beneficial goals; the test is in generating the action to achieve them. In my experience, the way to do this is to make it easy, comfortable, and desirable in the daily application.

Check in next January to see how I grade myself.

Nov 252016

With the holiday season approaching far too rapidly to be able to accomplish all the gifts I thought I would have time to make for family, friends, and good customers, I settle in on a rainy afternoon to give some thought to what I might like to receive as a gift, the creation of my “wish list.”

1I am among the fortunate. My shop is over-equipped with all sorts of tools that are focused on woodturning as well as several antique hand-tools and the more generalized contractors’ tools that every shop collects. Not only did one of my sons make major contributions (see blog “Resolutions for 2016”), I have been guilty of pursuing the philosophy of “wait until you see what I can do when I buy my next tool!”

Most of my accumulation are well-loved legacy tools from the busy shops of my grandfather, father, our family farm, my father-in-law, an uncle-in-law, a brother-in-law, and two older friends with whom I shared a project or two and the passion for design/build years ago. Some of the tools even came from two of my sons, cast-off tools they no longer need or already replaced with a must-have newer model. Many others came from the irresistible “bargain-shelf” marked-down jumble of inexpensive tools that my father or others were unable to pass by without purchasing on their way to the cash register with the item they originally went in to buy.

One of my favorite antique treasures is my father’s first ¼” electric drill from either the late 40’s or early 50’s which survives in working order with its complete kit of honing wheel, stand, and an assortment of accessories.



Others of my legacy tools — a working 1940’s 10” bandsaw from Homecraft, a reciprocating cast-iron jigsaw, and many assorted chisels, planes, saws, and scribes – all deserve better than the metal shelving storage in the dark back corner of the shop where I keep them – just in case.



Using these older tools has the benefit of reminding me of their original owners, and occasionally they have just the right feature for a special job, reinvigorating their value. But the reality is that they take up a great deal of space, have worn electric cords and ancient heavy motors, work inefficiently, and have long ago earned a more dignified retirement. Like the ever-growing pile of “valuable” future turning blanks (the logs out in front of my shop) that I am destined to leave as part of my legacy one day, the assortment of old tools needs to be addressed.

One way I decided to address these is to build a wish list of the selected tools that I have the greatest use of and replace them with new, modern, precise, and fully functional upgrades. For example, I have an old set of Milwaukee drill/drivers from the mid-1990’s that my son gave me when the first set of batteries wore out. I replaced those clunky and expensive batteries twice (amazing), and they now need to be charged frequently.

The new Festool PDC 18/4 Quadrive Cordless Drill, perhaps even the Set, looks like it might be just the step in the right direction. It is lighter, stronger, more versatile, and has the new batteries that will last longer than I am likely to work in a day. I will put that high on the list because that is a universally desirable tool for many different applications.

Given the steady dimming light of my aging eyes, the Magnetic Flexible Arm LED Work Light adds just the right note to my list. I am forever adjusting and adding clamp-on lights to whatever I am working on, and moving into the LED age offers many benefits – more light, less power, greater life.

Although I already run a large Bridgewood dust collector in the shop (as a woodturner I have far more chips than dust) and a standard aging Jet ceiling filtration unit that I purchased in the late 1990’s, I am far more aware today of the dangers of accumulated dust throughout the shop and the challenge it poses to health and safety. Adding a second Air Filtration Unit would make a great deal of sense, particularly given my regular parade of students in the shop and my own seven-day week there.

Another old technology, from about 1994 if I recall correctly, is my old-model airshield face- protection, the one that had built-in triangular rechargeable batteries that are no longer available and no longer recharge. Because it was inefficient and battery life short-lived, I have used it in the past ten or so years. On one recent cedar porch-post turning job, I struggled with filtered facemasks, steamed-up glasses, and frustration. The newer Trend Airshield Pro would appear to be a prudent and valuable addition to my list that I can resolve to use.

One tool that might be just for fun extremely helpful is the Air-Filled Cushion Contour Sander with sleeve assortments. I end up doing a great deal of repair sanding to various jobs, and from what I have read it fills a need.

6One other tool, often overlooked, that I do not need to put on my list is my primary workbench, an antique relic that my grandmother gave my grandfather in kit form as a wedding gift (did I ever tell you what a wonderfully insightful woman she was?). Pictured here, I use it regularly every day and appreciate its sturdy versatility and value. Ironically I inherited another identical one from my father-in-law that my oldest son spirited away to his loft shop at Brooklin Boatyard. Other than having to put it up on wheeled blocks to raise it to a more convenient height for my taller use, this bench has been through it all, and I plan to make special mention of it in my will for my grandson. The new high-quality benches are terrific, but I am not wooed from my old favorite in this case.

Good tools with lasting value make a difference. In a world where too many things are used and discarded too easily, committing to buying the best of tools, like the best of materials, is the secret to demanding the best from yourself in your work. Life it far too short to use inferior tools or materials.

Oct 252016

Generating gifts for others on special occasions and holidays can be a challenge that offers endless opportunities for creativity and imagination while adding a tension of uncertainty that comes from trying to guess what will delight someone else on a specific occasion, particularly if you wish to make it. While I prefer to make gifts rather than purchase them (the Scot in me, perhaps), I also enjoy the process of thinking about what a recipient might like or need and typically hope to add an element of surprise and delight.

Three of the people who are close to me present a particularly significant challenge because when I miss the mark, I can see that my gift is headed for the back shelf, re-gift drawer, or worse – a painful experience that I work hard to avoid. When I hit the mark with these folks, the gifting is particularly rewarding.

One gifting effort that has been successful for me over the years is to make a puzzle or game to give as a gift. Doing this solves both the gifting desire while inviting others to either play the game or in the case of a puzzle to compete or contribute in attempts to solve it. When the recipient unwraps one of these gifts, there is a clear invitation to others to join in and play.

Games as Gifts

1-puzzleIn October 2015, Highland Woodturner published my directions to make the fascinating Ring ‘n String turned puzzle (Issue #55). This delightful puzzle offers a significant challenge to many people, satisfaction to those who master its easy solution, and an opportunity for the turner to choose design and wood that make it a beautiful piece of artistic display. I will also rate it high as a woodturning skill-builder for the variety of spindle techniques and tools.

2-cornholegiftAnother favorite gift-game that allows a broader sense of creativity and group fun is “Corn Hole” – popular especially with my sons and grandchildren. The photo at left is of a wedding gift set that my oldest son recently made for his friends Tanya and Steve, and it was well-used at their recent all-day field/tent based wedding reception.

How to build a Cornhole Set

3-yardzeeA similarly enjoyable and party-playable group yard game is “Yardzee,” a large-scale adaptation of the famous Yahtzee, a complex game of five dice that adds an element of strategy, tactics, and scoring similar to card games like poker and canasta.

There are several excellent sources on-line for making a set for Yardzee that include printable templates for setting the dice holes and printing the graphics and scorecards.

Rules for Yahtzee

How to build a Yardzee set

Not everyone is right for a puzzle or game gift, and because I am quite dedicated to woodturning, I have explored a wide variety of gifts over the years that seem to be gifts that people value and keep, my own criteria of success.

More practical gifts

4-candlesticksBlending beauty in color, texture, shape, and form with an utilitarian Osolnik design candlesticks, an admirably beautiful gift, challenges the many woodturners who struggle with the magic skew chisel. In stepped collections of three, five, or seven candlesticks of a naturally beautiful wood like black cherry, walnut, ash, or locust, this gift is a sure winner with every hostess and decorator because of the unique beauty of the wood used, the variety of arrangements that can be created with these as a core element, and the opportunity to match the wood with a limitless assortment of flavors and colors of wax candles.

A similarly useful and potentially beautiful gift is a turned lidded box. Over the years, I have turned boxes for people in my life who have a treasured possession to care for, for a beautiful piece of wood/art that they can admire and use for different purposes, and once in a while to contain a letter, symbol, or gift certificate additional gift that was late being completed, too large to put in a box to wrap, and once for a wife’s surprise new-car key!

5-boxes 5-boxes1

The best part of these types of gifts is that they give many times – naturally at the time the gift is made, but also at the giver’s inspiration and personal reward designing, making, polishing, and anticipating the act of giving.

6-bowlAnother rewarding gift, reliable, useful, and potentially lovely is the gift of a hand-turned salad bowl of white ash. Like the earlier gift choices, this gift allows the turner to meditate on the recipient during the design and execution phase, anticipation during the drying and finishing phase, and deep shared pleasure when the gift is delivered and then put to use at a family or community meal.

7-gobletandmugLast summer, my middle son asked me to make his friends a wedding present of a beer stein and wine goblet, which I did from some local apple wood I had on hand. This type of gift, like the other useful gifts that bring the warmth of wood to the deeper relationship of people, gives multiple times. While I do not know his friends, I do know he would only ask me to do so for special friends in his life. I was honored that he asked me to join their relationship that way, and perhaps at some point I will meet the newly joined couple. The task (fastening the handle was my challenge) was worthy, and I copied a pewter beer mug given to me by my father on my 21st birthday to make the beer mug look authentic. Somehow that seemed a significant recognition of this couple’s special anniversary day and my part in providing it.

But all of this aside, I believe I am naturally biased toward gift giving (creation) above gift receiving. In this blog last December, I shared my most treasured gift, the “gift of time” in a blog entry called “Resolutions” which I will invite you to read and reflect upon.

That gift succeeded with unexpected benefits and partners. I do, in fact, know what to gift more specifically this year as a follow-up and have already begun my preparations.