May 112023
 
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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/

Dec 212022
 
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In a recent Turning the Corner column, writer and woodturner Temple Blackwood detailed the turning process for creating a mouthpiece for a Hardy Tinfoil Phonograph. The process Temple used for turning the replicas was interesting enough to stand alone as its own article, but we had even more questions when we were done about the machinery the mouthpiece was used on. See below for more information about the Hardy Tinfoil Phonograph, sent in by Temple’s client, Lee from Virginia. Thank you Lee for the follow up!

“The Tinfoil Phonograph that I have is a “Hardy”. I have included below a page from “Tinfoil Phonographs” by Rene Rondeau who is the world expert on this subject. The example I have is a reproduction commissioned by the late Ray Phillips who was a big phonograph collector.

Click the image above to enlarge

You can find some interesting footage on YouTube of the Ray Phillips Hardy Tinfoil Phonograph (the one featured in the woodturning column). And I am including a few more photos below.

I also made a Tinfoil Phonograph out of junk about eleven years ago, that you can also see on YouTube. I have learned a lot since making this crude device.”

Oct 272022
 
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Our contributor and prolific woodturner Temple Blackwood is being featured in a very cool online gallery, courtesy of the Witherle Memorial Library in his hometown of Castine, Maine. Take a look and prepare to be inspired!

Oct 252022
 
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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
 
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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.

Aug 022022
 
Hot Time, Summer in the Shop
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It’s getting hot in here! This is the first summer I have spent significant time woodworking. I work in a garage without any kind of environmental controls beyond raising and lowering the garage door or cracking a window. What I have learned quickly is that it gets really hot, really fast! I thought surely there […]

Apr 062022
 
Turning the Corner: Segmented Porch Post Column Base
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For the February 2022 issue of Wood News Online, Temple Blackwood shared his process for turning a replacement porch post column. One of my regular contractor customers came by some time ago with an interesting problem that he decided I would be the perfect person to help him with. An elderly customer of his had […]