14 Ways To Avoid Grain Tear Out With Wood Bowl

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Prevention

How can I avoid grain tear out on a wood bowl and get a good smooth final surface?

Wood bowl grain tear out can be frustrating. There are many ways to address this issue including using sharp tools, cutting with the supported grain, speeding up the lathe, changing angles, and even treating the surface.

This article will cover, in detail, numerous approaches to solving the wood bowl grain tear out problems that might be plaguing you.

What Is Grain Tear Out?

When we turn a side-grain wood bowl, we are basically turning a bundle of linear wood fibers, kind of like a block of straws. These “straws” run across the surface of the wood bowl blank.

With each rotation of the lathe, the end-grain or ends of these “straws” will pass by twice, once for each end of the tubes. These tube or fiber ends are known as end-grain.

It is this end-grain that can rip, snap, or simply break off and that creates grain tear out.

Typically, side-grain or the longer parts of the wood fibers cut smoothly and don’t bend or break as quickly as the end-grain.

wood grain tear out straw example

The Problem Lies Deeper

When grain tear out occurs, at first glance, it may appear to be only a few small pock marks in the wood bowl surface.

The first thought might be, “perhaps a little sanding can fix the problem?” Not quite, these pits are more than they appear.

With closer inspection, the damage is revealed. The end-grains have been broken, snapped off and jostled around. The pockmarks are gaps or holes where some end-grain fibers have been ripped out completely.

To fix and level the surface, clean cuts must be made down to the deepest areas of these voids. I’ve seen these be as much as one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch deep in some cases.

Until all of the grain tear out area is removed with precise cuts, the tear out will remain, and sanding will do very little to remedy the problem.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Detail Closeup

My Grain Tear Out Story

When I first started turning, I was lucky you might say. At the time I had no idea, and I guess the fortunate thing was I didn’t know I was lucky.

Grain Tear Out Pecan Branch

Let me explain.

I love wood and woodworking. It was only natural that a friend of a friend’s Facebook plea for help with a fallen limb came to my attention.

The branch fell in the night and barely missed the edge of their home. Aged, dead, and rotting, the wood still had to be good for something, I thought.

I didn’t see the wood as dead and rotting, I saw spalted pecan! It didn’t matter that I’d never worked with this type of wood before, I knew it had to be good.

The idea of milling it into boards vanished when it became apparent we had no way to haul the massive sections out of the tiny fenced backyard. Logs it was. So we bucked the limb down to manageable chunks and loaded it on my trailer.

It was a good thing I got that wood when I did. Numerous neighbors stopped by and were eager to use the essence of that beautiful pecan to smoke various animal carcasses. That still makes me shake my head.

Grain Tear Out Pecan Load Wood

The logs were stacked in a dry place and sat to wait for their fate. This was about the time I decided to join the local turning group.

Hey! I have my own wood, I’ll bring that and turn it into bowls.
So, I did just that. Log after log produced bowl after bowl.

What I didn’t know, because I hadn’t turned any other type of wood, was that pecan is notoriously punky and problematic for producing grain tear out.

Ignorance Is Bliss

I turned and turned, or instead, ripped and ripped that pecan over and over. Everyone and their brother at the turning group gave me tips and advice on how to lessen the grain tear out.

Luckily, nobody said, “turn a different wood.”

Being a newbie, I thought that the rough surface was just because of my inexperience. How was I to know? LOL

Slowly over time, my bowls got smoother, and the grain tear out diminished. I learned to use a variety of techniques to tackle trouble areas.

It wasn’t until my pecan stash was almost depleted that I turned a different type of timber.

One day, with a sycamore bowl blank, mounted and a few rotations of the lathe I stopped, and my mouth dropped open. The sycamore cut like a bar of soap.

Oh. My. Goodness. Why had I been turning that rough punky pecan all this time?

Well, I’ll tell you what, it was pure luck that I turned that pecan first. I was lucky enough to get the best possible lessons for how to deal with grain tear out first and foremost.

101 WoodBowl Turning Tips Display

Looking back, I’m so glad it worked out that I acquired that beautiful, yet challenging to turn wood first before turning an easier wood.

I learned so much more than I would have imagined from those persnickety pecan fibers. Now, let me share my knowledge with you.

14 Ways To Avoid Wood Bowl Grain Tear Out

1. Start with a sharp bowl gouge

A sharp bowl gouge might seem obvious, but it is the single most significant factor in reducing grain tear out.

Imagine the end grain fibers like little hairs. If those hair get hit with a dull bowl gouge edge, they will fall over and bend. Instead, we need to shave the wood fibers, much like using a razor.

Return a sharp edge to your bowl gouge as frequently as possible. And remember, if you’re wondering if you need to sharpen, the answer is YES and now.

For details about sharpening a wood bowl gouge, see my bowl gouge sharpening article for more information.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Sharpen Bowl Gouge

2. Supported wood grain

Cutting “with the grain” is a confusing statement, as I detail in the article about making supported grain cuts.

After sharpening the bowl gouge, nothing contributes to the reduction of grain tear out more than cutting in the proper direction with supported cuts.

This technique is so important that my article about Supported Grain Bowl Gouge Cuts really needs to be the next article you read if you haven’t read it yet.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Supported Push Cut

3. Use Traditional Grind Bowl Gouge

The fingernail grind is the bowl gouge grind I prefer for most of my turning purposes.

However, with that being said, a more traditional standard grind offers better results when confronting problematic end-grain.

I can’t tell you why for sure, but it just works better. Perhaps it’s the steeper bevel angle or more bevel surface.

Whatever the reason, a traditional grind bowl gouge is excellent for making the final few passes, especially on the bowl interior.

Here is an article specifically about the angles of the bowl gouge bevel, it’s an important read.

4. Fine tune the curves with a negative rake scraper.

Aggressive scraping, in general, is not a great idea when dealing with grain tear out.

However, fine-tuning areas with tool marks or hills and valleys can be accomplished with light focused passes of a sharp negative rack scraper.

Another great option is to use a round nose scraper and “cut” instead of scrap the surface. Here is the link to all the details about cutting with a round nose scraper.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Negative Rake Scraper

5. Increase the lathe rotation speed as needed but within reason.

You might think that 300 to 500 r.p.m. is super fast, but I’m always amazed how I can feel the bowl gouge dipping in and out of tool mark grooves at these “slower” speeds.

Turning up the lathe speed makes it more difficult for the tool to repeat bad behaviors and instead it will start to create new clean cuts.

In general, I never turn faster than 1,000 r.p.m. and much slower than that for pieces larger than 12 inches in diameter.

There is a lot to know about the lathe speed, read this article next that covers this issue.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Lathe Speed Up

6. Slow down the tool speed

Think about drawing a sharp knife across a sheet of paper. If the blade is pulled slow and steady, it will make a smooth cut. If the same knife is rapidly pulled through the paper, tears will most likely form.

Moving the bowl gouge through the wood fibers is very similar. Take your time and let the sharp bowl gouge edge make a smooth cut.

Quickly forcing the bowl gouge across the surface will usually result in grain tear out.

7. Make lighter deliberate cuts

Heavy, aggressive cuts usually result in grain tear out. Be deliberate and make more controlled less deep cuts.

The depth of each cut is not what is essential when dealing with grain tear out. We are most interested in clean-cut fibers with each pass.

Several clean cutting passes are much more valuable than a single deep, damaging pass.

Lighter, slower cuts are the hallmark of making great finishing cuts. Want to learn all about finishing cuts? Read this article next.

8. Stay on the bevel.

Riding that bevel is critical. So critical that I have an article solely devoted to understanding and learning to ride the bowl gouge bevel.

If the bowl gouge tip is not supported by the gouge bevel, tool marks and torn grain are sure to form. Think of the bevel as the guide that controls the cutting edge of the bowl gouge.

9. Angle the cutting edge

When cutting with either a bowl gouge or negative rake scraper, angle the tool cutting edge to reduce force. Experiment with subtly different angles.

By angling the tool edge, the sheer force of the metal to the wood is reduced, and a cleaner cut occurs.

Think of an old-school paper cutter. The blade drops down at an angle and makes a clean cut. If that same blade were lowered parallel to the table surface, the paper would probably fold and rip. This also happens to the wood fiber ends.

The angled cut is especially important when using a negative rake scraper. A more gentle and cleaner cut is made, rather than the scraper meeting the bowl surface at a flat 90-degree angle.

This technique is described further in my round nose scraper article, check it out.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Angle Scraping Cut

10. Shear Scrape

Shear scraping is a bowl gouge technique that feels foreign and odd at first but is incredibly valuable for creating a smooth finish.

Incorporating the gentle approach of a steep cutting angle as described above, this bowl gouge finishing technique can produce results that rival beautifully sanded finishes.

Shear scraping can cleanly cut the wood bowl end grain while eliminating grain tear out.

I encourage you to learn more about shear scraping by reading this article about perfecting the bowl gouge shear scraping cut.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Shear Scrape Gouge Technique

11. Wet the fibers

Occasionally, depending on the species and age of the wood bowl blank, wetting the surface can help to raise fibers.

Like little limb hairs, some wood end grains need a boost to position them for a clean cut. Wetting the wood surface can raise fibers and allow the sharp bowl gouge to make a clean pass.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Mist Water Trick

12. Shellac

When I worked with the problematic punky pecan I mentioned above, I’d often run into areas that were soft and spongy.

No matter what I did to try to achieve clean cuts, there always seemed to be areas that tore and ripped out.

At this point, if no other tips are working, try applying a layer of shellac to the whole bowl or just the trouble areas.

I mix my own shellac using shellac flakes and denatured alcohol. Mixing your own shellac is far better than any “shellac” product in the store.

The shellac will harden the soft, loose fibers and present them better to the sharp bowl gouge. When the cuts are made, instead of falling over or breaking off, the wood fibers stand tall and are cut clean.

Want to know all the steps for making the best shellac available, read this next.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Shellac Prep

13. CA trouble areas

Just like the shellac technique above, CA can be used in specific areas to solidify the wood fibers and make them easier to cut.

CA works great for particular issue areas like knots or bark inclusion areas.

Although CA can be used on the whole bowl surface, I find shellac is better for that purpose.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl CA Application Technique

14. Specific sanding

Sand any trouble areas still remaining with focused attention. Do not sand with the lathe on as this will only increase any tool mark hills and valleys. Instead, find the trouble area, usually along the end grain, and sand with the grain to remove any tell-tale marks.

Sanding by combining lathe rotation and detailed with-the-grain sanding (lathe off) is the ideal way to achieve a smooth final finish on your wood bowls. I have an article all about how I sand my wood bowls. Check it out.

Wood Grain Tear Out Sanding Direction


Grain tear out can be discouraging, but with persistence and patience grain tear out can be a thing of the past.

Take your time and experiment with one or a combination of the above tips to eliminate the tear out on your wood turned bowl.

Grain Tear Out Wood Bowl Technique

And if all else fails, try turning a more forgiving wood. Ha!

On the other hand, if you really want to learn (or torture yourself) find some old ratty and punky pecan (or similar wood) to turn. The resulting bowls can be beautiful if you don’t make yourself crazy in the process of overcoming all the grain tear out issues. 🙂

Check out these other important articles as well:

Happy Turning,

24 Responses

  1. Thank you for the ideas!
    Just applied shellac to a piece I was having difficulty with, but was very impressed with the idea, and the simple logic behind it, happy turning to you!!!

    1. Bruce,
      Thank you for writing and sharing!
      You’re very welcome! I’m so glad the shellac trick worked for you.
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

    2. As a new turner just a month into it, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your articles and videos. I have much to learn but you are helping so much. A question, I’ve been trying to turn tea candle holders out of squared sections of kiln dried 2×4’s which are cheap plain wood but the results can be elegant. I’m having big problems with end grain tearout around the corners as I try to round the top of them into a graceful curve to the bottom corners. Any suggestions specific for this situation and wood? Thank you again.

  2. Great article. I have a piece of Cherry crotch that has some punky areas. I used the techniques you mentioned above(and seen you demo on your YouTube channel) yet still ended up with a couple ares where a 3mm splinter sized indentation. It is too beautiful to throw, besides colored resin or epoxy do you have other ideas for smoothing it out? BTW, it is already about 3/16” thick so don’t want to risk taking a tool to it.

    1. Ron,

      Thank you for writing and sharing! Well, it sounds like a filler and some sanding might be needed. You could use a wood filler or epoxy.

      Be sure your bowl gouge cuts are very light and thin on the last few passes to help avoid any tearouts.

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  3. Kent
    I just mixed my first batch of shellac. i turn green and wonder if the end grain stiffening works wet and how long do I need to wait for the shellac to dry as my green wood moves out of round.

    Also I am in the art supply business and when hearing of your use of Black Indian ink with a shellac binder wondered if you knew about Windsor Newton Drawing Inks. They have a complete palette of colors that are all shellac based. However they are dye based and not 100% lightfast. A good UV final finish will slow fading.
    White, Black and Gold are lightfast.

    1. Keith,
      Thank you for writing and sharing!
      Green wood should be turning smoothly for you and shouldn’t really need shellac on the end-grain. Stiffening the end-grain is really for dry wood that is brittle and the end tips are weak.
      I’ll check out the inks you mentioned. Sounds pretty nice. Thanks.
      Happy Turning!

  4. Hey Kent, I bought a larger lathe to be able to turn larger than the 5 inch bowls and cups I have turned. Starting with the new lathe I used the same higher speeds. 875 to start and up to 1200 to shape etc.

    Boy am I glad I saw you’re video on lathe speed. My new lathe has 3 variable speed ranges. I’m now working exclusively between 250 to 800 rpm. And a having much better success.

    Thank you for the help.

    1. Harry,

      I’m so glad you found this and you’re seeing good results.

      Happy Turning,

  5. Hi Kent,
    I came across one of your very helpful videos yesterday and will watch more in the coming days.
    I’m not totally new to the wood lathe and owned a very basic machine for many years but I used it mostly to turn a few spindles from time to time. I wasn’t great at it but it satisfied my purposes at the time. However a couple of weeks ago I splurged and replaced my “Lada” with a “BMW” and got started with a bowl turning hobby. Having watched a few experts making the entire process look effortless.
    In with both feet and my confidence was dashed almost right away. I actually bent(twice) my gouge that I bought years ago to accompany my original machine. I was getting quite intimidated by this much more powerful machine. I bought what I think is a very good bowl gouge but at this time progress is slow. I’m getting the hang of riding the bevel on the side grain but the end grain is quite a challenge for me. I have learned how to sharpen the gouge so I don’t think that is the issue.
    I noticed in the video yesterday that when you started to dig out the inside of the bowl you just confidently presented the tool and off you went. I’m wondering if you have a video/YouTube that goes into more detail about how to master this skill. I’m finding it quite difficult.
    I do eventually hope to join a wood turners club in the area at some point but because of the current situation all these activities are suspended.
    Keep up the good work, you have a very pleasant style of presentation….Best
    Charlie, Newtonville, Ontario

  6. Putting over these ideas and techniques is an art, too – congratulations!
    I will tackle tear-out with renewed confidence now.
    Yorkshire, UK

    1. Roger,

      Thank you for writing and your kind words!

      Tear-out beware, Roger is ready for you now!!! 😉

      Happy Turning,

  7. Thanks for the excellent article. Off to research Negative Rake Scrapers next…

  8. great advice,will save me a lot of time and frustration.
    really appreciate your tips.
    thank you.

  9. Great article! Will use the tips. End grain drives me crazy. I use carbide tools and try shearing at an angle.

    1. Jay,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Also, try turning a bit faster, but not too fast and slow down the pace of your cut. Let me know if that also helps reduce the tear out.

      Happy Turning,

  10. Hello Kent,
    Thank you for your comments regarding end-grain fun.. The turning methods you mentioned are spot on especially the comment about the traditional gouge grind and riding the bevel. I’ve done that for many years and I believe that it’s due to the angle of attack, which provides better control and a lesser aggressive cut. What I was especially excited to read was the wood treatment for punky wood. Thanks again Kent

    Dan Webster

    Ottawa Ontario

    1. Thanks, Dan! Yes, if those loose ends don’t cooperate, treating them is a great solution. Happy turning!

  11. Great information. I have discovered several of your techniques…but just as many were news to me—Which is GREAT!!

    Thanks for your well written and professional approach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Search Here
Kent Weakley-Turn A Wood Bowl-About
Hi, I’m Kent

Hi! I’m Kent, a husband, dad, papa, graphic designer, photographer, artist, traveler, birder, dark chocolate lover and I’m addicted to turning wood bowls! Learn more about me, see the online courses I made for you, and join our group on Facebook. Ready for your wood bowl adventure? Click here to Get Started

Turn A Wood Bowl is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.