I know woodturning safety practices while turning a wood bowl isn’t that exciting of a topic, but it is an important series of habits to acquire while turning wood bowls.
Here I’ll share 17 of the best woodturning safety practices while turning a wood bowl. Some practices are obvious and others more obscure. Many of these practices come first hand from experience, and others come from messing up.
A big takeaway is to remember from your experiences. If something not so great occurs and you’re not quite sure what happened, take the time to figure it out. Only then will you have the skills and knowledge to avoid a particular problem from happening a second time while turning a bowl in the future.
The environment in which you turn bowls is critically important to your safety. The area, especially around your wood lathe, needs to be clear and free of debris, tools, and any obstacles. Power cords present a hazard when they are directly underfoot. I try to keep my power cords on the backside of the lathe out of my immediate contact.
Wood shavings start to build up and can become a hazard. My woodturning mentor has a philosophy that a thin layer of shavings on the ground is a good thing, a safe thing. His thinking is that it provides a cushion for dropped tools and eases leg pain from standing directly on concrete.
Having dropped with a gasping inhale my expensive four-jaw chuck once, watching it make a soft puff in a pile of shavings, I can say this approach helps a bit.
However, I’ve also dropped numerous small objects like screws and hex wrenches only to have them disappear entirely. I have used a handheld magnetic strip on a handle to run over the shavings and relocate many of those dropped objects.
The jury is still out on shavings or no shavings. Personally, I allow the shavings to build up, sweeping them to the side and away from where I stand, and then scoop them up once the pile gets too large.
I also have a simple cushioned anti-fatigue mat on the floor where I stand while turning bowls and it helps make my lathe turning time very comfortable. At a minimum, the anti-fatigue mat prevents my legs from feeling sore after a full day of turning. And the mat is easy to lift as I whisk dust away from my immediate work area.
As for those shavings, it is essential to do a thorough sweeping after collecting the big shavings, because the fine dry dust left behind is what makes it all the way to the floor. That powder can be quite slippery on a smooth floor. Also, it’s a great idea to wear a good quality respirator with corresponding dust filters while scooping shavings and sweeping the floor.
Anytime you are near the lathe, whether it is on or off, it’s a great habit to be wearing safety gear. The essential woodturning safety equipment includes safety glasses, full face shield, protective hand and footwear, respirator and an efficient air filtration system.
Read my article about wood bowl turning safety equipment for all the details of what I use and recommend for safely turning wood bowls.
The lathe rotates at very fast speeds. We obviously need to keep anything and everything out of the way of the turning wood bowl blank and any moving parts as we work. From head to toe, there should be nothing long and loose that has the potential to get wound in the lathe.
Long hair needs to be tied back and out of the way. Remove all jewelry when turning bowls. Long-sleeved clothing is discouraged, as well as loose-fitting clothing. As for dress, other than short or tightly rolled-up sleeves, which is a must, whatever is comfortable is fine. You’ll find shavings cling more to some clothing than others.
It’s good to be aware of the fact that some people have reactions to certain wood species. Reactions occur from breathing the dust and skin contact with the wood. In these cases, it may be wise to cover skin as well as possible or even avoid those species of timber that cause a reaction.
Be sure to have plenty of good light at the lathe. An adjustable light or two is essential to illuminate the direct work area. An excellent movable light, angled from the side, helps to clarify high and low spots on a bowl surface. Use an adjustable light such as this one to thoroughly illuminate your lathe.
The state of your physical being is as important or more important than everything mechanical. If you aren’t feeling great, are tired, fatigued, or under the influence of alcohol or other substances, it’s best to save the turning for another day.
Give yourself a break and don’t push through a physical state that may be impairing your judgment and motor skills. It can be challenging to self diagnose impairment, as we are usually the last to admit we should step back. Minor errors, such as catches that don’t typically occur, can be an early indicator that it may be time for a break.
Woodturning Safety At the Lathe
Before we can begin to turn, we need to make sure the area around the lathe is clear and ready. Any extra tools and materials should be off and away from the machine.
Many lathes have tool holders for chuck keys, hex wrenches, and accessories. These are all fine to use, merely seat any free tools in their given location so they will not quickly come loose.
Move the tool rest, banjo, and tailstock entirely out of the way and be sure the power is turned off and the lathe speed is set to the lowest setting before introducing a wood bowl blank to the lathe.
If you decide to mount the bowl blank to a faceplate, use high-quality wood screws and not drywall screws. Drywall screws are much thinner and made cheaply compared to wood screws and can snap off under the high torque while turning.
Also, be sure the screws are long enough to firmly hold the bowl blank, but not too long to interfere with your intended bowl shape. And be certain the screws seat completely on the faceplate surface.
Once your bowl blank has been prepared and ready, it’s time to bring it to the lathe. If you’re using a faceplate or four-jaw chuck, be sure the back side of the faceplate or chuck is seated snugly against the headstock and none of the headstock spindle threads are left visible.
This seating on the shoulder on the headstock spindle is as essential as the seating on a tenon shoulder on the face of the jaws of a chuck. If the faceplate or chuck does not seat against the headstock spindle shoulder, it will not turn true.
If for some reason the faceplate or chuck simply is too short to be fully threaded, a spacer washer is necessary. Again this must fill the entire gap and allow the mount to sit snuggly.
With the power off, rotate the bowl blank by hand and watch to see if it quickly settles to one side. If this does occur, it may mean the bowl is off-center too far.
Standing clear, turn the lathe on and slowly bring the speed up. If there is a dramatic vibration at slow speeds, recheck the centering of the faceplate or chuck. If the piece you’re working on is off-center by design, know that you will have to turn the bowl at a much slower speed because of this imbalance.
If everything seems relatively balanced, the rule of thumb for turning speed is to slowly increase the lathe speed until the bowl blank begins to vibrate, then gradually reduce the rate until the wood is turning smoothly again. As you true up the shape and the blank becomes more balanced, the speed can slowly be increased, which will make for smoother, cleaner cuts.
Spur Chuck Mount
If you’re using a spur chuck to mount your bowl blank, be sure to drive it into place on the blank before introducing the blank to the lathe. Do this with a rubber mallet to prevent mushrooming the bottom of the spur chuck.
Once the blank and spur chuck are mounted to the headstock, bring the tailstock into place and make sure to lock the tailstock tightly to the lathe bed. Continue tightening the tailstock as you work, because the spur chuck will loosen during turning.
Obviously, the tailstock needs to be used if you’re mounting the bowl blanks with a spur chuck. However, remember the tailstock will also give you extra support and safety when incorporated with a faceplate or four-jaw chuck mounted bowl blank.
It may be awkward in particular cutting tool positions, but the added security can be a great tradeoff, especially if the blank is stubbornly unbalanced for whatever reason.
Never use a dead center on the tailstock. A dead center does not rotate and cause the wood to burn and wear out the contact area.
Once the blank is mounted and ready, bring the banjo and tool rest into place. With the lathe off, turn the headstock hand knob and rotate the piece thoroughly several times to make sure no part of the bowl blank will directly contact the tool rest, banjo, or any other part of the lathe.
Each cut that is made while turning a wood bowl needs to be thought out a bit in advance. When you first start this is a good practice to begin that will quickly become second nature.
I usually start by turning and shaping the bottom of the bowl from the tailstock side. While I’m doing these cuts, I do not stand in front of the lathe in the path of rotation. I have had tenons fail, sending bowls to the floor and bark flying off.
From the side of the tailstock, I usually have a good position to view the action as a spectator without being contacted by any of the follies.
Occasionally, I need to work the top edge of the bowl. And when this is necessary I will shift my position to be on the headstock side of the turning bowl.
Even if I’m making a leveling cut across the bottom of the turning bowl blank, I will position the majority of my body to the left, or headstock side since I’m right-handed, so only my arms and hands are in front of the rotating piece.
If your lathe has a movable or portable power control switch, move it to the side or area where you will be standing and turning. Bring it to the tailstock side if you’re turning there and bring it with you if you move to the headstock side. It needs to be in an area that is easily accessible without crossing the path of the turning bowl blank.
If the lathe does not have this feature and the switch requires reaching over the turning wood to access, consider stepping back from the lathe and making a wider path to the switch in the event something goes wrong.
The tool rest needs to be as close to the turning blank as the tool needs. What do I mean by this? Every tool is different, and the tool rest needs to be adjusted for each one. This too is something that will become second nature after time.
A good example is using a 1/2” bowl gouge. If you begin turning a bowl blank and that blank is only a half inch away from the tool rest, it should cut nicely.
As you continue to turn and remove material, the bowl blank is diminishing and moving away from you, and the distance from the tool rest and the bowl are increasing.
As that occurs, the tool becomes less stable, will begin to bounce on the tool rest and generally not cut as well. If this continues and the distance increases, it becomes even more dangerous.
A general rule of thumb for a 1/2” bowl gouge is no more than 3-3 1/2” beyond the tool rest. It is all about physics and leverage if you think about it. The farther the reach across the tool rest to the wood, the less control you have on the handle side.
When the tool rest is close to the turning blank, the majority of the tool leverage is on your side of the tool rest and firmly in your control. If the tool rest isn’t adjusted and that distance increases, the leverage shifts in favor of the turning bowl.
A tool centered on the tool rest, like a see-saw (which I would never recommend ), would have no chance of being held versus the force of the rotating bowl.
The rule is the smaller diameter the turning tool and the shorter the handle, the less amount of reach, or leverage, you have beyond the tool rest. The larger the tool and handle, the farther you can safely reach beyond the tool rest.
On the other hand, my most substantial 3/4” bowl gouge, with a nice long heavy handle, starts getting dicey when I cut about 4” beyond the tool rest.
There is no ideal speed for turning a wood bowl. But there are some things of which to be aware when adjusting speed. In general, I don’t turn bowls any faster than 1000 r.p.m.
Rarely is there a need for speeds faster than this. Spindle turning end grain work incorporates speeds that are much higher. Why? Well, it has to do with travel distance and speed.
Most spindle pieces are small in diameter compared to bowls. The outer cutting surface of a two-inch diameter spindle blank, at the same r.p.m. as a 10-inch bowl blank, is traveling much slower than the outer edge of the bowl.
But they are rotating at the same r.p.m., right?
I know this sounds confusing. Think of our solar system. Jupiter is much farther from the sun than us. Jupiter has to travel much quicker along its orbit compared to us to make the same one revolution around the sun.
You can do an experiment regarding lathe speed and timber size by making a leveling cut across the bottom of a new bowl blank. When you begin the cut at the outer edge of say, an eight-inch blank, the speed and cut are dramatically quicker than when you reach the center.
The outer edge travel speed is helping to cut quicker, but the inside travel speed is much slower and forces you to slow down to continue the same smooth, clean cut.
My rule of thumb is not to exceed 1000 r.p.m while turning a bowl. I’ve never needed more speed than that. Also, I learned somewhere, and I can’t remember where, that objects that leave the lathe, for one reason or another, will drop to the floor at speeds under 1,000 r.p.m.
Those same objects have a better chance of going upward into the air, and into your body, at speeds exceeding 1000 r.p.m. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but it seems to be working for me, so I’ll stick with it.
Here is a link to an article all about Lathe Speed and the graphics will help you visualize the rpm and rotation speed conundrum.
Stop and Adjust
ALWAYS, before moving and adjusting the tool rest, STOP the lathe. It takes a little more time but it’s better than getting smacked by a rotating bowl on the lathe.
Simply keep adjusting the tool rest so it is positioned to give you the upper hand leverage, literally, and create the best cut from the tool you’re using.
When you’re sanding, or whenever there are dust particles in the air, be sure to wear a dust mask or respirator. If you decide to rotate the lathe while sanding, do so at a slow speed.
But before you begin, move the tool rest, banjo, and tailstock far away from the turning bowl, so they don’t present a pinch point.
This is a biggie, and I see people doing this all the time. Do NOT use any cloth fabrics to apply a finish to a rotating bowl. You may use a cloth to apply finishes such as oils if the lathe is off.
The reason this is so important is that cloth fabric is all connected with thread and if one of those threads gets caught on the bowl or the chuck it will pull the cloth and potentially your hand and fingers into the rotation of the lathe.
Instead, use paper towels to apply finishing products to a rotating bowl. If the paper towel catches, it will merely rip away and cause no harm.
Clean up the lathe area and put away all the tools, equipment, and materials, especially finishing materials. Dispose of used paper towels and rags according to the manufacturer’s recommendations on the product packaging.
Read this information carefully, because you might be surprised by what they recommend. Clean up all those shavings and prepare the area for the next time it will be used.
Woodturning safety is an integral part of woodturning and it’s best if these practices become second nature in your turning routine.
Doing these steps over and over will make them a positive habit and keep you safe in the process of making beautiful wood turned bowls.
Leave me a comment below and let me know what safety tips or advice you would like to add to this list.
For details of equipment mentioned in this article see my Recommended Equipment Guide.
Check out these other posts about the wood lathe:
SAFE WOOD LATHE SPEED (CALCULATE, DETERMINE, ADJUST RPM)
WOOD LATHE VIBRATION SOLUTIONS – BOWL TURNING SMOOTHLY
WOOD LATHE MAINTENANCE CHECKLIST – 7 AREAS TO MAINTAIN