To improve bowl woodturning and create the “perfect” wood turned bowl may seem like an elusive, and at times, an impossible goal. Regardless where you currently stand as a woodturner, some tricks can assure more success.
Most of the tricks used to take a bowl from okay to outstanding are subtle. Some of these tricks do require that you hone your turning skills. While other methods only demand that you pay attention a bit closer.
The list I’m about to share with you is what I try to use each time I turn. Many times I will overlook one or more of these aspects, and the results show. When I reflect on what I could have done to improve a particular bowl, it usually involves incorporating one of these tricks more specifically.
In many ways these aren’t tricks, they are a checklist to assure success while making a wood turned bowl.
1) Solid Foundation
The drive connection from the lathe headstock through to the wood must be as reliable and stable as possible. The link of the wood to lathe is the very foundation for a successful turning experience.
Overlooking a solid foundation when turning, can lead to vibrations, inconsistencies, and potential incidents that can doggedly sabotage your final wood turned bowl.
If you are making a wood turned bowl without a chuck and only using a faceplate, a solid connection is critical. Faceplates need to attach secure and level to the wood blank with appropriate screws.
Faceplate screws need to be good quality wood or sheet metal screws. Never use drywall screws in a woodturning faceplate.
The screw diameter (indicated by a “#” symbol, like #8, #10, etc.) should be only slightly narrower than the faceplate holes leaving little or no wiggle room. Ideally, the length of the screws allows around five to seven threads to penetrate into the wood blank.
Wood bowl blanks secure easily to dovetail wood chucks, also called four-jaw chucks. Using a four-jaw chuck is straightforward and pretty basic. However, making the ideal connection between a bowl blank and a four-jaw chuck requires attention.
While forming a tenon on a wood turned bowl, the dovetail angle is essential. The four-jaw chuck will interface with the tenon or mortise to create a tight connection. It is critical that the tenon or mortise dovetail angle matches the jaw angle of the four-jaw chuck.
Also, the shoulder of tenon and mortise needs to seat square and flush to the tops of the chuck jaws and not exceed down to the base of the chuck. Any part of the bowl touching the base of the chuck will compromise the necessary square and flush seat on the top of the four jaw chuck.
If the tenon shoulder or the mortise base is not level and flat, issues can arise as well.
Any gap in the tenon shoulder or mortise bottom may cause the bowl to not seat squarely. If this happens, the four-jaw chuck may or may not hold the tenon securely.
Shifting has happened to me while turning the interior of a bowl. While making aggressive cuts clearing the bowl interior, the bowl blank has shifted on me.
When a shift happens, the entire bowl needs to be reseated on the chuck and re-trued to true up the outside and inside surfaces again.
If you are turning a thin-walled bowl and have completed the outer rim, it may be impossible to salvage the bowl at that point.
Take the time and make a high-quality tenon or mortise. The solid foundation this connection creates will affect the entire wood turned bowl and improve bowl woodturning on every level.
And whatever you do, don’t shape a tenon like any of these examples, please.
2) Ideal Cuts
Making ideal cuts is definitely an acquired set of skills and will improve bowl woodturning. Efficient and accurate turning cuts take time and much practice. However, time invested in developing turning cuts more than pays off in the long run.
If you’re working on developing your cutting skills, start with understanding the wood grain and how a supported cut functions. Making supported wood grain cuts was something that made no sense to me at first. People would say, “turn with the grain” and I’d kinda shake my head and stare at all the grain patterns around the bowl.
What in the world were they talking about? If you haven’t yet, please read my article about supported cuts, it may be an eye-opener for you.
Working with the wood instead of against it is obviously vital. What you’re working with, the bowl gouge is equally important as well. Get to know your bowl gouge.
If necessary, use “scrap wood” or wood that you can permit yourself to just practice. Too much pressure can be in place to ‘make the perfect bowl’ while you turn. That pressure will also prevent you from relaxing and being a bit more carefree.
Riding the bevel is another woodturning term that gets thrown around a lot, for a good reason. If you haven’t already, it’s essential to learn how to ride the bevel. Riding the bevel does improve bowl woodturning drastically.
Not riding the bevel can be the source of much frustration, tool marks, and headaches. Once riding the bevel becomes second nature, every bowl seems infinitely easier to create.
The curved tip of a bowl gouge can seem intimidating at first. How is it held? How do I use it? These are questions we all ask ourselves. Once you understand the bowl gouge basics, there are really only about four main ways, or cuts, that can be made with the bowl gouge.
Applying one or more of the four bowl gouge cutting techniques to your word turned bowl routine can take some of that intimidation out of the bowl gouge.
Again, with a ‘practice’ bowl blank, try your hand at turning the four bowl gouge techniques. Be patient and realize time is required to develop these skills.
Don’t get discouraged. As you’re practicing, realize every bowl turner, even the greats use these same gouge techniques.
So whether you prefer a push cut or a pull cut, it really doesn’t matter. Make an effort to learn and perfect the gouge cuts and your bowls will improve.
Simplicity in a wood turned bowl can be a compelling attribute.
I must confess I have a slight advantage on this topic. As a professional graphic designer and photographer, I always need to refine and simplify on a regular basis.
And it has taken me years of training and practice to learn and appreciate simplicity truly.
If I’m designing a brochure, I have to take all the client’s words, ideas, images and put them into a presentable easy-to-read format. While I photograph, I question what can I crop out of a shot to bring more attention to the subject.
Simplicity is very difficult to beat.
I’m fortunate to be able to attend a weekly turning group. The turners at this group run the gamut from beginners to seasoned veterans. Frequently, I see a person turning a ‘complex’ shape.
I think there is a natural curiosity to want to explore and try new things. What will compound curves, coves, and levels look like on the outside of a bowl?
We’ve all been there. Do it. Try it. Try every shape that you imagine. I try ’new’ shapes too, but nothing seems even to come close to ‘simple.’
Ironically, simple can be very very difficult, both in acceptance and execution. I think there is an initial thought that simple is boring and why not try to create something much more interesting.
Nothing can be further from the truth.
Simple can be challenging and when done well will blow away the most complex over-thought designs.
To simplify is to refine. Ask yourself, what can you remove from this equation that will make the result better?
Try making smooth flowing continuous curves while creating your wood turned bowls. Use a string or chain as inspiration and look at how nature and gravity form perfect arches. Mimicking these shapes can yield stunning results.
Excessive lines, curves, angles, and levels, rarely add to the appeal of a finished bowl. However, the removal and simplicity of a bowl’s features usually dramatically improves the overall appearance.
4) Watch Where You Look
When you were a kid and learned to ride a bike, how long were you able to stare at your feet on the pedals while you rode?
Probably not far, and if you did your path was not too straight.
The same is true of using a bowl gouge on a wood turned bowl. Stop watching the gouge. Just like staring at your feet, the gouge is not your path.
Instead, look at the top edge of the bowl while you turn. The top edge of the bowl is the live path you are creating. Let your body, arms and hands do there work and pay attention to subtle adjustments needed by watching the top edge of the bowl as it forms.
It isn’t easy to look away from the gouge at first. Practice until you no longer need to see the gouge to know it is doing its job.
Like looking at the road ahead, following the top edge of the bowl gives you far better vision and ease to create an accurate, smooth flowing path. Improve bowl woodturning by building the confidence to look away from the gouge and see the shape you are creating.
Another way to improve bowl woodturning when turning the inside of the bowl, stand above and look down on the bowl shape. Start each cut by making the bowl gouge bevel parallel to the outside bowl wall.
As the tip of the gouge disappears into the bowl, judge its location as the cut progresses by comparing to the outside of the bowl. Stop the lathe and gauge the wall thickness with your hands or calipers.
Be sure each pass you make with the bowl gouge is riding the bevel and the gouge bevel is parallel to the intended path or shape.
In a short time, you will not need to stare into the open end of a bowl guessing how deep you’re cutting. Instead, you will be perched above looking down and intuitively knowing where inside the bowl your gouge is located.
5) Slow Down and Speed Up
When we first learn to turn everything seems to be too slow. Removing waste material seems to take a long long time. Getting a bowl that looks better than a five inch thick Buick hubcap seems to take a long time.
After practice and time, things begin to speed up and improve. Turning cuts work more efficiently, and shapes start to look more bowl-like.
As your skills and techniques improve, it’s important to know when to slow down. Yes, there are times when slowing down is essential.
Times to Slow Down
- Making the tenon or making a mortise dovetail angle and square shoulder
- Determine the overall shape and design of your bowl exterior
- While shear-scraping a beautiful smooth final finish
- When forming the base and removing the bowl tenon
Slowing down is crucial for getting key moments right, but not all moments while making a wood turned bowl need to be slow.
In fact, there are many times, especially when you’ve nailed down your bowl gouge techniques and are comfortable with riding the bevel that speed is very helpful. Speed can be helpful to improve bowl woodturning.
Here are times you can speed up or quicken the turning process. But only speed up the lathe safely. Read this article to learn all about lathe speed.
Times to Speed Up
- Removing bowl exterior waste material
- Clearing bowl interior
- Working irregular areas when cutting ‘air’
- Applying an efficient sanding finish technique
Here’s an added bonus tip about speeding up. If you’re turning an irregular shaped bowl, like a natural edge bowl (that is turning relatively balanced), turn the lathe speed up a bit.
Cutting ‘air’ or the voids along an irregular bowl can be made smoother with a faster lathe speed. Be sure the tenon is secure and do not turn faster than any vibrations.
Vibrations on the lathe really need to be thoroughly understood and dealt with immediately. Read this article next and learn how to address any vibration issues on the lathe.
Improve Bowl Woodturning Conclusion
One of the best ways to improve bowl woodturning is to measure incremental progress over time. To see these improvements, we need to have a baseline to compare each turning. If you use a list of items, like the one above and check it each time you turn you will see your progress over time.
These are the tricks or the checklist I mentally review before, during and even after I create a wood turned bowl to improve bowl woodturning. I find they help keep me on course and focused while I create my wood bowls.
I’ll bet you too have a checklist you review while you turn your bowls. What are some of the things you keep in mind while you’re turning? Let me know by leaving me a comment below.