Do you have a woodturning mentor? Most new endeavors can benefit from a mentor, someone to oversee and guide the way, but this might not be obvious at first.
New participants to woodturning particularly, unlike most other hobbies or sports for that matter, gain valuable knowledge from a mentor’s vision, a woodturning mentor.
Starting Down The Woodturning Path
Several years ago, after watching too many woodturning videos online and reading many articles, I decided I needed to know more about this thing called woodturning.
Woodturning definitely seems to fit that category of “you can read about it, but you need to do it to learn it,” similar to basketball or riding a bike.
Can you just buy a lathe and dive in headfirst by yourself? Of course. But for some reason, I felt I needed to understand much more before committing to an expensive, single-use, space-consuming machine.
Oh, by the way, now I love having my lathe sitting in the middle of my garage floor consuming all the space, while my car sits outside.
My lathe is a source of great joy, but I don’t think it would be like that if I had jumped in and tried to learn woodturning solo.
How I Found My Woodturning Mentor
After digging around online, I located a somewhat local turning club. They have monthly meetings posted and a Wednesday Night Group that meets every week.
Hm? What do they do when they meet, I wondered?
Well, maybe these would be the people I could talk to about what lathe and tools I should think about purchasing.
So I loaded up and drove and drove, 70 miles to the place where the Wednesday meetings are held. As it turned out the meetings are at a private home.
Not even sure I was in the right place, I drove down a long drive with several cars parked around. But where was everyone?
I took a chance and opened a side door to a shop building. I found the spot. Inside were lathes of every sort and people turning while others chatted.
After warm introductions and a few questions, Gordon, a fellow visiting turner, asked me if I wanted to turn a bowl? Um? Yes!
He guided me through the process, and before I knew it, I was holding a beautiful small cherry bowl in my hands.
I was completely hooked!
Gordon is one of Danny’s many friends who appear on Wednesdays. Danny owns the place and makes everything possible for people to learn and practice woodturning.
Later as I continued to visit, Danny stepped up and became my woodturning mentor. He’s really everyone’s mentor on Wednesday nights.
I didn’t even know I needed a woodturning mentor. I guess nobody realizes this until someone steps up and becomes your go-to person for questions and ideas.
It isn’t for some time that you begin to realize someone is your woodturning mentor. And usually by that point, they have taken you pretty far along your woodturning adventure.
Woodturning Skills Accumulation
Learning to turn wood is very much like learning any skillful sport.
You will never learn everything all at once.
Learning woodturning is a building up, or a gradual accumulation of knowledge and experiences. Patience and consistency are critical.
Growing woodturning skills is kinda like having a child grow up in your home. It’s very hard to see growth changes from one day to the next. But over time the difference is enormous.
Danny has that kind of patience and nurtures every turner that visits his shop at their own skill level.
With me, especially when I was first learning, he would stop at the lathe to visit and see what I’m doing and ask a question or go grab a tool and hoist it out and say, “Here, try this.”
In the early days, he would calmly hold his hand out, silently asking for my bowl gouge. He would present the tool at a slightly different angle and start a clean pushing cut. Then he’d stop and hand the tool back for me to continue, all with a big smile.
Each visit is filled with nuggets of knowledge, but seemingly only one or two critical nuggets per visit. There was no need for more than that.
Over time, those bits of knowledge accumulate and make us the turners we are capable of being.
When you step back and realize what you’ve learned and know about woodturning, it can be astonishing.
That’s precisely why I decided to make this website, to share this knowledge with you as well!
Time To Learn
Most everything I know about woodturning stems from Danny Hoffman’s mentoring and the motley crew that gathers at the Wednesday Night Group.
Not only does Danny share his endless knowledge bank of woodturning skills, so does everyone else.
The camaraderie and friendships that we have in this group both encourage sharing and growth of woodturning information.
In many ways, Danny’s shop is like a woodturning knowledge incubator.
When I think back to all I’ve learned from Danny through the years, a few essential skills and habits come to mind.
1) Level the Highs
When nasty tool mark grooves appear on a wood bowl surface, and further cutting passes don’t seem to remove them, consider sanding.
However, instead of sanding with the lathe running, stop the machine. If the lathe is running, the high spots will stay high, and the issue won’t get resolved.
Why is this?
If the lathe is running, the sander is sanding the high spot and the surrounding lower spots equally. The entire bumpy profile is all being removed a little, but the high spots remain.
Instead, stop the lathe and just work on lowering those high spots. Sand with the surface grain of the wood for best results and the surface should be smooth in no time.
2) Tenon Perfection
The most important part of the wood bowl tenon is the undercut dovetail angle and a good square shoulder. Why? Because without that angle and a clean flush shoulder the chuck jaws have no way of safely and securely holding a spinning bowl blank.
Danny explained the dovetail angle concept to me early in my turning days. That’s when I began using a detail spindle gouge to undercut the angle portion of the dovetail.
Many times he has come by my lathe when I’m finishing up a tenon and smiled. “Teach that to everyone,” he says. OK, Danny, I’ll do just that.
Thousands of people all over the world have learned the importance of the tenon by reading this article. How’s that for sharing? Ha!
Oh, and if you’d like to see some bad shapes for wood bowl tenons, check out this article next.
3) Rudder Steering
When we first start to turn bowls, it seems almost impossible to make that showcase perfect full cutting pass down the outside of the bowl.
One of the critical factors for broken cutting paths and jittery bowl surfaces is our hand movements.
It’s important to realize two things when making a cutting pass.
First, our left-hand does not guide the bowl gouge, it only holds the gouge to the tool rest. And secondly, our right hand is doing the steering with the gouge handle.
Learning to make that coordinated move around the outside of a bowl blank requires a smooth continuous body motion and the rotation of the gouge cutting bevel to match the bowl surface.
Your full body makes the cut, not just your hands and arms. The way you bend your knees and shift your body weight is much more important than trying to force the gouge along with your hands.
Think of the bowl gouge handle like a boat’s rudder.
That rotation action that keeps the cutting edge of the gouge where it’s needed is controlled by the movement of the gouge handle as you shift body weight.
If the handle does not rotate with the curve of the bowl, the gouge tip pops out of the cutting path, and the cut is interrupted.
4) Eyes On The Road
This tip from Danny is pretty basic but profoundly crucial to advancing your turning skills.
Here it is, ready for it?
Watch the top edge of the bowl as you make a cut. Don’t watch or look at the cutting point of your tooltip.
This concept is simple enough but takes practice to achieve. At first, it feels very awkward, and you naturally want to return your gaze to the bowl gouge cutting tip.
There are a couple of reasons why this is so powerful.
- You can clearly see the depth of a cut and determine if you need to adjust the gouge accordingly.
- The upper edge of a bowl blank is farther away from you so you can more clearly see what the cut is doing versus looking down into the tool rest area.
- It is much easier to visualize the overall shape and flow of the bowl form by watching the top edge.
Think about it, looking at the cutting tip of the bowl gouge is like watching your feet while pedaling a bike. Yes, the bike will go, but what will your travel path look like?
Give it a try if you haven’t already. At first, it can be awkward, like trying to control body motions while looking in a mirror, but soon it becomes second-nature.
5) Bottom Feeder
At the time I first started turning, I had a stack of old dried out pecan logs. And I was determined to turn all that wood before moving on to anything else.
I’m kinda funny that way when I get something in my mind.
Looking back on that, it was the best thing I could have done because that wood was challenging to turn. I learned with difficult wood, and it made turning pretty much anything else a piece of cake.
And besides being a learning experience, spalted pecan is beautiful!
As I learned to turn with those pecan logs, I began to like making rounded inward rims on the bowls.
The rounded inward rim bowl requires two different directional cuts on the outside of the bowl.
A supported cut from the base of the bowl up to the rim needs to stop at the apex of the outside of the bowl. The rest of the bowl exterior needs to be cut from the rim down to that apex to maintain a clean supported grain cutting pass.
You learn supported grain cuts on dry pecan, really fast. Because, believe me, unsupported cuts on dry pecan leave the bowl surface looking like a cratered minefield.
With the exterior complete it’s time to work the interior. The regular bowl gouge can get most of the interior of the bowl cleared, but that inward rim is a struggle.
Bottom Feeder Bowl Gouge to the Rescue
I think Danny was excited to run over to the tool rack and grab the micro-bevel bottom feeder to demonstrate how to remove that tucked away material.
When I first saw this strange beast, it looked like a regular bowl gouge but with a short stubby nose.
I was amazed to see shavings appear with ease as Danny quickly made bevel contact in the area that was giving me fits and catches with my standard bowl gouge.
The steep bevel angle on a micro-bevel also called a “bottom feeder,” allows for the angle of attack to be drastically altered.
This gouge can be presented almost straight into the bowl, and it makes bevel cutting contact.
Because of this feature, the bottom feeder is ideal for working areas like the inside of an inward rimmed bowl. It also works well in deeper pieces, when a standard gouge begins to lose bevel supported contact.
A half inch bowl gouge works perfectly for shaping into a micro bevel bottom feeder. Here’s a link to the 1/2″ bowl gouge I use for my micro bevel.
6) Embracing the Process
I’ve learned tons of excellent woodturning knowledge, but one thing stands out from the rest. Appreciate the process regardless of the results.
At no point is anyone trying to prove anything to each other at the Wednesday Night Group. We are all there to learn, turn, and enjoy each others company.
Perhaps this is a product of what we were each asked to do when we agreed to the Wednesday Night Group terms. The only condition is, “leave your ego at the door and no talking about politics or religion.”
Instead of getting stressed about making a perfect wood turned piece or trying to impress each other, we are all just turners, and we are all learning.
Beyond that, there really are no other expectations.
The funny thing is when you stop stressing about being perfect, and you just enjoy the educated guidance of others, in a short time your work becomes terrific.
To be labeled an “enabler” has gotten a bad rap in our society. But Danny is clearly an enabler.
At one point the Wednesday Night Group was actually just held at night, now Danny opens his doors in the morning all through the day and late into the night on Wednesdays to accommodate everybody’s schedules.
Every imaginable tool and woodturning accessory is available or can be conjured on the fly in Danny’s well-appointed shop.
Just recently, I was turning a deep bowl, and the tool rest wasn’t shaped quite right and wasn’t reaching the bottom of the bowl interior.
Yep, you guessed it, Danny broke out his cutting torch and welder and made a tool rest to meet the challenge.
It’s that spirit of “sure that can be done” that creates an environment that seems to have no limits. If you can imagine it, you can make it.
He often says, “give it a try,” if someone is curious about how something might turn out.
Danny’s hands-on approach and positive attitude to meeting the challenges of everyone visiting his shop as they learn to turn is “so woodturning.”
Turning wood is all about meeting challenges and then problem-solving them away. A good woodturning mentor doesn’t see problems, they see teaching opportunities.
If you mention a challenge you had while turning, Danny will light up and spring to some corner of his shop and return with a solution and say, “here, try this.” All with a big smile.
Yes, Danny is an enabler, the best kind. Because without him enabling so many turners, myself included, we might not have even begun exploring the depths of woodturning.
The woodturning community is one of the most open and sharing groups of people I’ve ever known.
My woodturning mentor, Danny Hoffman perfectly exemplifies every aspect of that open, sharing, curious, fun-loving attitude that is needed to spread woodturning skills to whoever is interested.
While I don’t currently have the facilities to host a weekly gathering like Danny, that’s ok. I’ve found an outlet to share and benefit fellow woodturners and wanna-be woodturners through this website.
I hope that everyone can benefit from the many woodturning skills and techniques I’ve acquired and regularly share on this site, which mostly came from my woodturning mentor, Danny Hoffman.
While this site covers all the nooks and crannies of turning wood bowls in great detail, it is still encouraging to have a real live mentor to share your journey and learn from firsthand. My goal is to make this website the next best thing to a woodturning mentor for you.