9 Mistakes Signing Wood Bowls

Signed Wooden Bowls

Signing wood bowls is pretty simple, right? Well, hold on there are many things to consider.

Overlooking the steps of signing wood bowls properly could cause a problem down the road if you don’t consider the details.

What’s the best way for signing wood bowls?

Your first instinct might be to think about grabbing a pen or pencil and just signing the bottom of the bowl. Done. Right?

Not so fast.

Let’s think about this a bit more in depth. You’ve just finished a beautifully turned wooden bowl and your going to add your personal mark that identifies you as the creator of this piece.

Below are several mistakes that can easily be avoided, if we take a moment to look at them in detail.

You’ve spent all that time making your fantastic bowl. Isn’t it worth a bit more effort to put the perfect finishing touches on the bowl bottom?

Mistake #1) Missing the Big Picture

Many times when we make a wooden bowl, it can seem like just another bowl. However, later when you gift or perhaps sell that bowl, someone will see that bowl in a completely different light.

A bowl you create might be used heavily and worn out in a few years, or it might be cherished, displayed and maintained and passed down through a family for centuries to come.

There is a chance your turned bowl can become a family heirloom that generations admire. Signing wood bowls now seems a bit more important, right?

Signing Wood Bowls Mistakes to Avoid

Mistake #2) Who?

When people pick up your turning, they will want to know who made the piece. This means writing or signing your name in a way that can be easily read and identified.

This is a personal chose whether to add your full name, abbreviated name or perhaps even just initials. Remember, the person reading your bowl wants to know who you are.

Perhaps they would really like to find you and purchase more pieces. The more legible you make your name, the easier it will be for them to track you down.

Making a “one-of-a-kind” personal mark might look cool, but will anyone be able to identify you? I suppose if you turn hundreds or thousands of bowls and your unique mark becomes well known, then this can be a practical approach.

Mistake #3) What?

One of the most asked questions about any wood turned piece is “what kinda wood is this.” Everyone wants to know.

People want to know facts, and they want a story. They want to imagine where your bowl came from and learn about it more. Help them fill in the blanks by adding this information to the story.

Don’t overlook this simple fact and add it somewhere to the bottom of the bowl. Not only will this instantly answer the “what wood is this” question, but it will also save you tons of time explaining this simple question.

Sign Wood Bowl Species Labeled

Mistake #4) Average Signing

Bowls will be washed, possibly refinished and handled in countless different ways. Regular pencil or pen signatures will wear off in a relatively short time and leave the bowl unidentifiable.

Besides wear, tannin and natural acids from some types of woods can also work to erode a pencil or pen signature.

I don’t recommend signing with a pencil.

If you’d like to sign the bottom of a bowl with a pen, use a high-quality permanent pen, like this one or an India ink pen like this one to sign the bowls.

Before signing any bowl, test the pen on a piece of similar wood and make sure it will not bleed or smear on the wood surface. If possible, sand the sample wood precisely like the bowl bottom before testing.

Mistake #5) Surface Prep

The area around the base of the bowl should be sanded and prepared to match the rest of the bowl. Depending on the design of the bowl foot this might mean hand sanding in tight spaces.

Take the time to sand these areas before signing the bowl. The final results will be worthwhile. After all, we are expecting people to look at our signature and information. It makes sense to prep the area properly first.

Mistake #6) What, Where, When?

There are many ways to finish the bottom or foot of a wood bowl. The important thing is to make your signature marks before the wood is sealed.

Sand and prepare the central area of the bowl bottom first, then sign the bowl and finally add the finish to the entire bowl. Or, if you’ve finished the whole bowl and only the base remains, then finish the base to match the rest of the bowl.

Whatever you do, don’t sign the bowl after applying a finish. It can be difficult signing over or through the finish coat, and the signature probably won’t last long.

Mistake #7) Too Much

One permanent way of signing a bowl is to use a custom designed wood burning iron or wood burning pen.

Burning the wood with a mark is a great way to leave a clear signature deeply ingrained in the wood surface for a very long time.

There’s only one problem.

The temperature at which you apply the hot metal iron or tip to the wood needs to be regulated precisely to get the best appearance.

If the metal is too cold a mark isn’t made, but if it’s too hot an ugly scorching mark appears all around the signature area.

Every wood is different, as you’ve probably heard me say before, and it really applies here. Even pieces of wood from the same tree can have different moisture contents and burn differently.

Try to find a similar scrap piece of wood to practice before making the final marks to the finished turned bowl. The initial cut off corners of the bowl’s blank can be ideal for this testing.

Adjust the wood burning tool until the mark made is burnt in but not so burnt in that it leaves a surrounding shadow or char. This is quickly done with a wood burning tool by dialing the temperature up or down.

A custom made iron branding tool is not as easy to control. When using the iron, make plenty of practice marks before approaching the finished bowl.

One trick I’ve discovered with using the branding iron is to let the iron rest for a moment. This is hard to explain, but there seems to be a point when the tool is heated but will make a mark too dark. Waiting just a few seconds lets the iron cool just a bit, and the resulting mark looks excellent.

Practice with using hot metal for signing and the results can be fantastic.

Signing Wood Bowl Branding Iron

Mistake #8) “Pen” Tip

I know this one sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? However, the wood-burning tip designed to mimic a pen is a small tip of wire. Now, I will give the manufacturer credit, this tip does look like the tip of a ballpoint pen.

But there’s a problem.

The rounded pen tip doesn’t burn down into the grains of the wood very well. Again, this depends on the wood species. On some woods, especially dry smooth woods, this tip is fine, but on wood that has sharp grain lines this tip does poorly.

Honey locust, in particular, has distinct grain lines and the pen tip fails miserably when trying to sign on this surface. The tip will burn well in the valleys between grains, but then leave almost no burnt mark at all on the grain line itself.

I’m not sure if this is because the grain line is harder and requires more heat, but the results don’t look good. In fact, the effect is similar to a failing ball-point pen.

One of the best ways to sign your wood bowls is with a quality wood-burning tool, but instead of using a “pen” tip, try using a chisel point tip. The chisel tip makes a fine even line through almost any type of wood.

The ergonomic advantage of the pen tip is better than the chisel tip. You will need to maneuver around a bit awkwardly at times to get the chisel tip in the right spot, but the mark it leaves is crisp and very clear.

Signing Wood Bowl Burning Pen Tips Chisel

Mistake #9) When?

Dating the bowl bottom is a bit more of a controversial topic.

Some people believe that by adding the year to the bowl, people won’t want to buy it down the road. In other words, if you’re selling bowls at a craft show and a bowl is dated with 2016 on it, people might make some negative assumptions about the bowl.

On the other hand, as a bowl turner, I want to know when I turned a particular bowl. As a matter of fact, I want to know much more than just the year. I want to know the day I made the piece and how many others I finished that day.

The reason for wanting to know this information is for record keeping and organization. If you begin selling bowls at shows or online, many bowls can start to look alike. Having a unique identification number is critical for finding the exact bowl.

I used to add the year to my bowls, but now I use a code letter for the year. Here’s what I do. I create a unique number for each bowl based on the date it was made, for example, 0723 is July, 23.

Then I add the number bowl made that day, for example, 26 means the second bowl of six made that day, then I add a single letter to represent the year. So the bottom of one of my bowls might look like 072326C.

By using this unique numbering system, I have a serial number for every bowl, and I also have data about when that bowl was made and what else was made that day.

Wood Bowl Signed Serial Number System

Signing Wood Bowls Conclusion

Taking a few extra moments to really button up the bottom of a bowl can make the difference between a bowl that gets lost in time and one that is identifiable for decades to come.

Personally, I’ve signed with pens, then I tried a branding iron. The mark I designed for my branding iron was interesting but too obscure and didn’t connect with me. And making a branding iron that could replicate my signature isn’t easy.

So now, I use a wood-burning pen with a chisel-tip for relatively moist or textured wood and a pen-tip for more dry smooth bowl surfaces.

What do you do when signing wood bowls? Leave me a comment below and share with us your unique technique for letting people know that you created the piece they are holding.

The way you finish your bowls is important. Read these next:

Happy Turning,

27 Responses

  1. Hi everyone! I’m very new to wood turning and I love the resources available here. My preference for signing a bowl is to use my laser and put my logo on the bottom. I can customize it with size, the date, etc., and it’s easily modifiable for any situation. I’m surprised I don’t see any other reference to this method on this page. Apologies if I missed it. Thanks again for all the guidance from this site and this community!

    1. Jon,
      Thank you for writing and sharing! Laser engraving is a great additional option. Thanks for sharing!
      Happy Turning!

    2. I do a bit of laser engraving so naturally I was that for bowl signing. Occasionally
      I also add a design to my cups, vases, and bowls.

  2. Thanks for the info and for all the value you bring to the turning community.

    My question is about your Serial ID Code. On the year, is it based on a common code or did you just start with A for the first year when you began coding your bowls?


    1. Doug,

      Good question. Yes, I use a new letter for each year I’ve been turning. You can make the code any way you’d like.

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  3. Kent, Love your video’s and watch all you post. I like your approach. RE: signing and wood burning to do it…. Do you have a system that works well or that you would recommend to consider? Not asking for endorsement, but just basic advice. How much of a burning unit is really needed. I have bought “twice” too many times. Also, what tip is best. You use chisel tip, but is there a ball tip that works well?

    1. John,
      Good question. I too bought a couple of the cheap burning tools that look like a soldering iron. They didn’t work well and the results were not satisfying. This system is a bit more than what is needed to just do signatures, but it works great each and every time without question. And yes, it does have writing tips available as well. I hope to some day do more woodburning on my bowls…that’s how I justified the system. 😉 All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  4. Hello Kent,
    I like the wooden bowl that can be done on a lath. I enjoy woodworking and starting learning, but life got in the way and I was never able to pursue my passion. I can no longer have a workshop and the bowls I find online are to expensive. I was wondering if you sell bowl or plates that did not come out right or cracked.? I could watch your videos all day. You do teach well. Thank you for taking the time to ready this. Denise

    1. Denise,
      Thank you for writing and sharing! I appreciate you watching these videos and visiting my site. Unfortunately, I don’t sell reject bowls, they usually fuel the firepit. I wish you all the best. Take care!

  5. Hi Kent, Love your videos, they’ve been a great help. Don’t find the chisel tip that easy as I have too many curves in my name – lol. You are lucky to have all straight lines !! Cheers, Bill

    1. Bill,
      I guess we’re all stuck with the name we were given.
      Maybe you can legally change your name so it’s easier to sign. LOL
      Happy Turning!

    2. Kent,
      Thanks so much for all the great knowledge shared. It’s made a big difference to my results and satisfaction.
      I’m like another reply:. Half my name has curves. Whether U&lc. C. S. P. R. O.
      I’d use a branding iron, but like you I want to show the species. And in some cases, the source.
      Maybe I’ll combine the two.

      1. Clay,
        Thank you for writing and sharing!

        Ha, yes curvy names are tricky. Too bad parent don’t think this through at birth. LOL

        All the best to you and Happy Turning!

    1. You can do it!
      Take a look at the Turning Course, it helps tremendously and cuts learning time (and frustration) many multiples.
      Happy Turning,

  6. Kent,
    Not sure I really want to drop $210 on a woodturning tool. Also, the cheap thing I bought at Michaels is not the answer. Any link to something in between?

    1. Brian,

      I understand. I did the same thing with a cheap wood burner and it performed poorly. I can tell you, quality tools always pay off in the long run.

      All the best,

  7. Hi Kent,

    Would you be so kind as to provide a link to the wood burning pen that you use?

    Until now, I have cataloged my pieces with a unique, sequential number that I keep in a spreadsheet and written on the item. This is great for my purposes but doesn’t yield enough info for the new owner. Thanks for the tips.

  8. I design in an iOS logo program the font of my choice including my first and last name, the year- bowl no. Then the type of wood. I reverse and print on slick label paper and ink transfer to the prepared wood surface. I then burn with calligraphy burning tip. Each one takes only a minute to design and print. Works great. I easily can import custom symbols ie Mason logo for custom calligraphy. Super nice.

    1. Mike,

      That sounds like a great way to make sure everything fits and is centered perfectly.

      Excellent idea, thank you for sharing!

      Happy Turning,

    2. Mike Love, could you explain or give a reference to the transfer system you use? I have tried a number of those systems and not succeeded yet.

  9. Hello, Kent.
    I’m a casual wood turner; been doing it on and off since I was 12. I’m 77 now.
    I have a nice set of letter/number stamps 3mm high, and I use them against a straight edge to get everything in line.
    I have to confess I have just put the year in plain numbers on them until now, but your ‘9 mistakes signing wood’ article
    has given me pause! I will be more circumspect in future.
    Thank you for your article.
    All the best. Kind regards from ‘Down Under’
    Don Peterkin, Western Australia.

    1. Hello Don,

      Oh, that’s a great idea to use stamps. Do you color them with a stain or anything?

      Thanks for writing from “Down Under”

      One more question – If you guys are “Down Under” do you call us in the Northern hemisphere “Up Over?” 😉

      Happy Turning,

      1. Haha you are funny Kent. From now on you Northeners will forever be known as Up Overs. From another Down Underer.

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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

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