I remember when I first started turning bowls. With the bowl blank spinning on the lathe, the feeling of approaching the tool rest with the gouge was a bit intimidating.
How am I supported to present the bowl gouge?
The bowl blank has a way of telling you when things aren’t quite right. But luckily, with some guidance, bowl gouge techniques are relatively easy to grasp and master when mixed with patience and practice.
Proper bowl gouge technique is essential in the bowl turning process. A bowl gouge is a single tool with many functions making it incredibly diverse and capable of crafting bowls from start to finish.
Understanding when and where to use each bowl gouge technique is a personal preference and with patience and practice, becomes second nature like riding a bike.
I try to stress throughout these articles that there are many ways to do things when it comes to turning bowls. Most turners have their specific way to do just about any and everything along the journey from log to finished bowl.
Be sure you understand the bowl gouge basics before trying to grasp these turning techniques.
Regarding proper bowl gouge technique, you may encounter some variations with different turners. However, the four bowl gouges techniques I’m going to cover here are straightforward and somewhat universal.
From one wood bowl turner to the next, each bowl gouge technique may vary dramatically and occur in different circumstances.
I think it is best to focus on sharing the details of each bowl gouge technique and how it performs before explaining when and where to use each technique. Once I’ve described the techniques, I will share with you how I incorporate each bowl gouge technique in my bowl turning.
You may be asking why I’m so concerned about sharing each bowl gouge technique independent of the overall bowl turning process. Well, that’s a great question.
What I’ve found is many instructors start making a particular cut at a certain point in the bowl making process and say something like “use this cut to shape the outside of the bowl first.” Then they move on and proclaim another cut is necessary for another area.
I have to laugh when I see an instructor make it seem as if only one bowl gouge technique is appropriate in one specific instance. It’s hard to listen to rigid bowl gouge technique advise when multiple paths can produce satisfactory results.
Bowl Gouge Bootcamp
Let’s start with some basic understanding of using a bowl gouge before proceeding to each bowl gouge technique.
Gouge Flute Positions
The location of the bowl gouge flute defines the rotation or direction the flute is pointing. I will be using a clock reference to convey the angle at which the flute needs to turn.
Twelve o’clock indicates that the flute position is straight up. Twelve o’clock is considered an open flute angle. Nine o’clock and three o’clock indicate the flute is turned ninety-degrees left and right, respectively. These are examples of a closed flute angle. Think of the clock position and rotate the flute direction to correspond to the number on the clock face.
The ABCs of woodturning tool usage has been used for some time and should become second nature if they aren’t already.
A-stands for “anchor.” Firmly anchor or place the bowl gouge on the tool rest before making any other contact. The quickest way to make a nasty catch is to allow the bowl gouge to touch the turning wood before anchoring the gouge to the tool rest.
For the most anchored support, try to position the tool rest perpendicular to the bowl gouge. Also, keep the banjo as close to perpendicular to the bed rails as possible. See the illustration below for details.
B-stands for “bevel.” Raise the handle of the tool until the bevel is making contact. The bevel should initially rub the wood without cutting. The bowl gouge will begin cutting into the wood with a small raising of the handle, which causes the bowl gouge cutting edge to lower into the wood.
C-stands for “cut.” After anchoring and introducing the bowl gouge bevel to the turning blank, the cut begins. Your direction and oversight of this cut are what we will be covering in the bowl gouge technique sections shortly.
Your body is what will be controlling and moving the bowl gouge. Yes, your hands will be holding the bowl gouge but it’s your body that will do the most work.
The motions needed to create smooth finish bowl surfaces require little movement in your hands and arms. Instead, these nice smooth bowl shapes will match your smooth fluid full-body motions.
Each bowl gouge technique is a bit different, but each depends on the fluid motion of your body shifting from one side to another. The movement needed for smooth cuts is a very subtle controlled leaning action.
Your feet do not need to move, and it is a good idea to position your feet near the center of each cut. With the lathe off, practice this leaning from the start to the end of each cut.
Eye on Top of Bowl
Each bowl gouge technique we will discuss is designed to remove wood simply. It is your job as the wood turner, the artist, to decide what the shape of your bowl will be in the end.
It’s easy to lose sight of the bowl shape when your eyes focus on the bowl gouge tip, and your mind concentrates on positioning the gouge in just the right manner. Similar to learning how to ride a bicycle, looking at your feet on the pedals will not result in a straight riding path.
To see the bowl shape, you need to look away from the bowl gouge and watch at the overall bowl. “Seeing” the whole bowl is easier than it sounds. Here’s the trick. Position your bowl gouge, begin a cut, then watch the top edge of the bowl as you continue the cut.
Yes, looking at the top bowl edge instead of the tool takes a little practice. However, this is the key to literally “seeing” your bowl take shape and being in charge of your finished bowl shape and design.
Supported Cut Direction
With the result in mind, we are looking to create a well-shaped bowl with a beautiful smooth surface. To achieve that surface we need to be making wood grain supported cuts.
I have a detailed article about the supported cut which I encourage you to read. Mostly, we don’t want to tear up wood grain fibers by turning “against the grain” of the wood.
The quickest way to understand this concept is to make the same bowl gouge technique cut in both directions on a bowl blank. Stop the lathe after each cut and look at the wood surface. Which cut was rough and which was smoother? The smoother cut was most likely a woodgrain supported cut.
Bowl Gouge Technique
1) Push Cut Bowl Gouge Technique
A staple for bowl turning, the push bowl gouge technique is just like it sounds, a pushing forward cut.
Position the tool rest, so the bowl gouge cutting tip is at the center point of the bowl. This tool rest height will vary depending on the size of each bowl gouge used. Also, the angle of the bowl gouge may require the tool rest to be adjusted.
The bowl gouge should be near level to the horizon when turning. However, the bowl gouge tip may be angled a bit upward as well. Do not allow the bowl gouge tip to cut angled downward.
Most cutting while using the push-cut bowl gouge technique is done on and directly near the very tip of the bowl gouge. The side wings of the gouge do not usually become engaged while making push cuts.
The bowl gouge flute position for the push cut is about 45 degrees towards the cutting direction. If the cut is going from right to left the flute will be near the 10:30 position. If the push cut is moving left to right the flute will be near 1:30.
Flute direction will change during cuts, and this change continues towards the course of the cut. For example, an inside bowl cut starting at the rim may begin around 45 degrees, or 1:30. As the cut progresses, the flute rotation will continue to 2 o’clock and end at ninety degrees or 3 o’clock at the bowl bottom center point.
Never open the flute or turn the flute in the opposite direction of the push cut. Opening the flute on the left to right cut beyond the 1:30 position left to the 1 or 12 o’clock position will take the bowl gouge off bevel and worse, cause the left bowl gouge wing to bite a significant amount of material usually causing a considerable catch. Learn all about what makes a catch and how to avoid them by reading this article.
The push-cut bowl gouge technique requires bevel contact at all times. When bevel contact combines with a supported cut, the push cut produces a very smooth finished surface.
When initially starting a push cut in fresh wood, a starting groove is required. Use the flute closed at a ninety-degree angle to make the starting cut. Three o’clock for a left to right cut and nine o’clock for a right to left cut.
The first contact with the wood may cause the gouge to skip along the tool rest if the flute and cutting tip are not straight up and down at a ninety-degree angle. To correct for this, just position the flute at ninety degrees and slowly introduce the bowl gouge tip until a groove or ledge forms. Then the flute can slowly be rotated to a slightly more open angle to continue the push cut.
The bevel needs to maintain continuous contact with the wood surface to create a smooth continuous cut. Creating that smooth continuous cut is where gouge bevel contact and full body motion comes into play.
A loss of bevel contact is a standard issue with the push cut. A smooth cut that changes to a bumpy path is an indication of the bevel losing connection.
Position yourself with your feet approximately in the middle of the push cut path. Shift your body to the starting point of the cut. Begin the cut and shift your body from the start position, smoothly through the center and continue to the end of the cut.
The guiding left hand on the tool rest should do little more than keeping the gouge on the tool rest. The left-hand makes no motion of steering the gouge. Your right hand on the bowl gouge handle is doing all the steering in the bowl curves and the subtle flute rotation. However, even with the right-hand steering, the majority of gouge movement is created by your shifting body weight. The right hand is steering to keep the bevel contact and flute tip pointing to the final cut location.
Hold the bowl gouge firm but not too tight and position your arms and elbows up against your body. Your hands and arms need to make very little motion. The more action in your hands and arms, the less likely the cut will come out smooth.
During the entire time of the push-cut try also to be watching the top edge of the bowl and the smooth new line forms. Let the top side of the bowl be your guide.
If the curve is not continuous or if the tool starts getting more difficult to manage, be sure you are rotating the bowl gouge handle to match the curve being cut and maintain bevel contact. Only move your right hand to steer the gouge and keep the bevel rubbing the bowl surface. It’s imperative that the bevel stays nearly flush or parallel to the bowl surface while making a push cut.
2) Pull Cut Bowl Gouge Technique
As the name implies, the pull cut is the opposite of a push cut. The pull cut is a slightly more advanced bowl gouge cutting technique. Instead of pushing, a pulling action is used to perform the pull cut.
The pull-cut bowl gouge technique also takes advantage of the bevel to produce a clean, smooth final surface. However, instead of using the bowl gouge tip, the pull cut utilizes the outside of the gouge tip and side wings to do the cutting. The pull cut is considered a more advanced cut because this cut engages more of the gouge wing and removes larger amounts material quickly. Shavings from pull cuts are also usually longer and larger.
Position the flute angle around eleven o’clock for cuts from right to left and around one o’clock for cuts from left to right. The flute angle for a pull cut is opposite of the push cut. Work between eleven and one o’clock.
When the flute is laid over toward the forty-five to ninety-degree angle during a pull cut, too much material will contact at one time. These aggressive angles will most likely produce catches and gouge the bowl surface.
Because of this possible aggressive action, the pull cut is a more advanced bowl gouge technique. It is best to try this approach once subtle; refined bowl gouge motions are better understood.
Except for the flute angle, the bowl gouge initial position is about the same as the push cut. The bowl gouge cutting tip should be on center, and the tool can be from level to slightly upward.
Cutting movements are also the reversed from the push cut. Use your body mass to securely hold the bowl gouge up against you and shift your weight throughout the cut, all while watching the top edge of the bowl and keeping the gouge bevel rubbing.
3) Scraper Bowl Gouge Technique
The scraper bowl gouge technique is not a bevel supported cut. This technique incorporates the sharp edge of the wing to act more like a scraper than a traditional gouge.
Positioning the tool rest for a scraper cut is a bit different. Because the lower wing of the bowl gouge will be flush with the bowl surface, this too means the bowl gouge flute will be at a sharper more closed angle. It is always best to keep the tool rest at approximately a ninety-degree angle to the bowl gouge.
Close the flute to the bowl surface so that just a bit of the top wing is away from the bowl. The flute should be closed to about 2:30 for a right-sided scrape and about 9:30 for a left-sided scrape. The lower wing will do all the work.
Make light passes with the bowl gouge in this position to quickly level or fix trouble areas such as tool marks, hills, and grooves. Take small areas at a time and work slowly to get the best results. Quick or aggressive scraps can result in torn wood fibers and less than a desirable surface.
Also, unlike the push and pull cut, the scraping gouge cut can move in either direction left to right or right to left without worrying too much about the supported grain cut. Again, however, if a scraping cut is made too aggressively against the supported cut, torn fibers may occur. But light cuts will usually result in a smooth surface regardless of cut direction.
The shear-scrape bowl gouge technique is exactly like the scrape technique above with one exception, tool angle.
Because the shear-scrape process orients the tool at a steep angle, minimal wood surface contact occurs at one time. Also, because of this minimal contact, the bowl gouge cutting edge is not overtaxed and works very efficiently.
Instead of positioning the tool level with the tool rest while making a scraping cut, the shear scraping cut positions the tool cutting tip upright. The bowl gouge tip is up, and the handle is positioned downward along the hip. The gouge position may require the tool rest to be lowered a bit to keep the cutting tip at or slightly above the bowl center.
Approximately forty-five degrees up and down, the bowl gouge is then angled a bit slightly against the bowl surface as well. With the flute nearly closed and the lower wing cutting, the shear scraping cut shears thin slivers of wood as it cuts.
The shavings coming from a shear scrape are this cut’s telltale sign. Super thin, feathery hairlike shavings confirm that you are performing this bowl gouge technique correctly.
The purpose of using the shear-scraping bowl gouge technique is to remove any small tool marks and make a super smooth finished surface. As a matter of fact, once this technique is mastered, you should find yourself doing minimal sanding afterward. When you do sand, you can start at a much higher, or finer sanding grit because the wood surface is so smooth from the shear scrape.
Before performing the shear-scraping bowl gouge technique, start by taking the bowl gouge to the grinder and put a nice sharp edge on the bevel. Sharpening the gouge will make a noticeable difference, as always, but especially with the shear scrape.
The shear-scraping bowl gouge technique is very much like shaving with a very sharp razor. Watch the top edge of the bowl as you work and gently let the bowl gouge smooth the bowl surface. You may work in either direction, left or right.
The shear scraping cut is so important, here is an additional article all about the shear scraping cut.
Those are the four bowl gouge techniques I wanted to share with you. However, the question remains. “When and where do I use each bowl gouge technique?”
How you use the bowl gouge techniques is where so many personal preferences come into play that the waters can quickly become muddied. Learning and practicing the gouge techniques should come first, because of this muddying of the water.
How the techniques are applied is really up to you. And here’s a newsflash, every bowl turner will use these techniques, and sometimes a variation of the techniques each in his or her way. And that’s perfectly fine!
Here’s What I Do
I’ll share with you what I do when making a bowl, but please remember this is just one way. There are many ways to use these techniques.
With the bowl blank mounted to the lathe, I use pushing cuts from the outside bottom edge inward to remove waste material. I use my large 5/8” Bowl Gouge (Amazon link to check current price) to plow material away and get to the bowl shape underneath.
I never use a bowl roughing gouge to remove waste bowl blank material. My trusty big 3/4” bowl gouge does the work fast and can perform so many other tricks, all without switching tools.
Once I get down close to the bowl shape, I make pushing cuts from the outside bowl bottom up to the upper rim. When the sides are coming together, I pause and focus on my tenon.
With a set of sharp dividers, I mark the size of the tenon on the bottom of the bowl blank. Using my 1/2” Finishing Bowl Gouge (Amazon), I make flat push cuts parallel to the bowl bottom exposing and shaping the tenon. The 1/2” bowl gouge is then used also to form the shoulder of the tenon.
Marking the tenon center is critical for tailstock alignment later, so I use the spindle gouge to make a little tick indent right in the middle of the tenon.
When the tenon is complete, I use the 1/2” bowl gouge to make a fluid curve from the tenon shoulder to the top rim. Any high spots or rough areas I’ll smooth with a scrape bowl gouge technique.
With the outside surface pretty smooth, I’ll shift the bowl gouge into the steep shear scraping angle and delicately shave the outside of the bowl until its as smooth as possible with the bowl gouge. Then I finish the outside by sanding through the various sanding grits. Click here to learn all about bowl sanding tools and finish techniques.
I reverse the bowl and mount the tenon in a four-jaw chuck and begin turning the bowl interior. With the 1/2” bowl gouge and a push cut from left to right, I shape the outer rim edge of the bowl.
Once the rim is shaped, I turn my position, and with my larger 3/4” bowl gouge begin removing the center material. Again, I use push cuts to accomplish the task. I make the bowl interior working from the rim (left) to the bowl center (right). With the bowl gouge starting at a ninety-degree angle I then rotate the gouge to about forty-five degrees at center during the cut.
Finishing cuts are usually lighter and slower. You really want to let the gouge do all the work. To dive deeper into making finishing cuts read this article next.
The bevel riding (see Riding the Bevel – Bowl Gouge Technique Explained) supported cuts from rim to bowl center usually leave the bowl surface very smooth. If the surface needs extra attention, I will use my heavy round nose scraper to smooth any tool marks or high spots lightly.
Check out this article that explains how you can actually cut with a round nose scraper. You may be surprised how smooth a surface you can acheive with a round nose scraper.
If the bowl interior is deep or difficult to access I will use my micro bevel bowl gouge to make the final cuts.
That’s how I turn the majority of my bowls. The funny thing is, I know turners who do the exact opposite. Instead of turning with push cuts they use pull-cuts almost entirely. And that is perfectly fine.
It is essential to understand the function of each bowl gouge technique and incorporate them into your bowl turning however you’d like. I would encourage respectfully questioning anyone who tells you a particular cut is the only cut to use in a specific situation.
Keep in mind, some of these techniques take some time before they feel comfortable. For example, it took me several months before I got the shear scrap working well.
It’s not a bad idea to consider using some scrap wood to merely experiment with all the bowl gouge techniques just to try them out. Patience and persistence pay off.
When it comes to turning bowls, the bowl gouge is the tool of choice. And once the bowl gouge techniques are mastered, it’s not hard to see how an entire bowl could be turned from start to finish with this single tool, the bowl gouge, if necessary.
I hope this article helps you understand bowl gouge techniques and potentially dispels any confusion you may have had about using the bowl gouge. Please let me know if this information is helpful. I look forward to reading your comment below.
Tool Control is Critical! Check out these other valuable articles:
• RIDING THE BEVEL – BOWL GOUGE TECHNIQUE EXPLAINED
• 9 STEPS TO SHEAR SCRAPING PERFECTION
• FINISHING CUT – WOOD BOWL TURNING BEYOND THE BASICS
• 5 TOP REASONS NASTY CATCHES HAPPEN
• BOWL GOUGE BASICS – BEGINNER GUIDE (PARTS, USE, SIZES, GRINDS)