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10 Bowl Turning Basics – Important FAQs Answered

Bowl turning basics are important steps in developing and honing bowl turning skills. Sometimes it feels awkward asking questions, but that’s why we’re here.

Many bowl turning basics need to be addressed, learned and understood.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to learn everything all at once, instead, build up your knowledge bank of bowl turning basics as your curiosity and appetite for turning bowls grows.

Here are ten common bowl turning questions frequently asked by readers, along with detailed answers.

How much does it cost to get started turning wood bowls?

That’s an interesting question. Like any hobby or potential career, wood bowl turning can become quite expensive if you purchase tons of tools and gear. The sky’s the limit, and if you allow yourself, you can spend thousands of dollars.

However, turning wood bowls can be approached and enjoyed on a very frugal budget as well. I started turning wood bowls and went six full months without buying any equipment at all.

Do some research and see if you can find a local turning club that has regular turning meetups. A friend with a lathe or a maker space are other affordable ways to get started.

Slowly purchase tools as you understand your real needs, and you will have a well-selected arsenal of gear over time. Avoid making impulse buys, and you will reduce the regret of seeing tools that never get used.

Check out the Recommended Equipment Guide on this site for ideas of what tools and accessories are used in wood bowl turning. Along with each item, you will usually find a description for the use for that item as well.

Remember also, as wood bowl turners, we need more significant chunks of wood to turn. Yes, turning blanks can be purchased, but why? There are tons of ways to get free wood to turn.

What kind of lathe do I need to turn wooden bowls?

A wood bowl lathe is really no different than any other lathe. Most lathes will work. However, some characteristics make certain lathes better at turning bowls than others.

It’s essential to understand the various parts of a lathe. The swing is a critical measurement and usually the larger the swing, the better. The bed length is not as significant of a factor. A shorter bed actually allows easier access when turning the bowl interior and reduces the need to lean over the lathe.

Some lathes are made specifically for turning bowls. Bowl specific lathes have little to no bed rails which gives maximum access to the bowl at all times. These exclusive bowl lathes are pretty rare. I’ve yet to see one in person.

If you have a lathe, you can most likely make bowls with it right now. Well, if you have a pen lathe, the bowls might be a bit on the small side. But you can still make bowls on a pen lathe. Ha! 😉

Here are several lathes to consider that fit a variety of turning styles and budgets.

How many tools do I need to turn a wooden bowl?

Hm? That’s a tricky question. If you mean hand tools, a single bowl gouge can make an entire bowl. But you still need to attach the bowl blank to the lathe one way or another, so a four-jaw chuck might be incorporated. But a bowl can be turned without a chuck as well. And of course, there is the lathe.

This is the main bowl gouge I use. It is a 5/8″ gouge with a swept-back grind and the bevel angle is around 55 degrees. An entire bowl can be turned with this tool alone. Would it be nice to have other tools to do certain tasks a bit better? Yes, of course. But the point I want to make is you can do a lot of bowl turning with very few tools.

A bowl gouge, a chuck or faceplate, and a lathe would be the minimum required tools to make a wooden bowl. Obviously, very few people, if anybody, turn wood bowls with a set up this lean.

Additional turning tools and gouges of different sizes and different bevel angles provide support in particular situations. For example, a regular bowl gouge ground to be a micro bevel bowl gouge is a great tool to have on hand for deeper bowls that are difficult to reach with a traditional gouge.

Likewise, additional chucks and faceplates of various sizes make turning bowls convenient and simpler.

Measuring gear, such as calipers and depth gauges are beneficial to have on hand.

If you get the wood bowl turning bug like I have, you will likely expand your tool collection to include curved tool rests, coring equipment and even vacuum chucks among many other accessories.

Here’s a link to my Recommend Woodturning Tools and Recommended Lathe Accessories. These two sections will give you an idea of some of the items that make wood bowl turning easier. Keep in mind, you don’t need all of these tools to turn a wood bowl.

My bowl blank keeps popping off the four jaw chuck. How do I keep it attached?

If your bowl is popping off the four jaw chuck, there is a good chance the tenon or mortise is not formed correctly. The most significant factor is making a dovetail angle that matches your four jaw chuck.

Take a look at these five incorrect ways to form a tenon and see if you need to make some improvements.

By the way, I don’t recommend using serrated or toothed chuck jaws. My experience with these jaws has never been positive, and many times the bowl blank will become loose or slip out of the chuck. Stick with dovetail angled chuck jaws for the best grip.

Be sure you are taking your time and constructing a proper tenon or mortise. There are several components to making the perfect chuck connection.

The tenon should never touch the bottom of the chuck, and the tenon shoulder needs to rest flush and stable on the top of the jaws.

Whether you make a tenon or a mortise, be sure to take a little extra time and get it right, it can make a big difference. If you’re trying to decide the differences between the tenon and mortise, read this article.

Wood Bowl Turning Basics – Ideal Tenon Shape

I keep getting bowl gouge catches. What am I doing wrong?

Catches happen, especially when you first start out. Many factors cause wood bowl catches on the lathe.

Nobody wants to have catches on the lathe and there are numerous ways to avoid nasty catches, read this article.

One of the biggest factors that cause catches, is the bowl gouge presentation angle.

Here’s a trick, to greatly reduce catches. Take a red marker and color in the flute area of your bowl gouge. At any time when you are turning, and you can see the red mark in the flute you are putting the bowl gouge in an angle that can create a catch.

Catches can happen by taking too deep or too fast of a cut. Over time you will learn through muscle memory, habit, and skill how to more precisely maneuver the bowl gouge.

With experience, the bowl gouge can and frequently is used with the flute facing straight up which exposes that red mark completely.

Until your skill level and confidence improve, keep the bowl gouge angled away and hide the red mark.

Bowl Turning Basics Bowl Gouge Flute Too Open and Just Right
Bowl Gouge Flute Too Open and Just Right

The surface of my bowl is rough, and wood fibers are standing up, almost fussy, why?

All woods are different, and some woods don’t turn and cut as cleanly as others. However, what you’re explaining could also be turning against the supported wood grain fibers of the bowl blank.

Trust me, this concept can be confusing at first. Take a moment and read this article all about making grain-supported cuts while turning a wood bowl.

Essentially, a side-grain bowl blank is like a bundle of straws, or wood fibers, laying on their side. As we make cuts from the bowl bottom to the outer rim, we want there to be longer fibers under the ones being cut.

The cutting progression makes the cleanest, smoothest cuts when the current layer of wood fibers being cut have longer, supporting fibers underneath, which act as a supporting cutting board.

Cutting in the opposite direction, an unsupported cut makes the bowl gouge push wood fibers out into the open air and causes a ripping effect which creates a rough or fussy bowl surface.

I’m afraid of getting hit with a chunk of wood. How do you get over this fear?

This is a common fear, especially when you first start turning wood bowls. You can relax a bit and not worry too much once you have the proper safety equipment and understand the best safety practices while turning wood bowls.

I can tell you, I’ve turned hundreds of bowls and only had one incident when a bowl came off and towards me. All my safety gear worked as planned, and I was shaken up a bit but continued right on turning.

Here’s a rule of thumb, keep the lathe speed under 1,000 RPMs. The bowl blank will fall from the lathe at this speed. Speeds faster than 1,000 RPMs can send the bowl upward. Also, slow down the lathe if any vibration is present.

If you’d like to learn more about controlling the lathe speed, read this article next.

Over time you will understand how to control the wood lathe speed, which reduces lathe vibration, and your confidence will grow.

Always wear your protective face shield and eye protection and follow all the proper safety precautions. The fear of being hit by a chunk of flying debris is natural and with experience that fear will subside.

Why are some woods much harder to turn than others?

Trees and the wood they provide are as different as we are. Every wood is different in many ways, and at different times, in different locations, at different moisture content levels.

Did I stress different? Ha!

A piece of green wood from a fresh cut tree is usually much easier to turn into a wood bowl than a piece of the same exact tree that is aged and completely dry.

There is a wood hardness scale called the Janka Scale, and it measures the amount of pressure or foot pound force needed to embed a .44 inch (about 11mm) diameter steel ball halfway into the surface of any particular wood species. Check out some of the Janka ratings for various tree species.

Wood hardness is definitely a contributing factor, but most times when I find turning difficult it usually means I need to sharpen my bowl gouge. Keep your tools sharp and turning should be relatively easy with any wood species.

While turning the interior of the bowl, I went through the sidewall. How can I determine the wall thickness as I turn?

Congratulations, you have reached a right of passage. And you’re now a member of the Inside-Is-Wider-Than-The-Outside Club. 😉

We all have to turn through a side wall or five to understand and improve our turning skills.

Check, check and check again. It doesn’t cost anything to stop the lathe and check the wall thickness.

Your fingers are the best gauge to measure and examine the side wall, from the rim to as far as they can reach. Use calipers to reach beyond that point. With the lathe off, of course.

Also, a great habit to develop is your body position when you clear out the bowl interior. It is natural to bend down and peer into the bowl opening as your clear the inside.

Instead, stand tall and look down on the bowl bottom profile. The bowl gouge tip will be hidden from the side of the bowl, but you will be able to gauge where your tool is in relation to the outer profile.

Give it time, and this will become a great bowl turning habit. And remember, there are many steps along the path to becoming more proficient. Not all of those steps will end in a perfect wooden bowl. Ha! 😉

Read this article next to understand how to best deal with wood bowl wall thickness.

Yes, this will probably happen. LOL

What are the steps for turning a wood bowl?

There are countless ways and techniques used to turn wood bowls. It is common to see different turners using entirely different approaches to making wood bowls, and that’s great.

As I teach on my site, there are usually many ways to get the same results. Do what works for you. Be skeptical of anyone that says a wood bowl “must” be turned one way or another.

With that said, here is one way to turn a wood bowl.

How to turn a wood bowl – List of Steps

For a much more detailed explanation of how to turn a wood bowl step by step, read this article.

Bowl Turning Basics Conclusion

Hopefully, these bowl turning basics frequently asked questions addressed topics you too have been wondering about when it comes to turning wood bowls.

You most likely have additional questions. If you do, please leave a comment below and let me know your question.

Turning wood bowls is one of the most satisfying activities I know. That’s why I love sharing this information with everyone.

The bowl turning basics are the foundational groundwork towards the goal of turning amazing finished turned wooden bowls.

Learn, practice, and understand bowl turning skills and you are well on your way to making the bowls you imagine!


There’s a ton more information waiting for you here:
• 10 WOODTURNING TIPS AND TRICKS FOR WOOD BOWLS
7 VALUABLE GLENN LUCAS GEMS – WOOD BOWL TURNING WISDOM
13 WAYS TO RUIN A WOODTURNED BOWL
7 SECRETS FROM MY WOODTURNING MENTOR – DANNY HOFFMAN
VALUABLE DAVID ELLSWORTH BOWL TURNING INSIGHTS


Happy Turning,
Kent

Comments

    1. Author

      Hello Ray,

      Thank you for the question and I feel your frustration.

      Why does wood split? Let me count the ways…
      • different tree species are more prone to cracking than others
      • the pith is included in the bowl
      • there are natural fissures in the wood
      • uneven wall thickness
      • moisture escaping too quickly from end grain
      • environment too dry
      • environment too breezy
      • placed in warm/or sunlit area

      So let’s reverse engineer this.

      Try to turn an even walled bowl from top to bottom. There should be no areas thicker than others. If you are once-turning the piece place it in a paper bag. You can add shavings (from that turning) to the bag if it is very wet wood. Place the bag in a cool, dark area. A cabinet works well. Check it day to day and change the bag for a fresh one if it’s moist. This process lets the wood dry slow and under control and reduces any stress cracks.

      Now, if the wood is not that wet and you’re still getting cracks, be sure to avoid leaving the pith or any branch knots in the piece. Turn the piece in one “sitting.” This means don’t turn the bowl blank exterior and then return a few days later to turn the interior. Even if it appears dry, there is moisture inside and the wood will crack on the end-grain if left half turned. And if the wood is cracking and nasty, chuck it and find better wood to turn.

      A little gem of advice I learned from Richard Raffan – “Life is too short to turn rubbish.”

      Let me know if this helps.

      All the best to you and Happy Turning,
      Kent

  1. Hi

    just starting to turn have a nova chuck. how do I stay away from have indents in the wood from the chuck. have to have it tight enough to hold, bu then there is indents in the wood. what is the way to keep this from happening?

    Thanks

    1. Author

      Hello Larry,

      That is a good question. First, make sure the tenon or mortise is sized very close to the closed size of the chuck. This way the jaws are making full circular contact to the wood. If the tenon or mortise is much larger than the jaws, then only small points on the jaws are making contact and will most likely cause marking.

      Also, don’t over tighten the jaws. Snug them up but don’t go too far when tightening the chuck.

      If you’re still seeing marks, try cutting thin strips of paper and carefully placing it between the jaws and the wood. Be sure the paper is evenly spaced so the bowl is balanced on the chuck.

      Let me know if any of these tips help.

      Happy Turning,
      Kent

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