Finishing Cut – Wood Bowl Turning Beyond the Basics

Finishing Cut Wood Bowl Main Image

The finishing cut or pass on a wood bowl turning might seem similar to the rest of the cuts, but there is a difference.

What is a wood bowl turning finishing cut? The final cutting pass that defines the surface of a wood bowl being turned is the finishing cut.

However, the finishing pass on either the exterior or interior of a wood bowl needs to be treated and executed differently compared to other woodturning cuts.

Acquired Skill

As I mentioned in the article 5 Reasons Nasty Catches Occur, there are many almost invisible muscle and hand/eye coordinated skills we develop as turners.

When we first start turning, we can not expect to have all the precise motor muscle memory talents to execute perfect cuts in every possible situation.

Nailing that last pass with a clean, crisp cut and making the entire distance from rim to bowl bottom in one continuous smooth motion is an art form all to itself.

Practice Practice Practice

Persistent practice will see your skills and abilities quickly grow.

One way to get extra practice is to try the finishing cut pass, which we will cover in a moment, on a partially cleared out bowl.

Instead of waiting until the last cut to practice and possibly ruin a beautiful bowl, start making finishing cuts when a bowl has a relatively thick wall.

Shave away a little bit with each practice finishing cut. Because the finishing cut is so thin, you could possibly get a hundred or more practice passes in before reaching the final wall thickness of the bowl.

Finishing Cut Practice Trick

Different Strokes

The bowl gouge angle and approach for roughing a bowl blank or clearing out the interior is entirely different compared to the finishing cut.

Aggressive, bold cuts are used to remove material on a bowl blank, but subtle precisely controlled motions are needed to make the finishing cuts.

Think of an artist painting a canvas. Clearing the bulk material of a bowl blank exterior or interior is like an artist using a broad brush to lay in the background of the canvas.

The finishing cuts on a wood turned bowl are similar to the tiny artist’s brush used to define the smallest details.

Roughing Cuts

Positioning the bowl gouge with the handle downward and tilting the bevel towards the cutting direction make roughing cuts easier.

The dropped angle and bevel tilt act to lessen the impact of the bowl blank as it contacts the gouge.

So if we turn a really rough bowl blank with bark attached, the bowl gouge cuts with a shearing action and is less likely to get caught on the surface and make a catch.

If you’d like to know more about avoiding catches, be sure to check out this article.

The roughing cut is just as advertised, rough. It is designed to make the beginning form of the bowl but not intended to leave a finished surface.

Finishing Cut Roughing Angled Bowl Gouge

Bowl Gouge Size

Size does matter. Yes, it is possible to turn a wood bowl with just one bowl gouge. However, if you add one or two more gouges, you will have a complete arsenal and be able to work wonders.

If you were to turn with just one gouge, I’d recommend the 1/2” bowl gouge. It is medium sized and a decent multi-tasker.

I use a 1/2” bowl gouge for most of the shaping and contouring of my bowls.

Now, if you want to rough out your bowls quicker, add a 5/8” bowl gouge or 3/4” bowl gouge, and you will have the extra oomph to rough shape your bowls faster.

For making very fine finishing cuts, try using a 3/8” bowl gouge or even a 1/4” bowl gouge.

Finishing Cut Gouge Variations Sizes

Small Advantages

There are two big or rather “small” advantages to using a smaller gouge for finishing cuts.

A small gouge tip engages a smaller cutting area, so you are less likely to accidentally make a deep cutting path that starts to reshape your bowl design.

Also, the smaller bowl gouge has a smaller bevel surface area and can make tighter contouring turns along the bowl’s surface.

A Cut Above

Like the name implies the finishing cut, or “cuts” come last, so the bowl blank has already been roughed, shaped and contoured to its final look.

The shaping and contouring process, usually done with a medium sized bowl gouge may have left minor tools marks or blemishes on the bowl surface.

It’s essential to think of the finishing cut in an entirely different light compared to all the previous shaping cuts.

The finishing cut on a wood turned bowl is very much like shaving. We will be shaving away any bumps or marks, leaving a smooth final surface.

Finishing Cut Detailed

Throughout the roughing and shaping process, I typically angle the bowl gouge tip towards the cutting path somewhere between 45 to 90 degrees depending on the area being turned.

This rotated flute angle is useful when you encounter stubborn areas that tend to resist.

But now that the bowl is shaped we are pretty close to a perfectly smooth surface and will most likely not have much resistance.

Because of this relatively smooth surface, I start my finishing cuts with the flute opened to almost straight up.

Please be aware this is not a beginner move.

If you have not put in the time to acquire the motor muscle skills, you can easily cut too deep and possibly get a catch.

Secret Precaution

The best way to start this cut is to place the left outer heel of the bowl gouge up against the bowl surface.

Just let the side heel rub without cutting at all. This will give you time to prepare for the finishing cut.

When you are ready, slowly lift the bowl gouge handle until the cutting edge engages.

Only allow the gouge edge to make a thin cut before starting to move forward into the pass.

Finishing Cut Heel Rub Handle Lift

Making The Move

The showy one-pass cuts made by top turners all have something in common. They have the end in mind before the gouge touches wood.

Everything must be in place, including your body, beforehand to get that showcase smooth cut from rim to bowl bottom.

Adjust your tool rest so you will have support from start to finish. This usually means positioning the tool rest at a 45-degree angle to the bowl interior or exterior.

Next, position your feet, so you are close to standing straight up near the middle of the cutting pass.

Keep your feet planted and let your knees bend as your body weight shifts during the motion of the finishing cut.

Your arms can remain tight to your body for added stability.

The only upper body motion needed during the cut is with your right hand. Be sure you “rudder” the bowl gouge handle to keep the gouge bevel following the bowl shape.

Finishing Cut Close Up

The bowl gouge flute is relatively open and gently shaving a beautiful thin layer off the bowl surface.

Now what?

Keep an eye on the depth of the cut and try to make it as consistent as possible.

If the cut starts to dive into the wood or ride up out of the cutting groove, adjust the gouge handle to control the cutting tip.

Leveling Up

Another difference with the finishing cut is the angle you hold the bowl gouge.

With many of the roughing and shaping cut, we hold the bowl gouge handle down and present the cutting tip at an angle to create a shearing action. This is good prevention from catches.

During the finishing cut, the bowl gouge should be nearly horizontal and level to the center of the bowl.

Also, the open flute used to shave a light layer of wood will need to be rotated to the right as the gouge approaches the center bottom on the inside bowl.

From rim to bowl bottom keep the bowl gouge cutting tip near the center line of the bowl for best results.

Finishing Cut Gouge Position

Watch Up

This little trick works wonders, and I learned it from my woodturning mentor. If you want to see more of what I learned from him, read this article next.

Our natural instinct is to look at the cutting tip of the bowl gouge. Instead, look up at the opposite side of the bowl.

Looking at the other side, you will be able to more clearly see the depth and accuracy of the cut being made.

Finishing Cut Where To Watch View

Fast and Slow

To make this cut as smooth as possible, turn up the lathe as fast as possible without any vibration.

Remember to keep the speed within the safe range. Here’s what you need to know about safe lathe speeds.

With the speed up, make your cutting pass as slow as needed to make a smooth cut.

This is more like shaving, so a slower pace is perfect for creating a beautiful smooth surface.

Evenly spaced lines created by the bowl gouge indicate that the gouge pace is too fast. Slow down the pace, so the bowl makes multiple rotations before the gouge proceeds.

Especially slow down at the center of the bowl bottom because that area is rotating slower than the rest of the bowl. See this article for more details on lathe and rotation speed.

Finishing Cut Bowl Gouge Pace

Chatter Marks

If your bowl has any chatter marks before starting your finishing cuts, the open flute approach will shave the high spots and level the chatter marks away.

Use downward pressure with your left hand to keep the gouge from vibrating on the tool rest.

The slow pace of the bowl gouge also allows chatter marked areas to pass over the same cutting surface multiple times. This acts as a road grader and evenly levels the surface.

Finishing Cut Wood Bowl Turning

Wood Bowl Finishing Cut Conclusion

If you are just getting started turning bowls I don’t recommend making open flute cuts with your bowl gouge.

It takes a few bowls and plenty of practice to make the precise thin cut needed for this finishing cut.

In case you’re new to this site, I’ll repeat an underlying fact. There are many ways to reach the same final results. What I’m sharing here is one way, and it’s possible to find different approaches. Discover what works best for you.

The finishing cut on a wood bowl needs to be treated differently compared to all other cuts.

A high quality, smooth, and even final surface are the primary goal of the finishing cut. Speed and efficiency are not as important.

The biggest take away is to slow down and be very deliberate with the last passes of your bowl gouge and the results will speak for themselves.

Here are other ways to master your bowl turnings:

As Always, Happy Turning,

6 Responses

  1. Hi Kent,
    Do you offer any articles or include in your bowl turning course on thread chasing?
    Thank you.

    Russ H.

    1. Russ,

      I don’t. That’s a pretty specific spindle turning technique. Perhaps in the future, but not right now.

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  2. Hello Kent,

    Maybe I do not fully understand, but this approach as it is described seems to be opposite to the approach of Shear scrapping finishing technique. Flute closed with the Shear scrapping versus flute open with the Finishing cut. I understand the Shear scraping should not be used for interior but which is best for the exterior?. Could you develop on that and compare the pros and cons of both approach. Or correct my misunderstanding?



    1. AC,

      Good question.

      Ideally, you want to make great bowl gouge pushing cuts that leave almost perfect finishes.

      If, however, that doesn’t occur, the shear scraping can be used to fine-tine the bowl. The bowl gouge shear-scraping is for the exterior only. If you need to refine the inside, use the round nose scraper.

      See these articles for more details.


  3. I certainly enjoyed this article and realize how many mistakes I have been making. I bought some carbide tools and not sure they are best for me but I have been concerned about sharpening steel. Thanks for the article.

    1. Jack,

      You are welcome.

      I will be posting a couple articles about carbide tools shortly.

      Happy Turning,

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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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