Lathe light is essential while turning wood bowls for two reasons, illumination, and specific details. This often overlooked lathe accessory can make the difference between okay and great wood turned bowls.
The first reason might seem obvious, good illumination, but I can tell you lighting at the lathe is not taken seriously, in most cases. I’ve had the opportunity to turn on many different lathes, and only a couple had sufficient lighting.
Many lathe setups I’ve encountered have no local task light and only rely on overhead lighting for the entire turning process. Of the lathes that do have task lighting, most of those lights have limited flexibility around the headstock.
Well Illuminated Lathe
Light at the lathe is critical for many reasons. Obviously, we need to see our work as we turn. But it goes much further than that.
We need to be making decisions and judgments about shape, form, and surface. Inadaquent lathe lighting dulls all of these essential factors.
Have you ever walked into a dimly lit room and come across someone doing a task, like reading a book, and flipped on a light for them? If so, you probably recall their surprise when they were introduced to the illuminated change.
Lathe light is similar in many ways. We get used to the conditions at hand, and we make do. Even if the lighting is weak, insufficient, and causes shadows, many times we just accept it and keep turning.
Accuracy Well Lit
As we turn wood bowls, we need to make precise judgments and decisions. Many times these decisions are based on fractions of a millimeter. Turning a tenon, or making a mortise require precise angled cuts, for instance.
What makes the matter worse, is we aren’t usually using measuring equipment to execute these precise bowl gouge techniques. We are using our perception along with the eye, brain, and hand coordination.
Experience and repetition engrain into us how we successfully approach each cut, turn, and form of a bowl. In most situations, we are making critical decisions based on relativity.
When I say relativity, I mean we are continuously comparing elements, consciously and subconsciously, to one another to determine our next move.
An example of some of the things that are being calculated in our mind as we turn a wood bowl for instance is; the rim thickness and angle to the wall thickness, the interior bowl bottom curve to the outside of the bowl, the outside profile of the bowl to the foot, and so on.
Can a wood bowl be turned in poor lighting? Of course, but what are we giving up because of that poor lighting?
A much more vital question to ask is, what is happening to our hand-eye-brain coordination because we are training, practicing, and repeating techniques under poor lighting?
I say there is a case to be made that lathe light and an adequately illuminated work area can increase wood bowl turning accuracy, precision, form, and aid in producing higher quality finished pieces.
While good illumination, at first, might seem straightforward, good lathe light also has another potential asset as well, illuminating detail. Detail is the critical final touch on any finished wood turned bowl.
As turners, we usually strive for smooth curved shapes that elegantly showcase beautiful grain. Tool marks, scratches, divots, and grooves, aren’t typically desirable.
I say “typically” because the majority of turned bowls are smooth, clean, and smooth finished surfaces. However, some people enjoy turning “rustic” bowls with rough, uneven surfaces and that’s great too.
A simple, productive trick can be easily achieved by placing the light down the side of the surface being worked. Side-lighting can illuminate and reveal high and low spots.
Just position the light at an angle to the surface being scrutinized. The light will fall on the high areas and cause shadows in the low areas. Quickly, peaks and valleys will become visible and ready for your focused attention.
Using this technique to shine the light on trouble areas, is a great way to improve your wood bowl turning skills. At first, it might seem overwhelming, but using light to find tool marks will help overcome these blemishes and improve turning mastery.
Just like finding tool marks and imperfections, side-light at the lathe can help illuminate scratch marks made while sanding.
Sanding with the grain of a wood bowl is an essential technique to master. Lighting the bowl surface from the side will reveal areas sanded against the grain.
Against the grain, sanding produces scratches and swirl marks. At first, they may not even be visible to the naked eye, especially if the lathe light is shining straight down on them.
However, move that lathe light to the side and “boom,” there they are. High spots are lit, causing shadows, and the scratches become apparent.
Positioning Lathe Light
Much like the tool rest, the lathe light needs to be continuously moved and repositioned for optimum performance.
For example, while making an interior push cut, the light might be perfect for the first few inches of that cut from the rim, but then needs to be angled inward to properly illuminate the lower curve and bowl bottom.
Don’t be afraid to move the light to get it closer or appropriately angled for the task at hand.
The lathe light is as essential as any other feature on the lathe. Use the lathe light to your advantage and keep it where it works best for you.
Types of lathe lights
To be clear, a good lathe light is usually a flexible, articulating, close-up task light. Any type of fixed light or ceiling light is suitable for general lighting, but not enough for a good lathe light source.
Articulating lights need to be sized for your lathe and work area. Smaller lathes may do well with all-in-one articulating arm LED lights, many which come with strong magnetic bases. These work well for mounting somewhere on the headstock area of the lathe.
For larger lathes, a more considerable articulating light or a flexible arm in combination with an articulating light is ideal. I use a two-section flexible arm made by Robust that has two Moffatt flexible arm light fixtures attached.
Another option for task lighting at the lathe is to have a freestanding light on a stand near the lathe. The advantage of this type of lighting is little or no vibration from the lathe.
Be careful to prevent the lamp from contacting any moving parts of the lathe, or from falling over.
In my experience, freestanding lights are better than just overhead light but aren’t very easy to get into specific locations while turning. This is why I prefer a lathe-mounted articulating arm lathe light when possible.
Two Better Than One
For some time I used only one lathe task light, even though the flexible lathe light arm offered on my lathe can hold two lights. I finally decided to add the second light and give it a try.
I was shocked at how much of an improvement the second light made. But after thinking about it, it made sense. One bright light illuminates the working surface well, but conversely makes dark shadows on the opposite side.
By adding a second light, the deeply shadowed areas are now illuminated to more thoroughly light the entire work area during turning.
I believe these aides in reducing eye fatigue. Because the area is evenly lit, there is less time visually, and mentally, adjusting back in forth from light to dark areas.
Strength of Light
The brightness of the light is a personal preference. I turn in a garage with a south facing open door, so I need a bright 100w equivalent light to counter the intense sunlight coming from outside.
In a dark basement, a 60w equivalent light might work well. But, again this is a personal preference and is also related to how well you see.
Light Color Temperature
Be aware of the color temperature of lights used in a lathe light. The Kelvin temperature of a light source will determine the color appearance of that light.
Most lights are sold in warm, daylight and bright white colors. I have found the bright white work best for me.
Light color temperature can be a factor if you are turning, like I do, with additional daylight coming into your workspace. Bright white LED bulbs seem to match, or at least not contrast harshly with the outdoor light.
Finish Light Color
The other component of lathe light and the color temperature is how the wood appears on the lathe. If you are doing any kind of color treatment when you finish the bowl surface, the color temperature will be somewhat relevant.
To test your lathe light bulb color temperature, just take a finished bowl and look at it under the lathe light. Then go outside and look at it under daylight conditions. Does it appear similar, or more yellow or bluer?
If there is a significant color shift difference when the bowl is brought outside, you might consider a different color temperature light bulb for your lathe light.
Safety of Lighting
The overall safety at the lathe will significantly be improved with better lathe light. But the lathe light itself needs to be safe as well.
When adding any accessory to a lathe, be sure it is adequately secured and supported so that it can not fall into the path of the turning lathe.
Make sure all cords and other elements also don’t come into the path of a turning project, while you’re working.
Also, be sure all lights either have a protective cover or are made of plastic. Most LED lights being sold now have plastic outer covers and are much more resistant to impacts than traditional glass light bulbs.
Lathe Light Conclusion
Lathe light is often overlooked and many times inadequate. I’d make the argument that proper lathe light is as essential as any other tool used while turning a wood bowl.
If your goal is to turn wood bowls with elegant, flowing, perfect curves and baby-butt smooth finishes, a good quality, flexible lathe light is a crucial component in the process.
Check out these other related articles:
• WOOD LATHE MAINTENANCE CHECKLIST – 7 AREAS TO MAINTAIN
• WOOD LATHE VIBRATION SOLUTIONS – BOWL TURNING SMOOTHLY
• SAFE WOOD LATHE SPEED (CALCULATE, DETERMINE, ADJUST RPM)