Live edge bowl turning is especially fun, exciting and the end results can be visually stunning. Of all the bowls I’ve turned, nothing gets the same excited and positive response like natural edge bowls.
Making a natural or live edge bowl is like displaying an elegant cross-section of a beautiful tree for all to see.
I started thinking about the difference between turning a traditional bowl versus a natural edge bowl and there are many things to consider.
Turning a natural edge bowl can be tricky and challenging at first. There are many secrets that make live edge bowl turning easier, more efficient, and much safer.
In this article, I will share a few of the more crucial live edge bowl turning tips I’ve discovered.
Live Edge Bowl – What Is It
A live edge bowl, also sometimes called a natural edge bowl, is a bowl that uses the natural contour of the bark side of a log as the top rim edge of the bowl.
I have heard people say the difference between a live edge bowl and a natural edge bowl is the bark. A live edge bowl has bark, while a natural edge bowl does not have bark. But, I’ve also heard both terms used interchangeably as well.
At first, looking at the rim of a live edge bowl, it can be confusing determining how the edge was formed.
But looking closer at the shape of a log and orienting the bowl within that shape, it becomes more apparent where the live edge bowl originates.
Thrill of Understanding
I must admit that I too, like so many others didn’t quite grasp where the unusual up and down curvy rim shape originated on a live edge bowl.
After taking a log that was cut in half length-wise and spending some time with it, I finally put two and two together.
After you’ve made a few natural edge bowls and share them with others, you too will probably hear a wide range of ideas about the unusual shape of a natural edge bowl.
My favorite thought about the live edge bowl is when people believe it is somehow steamed and bent into shape. Yes, I’ve been asked that question on many occasions.
Live Edge Bowl Bootcamp
I have made countless live edge bowls, and I’ve helped teach others how to turn live edge bowls for some time now.
Through the process of live edge bowl turning, I have experienced all types of different situations and have had to learn or develop solutions to deal with various issues.
Now, let me share with you what I think are 10 live edge bowl secrets that will make your experience turning a live edge bowl much easier and more successful.
1. Cold Cuts
Bark will hold to the rim better if it is harvested in winter. This isn’t always possible, but it is ideal.
The cambium layer under the bark is soft and active during the growth season. In the off-season, it is dryer and bonds tighter to the underlying wood layers.
Like so many other things in woodturning and woodworking, we need to always remember every species is different.
These differences can be night and day, especially when it comes to bark staying on a bowl’s rim. Some species of trees hold on much better than others.
2. Use More Of The Log
Unlike a traditional circle rimmed bowl, a live edge bowl can utilize more material from a log.
The traditional rimmed bowl is limited by the width of the log, while a live edge bowl is limited only by the length of the wood.
Turning air will be happening when we turn a live edge bowl, so the gap of wood material on the short side is no big deal.
We will turn down to the area at the base of the log with solid wood for the bottom of our live edge bowl.
3. Solid Anchor
Whether you use a faceplate, or an end-to-end drive center to initially start turning a live edge bowl, be sure to have a solid anchor contact point.
Carefully remove bark away from the area that will be facing the headstock. Work down to solid wood to have a firm grip on the turning natural edge bowl blank.
Never attach a spur chuck or faceplate to bark only. It is impossible to know if a reliable connection has been made to the underlying bowl blank with bark in the way.
4. Balance High Points
It’s a good idea to balance the high point on the opposite sides of the bowl. Visually it looks odd if one is just slightly higher than the other.
If, you’d like to have the two high points be different, make the difference more pronounced and deliberate, so it doesn’t look like a mistake.
Balancing the high points needs to happen when you make your initial lathe attachment point.
I usually use a faceplate to secure a live edge bowl to the lathe. When I clear an area with a Forstner bit or angle grinder, I create an angled flat surface that will position the bowl’s high points on the same plane.
5. Handle With Care
It goes without saying, that if we expect the bark to stay attached to the rim of the live edge bowl, then we need to be careful as we handle the bark.
Try not to bump or drop the natural edge bowl blank as this could dislodge the bark and cause damage.
I’ve found that most bark damage occurs when other logs are stacked on top of the natural edge logs. If you are cutting wood to be turned to natural edge bowls, set it aside and give it some T.L.C.
6. Glue Bark If Needed
As you work, you may see areas of bark that seem loose or a gap has formed under them. These loose areas can be patched as needed.
Cyanoacrylate glue or CA can be used to glue the bark edge firmly to the live edge bowl.
Depending on the wood species and how it absorbs the CA, you might also want to prepare the area first to reduce CA staining.
Experiment by applying a small amount of CA to an area. Does the CA cause a lasting stain on the wood fibers? If so, try the following technique.
Before applying the CA to the bark base, spray a light coat of canned lacquer along the area that will be glued. Let the lacquer dry, then use the CA.
The lacquer coat creates a barrier that helps prevent the CA from staining the wood fibers.
If the bark is problematic, you may need to stop periodically and apply additional CA.
7. Push Cut Exterior Rim
This one tip I learned the hard way, and it took several times before I got it right.
If you create a textbook, base to rim, supported grain cut on the exterior of the live edge bowl blank, you might rip off the bark edge rim.
A supported cut is critical, most of the time, but this is an exception. If you’d like to better understand the importance of supported cuts read this article about supported cut angles which covers the details.
To help increase the chance the bark will stay on the rim of your live edge bowl, you will need to make an exterior push cut, against the supported grain, from the rim to the natural edge bowl bottom.
Sharpen your bowl gouge first and make small, clean, slow passes until you reach the area below the bark edge.
From the live edge bowl base to the edge just under the bark edge, I use a traditionally supported push cut from the bottom outward.
Carefully merge these two cuts together to form the outside live edge bowl shape. A shear scraping cut works well to blend the exterior merge. See this article next to learn all about the shear scrape cut.
8. Speed Up
Because of the winged sides of a live edge bowl, we will be cutting air most of the time.
To aid in making clean cutting passes, the lathe speed is critical. Ideally, we want the lathe speed up as fast as possible without creating vibration.
For safety, I usually stay under lathe speeds of 1,000 r.p.m. regardless of the bowl size.
A faster lathe speed reduces the “air time” between each cutting pass on the wings. This helps reduce the time any minute irregular movement in the bowl gouge can occur and makes a smoother cut.
Be sure to read this article all about lathe speeds.
9. Making Air Cuts
While turning the wings of a live edge bowl, like mentioned previously, we will be turning air. Turning air requires a very focused approach with the bowl gouge.
We can not depend on the wonderful bevel edge to support our cut as we progress down the walls of the live edge bowl. Instead, we must rely on fluid body motion and hand-eye control.
The bevel will still be lined up with and parallel to the cut surface, but the gaps in space, the air, will not allow us to depend on riding the bevel, detailed in this article.
Instead, we need to visualize the exact line we will be cutting and make our tool follow that path using hand-eye coordination.
The tool rest is the key to making clean cutting air cuts. Use the tool rest as a visual guide and anchor for the air cuts passes.
Watch the tool tip location and just slide it along the desired path in relation to the tool rest. Use firm downward pressure with your left hand to keep the bowl gouge on the tool rest.
Watch your bowl gouge cutting tip.
Does the bowl gouge tip start to wander away from the tool rest? Look for the visualized course and follow that path using the tool rest as your reference point.
You have passed the bark edge when the bowl gouge picks up a stable bevel contact cut path.
Extra Tip – Place a sheet of white or black paper on the bed rails or ways to help see the turning natural edge bowl wings.
10. Work Rim Interior First
Once the exterior is complete, and the natural edge bowl is turned around for the interior work, attention needs to be paid to the top rim immediately.
If you typically clear out the center of a bowl interior first and work your way outward, it’s better to do the opposite with a live edge bowl.
Because we are so cautious to protect and maintain the bark’s attachment to the rim, it’s best to start right at that rim.
I make a 90° push cut right where I intend the rim to be first. This accomplished a couple things.
By making this cut first, I determine the wall thickness, and I can immediately tell if the bark is going to stay intact.
As I progress, I work down the interior wall first and then clear a “ditch” between the rim and the natural edge bowl’s center.
It is imperative to leave a mass at the center as you proceed. The center bulk will help hold the natural edge bowl to a more stable shape and reduce the centrifugal effect of the wings expanding outward.
Without a center mass, the wings will flex and expand outward and vibrate making a clean cut impossible.
Work methodically by making a clean cut down a bit on the inside rim and then removing the center mass to that same level. Then repeat by working down the rim a bit more.
Once an area of the rim has been turned, and the center mass has been lower do not go back up to cut again on the upper rim.
You will only have to try a return up the wall a couple of times to realize it will be nearly impossible to create a smooth cut with the wings vibrating uncontrollably.
Live Edge Bowl Experience
The live edge bowl is stunning to look at and also creates a great sense of accomplishment for any woodturner.
Hopefully, these tips and secrets I’ve shared will make your live edge bowl turning experience that much more successful and enjoyable.
Please let me know your thoughts and what you do to make a live edge bowl successful for you, leave a comment below.
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