“Riding the Bevel” is said over and over among woodturners. But what does riding the bevel really mean? This article is going to explain the ubiquitous woodturning term – riding the bevel.
Before I explain riding the bevel in detail let me simply explain that this term is used to describe the purest, most clean-cut possible using a bevel supported woodturning tool.
And to be clear, riding the bevel is not the same term as wood grain supported cuts and it is technically a component within other bowl gouge cutting techniques. Riding the bevel is all about the ideal cutting action that occurs at the point of contact between the bowl gouge and the cut wood surface. Several bowl gouge cutting techniques, such as the push cut and pull cut, require the bowl gouge to ride the bevel in order to work properly.
Riding the bevel is a sustained moment in time when the woodturner is shaping and cutting a smooth clean path. The spinning timber seems to yield all resistance and the arching curves of the eventual form begin to emerge.
“Riding the bevel” is to woodturning as “hanging ten” is to surfing. And, surprisingly, these two activities have much in common.
Have you ever, or do you now experience the woodturning nirvana called riding the bevel? If you have, you know what I mean. The first bevel riding experience is quite satisfying. The thrill of riding the bevel is immediate when the smooth, almost effortless gliding action of the bowl gouge produces those elegant curly shavings.
So what is happening during this “riding the bevel” experience and why is it such a big deal?
What Is The Bevel
I must admit, when I first started turning I wasn’t sure what the “bevel” was. “Ride the bevel, ride the bevel” is said over and over, but everyone assumes everyone knows what the bevel is.
Perhaps its common knowledge, something I was supposed to have learned in kindergarten. Was the bevel the part of the tool that was cutting? Is the sharp edge of the bowl gouge the bevel?
Let’s take a closer look at the bowl gouge in detail. The main components of the bowl gouge are the bevel and flute. The base of the bevel is the heel of the gouge. Where the bevel comes up to merge with the flute is the sharp cutting edge. So the bevel is the flat surface under the cutting edge.
It’s important to note that the bevel and the cutting edge wrap all the way around from the left wing, across the center, and on the right wing.
There is a woodturning term called the “ABCs” of woodturning. It’s a nice little phrase to remember what to do when you approach your turning wood at the lathe. Anchor, Bevel, then Cut.
You start by Anchoring the tool on the toolset before it touches any part of the wood. Then you let the Bevel contact the wood before you begin Cutting.
So what is this bevel contact all about? This technique works best on a rounded wood blank. If you start with a rough bowl blank, one perhaps with bark remaining, or an irregular bowl blank its difficult to initially establish continuous bevel supported contact.
With a round piece of turning wood, the bowl gouge bevel can rest on the wood without cutting. Essentially the turning wood is rubbing the bevel, but the sharp cutting edge is not cutting.
By slightly lifting the bowl gouge handle, which lowers the bevel angle, the bowl gouge will begin to cut. Lowering the handle will disengage the cutting edge.
Rubbing the bevel and raising the handle seems straightforward. What’s the big deal about riding the bevel? The riding the bevel complexity hides in all the nuances.
Telling someone they need to be “riding the bevel” is exactly like telling someone with a surfboard to “hang ten.” This is much much easier said than done.
Here are all the conditions that need to converge and continuously be monitored and adjusted for a nice long sustained bevel riding cut to occur:
- handle angle moved fluidly with the curve
- gouge cutting edge engaged at a consistent depth
- gouge tip rotated towards cut direction at all times
- smooth forward motion (depending on the bowl gouge technique)
- gouge bevel parallel to bowl surface
- gouge tip must not dig inward
- gouge tip needs not to ride outward and off the cut line
- amount of material being removed should be consistent
Like telling someone to “jump on that board and surf,” “riding the bevel” takes time, patience and perseverance. There are many factors that all must converge before the bevel riding moment happens.
Riding the bevel is using the bowl gouge bevel as a guide. When the bevel is flush up against the freshly cut bowl, it acts as a guide for the fluid movement of the tool and the cutting tip.
The cutting tip plows wood away as the bevel assists by keeping the cutting edge in the proper position, snug up against the wood surface.
Right behind the cutting edge, the bevel rubs up against the freshly cut wood bowl surface. Because the surface of the gouge bevel and the bowl surface are nearly parallel and flush, the cutting tip continues to mimic this parallel plane as it moves forward.
The complication with riding the bevel is the curved nature of bowls and woodturning in general. If we were cutting straight lines, we could lock the bowl gouge down and make perfect lines all day, like on a table saw. But bowls have curves.
The Riding the Bevel Challenge
Riding the bevel is complex because the bowl gouge needs to adjust along the cutting path constantly. And these adjustments are micro-muscular events that need to happen without much thinking.
Like the surfer on top of his board, he has no time to “think” about the amount of weight on his left foot. If he’s off balance, he adjusts intuitively, instantly, and without thinking. If he doesn’t adjust, he falls. The same is true while guiding the bowl gouge along a bevel riding arc.
We need to coordinate at the moment much like that surfer. While riding the bevel, the cutting edge is continuously moving forward regardless of us. We need to constantly be in tune with the cutting tip, bevel location, tool angle, cutting depth, and applied pressure.
Two Trouble Zones
So why is riding the bevel so hard? I had to think about this one for some time. But I think the answer is simple.
Riding the bevel is hard because, again, it’s like surfing. A balance must be first acquired and then maintained over a course. The surfer must get on the board and keep balance to ride a wave.
When we start riding the bevel into a curve, we too must maintain that balance between all the contributing variables. And when we lose that balance, the ride ends.
The exciting and encouraging thing is there are really only two ways to “lose our balance,” so to speak. And we can learn when this happens and be ready for it.
While attempting to ride the bevel, we can do one of three things; 1) ride the bevel, 2) rub the bevel and lose the cut, or 3) ride off the bevel and onto the cutting tip.
Here is the subtle complexity of riding the bevel illustrated above. The simple innocent, and initially unknowing, act of having the bevel angle a hair one way or the other makes all the difference.
Some people prefer to call riding the bevel “bevel rubbing” because that is really what is happening. But I don’t want to confuse these terms.
While riding the bowl gouge bevel, it will rub on the newly cut wood surface as a clean cut progresses. However, the bevel rub I’m mentioning here is when only the bevel is rubbing, and the cutting tip is levered off the wood surface because of this rubbing action.
Exactly like introducing the bowl gouge using the ABCs, rubbing the bevel just means the bevel is touching, but the tool’s cutting edge is not cutting. If we rub the bevel and lose the cut, this means we’re not cutting wood anymore. When the bevel rubs completely, the cutting tip is not engaged, and we hear the clanking of the tool as it rubs the spinning bowl.
Losing balance on the bevel rub side is easy to spot because the ride comes to an end. Nothing is happening but the rubbing sound of the heel. We quickly know that we need to go back and correct.
In this case, we can simply adjust the tool angle and pick up where we left off. It is possible to blend this stop and start location along a cut course by easing into the previous cutting path.
The worse trouble zone is when the gouge comes off the bevel and onto the cutting tip. This is easy to overlook and make long cuts or even many cuts without realizing the tool is off bevel and cutting on the tip only.
When the bowl gouge is off bevel, the tooltip is unguided, and the cut is erratic. The telltale sign of an off bevel rubbing tip cut is the ugly tool marks that look like record grooves on the bowl surface. Yes, there are techniques to remove tool marks from wood bowls, but the best way is not to make them in the first place.
To help illustrate the off bevel infraction, think about how smooth and fluid snow curls and flies away from a snow plow blade gliding across the surface of a snow-covered road. That is similar to the ideal riding-bevel cut.
Now imagine that same snow plow with its blade tip pointed straight up and down and rested perpendicular to the road surface. If the truck moved forward in this configuration, it would not only make an incredible awful sound, but it would most likely tear up the road as well.
More closely, the blade would dig into asphalt and then pop up and skip over areas leaving patches of road and snow on top untouched as it moved along.
This is what happens when the bowl gouge is riding on its tip unsupported by the bevel contact. Tool marks and inconsistent lines are scratched in the wood bowl surface when the bowl gouge cutting tip is unsupported by the bevel.
The Ideal Bevel Ride
Let me try to explain the ideal “riding the bevel” situation. Keep in mind that even though I’m using words and a somewhat logical systematic approach to describe this process. All these steps need to take place on the fly in a smooth fluid action, with little or no thought.
Think of that surfer adjusting his muscles, shifting his weight, repositioning on the board, feeling the energy of the wave. His thoughts are not occurring like a mechanical checklist. His actions are intuitive and second nature.
OK, let me see if I can explain this.
Our ideal “riding the bevel” cut will be the last pass on the inside of a beautiful ten-inch diameter salad bowl. The mass of wood material is removed with my heavy bowl gouge, and all that remains is the last finishing cut (with my lighter 1/2″ finishing bowl gouge) that will be seen and touched by everyone who encounters this bowl.
The lathe is up to speed, bowl gouge sharp and the tool rest is positioned along the bowl interior. Gently, the bowl gouge tip is introduced at a ninety-degree angle to the bowl’s rim. Head above bowl, eyes looking down, the bevel edge is placed parallel to the bowl’s outside wall. The bevel angle is carefully scrutinized. A slight tick mark begins to grow into a small groove along the rim. A ledge forms that acts as an open door inviting the bevel to enter.
Cutting edge leading, the path deepens, and now the gouge bevel is completely within the bowl and supporting the leading cutting steel. That cutting-edge moves along smoothly but starts to go a hair towards the outside wall area and the handle is moved, by the right hand, an imperceivable small amount to correct this deviation.
A thin stream of shavings flies up and away as the path is evenly removed. The cut is clearing a thin amount of wood but not too much for the size of the bowl gouge flute. And the path is not too shallow that the gouge wants to pop out and lose cut. Just the right amount of even material is being excavated.
About two-thirds of the way down the bowl interior, along dead man’s curve the tool begins to sound a bit different. The handle angle and body motion have not quite matched the curve of the bowl, and the gouge heel is beginning to rub a bit more. The cut is continuing, but for a moment it becomes slightly thinner, less than the thickness of a hair. Again, an unseen minor adjustment is made to correct.
Entering the bowl bottom, the cut begins to slow matching the slower speed of the rotating vessel’s center. Here the wood cuts easier as the side grain (did I mention this is a side grain bowl?) severs effortlessly with the sharp gouge.
Approaching the bowl bottom center, the tip is guarded closely. The bevel angle is checked and rechecked for level. Anything other than level at the last moment will result in a nub or divot that will need to be addressed. The gouge crawls to the bowl middle perfectly on center, and the last little bit of wood glides off into the air to end the perfect bevel riding cut.
Learning to Ride The Bevel
To ride the bevel, the bowl gouge tip needs to be guided with super precise minute movements. To make matters a bit more complicated, these fine motions cannot be mechanical. A fluid bowl curve requires a fluid bevel riding cut.
At first, while learning to ride the bevel, there are the hesitations, corrections, bumps. The gouge will pop out of the cut and sometimes it will dig into the wood causing the gouge to plow and rip the bowl surface. This is all part of the process.
The quickest way to learn the riding the bevel bowl gouge technique is to do it over and over. I know that sounds like a cliche, but its the truth.
It’s simpler than you may imagine.
Many times people think if they can only get those last few cuts perfect, the bowl will look great. While that’s true, every cut counts.
When first learning to ride the bevel, attempt to make every cut a bevel riding cut. If you turn the outside of a bowl with a push cut bowl gouge technique, try to make each waste removing cut a bevel riding cut. Do the same for clearing out the inside of a bowl.
Later when you’ve perfected riding the bevel, you will progress to faster ways of removing waste material. But for now, use every fiber of wood as your learning surface.
When you run your fingers over the smooth, elegant curves of a beautiful bowl take a moment and appreciate the tool control, body motions, muscle memory, and accumulative experience that all needed to synthesize to create that bowl. If that bowl is yours, pat yourself on the back! You are a surfer “dude!”
If you haven’t discovered by now, riding the bevel isn’t going to be perfected in an afternoon or the turning of a bowl or two.
Be sure you understand the bowl gouge basics first and slowly grow your skill sets over time and with lots of practice.
But with patient and persistence riding the bevel is very achievable and most satisfying!
Check out these information-packed articles:
• SUPPORTED CUT WOOD GRAIN – BOWL GOUGE CUT DIRECTION
• BOWL TURNING GRAIN ORIENTATION – WOOD BLANK DIRECTION
• 13 WAYS TO RUIN A WOODTURNED BOWL
• FINISHING CUT – WOOD BOWL TURNING BEYOND THE BASICS
• 7 VALUABLE GLENN LUCAS GEMS – WOOD BOWL TURNING WISDOM
As Always, Happy Turning,