Supported Cut Wood Grain – Bowl Gouge Cut Direction

Supported Bowl Wood Grain Cut Understand

The supported cut and bowl gouge cut direction is initially a big hurdle to jump in wood bowl turning for some, myself included. I think part of the reason for the confusion is the fact that there are so many not-so-helpful phrases thrown around about bowl gouge cutting direction.

“Oh, just be sure you cut downhill and not uphill.” “Be sure you’re making a supported cut.” And my favorite comment, “Cut with the grain.” These phrases aren’t very helpful.

Side Grain Bowl Blank Labeled End Sides

Um, correct me if I’m wrong, but when a bowl blank is mounted on the lathe in a side grain orientation, the “grain” is spinning perpendicular with the lathe bed.

“With the grain” is not a useful phrase or even possible, as technically the grain is side-grain then end-grain then side-grain and end-grain, again. And that’s just one revolution!

For clarification, we will be discussing the direction in which bowl gouges and other turning tools will usually make the cleanest cuts. The cut direction is not to be confused with “riding the bevel” or the way a particular tool is being used. That is a whole different article and topic discussed in detail here.

Grain Direction

Before I reveal the breakthrough moment when I finally understood what direction to best be moving the bowl gouge, let’s talk about bowl blank grain orientation.

There are two traditional ways to mount a bowl blank to the lathe, side-grain or end-grain. An end-grain bowl is essentially a large spindle project with the grain running from left to right, parallel to the lathe bed. Cuts made while turning an end-grain bowl will match other spindle technique cuts.

While end-grain turning is excellent and works great for hollow forms as well, most bowls are turned side-grain. I will be sharing with you the techniques I use for making side grain bowls, but I will include an end–grain bowl gouge direction illustration at the end as well.

The same principals apply to end-grain and side-grain cuts to get the best results. But, because the grain is oriented differently with end-grain bowls, the directions and techniques will be a bit different, about 90 degrees different.

Side Grain Turning

A side-grain turned wood bowl is dynamic and can show off the beautiful characteristics of the wood, because it reveals so much of the interior timber structure.

The outer sides of a side-grain turned bowl display side, end, side, and end grain around the exterior and interior, changing at every 90 degrees. Because of this, the bowl gouge is continuously alternating between the side and end grain cuts as the bowl spins on the lathe.

The continuous cutting pattern of end, then side, and back to end grain is also why shorter curly shavings are made while turning side-grain bowls. End grain bowls make long continuous shavings as they peel away never-ending layers of side-grain fibers.

Everything we’ll be covering here is all about the end grains of the bowl. Not to be confusing, we will be covering side-grain turned bowls; however, it’s the end-grain portions that we must confront.

The end grain fibers contain all the cutting issues. Cutting those end-grain fibers cleanly is the difference between a smooth cut and a torn rough cut.

Fiber Ends

Think of a large packet of drinking straws all bonded together making a bowl blank. The ends of the straws represent the fiber direction and end grain of the wood structure. This end-grain is on opposite ends of the bowl exterior and both opposite sides of the bowl interior.

Wood Grain Supported Cut Straw Example

It’s this end-grain that can be a real booger at times. Usually, the side grain, or sides of the straws in this example are very cooperative and cut cleanly without much fuss, because the bowl gouge edge slices right down the length of the side grain fibers with no problem.

So what is all the fuss about end-grain and the direction of the cut? We obviously want a good clean, smooth cut when the bowl gouge moves across the wood’s entire surface, including the end-grain.

The Supported Cut Breakthrough

I’m going to use the term “supported cut” from now on, because it best describes the practice.

Simply put, a supported cut will create a smoother and cleaner final appearance as opposed to an unsupported cut.

After hearing so many terms and phrases to explain bowl gouge cut direction while making a bowl, I was confused.

When I was first learning to turn bowls, I knew I was making nice cuts and occasional some not-so-lovely cuts, but what was causing the difference?

It is all about the supported cut.

101 WoodBowl Turning Tips Display

Finger Analogy

I posed the gouge cut direction question to a fellow turner with more experience at the time, and I started hearing the same mumbo jumbo. Then he lifted his hand and held his fingers out straight, like making a dog shadow puppet.

Using the index finger from his opposite hand like a bowl gouge, he demonstrated. If the curve of your fingers is the outside of the bowl and the gouge moves from the center down along the outside, the cut is supported.

Supported Wood Bowl Gouge Cut Finger Illustration

More accurately, the fingers representing the wood grain, are supported because there are longer grains, or more extended fingers, underneath them supporting the cut.

If the cut is reversed, going from the broader area over the smaller space, the fingers, or fibers are sticking out and get pushed up freely or snapped off as there is nothing supporting under the fingers (wood fibers) as the gouge cuts. That is not a supported cut.

Unsupported Wood Bowl Gouge Cut Finger Illustration

Broom Breakthrough

After it finally clicked using the finger diagram, it became clear that the broom bristle analogy, which I heard later, was an even better example. After all, who wants to think about cutting off fingers, especially while woodworking? Yikes!

If you pushed a utility knife downward (there is the “downhill” reference) through the bristles of the broom, they would be cut off cleanly.

However, if you took the same utility knife and moved in the opposite direction, or in the “uphill” direction, the bristles would be ripped, bent, and snapped off, because there is nothing but air to support them—an unsupported cut—against the pressure of the utility knife.

Supported Bowl Gouge Wood Grain Cut Broom Example

In this example, the utility knife is the bowl gouge, and the broom bristles represent the wood fibers in the bowl blank.

Break the Rules

Test this “supported cut” practice for yourself.

The next bowl you turn, make cuts in both directions and see which is cleaner. Which makes a supported cut? Keep in mind every wood species is different and the results may be more dramatic with some versus other woods.

When roughing out a large bowl blank, I prefer to make substantial, bold roughing cuts “against the grain,” or not supported cuts. Oh no! I just used one of those ambiguous, confusing terms.

I guess that term does sorta work, because it truly is “against the grain” as the torn fibers reveal.

Unsupported Roughing Cut Against Wood Grain

Roughing Cuts

With a large bowl gouge, it’s easier to plow out large areas quickly by turning against the grain, or by making unsupported cuts. When the lathe is stopped, the quality of these cuts is very apparent and dramatic.

However, making unsupported cuts can be a great way to remove material quickly.

Quick roughing cuts are easily accomplished using a larger bowl gouge and cutting opposite to the supported cut, or if I dare say, “against the grain.” I use my larger 3/4″ bowl gouge with a swept-back bevel grind because it is a great candidate for this task.

Once I’m done removing the mass of material desired, then I make supported cuts to create a smooth, finished wood bowl surface.

Supported Roughing Cut Wood Bowl Gouge Direction

Not Always The Case

I’ve come across situations where, depending on the wood species and its condition, I have made “unsupported cuts” that turned out clean and smooth.

Usually, these have been light detail cuts in awkward locations where a traditionally supported cut wasn’t possible. Also, the wood was very wet or dense, or both, which contributed to a smoother cut.

Cut Directions

In general, with a side-grain-oriented bowl while beginning the outer shape of the bowl bottom, the supported cut is from the small center base to the wider outer rim.

And when the bowl is reversed, to work on the interior, the supported cut is from the rim to the bottom bowl interior center point.

Side grain wood bowl blank proper cut directions

When cutting across the relatively flat bottom of a bowl interior, or the relatively flat rim edge, there is very little end grain material being removed at an opposing angle.

When making flat face cuts, the bowl gouge cut direction can move in either direction with clean results, typically.

Also, when squaring the outside of a fresh bowl blank, the bowl gouge direction can go either way. Once an angle or curve is formed, then you’ll want to start making supported cuts.

Please let me stress that this is what works in general. There will be occasions when these cuts might not work.

For a quick reference, although the majority of this post is about side-grain turned bowls, I’ve included a diagram of the supported cut directions on an end-grain bowl below.

End grain wood bowl supported cut directions

Stair Step Supported Cut

When you’re not sure about the cut direction, or you see not-so-smooth cuts from a sharp bowl gouge, take a minute and look at the bowl on the lathe.

Are there longer fibers under the ones you’re cutting?

Think of the fibers as stair steps. We want to have “steps,” or longer fibers directly under the ones being cut.

The underlying structure or fibers being in place to hold the pressure of the bowl gouge cutting edge is the definition of a supported cut.

Staircase Supported Bowl Gouge Wood Grain Cut Example

Hopefully, these explanations and diagrams will give you the same breakthrough moment I had.

Whether you remember the hand diagram, the broom example, the straws as bowl fibers, or the stair steps, you only need to remember the fibers being cut must be supported by longer fibers underneath to make a clean, sharp supported cut.

Supported Wood grain cut direction wood bowl gouge

Understanding the best direction to move your bowl turning tools is crucial for making clean, smooth, supported cuts while turning a bowl.

Taking a moment to confirm a cut is indeed a supported cut takes only a moment of contemplation, and in no time it will become second nature.

If this article is beneficial, please share it by pinning it to Pinterest or sharing it with a friend.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, post a comment below.

– For details of the equipment mentioned in this article see my Recommended Equipment Guide.

You’ll probably enjoy reading these articles as well:

Happy Turning,

35 Responses

  1. This was VERY helpful. I’m a newbie and am still not ready to get on a lathe without supervision. But this really helped me understanding what people are talking about or trying to tell me. Wish everyone would use “supported grain cut” in their vocabulary. This brings me a step closer to being ready.

    1. Tom,
      Thank you for writing and sharing!
      Well, you sharing “supported grain cut” with others will help make that the new vocabulary.
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  2. thanks, Ive turned many projects and had trouble with tear out and spent lots of time with sandpaper… now I know why… thanks… Wain

    1. Wain,
      You are welcome, and now you should be enjoying much smoother surfaces.
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  3. As ‘m just learning to turn, your articles have helped me “zero in” on what was going on during a cut. As I’ve only been doing spindles to acquaint myself with the techniques, the supported cut article was very enlightening on turning bowls for me. It doesn’t seem as daunting to me anymore. Thank you for the clear direction.

    1. Hello Kent. Great article. I actually read it after watching your video on the same subject. Although I am an experienced turner I am also self taught mostly. All of your videos are great and the publications are outstanding. If nothing else I am happy I am doing most things correctly. The reason I thought I would comment here is because I couldn’t figure out where to comment on the video. My aha moment on grain support came when a gentleman showed what your drawings show as well as your celery example by bundling a bunch of straws together with rubber bands. I felt it was very clever as it shows how the capillary action of a tree works as well as being able to be manipulated for both side grain and end grain discussions. Thought I would share in case you want to use it for your channel.

      1. Ken,

        Thanks for writing and sharing.

        I’m so glad you had that ah-ha moment. The supported grain direction is such a profoundly important aspect to turning but can be so elusive until it’s not.

        Glad you are in the “got it” club now. 😉

        Happy Turning,

    2. This a very good article for all turners . The demonstrations make things more understandable for beginning turners. I sometimes mentor other new turners and with these examples it help in that way we can all pass on this information to help others understand and enjoy the turning craft.
      Thank you Brian

      1. Brian,

        Thank you for writing and sharing! Yes, pass this on please. It’s a very simple concept but kinda hard to get across. So it’s always refreshing when it clicks for a turner.

        All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  4. Kent, I just discovered your YouTube channel. Where have you been???
    So many questions and situations have finally been demonstrated and explained. From the tool rest position to cutting angles/direction, there are many many new challenges to increase my turning enjoyment and skills. Thank you!
    With these restrictive times, our club has been enjoying the benefits of Remote Interactive Demonstrations. Our club, Alamo Woodturners, is always looking for a fresh look at the world of woodturning. Do you offer remote demonstrations by way of ZOOM? If so, I would like to connect you with our Program Coordinator for possible future demos. One more question – I have gotten a great deal of help from your Articles. I do better reading off paper than on the PC. I have tried printing articles, but many of the pictures don’t always appear. Are they protected? Thank you again. Gordon

    1. Hello Gordon,

      Thanks for writing and sharing your kind thoughts.

      I am considering doing live demos via Zoom, but I need to determine various technical aspects before that can begin. Stay tuned.

      The images, both graphics, and photos on my site are copyright protected. However, you should be able to print them for your own personal use. It might be a printer issue?

      The creation of my website prior to doing YouTube videos was important to me because I know people learn in many different ways. Some prefer written instruction, while others prefer video. Even others prefer audio-only, but I can’t imagine an audio podcast of woodturning would be that interesting. 😉

  5. Thanks for a great Article Kent! I have your website open constantly and I am slowly working my way through everything, such a treasure trove of information. Thanks again.

    1. Hello Tim,

      Thanks for writing and being so kind!

      I’m glad I can be of help. Let me know if you can’t find something you’re looking for and I’ll do my best to help.

      All the best to you!

      Happy Turning,

  6. Yours was certainly one of the better explanations of cut direction that I’ve read. However, with respect, your explanation applies only to the classic bowl shape, where the base is smaller than the rim. In that case, as you have said, when cutting the outside of the bow, you turn from base to rim. However, what about when the base is larger than the rim, as in a side grain vase? It seems to me that, to get a supported cut, you need to cut from the rim to the base, yes?

    1. Hello Grant,

      Yes, the supported areas will change based on the direction of the cut and the shape of the bowl. You will always want to have longer, supporting grain under the layer being cut, respective of the bowl shape.

      Thanks for the question!

      Happy Turning,

    2. Thank you for this explanation. I’m new to woodturning and teaching myself. This was all greek to me and now I understand. Much appreciated.

      1. Hello Grant,

        I’m so glad you had that breakthrough moment here! I know how frustrating it can be to not get it!

        Happy Turning,

  7. Took your advice from another artical and read this one. While I esentially build my own bowl bllanks (segmented rings) all my bowl shape (urns) start out with ‘with grain’ turning, a laurger cubic inch urn exposes more end grain turning at acute angles. In my case at the end of an segment I am fully supported and at the end glue line I am somewhat fully unsupported immediately! I am a Carbide tool user so if I have no other tool side to rotate to I change tips. The round tool on a round rod handel gives me the best ange here; better than the 2 degree square tip flat rod tool handle. Any ideas on this situation?

    You were right on the statment about this artical could be an eye opener!

    1. Hey Walter, thanks for the comment. Well, if the question is how to deal with the unsupported areas and you are gluing up segment rings, I can only guess, but I imagine the outside of the form goes from narrow to wider back to narrow. If this is the case, then your supported cuts will most likely be working from the narrow areas to the wider, in that direction only. So from the top of the form to the thickest area and then from the opposite narrow end to the thicker area and merge the two cuts. The segmented rings really illustrate the supported cuts, as you always want a “longer” section of material under your cut. With segmented pieces, I guess you can say, you want to always be cutting down the steps, regardless if you’re using a bowl gouge or a carbide tool.

  8. Very nice learning tool. Well Done! I have shared the link with my turning club, Cape Cod Woodturners. I recently switched to the 40/40 grid which I like a lot Coupled with your discussion above, I am turning out much nicer bowls, with a lot less sanding!! Thanks!!

    1. Thanks, Richard for commenting! What is your favorite wood to turn from the Cape Cod area?

  9. The hardiest job is to make things appearing simple. For the first time I understood this notion. Thank you for that.
    I shared this article on a french woodturner website.
    I still have a question: when turning a side grain bowl, as if you do supported cuts, you still have the alternation of side and end grain and so far it is not really always a supported cut as the end grains will have the tendency to be teared off, don’t they?

    1. Thanks for your comment and that’s a great question! The tear out can occur with very dry, or “punky” (brittle wood fibers) wood. A couple ways to deal with this is to sharpen your bowl gouge very well during the last few cuts. If you’re still seeing tear out, you can shellac (or CA) the wood and let it dry before making the final cutting passes. That locks the loose wood fibers and makes them cut smooth and clean.

  10. Great writing and illustrations.
    I have been turning now for 1½ year, and heard all the phrases, reading and seeing a lot on the internet and Youtube, and being more and more confused, but admitted – at a much higher level.
    Thanks for putting it back to basic in a language to be understood

    1. Thank you, Jørgen! I appreciate your comment and compliments. Happy Turning!

  11. I never turned a bowl so far only did some spindle works… read loads of articles but I think this 1 was the best so far… it’s well explained

  12. Thanks for this article. I have been wood turning since 1980. This has been the best explanation I ever seen for learning which direction to cut with a bowl gouge. Nice job.

    1. Thank you, Tony! I’m glad this made sense for you. I remember learning cut direction, or rather I remember having no idea what people were talking about. That’s why I felt this article was so important to explain thoroughly. Thank you for your kind words!

  13. This is a great article, being a new turner it has helped me understand the reasons for cut direction not just this is the direction. Thanks for the lamen expanation

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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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