Getting into Woodturning

I wrote this article in early 2006 when I first started woodturning. For about a year I was completely focused on turning and I thought nothing could drag me away from it. I had visions of becoming a turner full time. Sadly life got in the way, we had to move house and the lathe went into storage. It was briefly brought out around 2010 but I didn’t get much time to turn before it had to go back into storage again. Finally now, in May 2016, it’s out of storage and ready to go. I thought it might be nice to see the story from the start…

It is with great excitement and more than a little trepidation that I have decided to start my latest new hobby – woodturning. I have been interested in working with wood for as long as I can remember. As a child I was always fascinated by wood – the number of different colours, smells and textures that could be found just by examining common furniture and construction timber was a source of amazement made all the more amazing because I realized that I was only seeing a tiny percentage of the multitude of woods that exist. Although our school ran craft and design lessons they were broadly and quietly discouraged for anyone that showed even the slightest glimmer of academic ability. I took the advice I was given and dropped craft lessons in the final two GCSE years. Even at the time though I was envious of those who opted to continue with them as they turned out all manner of interesting projects.

I didn’t actually get a chance to turn wood at school but I did get a chance to do a little metal turning. I was fascinated by the turning even though it was about as simple a project as could be imagined. We were guided in the production of a simple bookmark comprising a piece of decorative string with turned aluminium bar at either end. The turned piece of bar was approximately three centimetres long chamfered at both ends with a cove half way along to add a little interest. The string passed up the middle and was knotted. A small recess was turned in one end of each bar to conceal the knot.

While metal turning was enjoyable I was much more interested in the idea of turning wood. There is certainly a great deal of skill in turning metal but the simple fact that most metals are exceedingly hard means that you are always at least one step removed from it’s shaping. With wood you are directly involved in the working of the material. There are no handles to turn, no gears to move – it’s just you, the tool and the wood. That appealed to me then and has done ever since.

Fast forward to summer 2002 and a holiday in France. We were lucky enough that the town we were visiting was having a small craft fair. There was a woodturner giving demonstrations and producing a few simple little pieces for the crowd on a portable lathe. I watched in amazement for twenty minutes or so, not understanding three words of the commentary, until the heavens opened and the most painful hail storm I can remember started. Needless to say that put a bit of a dampener on the whole show which was a real shame.

Moving quickly on to nearer the present day. My partner and I visited a craft show that is held every year in the local park. We visited quite by accident having intended to simply go for a walk round the park. One of the first stands we came to was a demonstration of woodturning on a pole lathe. The second I saw it I was hooked. We stood and watched for so long the guy running the stand asked me if I wanted to have a go. Having never turned wood before and being a bit to shy for my own good I initially declined but after five minutes more of me watching he insisted that I try it. I wandered round to the business side of the lathe and started pumping the foot pedal to turn the wood (nearly hitting myself on the head with the pole in the process). In no time flat I was cutting my first cove. I proceeded to cut a second cove and then make a complete mess of producing a bead.

I don’t know how long I was working on that piece of wood but I enjoyed every second and came to realize I wanted to do more – a lot more. I would have stood there working on it all afternoon given the chance but a young girl wanted a go so I had to do the decent thing and yield the lathe to her. I thanked the guy for giving me the chance to try out turning and walked away a happy man.

The next stand we went to also happened to be about wood but was more focused on carving than turning. We got talking to a retired gentleman who had taken up carving and turning as a hobby upon retirement. Considering the scant few years he had been practising his craft the pieces were of exceedingly good quality (at least to my untrained eye) and he was happy for us to handle them and appreciate all their beauty. In particular I remember a bowl in crossed sticks. The sticks were hand carved and locked together to support a plain but beautifully turned bowl. There was also a carving of a mother and child that truly captured the essence of the subject.

The piece I remember most clearly however is a turned apple. A very simple piece to be sure but it was what happened while I was examining it that made it memorable. It was the last piece I was going to examine and the guy running the stand asked me if I could guess what wood it was made from. I said I suspected it was a trick question thinking that it was probably made from apple wood (which it was). It was at that moment an American tourist walked up – interested in the apple he asked to see it so I handed it over and the gentleman running the stand asked him the same question. Out came the answer of pine followed by oak, ash, elm and so on. Sharing a rye smile with the owner of the stand we said our thanks and moved on.