Naked ladies

naked ladies 1000This is a ‘puzzle’ designed by Stephen Miller of Pyro Puzzles, and it’s quite fiddly to do, especially the face. So I actually turned the job down at first, and asked a friend to try and do it on his CNC lathe instead. The difficulty was finding hardwood in a big enough size that is not horrendously expensive, so he tried it with softwood, which suffered bad tearout. The deadline was fast approaching, so I persuaded the client to let me do it in a smaller size and took it on with a week to go, with some 2×2 sapele that I can get easily. The whole sculpture is about eight inches high.

The idea is that you present it in bits and the recipient puts it together, wondering what on earth it is.

Because it’s done by hand, the spindles aren’t identical even though they’re done from the same template. So you have two backs and two fronts that are slightly different. That means you’ve got four potential ladies, but only three in any particular configuration of spindles.

Finished in cellulose sanding sealer and microcrystalline wax.


img_20161107_203214017I thought I’d have a go at one of these. This is quite a big one; the bigger ones are easier to start with. When the bines (apparently that’s what they’re called, maybe from ‘bent tines’) are far enough apart to get your fingertip in between them it makes sanding easier.

I started with a Web search and found this by Richard Madden. It’s an excellent explanation of how to go about it.

I started with an old piece of walnut – a close-grained wood but a frankly grotty example. I thought if my first attempt went wrong I wouldn’t have lost much. But actually I’m quite pleased with it.

img_20161106_161021483I started, as instructed, by turning the basic shape, a sort of teardrop outline. The tailstock stays in place for the whole job, except for the final sanding of the top, but the base end also starts life in the chuck. The tailstock is there for support and to keep the centre in place but shouldn’t have any pressure on it, otherwise the bines could snap unexpectedly during the roughing out.

Once you have the basic outline, you put on the pencil marks. I started with the lines round the piece: with the lathe running slowly and the pencil on the toolrest I marked the top and bottom of the cutouts, and three more lines roughly equally spaced between them. Then, with the help of the index wheel on the headstock, I made eight equally spaced marks around the piece. I used the toolrest to provide a line of sight along the shape so I could mark the eight points round each circle. Then it’s a case of putting in the diagonal lines by hand and eye.

The next step is to get out the drill with a brad point bit. I used a 6mm bit. This step saves a lot of carving. Richard had only four lines and drilled along them; I’ve drilled between lines, either is fine. Drill towards the centre axis.

After the holes you get out the Dremel (I use a flexible shaft and hang the motor on a hook nearby). The bit is, well I’ve lost the packaging and I’ve forgotten what it’s called but it’s there in the photo. It’s very rough and ideal for this job. Start with a groove along the line of the holes, then come back and push deeper. The groove helps the bit to stay in place and not skid over the outside surface.

I’m not practised at this, in fact this was my first time with that particular carving bit. Yes, it is skittish and makes deep scars, so you need to make sure they are where you want them. I use a platform on the toolpost to rest my hand on, and I found it was worth locking the spindle. And another point that Richard made is – unplug the lathe! The brain naturally goes to the lathe switch, and turning on the lathe when you’re meaning to turn off the Dremel is not a good idea! I also had the extractor on to pull the dust away.

Eventually you develop a hollow in the middle, greatly helped by the holes from the drill, and the bines are taking shape. My best suggestion, having done it only once, is to do as much as you dare with the power tool before you get out the sandpaper. Sanding is the big marathon.

img_20161107_120325668Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sanding on the whole, but I do find myself thinking about a cup of tea more often at this stage. Best to use Abranet (which has a hook-and-loop backing) or a cloth-backed sandpaper and cut it into thin strips, about 12mm wide for this project, probably even narrower for a smaller version. Insinuate it round a bine and pull from side to side to tidy up the back of each bine. I started with P80, then through the grits to 240.

Take another look at it and see if it needs any more power carving and take a look at the other Dremel bits you have. By this time you’ve had a bit of practice. Find something finer and use finesse to insinuate it where you need it. I expect I’ll have more to say in future when I know the terminology and can show you what works. As it is, I decided with this piece that since its only function is to be ‘my first attempt at a twisted finial’ I would stop before I ruined it with a tool I’ve never used before.

I finished it with Osmo worktop oil, since I’d bought some for my kitchen worktop and had a lot left over. It’s excellent stuff, and foodsafe too, so it’s good for things like salad bowls and goblets.

Taiji rulers

taiji rulers 2These strange-looking things are called taiji (tai chi) rulers, not because they measure anything obviously, but probably because they keep your hands at the same spacing when you’re using them for qigong exercises.

They fit comfortably in the hands and can be held in different ways, depending on the exercise. They are excellent for gentle exercise for elderly people as well as for martial arts work, and they are very tactile.

It looks as though I shall be making quite a few of these. I’ve already sold two of the first three I made.

More of a writeup here.

Egg cups with captive rings

egg cups

These egg cups were made for a client who likes captive rings. From left to right they are: apple, ash, laburnum, hornbeam and yew. Finished with friction polish and wax. Just in time for Easter! After the third one I was starting to get the hang of it, but the most nerve-wracking bit is detaching the ring.

The captive ring tools you buy tend to be shaped for a particular thickness of ring; I tend to prefer larger rings that don’t look like they’ve been milled. The tools I use I actually got second hand and are home made from bent masonry nails, one ground for the left side, the other for the right.

IMG_20160317_154140370I started with the inside of the egg cup, because that’s the shape that matters, and because that way there’s more wood to support it and keep it stable. I used a ‘reference egg’ made from a thin piece of wood and sized for a large egg, 47mm diameter, as specified. The flat shape allows me to check that it fits the cup without having to move the tool rest. The egg has to sit nicely without bottoming out. If the bowl got too wide, I simply took the top couple of millimetres off the rim and went deeper. At this stage I haven’t yet committed myself to where the base goes. I at least wanted all the egg cups to be the same height. Once I’m happy with the inside shape, I can then mark where the base is.

The next stage is to shape the outside of the bowl to a reasonably uniform thickness. The client wanted a thick stem, and the stem thickness is largely dependent on what it looks like when the ring comes away. It does look distinctly untidy, at that stage. I like to hold the ring out of the way with masking tape when I’m tidying the stem; many turners don’t bother on the grounds that the ring gets out of the way of its own accord but I still find it a distraction, especially with such a short stem.

You have to shape the ring and sand it before detaching it, but I did pick up a trick to sand the inside of the ring after it’s been detached. You just wrap sandpaper round the stem, hold it in place with tape, run the lathe slowly and hold the ring against the rotating sandpaper.

sanding captive ring

When it’s all sanded down to 400 grit, it can be sealed before parting off at the base. Reversing the cup to finish the base is always a challenge, and I’ve used my home-made wooden chuck jaws, which I don’t have a photo of to hand but will show in another post.

I then buffed the egg cups on a buffing wheel with buffing compound, followed by Chestnut WoodWax 22, which is toy safe and reasonably water resistant.

Beware the spindle thread

So anyway, I have finally succumbed to the yearning for a variable speed lathe and have gone ahead and bought one. I’d used the Jet 1015VS at a hands-on session at the local club, and it’s a joy. Instead of having to stop the lathe, open two little doors, release the tensioner and physically move a belt from one set of pulleys to another, you just turn a knob while the lathe is running. I hadn’t realised before how often I actually want to adjust the speed. Typically the workpiece is unbalanced when it first goes on, so you start at a low speed but once it’s round you want it faster.

But there was a downside. These things often don’t run perfectly smoothly (unlike the lathe itself, which is quiet and polite as long as I don’t turn it on when the index pin is engaged). Something that didn’t occur to me to check was the spindle thread. On the one at the club, the thread is the same as my old lathe so it fits my chucks. Yes, you guessed it, the thread on the new one is different. Why, I don’t know. OK, it’s metric, perhaps that’s why. The thing is, on the display model (and the way it comes out of the box) you can’t see the thread because it’s covered by a faceplate. Perhaps they do that deliberately, I don’t know. But (and tell me if this is unreasonable) it would have been helpful if the sales staff had pointed it out. I know it was in the specs, and I should have looked, but even so.

So I find myself with a lovely new lathe that won’t fit my chucks. What to do?

Well, for the moment I’m using an adaptor, which cost me another 28 quid (and two days, because they initially sent me the wrong one and I had to go to the store to sort it out) and reduces the capacity of the lathe by about two inches, if you want the tailstock up with the chuck. Well, on the old lathe, the 1014, I’d always fitted the chuck to muscle-tight, so I did this on the adapter too. It flashed across my mind while the thing was turning nicely that it might be worth standing out of the way when I stop it, and i was right. The chuck went on turning and took itself, and the workpiece, right off the lathe and on to the floor. One more piece of firewood but otherwise no harm done, thank goodness.

It’s always the first few days with a new thing that are the most dangerous.


I want to put in my tuppenceworth on the oft-heard curmudgeonly comment that woodturning isn’t skilled any more, that the new tools and gadgets make it all so easy that any tinpot hobbyist can soon put out half-decent stuff.

First of all, I can only think of one reason why this can be seen as a Bad Thing, and that is, power tools will all be so much scrap metal if a time should come when there is no longer any power. At that point the pre-industrial techniques will have to come out again, along with their associated learning curve. But at that point, the lack of people with ten thousand hours at the pole lathe turning perfectly straight rolling pins will be the least of our worries.

In the meantime, any hobbyist can buy the kit and pick up enough skill in a short time to turn out dishes and bowls, goblets and platters and other items of varying levels of beauty. And why not? If you can quickly learn how to make a serviceable item in the shape you want it, you immediately have scope for innovation and creativity that you didn’t have before. You can play with ideas for decorating your pieces, you can look at the forms and shapes all around you in a new way, you can experiment with incorporating different materials, you can do all these things right away.

And when you go to the local woodturning club you soon recognise the ten thousand hours when you see it. The kit doesn’t make a master out of you. You still need to put in the time and the practice, and none of that time is wasted. The worst outcome is an expensive piece of firewood (bar any lapse in safety precautions, of course; we all have our near misses and the associated scars). In the meantime, you’ve had a chance to enjoy your lathe. It’s democratic, and the standard of work is inexorably rising.

And then there’s the other techniques you start to take an interest in: pewter, for instance, which is probably the first contact with molten metal that most of us encounter. Incorporating fibreglass resin or epoxy in your work. Learning about different kinds of adhesives. The ideas for turning your mistakes into features. The joy of seeing what a piece of relatively unpromising firewood can look like when shaped. And of course the brainwork of solving problems of practical geometry.

And what’s really lovely about woodturners is that they are always willing to share their skills and clever ideas with the rest of us. What’s not to like?

Perhaps your curmudgeon is simply envious.


quartersawnThis was the first time I’d attended the AWGB biennial seminar, held at Loughborough University, and probably also the last. Not because it’s not any good, it was very informative and I came away from it with new techniques and ideas aplenty. Not because I’m female in a group of primarily male woodturners – there were other women there. Not even because of the pompous parading of credentials and one interminably boring after-dinner speech.

No, the reason I won’t go again is that I can’t keep my mouth shut.quartersawngoblet

So when one of the demonstrators, showing us how to bend the thin stem of a goblet, tells us that this 5mm diameter piece of wood has to be “quarter-sawn, you do all know what that means don’t you?” I can’t help saying, “well, I thought I did, but…”

For an excruciating twenty minutes I was treated to ‘the lecture’ about what quarter-sawn means. It refers to the orientation of a board, where it came from in the tree. He drew ‘the diagram’ on the whiteboard. He showed how the rings are different on a radially sawn board and a tangentially sawn board. The rest of the audience joined in, trying to explain this concept to me. What they were not explaining was how a ROUND, THIN piece of wood can be ‘quarter-sawn’. A few people sitting near me did twig (to coin a phrase) that they were all answering the wrong question and tried to help me explain that. We were drowned out in the rush to explain ‘quarter-sawn’ in the clearest possible way so that this poor woman might get it in the end.

My humiliation was complete when, after it was all over, a man comes up to me and says, “Do you understand it now?” and proceeds to turn my favourite 0.1mm fibre tip pen into a 0.3mm fibre tip pen by drawing the diagram AGAIN! He then led me to one of the stands to show me the rings in pieces of wood.

I believe the expression is WTF???

So from now on, incidents like this are referred to in our family as ‘quarter-sawn moments’.



Ash bowl
Ash bowl

Well, I got a lathe for Christmas and this is my very first bowl, made from a piece of the ash tree that two years ago was mercilessly robbing my vegetable patch and has met its just come-uppance. There are many more bowls among the firewood.

Well, it’s more of a dish than a bowl, and it’s only four inches in diameter, but I’m very proud of it. I mean, I still have both eyes and all my fingers.

Many thanks to Bill at the BWA for giving me a turning lesson in exchange for some plywood offcuts. Win-win!

I’m having a go at a small piece of the walnut tree now.