A Simple Bowl
Words and photos: Terry Martin
When I started woodturning in 1983 I soon realised that I enjoyed making bowls more than anything else. I remember one turner saying to me, ‘Don’t you get bored making the same thing all the time?’, but I have never been bored with bowls.
The possible design variations – use of grain; open or closed form; base or no base; rims that flare, roll or dip; foot or no foot; and more – these are enough to challenge me for a lifetime, never mind the challenges of improving my technique to make it easier.
But of all the things that make a good bowl, the line of the piece is the most important. By this I mean the line that defines the outside profile and the complimentary sweep of the inner line, and for me the simpler that line is the better. I also prefer no sudden changes of direction and it must be smoothly continuous, with no bumps or dips.
There is something else which makes a bowl really sing, and that is how it feels when it is nestled in your hands. A good
bowl is the reflection of the cupped human hands. If you watch someone pick up a well made bowl, they will cradle it in their hands and invariably lift it to their face. It is the echo of something that our species has done for thousands and thousands of years – drinking water from our cupped hands. So I believe that the warm feelings that come from holding such a bowl are buried deep in our psyche. These are big thoughts for a simple bowl to hold, so I set out to make just such a bowl to illustrate what I believe.
I chose a piece of camphor laurel with a soft grain pattern, then mounted it on the screw chuck and trued it up till it was 165mm dia., and 90mm deep (photo 1).
There were some deep cracks, but they were at the outer edge of what would be the base, so I turned them away with slicing cuts, rolling the tool into the wood by lifting the handle of my bowl gouge (photo 2).
After marking the spigot diameter for my chuck, I roughed it out with the gouge, then used my dedicated spigot scraper to finish it. I have ground the angle of the scraper to match the dovetail on the chuck jaws (photo 3).
I always leave a second step to give me room to part off the bowl or, in this case, to allow me to sand right up to the chuck jaws when I reverse it later.
Next I wanted to finish-cut the bowl, avoiding pickout, which happens when grain is plucked out by poor cutting, leaving holes in the surface. Pickout is the deadly enemy of good sanding as it means you have to sand away the entire surface to the depth of a few small holes.
I always use my favourite cut with 1on its ‘back’. I take very fine slices with the edge at about 45° to the wood as it comes down onto the blade. This cut is safe, as long as you don’t let the the tool tool roll into the wood and only take very light cuts. You can hear the two kinds of grain orientation as they pass across the tool: endgrain/side grain/endgrain, which translates as hard to cut/easy to cut/hard to cut.
If you apply pressure to the bevel, this can cause an oscillation of the tool that gets worse the more you cut. The solution is not to ‘rub the bevel’ as most turners say, but to just ‘float’ it while keeping downward pressure on the toolrest as you move your body through a constant curve – the intermittent sound will lessen and the tool will cut a true line.
Towards the foot it was possible to ignore the rule of always cutting ‘uphill’ because the endgrain there was at such a flat angle to the tool that it resisted the cut less. That meant I could finish-cut right up to the spigot (photo 4).
When this part of the curve was cut, I changed direction to continue the curve towards the top of the bowl, stopping about one third of the depth of the bowl from the rim, then used a pull cut towards me to shape the top third of the bowl. The result was still not finely finished, but the form was established with no pickout (photo 5). Small toolmarks are easy to sand out.
I did not sand the bowl before reversing it into my scroll chuck because with soft wood like this there can be slight compression of the spigot when you close the jaws, even if you don’t overdo the pressure. I wanted to see if I needed to lightly recut to make it run true again. As it happened, this bowl ran perfectly true, so I was able to finish sand with my trusty 30 year old Makita angle drill (photo 6).
While removing the tiny imperfections in the surface, I refined the line until it was perfect. Beginning with 180 grit I worked my way through to 500 grit, reversing the lathe each time to ensure the best finish. This is also where I have my dust extractor hose placed very close to the bowl to back up my room air filter and my Racal helmet, which I always wear. After more than 30 years, my body reacts badly to wood dust and such precautions make it possible for me to continue.
Sometimes when I have finished the outside I remove the chuck with the bowl still in it and stand it upright on the headstock to look at the form in a more natural position. In this case all was good.
The next step was to remove the bulk of the interior wood. With a really sharp edge and good tool presentation you can make ribbons of wood fly – one of the most satisfying parts of turning for me. For years I used a more traditional cut, pushing the tool with the handle in line with the direction of the cut, but I have been influenced by Glenn Lucas, the fastest bowl turner I know, and now I take a swinging cut using the right edge. The shavings were sweet (photo 7).
I cut a rim at 90° to the outside wall because the way the light falls on this kind of rim enhances the sense of ‘enclosure’. I then used the same swinging cut to establish the thickness of the wall, in this case 5mm. (photo 8). My thumb prevented kickback and with a sharp tool I was able to plunge straight in. Tentative poking at the edge is more likely to result in a mistake.
It is possible to continue the same gouge cut all the way to the bottom, but the grain at the bottom of a bowl accepts a scrape well and it is easier to swing the scraper to match the arc of the gouge cuts higher up (photo 9). I wanted this bowl to have a round bottom, so I turned the wall to the same thickness all the way to the middle, checking with calipers, then sanded to 500 grit.
The enclosed form allowed secure mounting on Cole jaws, but I kept the tailstock up for extra safety. Expanding the jaws inside a thin-walled bowl like this requires a delicate touch. I gently opened the jaws till it wasn’t possible to rotate the bowl on the rubber stoppers, then tweaked the chuck a touch more.
Open the jaws too far and you will split the bowl. I removed the spigot by rolling towards the headstock, which helped keep the bowl on the chuck (photo 10).
With the lathe rotating at around 500 rpm, I turned down to a tiny nub, then sanded the base to blend the curve (photo 11).
The nub was easy to remove with a small saw and I sanded the last few mm very gently at around 100 rpm. With the bowl sitting on the headstock, I was very satisfied (photo 12). It felt just right in my hands, the rim caught the light and the line was as good as I can do.
Terry Martin is a Brisbane-based wood artist, author and curator. Learn more here terrymartinwoodartist.com