Introduction: How To: Turning Chunky Stools

About: Australian Wood Review is Australia’s premier woodworking and woodcraft magazine. It is a high quality magazine for woodworkers that focuses on fine furniture making, woodturning, carving, timbers, tools and m…

Nowadays every other design magazine seems to show interiors that feature a must-have stool. In our booming café culture stools are the casual seating solution. At home these stools function equally well as small occasional tables or even bedsides. Urban salvage can provide log sections suitable for turning these shapes, however you will need green wood.

Rob McKee is president of the Woodturners Society of Queensland and expert at turning and all kinds of woodworking. In the photos he shows the process of turning a stool.

Step 1: Prepare Your Blanks

The first thing to do is to find the centres of the blanks on each end. Rob used a rule and his finger as a length stop to mark equidistantly from the edge of the billet to find the centre. The blank would be held on the lathe with a faceplate on one end and supported by a tailstock spur on the other. With a mallet Rob hit the centre drive to define its position.

The faceplate was screwed on with 35mm long screws. The ends were not perfectly flat off the chainsaw so thin wedges were used to level the faceplate (the ends of the wedges are trimmed off). Next, Rob checked the blank looking for any damage or loose bark or wood. Loose sections need to be chiselled off as they are potentially dangerous if they fly out during the turning process.

Step 2: Mounting

The faceplate end was spun onto the headstock and the tailstock with its revolving centre brought up to the other end. Rotate the blank by hand to position the toolrest correctly so that it clears the blank. Rob is shown above using a Vicmarc VL300 short bed lathe.

Select the lowest speed range, on this lathe, 30–1000rpm. Start the lathe and increase speed to the fastest obtainable without vibration. Remember to start slow then bring the speed slowly.

Step 3: Turn It True

Rob’s first tool is a ¾" (19mm) forged spindle gouge that he uses to start truing the blank, turning off initially any noticeably out of round sections of wood. As usual bring the chisel to the wood, till it starts to cut and then continue until the whole blank has been trued, keeping the rest as close as possible.

Keep tightening the tailstock up a little during the work. Because the wood is wet, the tailstock can loosen in the soft timber. The speed of the lathe can now be increased and you can true up the endgrain at the headstock end. Using a bowl gouge you can turn right down to the faceplate.

Stop the lathe and slide the rest up to the tailstock end and true up this face. On a good lathe you will be able to wind the tailstock spindle out to give you more clearance for the chisel. At this stage you can appreciate the good and bad of turning wet timber. The good is that it cuts easily, slicing long strands. The bad is that with some woods you will be sprayed with water.

Check your measurements now against the design and highlight any critical points with a marking pen. Using a long handled parting chisel plunge in as far as you can to define the meeting point of the two intersecting curves that were on the sketch. You want to go in about half the desired depth and certainly don’t want to go in too far. Widen this groove. Next use a bowl gouge to clear out more of the groove and start to develop the two curves. At this stage you can increase the lathe speed a little, as some of the weight has been removed and the piece is truer.

You can begin rounding and shaping the top of the stool. For shaping the outside curve Rob uses his favourite 1-¼" (32mm) forged spindle gouge. This tool can slice from its edge or cut with the middle of the gouge.

Keep working on the top of the stool going deeper and rounder. With a sharp gouge the shavings will peel away. By now there will a huge pile of shavings on the floor. It seems wood expands, because the wood removed has bulked up to almost ten times its original volume.

With the top of the stool rough-shaped the bottom sweep can be worked on with the same gouge . Be particularly careful of any wild grain sections or knots because the wood may tear out here. As the shape is more and more refined lighter cuts are taken to produce a finer finish.

This time to get into the place where the curves intersect Rob uses a 3⁄8" bowl gouge. The lathe speed can be increased again and all the cuts can be cleaned up. However now is the time to resharpen the gouge. When the chisel gets blunt it will start to bounce around and it is hard to get a smooth cut.

The seat area is at the tailstock end and now needs refining. As it is a concave cut you will need to follow the grain, always in a ‘downhill’ direction. So in this case you are turning from the middle to the outside. Rob again uses a 3⁄8" bowl gouge, here with a shearing cut, drawing the gouge to his body with the bevel rubbing.

Slightly round the edge and skim the rest of the surface with the forged gouge at an angle to get a slicing cut. You could use a scraper however it may be more prone to tearing. Listen to the sound as you turn. Throughout the whole process the lathe speed has been from 200 to 400rpm.

In the photo above you can see where the tailstock spur sits. Turn a slightly dovetailed spigot for mounting in a scroll chuck. Design your spigot to suit the scroll chuck you own. Remove the blank and unscrew the faceplate Reverse the blank on the lathe and mount your scroll chuck, sitting the spigot in the chuck to bring the tailstock up. Gently tighten the scroll chuck onto the spigot and then check by hand by spinning the blank to see if it’s still in balance.

Turn off the area where the faceplate sat using the 3⁄8" bowl gouge. The base is also slightly concave. You will need to remove a reasonable amount of wood to eliminate the screw holes.

Turn the base end down and make a spigot. The blank is to be reversed again to clean up the top. The new spigot fits in the scroll chuck and the same cleaning up process can be performed on the top of the stool.

A ½" spindle gouge was then used to bevel the top and lower edges. Turn the spigot away as much as you can. You can’t remove all of the spigot of course, but don’t risk going too small and having the blank fly off.

Remove the blank from the lathe. You will have two spigots at each end which can be removed with a saw and chisel.