Introduction: Making a Live Edge Bowl
In this tutorial, I'll teach you how to make a live-edge bowl (that is, a bowl that retains the bark around the rim) from a freshly cut tree using a wood lathe and various other tools.
- Wood lathe
- Turning tools (I used carbide scrapers)
- Hand saw or large bandsaw
- Appropriate PPE (face shield, safety glasses, dust mask)
- Sandpaper, various grits
- Log section or bowl blank with bark intact
- Your finish of choice. I use "shine juice," which is a mix of shellac and linseed oil. Lacquer is another popular option.
A note about using green wood: "Green" wood is wood that has not been dried and still has a very high moisture content. As moisture leaves the wood, it causes changes in dimensions (warps, splits, cracks, et cetera).
When woodturning, a lot of people say that green wood should be "rough turned" (i.e. turned to a round, thick, semi-bowl-like state), then stored in a sealed bag with the shavings for several months until the wood has a chance to dry slowly. This is a great method if you have storage space and patience. I lack both. Instead, I turn the walls as thin and as uniformly as I can, then use a finish that forms a moisture barrier. This reduces the speed at which water can escape, lowering the chances that the bowl will crack. There may be some slight warping, but on a live-edge bowl with a lot of natural character, the warping can increase the appeal.
Step 1: Stock Preparation
The difference between a live-edge bowl and a more conventional bowl is the strip of bark around the rim. To get this effect, you need to do some stock preparation first.
In the drawing above, you can see exactly how a tree trunk becomes a log, and how that log is then cut to form a blank. You can also see how the bowl is oriented within that blank, which should give you a clearer idea of the steps to follow.
Measure the diameter of your log at the widest point, then measure up the log by that distance and make your cut. This will give you bowl blanks that are more or less square. I made this cut using a woodworking handsaw and it took forever. I'd recommend using a handsaw designed for tree pruning or, if available, a chainsaw.
Once you have your log section, you need to split it in half. Again, I did this with a handsaw, which I would not recommend. You could use a chainsaw or, if the wood appears relatively straight grained, a hatchet or splitting wedge to part the wood down the middle. If you try this and it works, let me know in the comments.
Now you have two halves of a formerly cylindrical log section. You can start turning this as-is, but it's a lot of extra work that isn't particularly fun. Instead, we can take the blank over to the bandsaw and remove the corners, shaping it into a rough circle (or at least an octagon). If you have a circle cutting jig for your bandsaw, it helps. If not, just eyeball it. When in doubt, remove less wood -- if you cut too close in one section, it reduces the diameter of the entire bowl.
With the blank now rounded off, you'll mount the wood with the bark facing the headstock of the lathe. This is done using either a faceplate (shown here) or a worm screw. If using a faceplate, make sure to clear away enough of the bark that the plate sits flat on the wood. I used a chisel. If using a worm screw, drill a hole and thread it in.
Step 2: Turning the Outside
We now have the wood on the lathe! The place where we've mounted the faceplate or worm screw will become the inside of our bowl. That means we need to work on the outside first.
Since the wood isn't quite round yet, we will run the lathe at a lower speed for now. The minimum speed on my lathe is 430 RPM, which is a good starting point.
Bring up your tool rest so it's close to the wood without bumping into it and so your tool's cutting edge will be near the vertical center of the wood. Take light cuts, knocking down the high spots. Don't get too aggressive at this point, as it's easy to catch the tool on the rough spots of the blank. Continue until you have something resembling a cylinder on the outside edge of the wood.
Now it's safe to increase the lathe speed (I went to 1200 RPM) and begin shaping the outside. There's no science to this -- just create a curve that's pleasing to your eye and looks appropriate for the outside of a bowl.
Next, you'll want to form a tenon -- that's a round protrusion that allows the chuck jaws to grip the wood when we flip it around. The required dimensions are different for each make and model of lathe chuck, but all of them perform better with a slight dovetail taper, such that the base is wider than the top.
Before reversing the blank, remember: you can sand and finish the outside of the bowl right now, while it's still easily accessible! This is much easier than trying to handle it later, so give the outside a good sanding and apply your finish of choice. Waiting for the finish to dry gives you an opportunity to take a break and move around a bit.
Step 3: Turning the Inside
Congratulations, you have half a bowl! Let's do the other half.
First, let's test-fit the tenon: Install the lathe chuck and place the bowl into it, tenon first. Tighten down the chuck. if the tenon doesn't fit, re-mount the faceplate and adjust your tenon. If it fits properly, THEN remove the faceplate.
If you remove the faceplate first and the tenon doesn't fit for some reason, it can be extremely difficult to reinstall in the exact same orientation, which means you'll need to re-shape the entire outside profile.
With the bowl securely mounted in the chuck, bring up the tailstock and start removing material from the inside of the bowl. You can continue to run the lathe at your chosen speed -- the blank is already round, so there's no need to slow down.
NOTE: The metal jaws of the chuck have a tendency to crush the soft wood fibers of the tenon, so remember to stop periodically and make sure the chuck is still tight.
The goal here is uniform wall thickness. You can check your progress using woodturning calipers, but if you don't own any, you can also turn off the lathe and check the thickness using your fingers. Pinch the bowl wall between your thumb and fingers and feel for thick spots. You can mark these with a pencil or sharpie and remove additional material. The thinner you get the walls, the faster the wood will dry; however, thin walls also make the wood less stable. Use your judgment -- over time, you will develop a feel for how thin you can make a bowl before something goes wrong.
As you work, leave a central pillar intact. This gives the tailstock something to push against and ensures that the bowl won't go flying if the chuck loses its grip. We will remove this pillar when we're almost finished.
Step 4: Turning the Bottom
Because there's a pillar in the center of the bowl, you probably haven't had a safe way to get your tools very close to the bowl bottom. Since we've finished the walls, it's time to remove that pillar. I prefer to remove it by hand rather than turning it off, because I don't like the idea of a semi-captive piece of wood spinning at hundreds of revolutions per minute banging against my workpiece.
Now is a good time to make sure the chuck is still tight.
Start by thinning out the base of the pillar until it's less than 1/4" thick. Turn off the lathe, pull back the tailstock, and just snap the pillar off with your hands. Ta-da.
Bring up your tool rest and remove the bump left by the pillar, then shape the bottom of the bowl to a pleasant gradual curve. Again, this is more art than science, so just do what feels good to you.
The hard part is done! Sand and finish the inside of the bowl. Take a few minutes to admire your handiwork.
Step 5: Removing the Tenon
The last step is to remove the tenon from the outside of the bowl. There are a number of ways to do this, but here's the method I used:
Using a hand saw or bandsaw, cut away the bulk of the tenon. If using a bandsaw, make sure the bowl is supported -- the bandsaw will want to grab it and pull it down into the table. If this happens, it will ruin your bowl. Using a handsaw is much safer, so if there's any doubt at all, just do that.
Sand away the remaining tenon using your power sander of choice. If you're good with a hand plane or chisel, you could also use those. The idea is to create a smooth, flat bottom.
At this point, you can add some finish to the bottom. I also added my shop logo using a branding iron.
That's it! We're done. If you have questions, leave them in the comments for me.
Remember: you can see a video of this process on my YouTube channel, available here:
Thank you for reading!