Introduction: Turning an Exotic Wood Bowl | Small Bowl Turning
Wood turning to the uninitiated appears to be an overwhelming and scary prospect. We've all marveled at gorgeous hand turned projects and also been shocked and appalled at tool catches that cause workpieces to go flying and smash into oblivion. Wood turning fails is a super popular YouTube search term.
But fear not. Wood turning is not only approachable, but incredibly enjoyable and you don't have to be an expert to make good quality products for you and your friends and family to own... or to create a little side hustle slanging bowls and wine stoppers.
A good friend of mine and neighbor is a local sawyer who comes across unique locally sourced exotics that we have here in South Florida, so I thought that this piece of guanacaste, aka parota, similar to monkey pod would be a great small bowl for the video.
Lathe (I have a jet mini lathe, but obviously the bigger the lathe the bigger the bowl)
Circle Drawing Device (I used the bottom of a large bucket but circle finders and compasses are also good)
Steel lathe faceplate
Turning tools (Traditional or Carbide, your choice)
Grinder (Wet or dry, for sharpening)
Finish (Food safe or otherwise, depends on your use. I went with tung oil and beeswax.)
Step 1: Prepping the Blank
Prepping the blank is probably the simplest task for a moderately experienced woodworker. If you have a bandsaw, cutting down to the line of your circle is a relatively painless task. I however, no longer own a bandsaw. Therefore, I went with a sawzall and handsaw to get close(ish) to the line before screwing on the faceplate. Screwing on the faceplate can be a bit tricky as far as lining things up, but the idea is to get it as close to center as possible. I used a pair of dividers and just kind of guestimated the center and then fired away, but an actual center finder here would be useful too. As far as screwing in the faceplate, don't worry about screwing straight down. Shooting your screws in at little angles will actually help with hold and grip in the event the area around the threads fails under the stress of spinning on the lathe. Then mount your faceplate to the drive and you're ready to go.
Step 2: Roughing Down to Balance
If you're like me and not at the line, you're going to have a fair bit of work to get your bowl blank balanced. One thing to note is that a bowl of this size should be turned on a lower speed setting as the outside of the bowl can get going pretty quick. I went with a pretty hefty rouging gouge [7/28/20 Update: A lot of folks informed me that spindle roughing gouges are notoriously unsafe here. So go with a bowl gouge. It appears my success with a roughing gouge is a combo of softer wood and slower speed and taking light passes. However, to be safe, use a bowl gouge.] Also, this blank maxed out my lathe so I had to start by taking material from the transition between the base and the side, and slowly work my way around until I could get the tool rest in position.
Step 3: Prepping the Bottom and Sides
I worked the sides and bottom a lot with the roughing gouge until I felt as though it was ready for the bowl gouge. The side profile is a little bit bell shaped which will prove later to be a bit challenging as it'll encourage a super steep interior profile. Once the bottom and sides are shaped to satisfaction, I'll start by working on the recess to mount the chuck. Your options are for a tenon or a recess. I prefer a recess but either way you'll need a dovetail profile. I like to hollow out the space with the bowl gouge and then jab my skew in there like a scraper to get the profile. I'll test fit it before then moving on to a bowl scraper to clean everything up.
Step 4: Finishing the Outside and Mounting the Chuck
I'm still not a great turner so I finish the outside with a fair amount of sanding and then burnish with steel wool. You can also, if you'd like, apply finish to the outside of the bowl at this point if that suits you. My finishes tend to have long dry times so for the most part, that doesn't work for me. To mount the chuck, I'll put some non-slip rubber shelf liner over the chuck and then insert it into the recess to protect the recess and lock the chuck in place. Then I'll unscrew the faceplate and mount the bowl again.
Step 5: Hollowing the Bowl - Early Steps
Some folks like to use a drill chuck to start hollowing. I literally just purchased one and hadn't taken it out of the box yet, so that's where I'm at with that. I hollow old school: start from the center and work your way out in small rings and then move back to the center and do another pass. I tend to go a bit deeper in the center and then work my way out, but I'll always make a push cut, then move back a touch toward the rim, and do another push cut. I won't start with pull cuts until I'm ready to start cleaning out my tool marks. Once you start getting chips instead of shavings, it's time to hone your edge and you can do that on your grinder.
Step 6: Hollowing Toward the Bottom
As you move deeper into the bowl, your body position will change and you'll find yourself more perpendicular. I've heard of people positioning themselves on the other side of the lathe even, but in my mind that just doesn't feel safe.
I'll periodically check for depth because you don't want to come through the bottom or side wall, so just shut the lathe off and do a touch test. I'll even knock around the inside of the bowl and see if I can hear the recess coming through. This is definitely an experience thing and you'll come up with your method one way or another.
You'll also likely need to re-hone again assuming your wood is dry. Green wood turning is a different ball game entirely, but is easier on your tools.
This is where a curved tool rest comes in handy to really get deep into the corners and have the bowl gouge supported. That's next on my wish list.
I'll use a bowl scraper to clean up the inside before sanding.
Step 7: Sanding and Finessing
I'll sand the inside and also hit the outside of the bowl again. I know I did it once already, but I'm a belt and suspenders kind of guy. At this point, I'll do an extra step of using the shavings as a final burnishing to give it an extra smooth surface. You can also apply finish directly on the piece while it's on the lathe at this point if you'd like.
Step 8: Finishing
One of my go to finishing products is Real Milk Paint Company's Pure Tung Oil. It's a polymerizing food safe finish. I'll hit it with a few generous coats in a wipe on wipe off application.
As a secondary coat, I often use a tung oil and beeswax blend. I make this in batches with a mason jar in a double boiler method. Just use equal parts oil and wax and heat and stir until incorporated. When semi-cooled, wipe on and wipe off again. This makes a large batch and moving forward you won't have to reheat the batch, Just wipe it on as a paste. It's also a great finish for cutting boards or other food utensils.
Step 9: You're Done! Pour a Drink!
Once the finish is cured, and it does take a couple days to properly cure, you're all set!
As I said before, I'm a huge fan of turning. It's one of my favorite ways to get a quick win in the shop between larger projects. It's a great way to test your skills and feel, and is extremely fun and therapeutic. At the very least, you'll be quite impressive at gift giving time.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below and be sure to watch the YouTube video and follow on social media!