Wood turning can seem like a mystery to many woodworkers. In fact only a very small percentage of woodworkers and makers are familiar with the lathe. I recently got a small lathe, and I thought it would be interesting to go over the basics. So when I had the opportunity to ask master wood turner Carl Jacobson a few questions, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to clarify a few things. So let's get started with some questions that I wondered before starting out and that I think others would find useful to know as well.
Step 1: Getting Started
What do you need to get started in wood turning?
You simply need something that will spin wood. A small beginner's lathe is a great option, you don't need a big, heavy duty lathe to get started. Another option is to make your own lathe using a drill or a drill press if you're feeling adventurous.
What's the difference between a large and a small lathe?
Mainly the capacity. If you want to turn larger pieces, then a larger lathe is needed. Smaller desktop lathes for example can only turn about 10 inches in diameter, whereas larger lathes can turn up to 24 inch bowls for example.
The bed length is another difference. Larger lathes have longer bed lengths, however many smaller lathes also come with extensions if you want to turn a baseball bat for example.
A larger lathe will also be more sturdy and can handle more substantial pieces of wood without shaking or become unstable. However, if you anchor your lathe properly, and make sure to use reasonably sized pieces of wood, then you won't have much of an issue, no matter what size lathe you've got.
Step 2: Tools & Accessories
What accessories do you need?
Most lathes come with a face plate, a spur center and a live center for the end and that's really all you need to get started other than the tools.
Do you need a chuck?
Well, it depends. There are a lot of people who turn with chucks and a lot of people who turn without one. Certain things are certainly easier to turn with a chuck, such as to hollow out boxes and turning bowls, but then there are many other things you can turn where you don't need one.
What kind of tools do you need?
So you have traditional tools and you have modern carbide cutting tools. The main difference between the two is the learning curve. Carbide cutting tools are easier to use right off the bat, whereas traditional tools take a little longer to learn how to use right.
You also need to sharpen traditional tools as you use them with a grinder, however that's not an issue with the carbide cutting ones, as you replace the tips when they become dull.
The two are also used differently. A traditional tool, like a roughing gauge for example is held at an angle, pointing up towards the wood as you're cutting, whereas the carbide tools are held straight.
Step 3: Steps to Using the Lathe
What are the steps to setting up the lathe?
Once you have unboxed your lathe, first of all put in your spur center and your live center, and make sure they meet in the middle on center, and that is critical if you do spindle turning. Another useful thing is putting down some W40 or other lubricant on the bed to make it everything slide smoother. Make sure to re-apply a lubricant every time you turn.
If you have a desktop lathe, make sure to bolt it down to secure it.
Also make sure to check your belts, so they're on the right speed for what you're trying to do.
When do you use different speeds?
Well, when first setting up a piece of wood on the lathe, start on a lower speed. When trying it out, if the lathe is wobbling, go down one speed. Then once your piece is centered, you can raise the speed.
Be aware, that if you're working with a piece of wood with defects in it you want to be even more careful and start the speed out slower, or else it can crack on you.
Step 4: What Type of Wood to Turn
Can you turn any type of wood?
Fundamentally you can turn with any type of wood, however it's a good idea to stay away from anything pressure treated. Also, certain tropical woods like cocobolo and rosewood and can cause some irritants. It doesn't bother all people, but some people have a stronger reaction to those than others.
Also, no matter what type of wood you're turning, it can cause problems if you turn a lot and inhale the dust. So it's always a good idea to wear a mask or a respirator.
Is there a difference how different woods turn?
While you can turn any wood, certain woods are a lot softer to turn and others are harder. Framing lumber for instance is rather soft, whereas hardwoods like walnut and maple are harder. Then certain woods like apple wood or cherry for example that are even harder than walnut, and turn nicer.
When do you turn wet vs dry wood?
You use dry wood when you don't want to have any more movement after it's turned. If you're making boxes for example, you might use dry wood, that way your lid doesn't shrink.
Green wood (or wet wood) is often used for bowls. Then you first rough turn when the wood is wet, let the bowl dry for about a year, and then finely turn it once the wood is dry.
Wet wood is also very different to turn than dry wood. It's softer and easier to turn, and a lot of fun!
Step 5: Why Get a Lathe?
Why would I get a lathe?
Well, wood turning opens up a lot of doors and enables you to do things that are difficult to accomplish in other ways. It really enhances some projects and it's a lot of fun. If you're making a table for example, you can turn round legs. Bowls are perfect to make on the lathe, as well as spindles, baseball bats, knobs and a lot of other things that belong in the "round family" of objects.
Step 6: Conclusion - Watch the Video!
Make sure to watch the video for a better perspective and some great info on getting started with wood turning!