What Is Woodturning? – And why everyone can do it

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Woodturning is a mysterious type of woodworking. It is a type of woodworking that most woodworkers a familiar with, but there is only a small percentage of woodworkers that are actually involved in the art of woodturning. I would like more people to get involved with woodturning. It is a beautiful and simple way to make beautiful objects and art. Woodturning is easy to get started with, but hard to master.

Woodturning is the process of shaping wood with a sharp tool while the wood is turning fast on a horizontal axis. A lathe is used to turn the wood. Items like bowls, vases, cups, pens, baseball bats, and much more can be made by the process of woodturning.

In this article I want to take the mystery out of woodworking, I want to show you exactly what it is, how you can start doing it, what you can make with the process of woodturning, and why everyone can do it.

A General Overview of Woodturning

Woodturning is the process of making wood round. When woodturning we normally use an electrically powered lathe to spin the wood in a circular pattern. The wood is spinning anywhere from 250 to 2500 rounds per minute (RPM) depending on the type of project and the objects you are making.

To shape the wood we use different types of chisels and gouges. We have different gauges for different uses. Some gauges are for roughing and removing wood quickly, some are for hollowing bowls, and some are for more detailed work.

The gouges rest on a tool rest, this is used to leverage the tool against the wood. To shape the wood you simply put the tool on the tool rest and lead the tool to make contact with the spinning wood. Now the tool is chipping of wood, and you are woodturning.

The most typical and popular product to make when woodturning is a bowl.

Short Woodturning History

The origin of woodturning is hard to pinpoint. But the earliest evidence we have of woodturning dates back to 1300 B.C. This depiction is from an Egyptian stone carving where the carver is using a bow to turn a piece of wood. The Egyptians first used two-person lathes, where one person was turning the wood and another was shaping the wood with tools.

A lathe that was popular in medieval Europe was the spring pole lathe (picture). The spring pole lathe, as the name suggests, was powered by an overhead pole that acted as a spring. It was also powered by a foot throttle that the woodturner would continually press. The cord of the lathe went from the overhead pole, then wrapped around the piece being turned, and was then attached to the foot throttle.

The spring pole lathe was actually a very efficient method of woodturning and an experienced woodcarver could carve a basic bowl in a matter of minutes.

During the industrial revolution, lathes were motorized. This allowed for quicker production and greater turning speeds. Most woodturners today use motorized lathes, mostly electrical.

The effectiveness of automatic industrial lathes has made woodturning as a craft less important for society. Most woodturning items today are mass-produced. But woodturning as an art and a craft still lives on and many people are still doing it. Some do it professionally and are able to earn a living, but most people do it as a hobby.

What Can You Make With A Wood Lathe?

The most common item to make when woodturning is definitely a bowl. It is just one of the most useful and simple things to make. But the opportunities of what you can make with a wood lathe are endless. Here are some examples of what you can make

  • Bowl
  • Pen
  • Vase
  • Candle Holder
  • Egg
  • Art
  • Plate
  • Cup
  • Egg holder
  • Chair, Table, Sofa Legs
  • Handles
  • Sphere
  • Baseball Bat

Is Woodturning Difficult To Learn?

It is not difficult to learn the basics of woodturning. But it is hard to master it. You can learn to turn a simple and beautiful bowl on the first day of turning if you have a little bit of guidance.

The great thing about woodturning is that progress comes gradually. And since it is such a fun activity to be involved in, it also comes naturally for most people.

Once you have made your first bowl, you will probably be hooked by the process and want to learn more.

But beginner woodturners have a lot to learn. So here’s a list of some of the things woodturners need to know.

  • Lathe Safety
  • What protection to use
  • Turning techniques
  • What the different chisels and gouges does
  • Different ways of attaching the blank to the lathe
  • How to use a bandsaw (Optional, but is a great tool to have to make blanks)
  • How to sharpen tools ( Bench Grinder )
  • What type of wood to use
  • How to work the wood

As you can see. There is a lot to consider when starting (And this is only a small portion of what you need to learn ). But don’t be overwhelmed, once you have started out, it will be fun to go through each step and learn new things.

But in general, I would say. Woodturning is not hard to learn, but hard to master.

Woodturning Pen Kit, Check Prize on Amazon!

Is Woodturning Dangerous?

Woodturning can be dangerous if the proper safety protocols are not followed. You are working with a tool that can spin a heavy piece of wood in up to 4000 RPMs. Clothes can get stuck in the lathe, wood can come flying off the lathe, you can get wood chips in your eyes, dust can hurt your lungs or the chisel can catch on the wood while turning.

But if we take the proper precautions and safety guidelines, woodturning doesn’t have to be any more dangerous than any other woodworking disciplines.

Clothing, hair, and accessories – When woodturning, don’t wear any clothing that can get caught in the lathe. Don’t wear long-sleeved shirts, remove watches and bracelets, don’t let your hair hang down.

Closed-Toed Shoes – use closed-toe shoes to avoid injuries to your feet. Tools and wood sometimes fall down. An even better option is to use steel toe boots which many people use in their shop as a general rule.

Eye Safety – Uses glasses that conform to the American national safety institute standards with side shields. Sometimes it is necessary to use a face shield when you are turning a piece of wood that is particularly rough and prone to chipping.

Respiratory – Before finishing our projects, we might want to sand them. When sanding we use a paper mask at a minimum. Also, have proper ventilation and dust management in your shop.

Lathe Speed – Starting the lathe at too high RPMs can be dangerous and the wood piece can come flying out. You also have to use the proper wood turning speed for your project, depending on the type of turning and the size of the wood.
Spindle Turning ( Normal size ) = 800 – 1800 RPM
– Face Plate Turning = 150 – 1200 RPM

Tool Rest Placement – Make sure you did not set up the tool rest too close to the wood. If so, the wood will hit when you start the lathe. Just make sure the wood can spin freely.

Danger Zone – The danger zone is directly in front of the wood or behind the wood when turning. When starting the, stay out of the danger zone.

Here is a great video about some safety tips when woodturning.

Is Woodturning Expensive?

Woodturning can be expensive. Lathes can cost up to thousands of dollars and the tools are not usually cheap either. But to start woodturning, you do not need the best gear. I am still using an old lathe that I inherited from my dad.

The minimum gear needed to start woodturning is a lathe, some tools, and safety gear.

Woodturning is relatively inexpensive to get into, but you will have to spend at least 250-300$. An entry-level lathe for woodturning costs about 150$. A proper chisel set can be bought for about 80$. The safety gear, like a face shield, glasses, and dust mask can be obtained for about 50$.

The wood can usually be obtained for free or cheaply in the beginning when you are just learning. I just used old scraps from 3-in by 3-in pieces of wood in the start when getting to know the lathe and the tools.

The more you get into woodturning, the fancier you will want to get with tools, type wood, and the lathe. Proper woodturning gear is expensive. And if you want the best tools, the best lathe, and the most beautiful and exotic wood you will have to spend thousands of dollars.

But woodturning does not have to be expensive if you source your own wood, use reasonably priced tools and you don’t need the best lathe.

You also need a place to sharpen your tools. You either need to buy a bench grinder for this, or you can send your tools in for sharpening or a price.

Mini Lathe

A mini lathe is a small lathe mainly used for pen turning and other small objects from wood. Using a mini lathe is a great way to get started with woodturning. It is small, cheap, and easy to use. It is also less scary than a full-size lathe.

Mini lathes are also great for people that don’t have the room for a full-size one. A mini lathe can be mounted on a solid table.

If you are interested in the process of making pens, I would highly recommend getting a mini lathe to get into woodturning.

Woodturning As A Hobby?

Woodturning is a great hobby to get into. The barrier to entry is fairly low and is not that expensive to get started as I explained above. Woodturning can seem intimidating and the lathe might seem a little bit dangerous, but don’t be afraid to try it. With the right safety precautions and training, woodturning is simple and a low risk activity.

The great thing about woodturning is the ability to make choices as you go. A project might end up entirely different from what you intended it to look like in the beginning. This is because of the freedom you have to choose what forms you like and what forms you dont like as you go, you can make snap decisions and form the wooden piece into any shape you like. In most woodworking disciplines you are not able to express yourself this freely and to “wing” the shapes of your objects.

When starting woodturning I would recommend joining a course with a good woodturning instructor to teach you the basics and proper safety. From there you can experiment and develop on your own or take more courses if you want to increase your turning skills

Woodturning is starting to get more and more popular again because of social media. Woodturning videos on youtube commonly get millions of views. New people that do not even have woodworking as a hobby gets introduced to woodturning every day.

To end this article, I will attach a video from a great woodturner that makes amazing youtube videos.

Heres A Great Video From Matt Jordan

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