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Bowl Turning... The hard way.

So.... Last September I was on holiday in Mousehole. I was catching up with my friend Bosky and talking about green woodworking. We were discussing the usual stuff and soon we came to the subject of Bowl Turning. I mentioned that I was keen to learn (as I hadn't tried it yet) and would also be making a bowl lathe soon. As is by magic, he produced a couple of bowl hooks that he was happy to loan to me!


Fast forward a few more months... I've managed to get some oak for the lathe bed and poppets but I put them aside for when I was free to finish them. The weather was pretty poor so I didn't make much progress for a while....


Once the winter weather had subsided (and I was less busy) I had completed the lathe bed and poppets and was almost ready to start. I had built a custom shelter next to my workshop so that I could turn throughout the seasons and be ready for the festival and craft shows for the year. In my mind, I was preparing for the next phase of my craft business. Developing an outdoor space for green-woodworking introductions, production of treen and further self development. I already had several events planned for the year so it was perfect timing....


This was in March 2020....



Lockdown Rules


Staring at the prospect of massive financial loss, longterm hardship and decreasing mental health, I chose the only option that was available to me. I had the time and now the lathe... I decided to teach myself how to turn bowls. It wasn't like I was busy or had any other outlet for my frustrations? How hard could it be? (answer: very hard).


I didn't have any previous hands on experience with the hook tools or bowl turning. Youtube was my only source of information so I spent a few hours watching videos of Yoav Elkayam, Jarrod Dahl, Sharif Adams and Ben Orford. It gave me an insight to the technique but it's nowhere near close to actual tuition.


Lets begin shall we...



Bowl 1 - 2/10


This was my first attempt at a bowl. I appreciate that even though it was my first go at bowl turning, I was pretty disappointed with myself. The finish, shape and feel was pretty bad. As it dried, a few cracks appeared on the rim and bowl itself. Tearing throughout the bowl gave it a really unpleasant feel and if I'm honest, I was quite disheartened by the experience. This had taken me almost 4hrs to make so I was tired and had sore hands / legs. Would not recommend.


The takeaway from this: learn from someone experienced - manage your expectations.



Bowl 2 - 4/10


My second attempt was much better... I used a very dry piece of spalted beech which meant that there was less tearing in the grain. The wood was pretty much firewood but better for experimenting with. I managed to have a video call with James Pumfrey during this attempt. His advice helped shave about 2hrs off the process and enabled me to achieve a much better finish. The shape was consistent and far more even this time. It was the tiniest adjustments to the angle of the hook tool which really made the difference (thanks James).


The takeaway from this: repeat this shape.


Bowl 3 - 5/10


This bow was another experimentation in how wet you can turn.... I used some green laburnum and while I was expecting it to crack, warp and implode... it didn't! It cut beautifully and gave a great finish. The wood was very hard to cut through (as expected) but again, this was all practice and experience. I had to sharpen again while doing the finishing pass over each side....


The takeaway from this: different woods will cut and dry differently. Chose wisely.


Bowl 4 - 6/10 (then going to 2 when it dried).


I tried another piece of cherry again (thinking after 5 months of drying fast, it would be ok). This was a mistake. I wanted to experiment with different edges so managed to make a wider rim on this one. It did cut better but after 5 weeks in its own wet sawdust in a dark room... it warped and totally lost its shape and form. This was disappointing as it had great colours and shape. I know mixing the heart-wood and sapwood can cause this warping (having made a few cherry goblets in the past).... I think in the moment I wasn't thinking and just ploughed on.


The takeaway from this: don't use green cherry with different sections. It will fail.




Bowl 5 - 5/10


After the failed cherry bowl, I decided to go back and use the last of the laburnum and return to an older shape. At this point, I'm much faster and more focused on my approach to the bowl. I now had an idea on the process and steps I must take in order to get the shape I want. I'm still a bit slow but I don't feel like I'm stumbling around anymore. I decide to keep to these shapes and just focus on improving the basics.


The takeaway from this: stick to a simple design. Be patient.




Bowl 6 - 7/10


I'm starting to relax and get my rhythm now. I used the last piece of my dry spalted beech and managed to keep this one together. The wood was pretty far gone (lots of spalted cracks throughout) but I felt it gave it more texture and character. This was an exercise in in patience and precision. The wood was delicate but I managed to hold it all together and still get a cleaner finish. I'm getting much faster by this point - my ability to remove and cut into the cone shape is also getting better.


The takeaway from this: Be patient. Stick to the rules. This is improvement.




Bowl 7 - 8.5/10


This is the best bowl I've made to date. The elm I used was seasoned and perfectly intact inside while having the lightest bit of moisture. The finish was really clean and sharp and it's shape was exactly how I wanted it to be. This was the culmination of all the mistakes and improvements I've been slowly making since March. Seasoned wood with a bit of moisture, selected and used at the right time with sharp tools. Progress.


The takeaway from this: repeat this again. 10 more times.





So.... my last bowl....



What next?


Am I bowl turner... no, not yet. I'm still quite a few years away from being really confident with this type of treen. The process of learning without support was exhausting and at times, quite disappointing when you make a silly mistake and fail. I'm mainly self taught in most things so this type of learning doesn't actually deter me. I love the process of trying and experimenting so although slower and more difficult, I actually enjoyed it (mostly).


Would I recommend doing it this way.... no. Get actual tuition from someone like Yoav Elkayam, Jarrod Dahl, Sharif Adams, Ben Orford, Adrian Lloyd etc. You'll pick up good habits, learn much faster and enjoy the first bowls much more. This kind of self apprenticeship doesn't suit everyone and could make you stop (before you really get into the craft). This would be a tragedy!


My goal now is to replicate the elm bowl I made at least 10 times and really concentrate on the finer points of the design. I've missed all my usual festivals and events this year... while a massive loss financially (and emotionally) I do feel like I've gained something valuable and will hopefully return in 2021 with a new skill.....





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