Mark (TheCraftsmansPath.com) on February 22nd, 2010

Last week my woodturning club (www.fingerlakeswoodturners.com) had the pleasure of hosting a demonstration by world-class turner, Al Stirt of Enosburg Falls, Vermont (http://www.alstirt.com) at our monthly meeting.  Al is world-famous for his turned and carved objects including square and fluted bowls.  For our demonstration, Al turned and embellished one of his signature square bowls.

Before getting into any turning, Al shared pictures of some of his turned and carved work.  Along with these pictures Al noted some of the inspiration for the embellishments that he does on his turned pieces – many of these ideas come from nature as well as looking at work in other mediums such as pottery.  Al’s advice here is that woodturners should look outside the world of woodturning for fresh ideas and inspiration.  This will help to avoid mimicking the work of other woodturners and will promote the development of a unique style of their own.

Al also shared some thoughts about safety in the shop. He shared experiences where he and other turners have been hurt in the past by not taking basic safety precautions around the lathe.  Ultimately, the moral of his safety story was to always wear a face-shield while turning,   Good advice, indeed.

From there, Al got right into the demo for the night.  Starting with a dry piece of cherry about 9” square and 2” thick, he mounted it on a screw chuck with what would be the bottom of the bowl facing out.  The screw penetrated about ½” into the wood and he noted that he uses the largest jaws on his chuck for this to eliminate any instability in the piece.  Al also used the tail stick to support the piece and indicated that he always does this for extra safety and only removes the tail-stock when necessary, even when using a chuck to hold the work-piece.

Al began turning the bottom of the bowl with a ½” swept-back bowl gouge.  The rule of thumb here is to always keep your hands behind the tool rest when turning a square object on the lathe.  He first created a short tenon for later reversing to a chuck and then moved onto shaping the bottom. He stressed taking light cuts during the shaping process, especially as he approached the edges to avoid chipping out the work.  Al often decorates the bottoms of his pieces as well as the top.  Before doing that on this piece he showed how he shear scrapes the surface for a clean cut to eliminate much if any need for sanding.  He did this by spritzing the surface of the wood lightly with some water and then scraping with a 1” scraper presented to the work at a high shear angle.  This scraper has a slight radius along its tip and is sharpened at a steep angle.  After sharpening, Al hones off the aggressive burr left by the grinder with a diamond hone. He puts back on a less aggressive burr with a couple of light strokes of the hone before shear scraping the wood. Al noted that the water tends to lubricate the cut and soften the fibers of the wood leaving a very smooth surface behind.

After shear scraping the surface, he moved on to creating some shallow coves in the bottom of the bowl using the same scraper but presented at a lower angle to cut the coves.  Al first marked out the spacing for the coves with a carpenter’s pencil.  He does not measure any of the markings that he makes but rather prefers to do them by eye as mere guidelines for the subsequent turning.  With the coves cut, he went back to the shear angle with the scraper, repeatedly pushing in lightly to create a series of grooves across the width of each cove.

With the work on the bottom complete the piece was reversed and held in a chuck by the tenon.  Al again used the tailstock for support as he trued the surface of the piece with the gouge and shear scraper.  With the edges of the piece at a thickness (approximately 3/8”) that he wanted to remain for carving, the tailstock was removed and he proceeded to hollow out the bowl. Again he started with the ½” bowl gouge.  Al performed finishing cuts after the hollowing using a smaller gouge.  This gouge had a more traditional grind at a very steep angle.  The wings were only slightly ground back and he relieved the heel of the gouge with a secondary bevel.  With a light touch and cutting on the left of side of the gouge, Al was able to get a very smooth surface on the interior of the bowl.  The last treatment for the interior of the bowl was series of small surface grooves.  Al also a made a single deeper groove on the top surface of the piece to serve as a stopping point for the subsequent carving.

Before removing the piece from the lathe for embellishment, Al penciled a series of concentric circles on the flat surface of the piece as well as a series of radial lines out toward the edges to use as guidelines during the carving process.  Next he reversed the bowl onto a vacuum-chuck to finish the foot and with that, the turning part of the demo was complete.

For carving, Al used a micro-motor tool from Wood Carvers Supply.  There are many possibilities for these types of machines (Foredom, NSK, etc.) however, this one is reliable and reasonably priced.  Al noted that to get introduced to this kind of work, a Dremel tool would be sufficient.  For most of his pieces Al uses rotary chisels from http://www.rotarychisel.com to do the embellishment.  On this piece Al showed carving treatments with two rotary chisels on different sections of the piece.  He also showed another treatment done with a rotary burr shaped like a small cylinder with a rounded top.

The carving itself was done randomly while using the lines on the piece as a general guide.   Al first carved along the concentric circles and next along the radial lines to create a random, hatched pattern.  Each of the rotary chisels produced different results and Al noted that every piece is different even with the same person and the same tools. Depending on the rhythm of the work and the amount of force used during the carving process, varying results are obtained.  The rounded, cylindrical burr was used in a repeated serpentine pattern to produce another design in another area of the turning.  After the carving was completed Al went over it with a nylon bristle brush in a slow spinning drill to remove and fuzz leftover from the carving.  He does use 3M radial bristle disks for this as well but the hardware store version that he used in the demo seemed to do the trick just fine.

The last step in the process was to paint the surface of the carved areas with black milk paint.  Though Al uses black often, he has started to use other colors as well.  Every color and wood combination will produce different results when some of the paint is abraded off the surface once it has dried.  Al likes to use black paint with cherry because, once abraded, it shows a coppery-colored sheen under the black.  The painting process was quick and simple and after the paint had dried Al used Scotch-brite to gently abrade some paint away from the surface of the carvings.  Typically, he uses some kind of clear top coat over the surface once the painting steps have been completed, though for the purposes of the demo the piece was left at this stage.

This demo was a great source of information and inspiration. Al encouraged us all to take the ideas and techniques presented and practice them. He stressed that there is enough room out there for many unique variations on the theme and that we should strive to take these ideas in our own direction as we evolve as woodturners.

Al Stirt has additional information on his web site (http://www.alstirt.com) regarding the tools and grinds he uses as well as sources of supply for many of the accessories he uses in his work – look for the Student Resources link.

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10 Responses to “Al Stirt Demonstration”

  1. Wow! Sounds like a great day! Al Stirt’s work is definitely a favorite of mine and seeing him in action would have been a thrill. Thanks for sharing, especially those finishing tips!

  2. Ted,

    Thanks for the comment. It was a great demo by Al. Though, it was not a whole day – this was done during the course of abut 2 hrs during our normal monthly woodturning club meeting!

    I’m glad to hear the tips about Al’s technique are helpful to you. I plan to try them myself soon.

    –Mark

  3. These bowls are awesome. How does he make the flutes? are they hand carved?

  4. Hey Dave,

    Unfortunately, during the demo Al only had time to do a square bowl.

    I’ve seen different techniques for doing flutes – one with a router jig and using an indexing wheel at the lathe. However, in looking closely at Al’s fluted bowls on his web site they look to be carved (by hand and/or with a power carver).

    –Mark

  5. Great write up; thank you for sharing.

  6. Amos,

    No problem. Glad it was of interest to you!

    –Mark

  7. Hi Mark!

    That square bowl is very cool. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m just amazed at what people come up with. Thanks for sharing!

    Best,
    Alison

  8. Hi Alison,

    Thanks for visiting the site.

    Al Stirt does some beautiful work – especially his embellished square pieces. Interestingly he does shape the pieces away from square slightly after turning because they just don’t look “quite right” when they are left perfectly square. His demo for our club was really interesting. I am doing a lot more turning in my shop these days, though my furniture work will never totally be replaced!

    I enjoy your blog very much. Please keep up the great content – and also please continue to visit here to see what I’m up to!

    –Mark

  9. Great looking at some of your projects. Can’t wait to see what other stuff you share with us. I wish there was a wood turning group around here. I’ll have to research it.

  10. George W. Jones III
    April 28th, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Just happen upon your site following information on Al. All I can say is great site. Belive me I will be back. Keep up the great work.

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