Mark ( on August 10th, 2010

Well, as you can tell I have not been posting much to the blog recently.  That’s not to say that I have not been busy but, most of what I have been up to did not involve woodworking.  About as close as I came to woodworking over the summer was an effort to frame and finish a room at a friend’s house – have I ever mentioned on the blog that drywall is no fun?!!

As you know, I usually slow down my shop time in the summer and this year is no exception.  I did however get some shop time this past weekend.  Unfortunately, it was only to rough in some electrical outlets in a short partition wall that I am putting in one part of the shop.  I plan on putting in a couple of recycled cabinets along that wall for some needed storage.  I guess I will have to suffer through getting this wall and cabinetry installed in order to have a more functional shop this fall and winter.

With fall just around the corner, I am beginning to get the itch to do much more in the shop.  So, after I finish these minor shop upgrades I will be going full steam ahead on projects – because, we’re quickly moving in to woodworking season!

Mark ( on May 11th, 2010

Once again, it’s Woodworkers Safety Week for 2010.  Because there is a lot of content about safety with other power tools and hand tools, I thought I’d cover safety with another tool in the shop that can sometimes be underestimated with respect to its potential dangers. So, in this post I’ll discuss the safety at the lathe and I’ll offer several helpful tips for safely turning wood in the workshop.

Turning wood is a great way to spend time in the workshop.  Projects can be done quickly and for very little investment in wood – especially if you turn found green wood!  Because of the nature of this work and the wood being somewhat “captive” on the lathe the dangers of turning can often be overlooked.

What follows are some points to help everyone turn more safely in their shops:

  • Capture that wood dust – Just as in any other woodworking operation, turning and/or sanding at the lathe produces wood dust that is harmful to breathe.  What’s more, the dust produced is shot right back at the woodworker due to the rotation of the work.  Wood that is turned can often also be spalted and/or moldy from sitting in the elements before turning.  Turning or sanding this wood can release harmful spores into the air that if ingested can be very harmful to an even greater degree than normal wood dust.  As a result you should be extra-vigilant to wear personal respiratory protection while turning and sanding at the lathe at all times – especially when turning spalted wood.
  • Speed is dangerous – Blanks that are turned on the lathe can often be heavy, large and out of balance.  Spinning a large out of balance load on the lathe at high speed can be deadly – even if you are wearing protective head gear (and it goes without saying that you should be wearing a face shield every time you spin something on the lathe).  The key things to remember when turning are: that you should always start at the lowest speed that your lathe allows and that you should stand out of the line of fire when you start up the lathe.  On my variable speed lathe, I turn the speed dial down to zero RPM before starting and gradually increase the speed until the piece is turned into balance – if you don’t have variable speed then just start at your lowest speed.  If your lathe is still unstable when spinning a blank, then you should get the piece more in balance by trimming it while off of the lathe before turning it. There are lots of rules of thumb out there for how fast you can safely spin a piece on the lathe in relation to its diameter.  However, I really never use them.  I find that for bowl/vessel turning I almost never have the need to turn higher than 600-800 RPM.  Sanding is never done above 300 RPM (often much lower) and for out of balance blanks I usually start turning below 200 RPM until true.  Of course, for spindle turning between centers lathe speeds are usually increased, but even then I rarely go above 1500-1800 RPM.
  • The tailstock is your friend – Speaking of out of balance loads on the lathe, just because you have secured a piece onto a faceplate with screws or into a chuck with a tenon, that does not mean that your tailstock should be collecting dust in the corner of the shop!  When I turn, even after the piece is trued up and balanced, I will always use the tailstock for support until the last moment where I have to turn away the support point.  For turning the inside of bowls or vessels, I will follow this rule only on beginning hollowing operations of large pieces.  After that the speed rule takes care of me because I turn at very moderate speeds.
  • Dull tools are dangerous – We have all probably heard the adage that a dull tool is more dangerous than a sharp one.  This is because if the tool is dull then you will naturally try to compensate for that lack of cutting effectiveness by applying more power to use the tool.  This same adage rings true for the lathe.  It’s true that we usually only sharpen our turning tools on a 100 grit grinding wheel and not on 8000 grit water stones but, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t sharp.  More importantly, a freshly ground lathe tool with cut wood effortlessly, reduce tearout and allow for better control when turning.  You should always be mindful of any extra effort that is required to cut wood at the lathe and when it becomes even a little more difficult, it’s time to sharpen.  Sharpening a lathe tool only takes seconds and then you are back to work.  Remember, as David Ellsworth is known to say: don’t grind the tool, dress the bevel – a quick, light touch at the grinder is all that it takes to get back to fantastic results at the lathe.
  • Don’t bottom out – We often use holding devices when turning blanks on the lathe.  The most prevalent of these holding devices is the lathe scroll-chuck.  These chucks have 4 jaws that offer exceptional holding power for turning blanks (even without tailstock support – though we know you should always use the tailstock for support if you can!)  I almost always use my scroll-chuck to grip the outside of a round tenon that I first turn on the piece while between centers.  The biggest (and most dangerous) mistake that turners make with chucks is that they cut this tenon too deep so that the tenon bottoms out on the inside face of the chuck jaws.  This actually offers less support for the piece.  The correct way to use a chuck is the cut the tenon so that the top edges of the jaws rest flush against a flat on the piece at the base of the tenon, but with clearance between the bottom of the tenon and the inside faces of the chuck jaws.  This scenario offers tremendously better resistance against the rotational forces which try to knock to piece off of the lathe and into orbit around the shop!

Hopefully these tips are of some help to you as you turn wood on your lathe in the workshop.  I find that turning is occupying more and more of my time in the shop and I always follow these rules when I’m at work on my lathe.

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Mark ( on February 22nd, 2010

Last week my woodturning club ( had the pleasure of hosting a demonstration by world-class turner, Al Stirt of Enosburg Falls, Vermont ( 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 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 ( 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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Mark ( on February 5th, 2010

Well, now that the legs have all been attached it was time to start the shaping of the leg to seat joints.  If you’ve been following along, you know that there was a good amount of material that at each joint location that needed to be removed and sculpted into the seat to be more graceful and aesthetically pleasing. Especially on the front legs, where the glued-up leg blanks offered a built-in clamping block for attaching the legs, there was quite a bit of material to take away.

Fitting Arm to Rear LegArm Joint FItted to Rear LegBefore diving in to the sculpting efforts I performed one more operation on the arms.  This was to prepare the arm to rear-leg joint.  To do this, I first cleaned up each of the rear legs at the arm joint location.  These were still rough from the original band sawing.  I just did this with a few swipes of a sharp block plane.  Next, I clamped each arm at the front leg transition area and adjusted it so that it was fairly tight against the rear leg at the joint location.  Because the angles were no perfectly matched, these joints needed to be trued to one-another.  This was done with some strips of 100-grit sand paper between the two pieces at the joint.  I pulled the sand paper through the joint, pulling away from the side that the grit was on so that I did not round over the edges of the pieces.  This took a while with the grit alternating from the arm-side to the rear leg side.  After a bit of work I had good tight joints.  After I had done this and ripped several strips of sand paper in the process, I thought about putting some strapping/packing tape on the back side of the sand paper to strengthen it – I’ll file that idea away for the next time I have to do this which will be when I fit the rockers to the chair.

With all of the possibilities of stalling exhausted, I arrived at the point where I needed to again take the angle grinder to the chair.  After all of the work so far, I was both excited to start the sculpting as well as a bit concerned over this step.  This work was done with the angle grinder and a 36-grit disk so material was going to be removed very quickly.

Original Rear Leg JointGround Rear Leg Joint 1Ground Rear Leg Joint 2I started with the relatively simple task of leveling the joints between the rear legs and the seat.  This got me again used to the motions necessary to smoothly move the grinder and the aggressiveness of the stock removal. Next I moved to the front legs for the more complex of the sculpting tasks.  The difficulty here was two-fold: first, sculpt the leg to reveal a smooth curve between the leg and the seat and leaving a continuous line of the front leg; second in doing so, work to move the transition of the joint between the leg and the seat away from the corner.  The second point was necessary in order to achieve a smooth curve between the legs and seat without having an abrupt 90-degree corner.  Surprisingly, this was accomplished by grinding further into the side of the leg – effectively moving the joint line away from the corner!

Original Front Leg JointFront Leg Joint Grinding 1Front Leg Joint Grinding 2Front Leg Joint Grinding 3Front Leg Joint Grinding 4Front Leg Joint Grinding 5Front Leg Joint Grinding 6

In the pictures you can see the progression of the sculpting on the front legs.  The first picture shows the original joint.  Each subsequent picture shows the steps of removing material to sculpt the leg into the seat.  Note how the joint line moves from the corner outward.  This was helped on the front side of the leg by relieving the front corner of the seat to allow better access for the grinder.

Seat Round Over 1Seat Round Over 2The last thing to do before putting the grinder on the shelf for a while was to form a round-over along the top and bottom of the seat sides in between the legs.  To do this I first marked a line along the edge about ½” in from the corner.  I then chamfered between these lines with the grinder trying to keep a smooth line.  After that I made smaller chamfers along each edge to create the round-over.

Grinding CompleteOf course, all of this sculpting will still require more work with the rasp, files and sand paper to complete the job.  But, for now the chair is starting to look more sculpted.

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Mark ( on January 22nd, 2010

Next in the series of reviews of DVD’s from the SmartFlix Woodworking University, I’d like to review the DVD: Wood Finishing Basics by Michael Dresdner.  This DVD is one of many DVD’s produced by Taunton Press for Fine Woodworking.

woodfinishingWood finishing is one of the areas of woodworking that seems to confound many woodworkers.  It seems that there is always much trepidation after spending many hours in the woodshop making a beautiful piece of furniture that all of that work can be spoiled by a poor finishing job – and of course, it can!  Well, I guess we all either have to live with unfinished furniture pieces or we have to learn the proper ways to prep and finish our projects so that we can obtain the results we are looking for.

Michael Dresdner is a woodworker and wood finishing expert that has worked in many professional finishing shops and written about wood finishing for many woodworking publications over the years.  In this DVD, Michael aims to arm the viewer with the necessary information and techniques to: prepare a surface for finishing and to achieve professional results with one of several different types of finishes.  Although this DVD is a bit older now, the information presented is just as relevant today as it was when the DVD was first released.

Dresdner starts with a thorough treatise on surface preparation and sanding.  As Dresdner states – no finish will cover the sins of a poorly prepared surface – the steps to a flawless finish start with the proper and thorough surface prep.  In the DVD, Dresdner takes the viewer through the techniques of both power and hand sanding and discusses the properties of many of the sandpaper products on the market today.

With the surface prepared on several projects, Dresdner then shows techniques for three different hand-applied finishes: a wax finish, hand rubbed polyurethane varnish finish and shellac and wax finish.  Using everyday products and simple techniques the viewer is shown practical methods to obtain very acceptable finishes that will work well on many different types of woodworking projects.

Next, Dresdner visits Chris Minick, who shows how to brush on a flawless polyurethane varnish finish.  This segment discusses thinning the finish for better flow, various types of brushes and proper brushing technique.  The rapport between Dresdner and Minick in the segment is a bit corny however; the information that is relayed about brushing is both useful and complete.   Watching Dresdner and Minick brush the finish on a couple of nightstands shows just how easy a good quality brushed-on finish can be to obtain.

Finally, Dresdner covers the principles of spray finishing showing a home-made spray booth and several types of spray-finishing tools.  During this discussion he covers how to develop a methodology for spraying a complicated piece like a chair as well as adjusting tools for different spray patterns for optimal results. The spraying is followed by a thorough segment on how to clean spray equipment in order to keep it in top operating condition.

This DVD should provide any woodworker with the basic information necessary to understand surface preparation, the pros and cons of different finishes and different finishing methods.  Whether wiping on, brushing or spraying the basics of the techniques are all covered in this DVD.  With this info any woodworker will be armed with the skills and strategies to obtain professional quality finishes in a home workshop.

Don’t forget, if you are a new customer and interested in renting these DVD’s, SmartFlix has offered readers of The Craftsman’s Path a $2 discount coupon for your use. Simply use the coupon code: CRAFTPATH when you check out!