A Study In Wood Turning


This week I learned how to use a lathe to turn wood. A lathe is a machine in which work is rotated about a horizontal axis and shaped by a fixed tool (Merriam Webster Dictionary). Our first lesson in the use of the lathe was as our professor put it, “you don’t lathe something, you turn it”. It is important to understand the proper terminology of the tools and discipline in which you are working if you want to be taken seriously. After a few hours of tutorial and safety check I started in on my 5 hour journey to creating my first piece on the lathe, a tea light holder. Overall my goal was to create a tealight holder that looked something like the image pictured below:

Merritt Taper Holder from Crate and Barrel

I started with shop drawings to follow as well as a pre-cut and squared block of wood.

Starting Blank

After marking out the center of each end of the block, cutting in 1/16" at the mounting end, and using the band saw to cut off the corners at 45 degree angles to get the block to a more rounded shape, it was prepped and ready to be mounted on the lathe for turning.

Mounting the block for turning

This was another process that took me a bit more time than I had expected. I had to actually hammer the drive spur into the wood block using a large mallet. After about 15 minutes of pounding it in with as much force as I could, the drive spur was finally secure enough to mount on the lathe. I then began working with the round nose tool to round off my piece of wood and get rid of all the flat surfaces creating a rough cylinder shape.

After completing this process I measured out my piece and realized that I had not created a long enough cylinder to account for the loss of material when I did my cutting in, so I went back and extended the turning work that I had just finished to give myself a bit more room for error later on in the process, so that I wouldn’t ruin my piece.

After creating a cylinder out of my piece I drew pencil marks to mark out the area and size that I wanted for my piece.

Parting Tool

I learned how to use the parting tool pictured above to mark out the boundary lines of my form, which per the drawings needed to be 6" long. I measured out and drew my lines and then cut in at each end, creating clear boundaries for myself to follow. I learned that I couldn’t actually follow the lines that I drew exactly though. In order to actually get the distance I wanted between my cuts I needed to make sure that I cut on the outside edge of the pencil marks I had made to leave room for the width of the blade when it would cut it.

When making something by hand it is important to pay attention to allowances because human error can sometimes be the most difficult if not impossible factor to control. It is a different level of precision that one needs to be aware of when making things by hand versus by machines, which can correct for human error or have more stopping points to avoid human error.

Cutting in edge boundaries on a piece

I then marked out and measured approximately where I wanted the neck of the piece that I was making to be. This part of the process became interesting because there was no way to exactly measure out where all of the coves and curves of my piece would be to match a drawing exactly. I would have to rely on my intuition and decide, as I was going, how the piece would look. It is not a precise process that can be replicated with exact certainty and it requires a lot of in the moment decision making by the person crafting the piece.

I had to stop multiple times as I was cutting into this piece so that I could measure the neck with the calipers and make sure that I hadn’t cut in to far. I also learned that I couldn’t just hold the tool in one spot to cut in, I had to round out the edges, because of the nature of the tool it would start to stick and potentially grab the tool from me in a dangerous way if I just worked in one channel.

I then used the left and right skew tools to cut down my piece to the desired shape from my inspiration image. This is something that I had to gauge by eye so it was a bit more difficult to be as precise as I would have liked. I also ran the lathe while holding fine grit sandpaper under the piece to evenly finish and sand it, which was much easier than the hand sanding I had been doing on previous pieces. When I finished I had a piece that looked like this:

After finishing on the lathe I used a handsaw to cut off the top block and then sanded it down to a flat surface. I then used the drill press to cut a 3/8" deep hole into the top to hold the tea light and the handsaw again to cut off the bottom of the piece. I finished by sanding it flat for a level base finish.

Finishing off the tea light holder portion of the piece

My Final piece came out in a similar shape to my inspiration, but in the process of turning it I learned a lot about understanding the nature of the materials. Though I would have liked to make the neck of the piece much thinner as it appears in the inspiration photo I learned that as a novice wood turner that was going to be a bit difficult for me. The more thin that a piece becomes at a particular point such as the neck piece the more ‘give’ the wood will have and when rotating at such a high speed you have to be careful not to go so far as to snap the neck of the piece when carving it out so thin. Not wanting to ruin my first piece I decided to play it a bit safer and used the calipers to measure the neck of my piece to only 7/8" rather than the 1/2", or less, that I would have probably preferred for the piece. I learned that making your design vision match what you actually create can be quite tricky if you don’t yet have the skill set to get there and it takes time to build up that level of precision in your work.

Another important observation that I made after a few days of thinking back about the entire process was my physical role. When turning wood on the lathe you have to be entirely hyper focused and centralized on what you are doing. The ability of my hands could literally make or break the way the piece came out. The muscle memory that I was developing was integral to the nature of the piece and I was not just a craftsperson using a tool, but I was in a sense also the actual tool as it was my hands guiding the blades across the wood, determining the angles and necessary pressure and judging just how far was far enough by feeling the give from the material as I worked.

Completed Tea Light Holder