GFP Machines

Woodturning Explained

Woodturning Explained

Woodturning can be an excellent and highly fulfilling hobby, it requires skill and creativity that can be acquired by practice and the passion for wood in many forms. Most people are intimidated at first by all the different tools needed, but luckily you do not need the full range of chisels and a top of the line lathe to start exploring the joys of creating unique pieces of art.

Ever though turning like a pro can take years of experience, there are thousands of YouTube video’s made by professional woodturners and master craftsmen dedicated to helping the novice woodturner in honing his or her skills in a much shorter span of time. The woodturning fraternity world-wide are really a bunch of excellent people willing to help and growing the trade.

old woodturning lathe

Which Lathe?

These days it can be quite intimidating shopping for the perfect lathe. Hundreds of brands on the market claiming to be the best, different features and multiple attachment options can make buying a lathe a daunting task. I suggest that you do your homework before even starting to look for a lathe. The first questions you must ask yourself is what you are willing to spend, how often are you planning to exercise your hobby, do you want to concentrate on spindle turning or bowel turning, or maybe a combination of the two.

It is a good idea to speak to people already doing turning, everybody wil have a different perspective on how to begin and what to purchase first, this will give you a pool of information and will help you save on school fees. By doing woodturning, it is possible to make many items such as candlesticks, lamps, rolling pins, egg cups, furniture components, chess pieces, or any wooden piece moulded into a form. Even though industrial production has replaced much of the production of these items, the wood lathe and turnery is still very relevant in the bespoke making of many items. Whether this is a hobby or means of employment and earning an income, woodturning can save time and money, it is also a fun and highly satisfying art.

old vintage lathe
Woodturning lathe
vintage lathe

Pictures of some vintage lathes

Choosing your chisels

You can have the most expensive, top of the line lathe, but without the correct chisels your lathe is worthless. Although there are many types and configurations of woodturning chisels, the following chisels are useful for most beginners: a 3/4″ roughing gouge, a 3/4″ and a 1/4″ spindle (lady finger) gouge, a 1/2″ and a 3/4″ skew, and a 3/16″parting tool. A 1-1/4″ roughing gouge, a 1/2″ spindle gouge, and a 1/4″ skew. These options are not set in stone, but in my experience it was the ones I started with. Once again it depends if you are going to concentrate on bowel or spindle turning.

Sorby? Henry Taylor? Patience & Nicholson? Marples? etcetera. The choice of chisel brand is important for most seasoned woodturners and rightfully so. The more expensive, well known branded chisels are made of superior quality steel. For the beginner this is not the most important factor, although well known brands lasts longer because of the fact that they hold their edge longer, meaning staying sharp longer thus you get more life out of them. This does not mean that you have to start with them, for a beginner it is more important to learn how to grind and sharpen the chisels and with time, you can replace your cheaper chisels with the more expensive ones. On the other side of the coin, if money is of no importance you can go straight for the elite brands and save money replacing  them in the long run.

It is a fact that a full set of chisels (Cheap or expensive) costs less per chisel than buying it separately, but why purchase something that you are never going to use? The best way of sharpening your chisels is by using a slow speed, wet stone sharpening machine. If the speed is too high, the steel overheats and its integrity gets compromised. You will have to sharpen more often and the quality of your cut will result in a poor end product.

Chisel types:

Spindle roughing gouge  The big tool that shifts most of the weight. It can leave a decent finish to the work, but tends to be used mostly to create a ruff shape. It’s the tool of choice for taking a square blank and turning it round. It’s fairly wide (sometimes ridiculously wide) and tends to have a straight grind.


Spindle gouge — Sometimes known as a shallow fluted gouge. This is the go-to tool for making details such as beads and coves, and can be used to shape spindle work without much fuss.


Skew chisel — This tool tends to be used for planing wood. It gives a really good finish from the tool with virtually no sanding needed from the tool. It can be used to create very fine details and, depending on how adventurous you are, it can be used for most jobs.

This tool has a reputation for being difficult and scary, but once you know what you’re doing with it, it is a very useful tool. It just demands a little respect; always give it your full attention. I have only had one injury whilst turning and it was with this tool. It wasn’t a bad injury, but it still happened. Now I am more aware that the skew needs complete concentration. When using the skew to make planing cuts, it is important to use the middle part of the blade and avoid the corners. If you hit the moving wood with the corner you are likely to get a “catch”. This isn’t the end of the world, but can be a little scary if you’re not expecting it and can ruin your project. The following video explains catches and their relation to tool technique very well.

Parting tool — The clue is in the name; it parts wood. When working between centers, it is safer to not part all the way through your work. Instead, part most of the way and finish the job with a saw. Make sure you turn the lathe off before using the saw.

I have been known to use the parting tool for jobs it’s not designed for, such as a scraping tool. To me, it is an ideal tool for making a spigot for a chuck to hold onto.

Bowl gouge — Also known as a deep fluted gouge. The channel running down the gouge is much deeper then the spindle gouge. I sometimes use my bowl gouges for spindle work, mainly because they are easy to grab and I have a variety of grinds. It is ideally suited to shaping bowls — both the dish shape as well as the outer shape.

Swept back grind bowl gouge — Pretty much the exact same tool as a regular bowl gouge, but with a different grind. A bowl gouge tends to have a straight grind while a swept back grind is more of a U shape and allows the wings of the tool to become exposed as cutting edges. This makes the tool very versatile allowing for a greater range of cuts.

Scraper — These come in different profiles and act in a similar way to a cabinet scraper. Personally, I don’t find them useful and I won’t be covering them in this writeup. Some swear by them, though, so they’re worth researching if you’re curious.

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