Exploring techniques – what is woodturning?
Woodturning is the craft of making objects in wood using a lathe and handheld tools. It takes a great deal of skill to become an accomplished woodturner. As a craft, it has a long history: the lathe dates back to ancient Egypt and Rome, and woodturning continued to be practised and recognised as a valuable skill across the globe over the following centuries, even as the industrial revolution brought mass-production to many products previously turned by hand.
Today woodturning is one of the crafts experiencing renewed interest thanks to the maker revolution and resurgence of handmade. As more people look for ways to escape the hectic pace of everyday life by learning a craft skill, using their hands, nurturing their creativity and connecting with nature and the seasons, and concurrently more of us are thinking about what we buy, where it was made, who by and how, woodturning is steadily but surely following ceramics as one of the most in-demand and captivating crafts.
Featured image: Hand-turned sycamore bowl by Chris Short
What tools does a woodturner need?
Although a good woodturner only needs a small range of tools, it can be an expensive craft that needs time, practice (and space) to master. A woodturner will typically use between five and ten tools, and those include a range of chisels and gouges – each with their own purpose and characteristics – a parting tool, a scraper and a sander.
Pictured above: Woodturner Chris Short’s tool rack, featuring from left to right: 3/8 inch bowl gouge, standard grind; 15mm carbide chisel; skew chisel; 1/2 inch round nose scraper; 3/8 inch spindle gouge; 1 inch scraper; 1 inch bowl scraper; 3/8 inch bowl gouge, fingernail grind; 3/4 inch roughing tool. The planes (not used for turning) are, from top to bottom: a block plane; No 4 smoothing plane, and No 7 jointing plane (about 100 years old and from the USA).
The most essential piece of kit for a woodturner is the lathe – a machine that rotates a piece of wood on a horizontal axis. While the wood is rotating on the lathe, the turner can shape, carve, cut, chisel, sand and manipulate it using their tools to create a particular object.
Watch woodturner Andrew Stevens from AS Woodcrafts turn a bowl on his lathe from a recently cut piece of willow below…
Woodturning – a slow mindful craft
Wood turning, however skilled the turner, is a slow craft, and one piece can take several hours to produce. It requires concentration of mind and body. The focus required to make a piece, coupled with the sense of fulfilment gained from taking a piece of wood (possibly even coppiced or harvested from a tree you have grown or a tree that has been part of your local landscape), watching the grain and character beneath the bark revealed as you work, and creating a beautiful, useful object or piece of art, has earned woodturning a well-deserved reputation as a therapeutic craft that can relieve stress and improve mental health.
My interest in woodturning came at a time when I was suffering from excessive work-related stress and looking for a creative outlet where I could concentrate fully and forget my cares for a while. Woodturning requires great concentration (at least up to the sanding stage) and also provides a profound sense of achievement which I continue to enjoy and benefit from to this day. – Mel Adams, Bluebell Woodturning
Like many crafts, woodturning can have a positive impact on wellbeing and it’s often recommended as an activity for those who are looking to practise mindfulness, recover from illness or simply need a physical antidote to our digital age.
In 2007 I was diagnosed with cancer and after my operations I built a shed in my back garden as my therapy. This I now use as my workshop and wood store. I was lucky, I am now free of cancer and have a little woodturning business which keeps me active and means I can keep doing what I love. – Bob Mercer Woodturner
What can you make by woodturning?
One of the objects most associated with woodturning is the bowl. This may be because its large curved surface accentuates the natural character of the wood – the grain, marks, veins, spalt and figuring. But there are many other pieces that can be made by woodturning, from utilitarian objects such as light pulls, handles, small boxes, rolling pins, bottle stoppers, garden dibbers, pens, plates and furniture components, to more sculptural or decorative pieces. Woodturners often allow the grain or quality of the wood determine the type of piece they create.
Sycamore is a beautiful, light hardwood. This design is simple, so as not to distract from the natural beauty of the wood, yet the decoration is geometric to contrast and emphasise the natural wood – Chris Short
There are many ways you can bring wood-turned pieces into your home, whether that’s as a sculptural art piece or making it part of the very fabric of your home by commissioning door handles or choosing hand-turned light pulls. You could even ask a woodturner to work with you on refurbishing a piece of furniture, creating beautiful turned legs for a stool or feet for a sofa, rather than just buying yet another standard, mass-produced product from the high street.
The wood I use in my products comes from sustainable sources or is recycled. I like to experiment with inlays of beautiful crushed stones but sometimes I just have let the beauty of the wood speak for itself without added decoration – Wadds Woodturning
As wood naturally comes in a huge variety of colours, and woodturners all work with wood in different ways and in different styles, wood-turned pieces can vary from light, minimal and modern to the more rustic with more prominent knots, gnarl and areas where the bark has been intentionally left visible and intact.
How and where to learn woodturning
Due to the tools you are working with and the dust produced by sanding, there are certain risks to woodturning. The cost of the lathe and the space needed to house it, also means it’s not the cheapest craft, although it is a lot more accessible than some other forms of woodwork. Having said that, there are ways to do it safely and without needing to spend too much.
“Before you invest in a lathe and other tools and machinery, look for a local woodturning club where you can see what’s involved in the craft,” advises Mel from Bluebell Woodturning. “Most members will be only too happy to share their knowledge and experience of machinery, tools and materials and to impart their skills to those interested in the craft. It’s also often possible to pick up second-hand lathes from members who might be upgrading to something more expensive.”
To find a woodturning club close to you, check the Association of Woodturners of Great Britain’s (AWGB) map of woodturning clubs across the UK > https://www.awgb.co.uk/club-map/
Discover UK woodturners on Folksy
Below are listed some of the woodturners you can currently find on Folksy. All these woodturners are based in the UK and have a selection of wood-turned items for sale in their shops. You can find more makers by searching ‘woodturning’ on Folksy…
AS Wood Crafts – shop now >
Bluebell Woodturning – shop now >
Read our interview with Mel from Bluebell Woodturning here >
Bob Mercer Wood Turner and Pen Maker – shop now >
Chris Short Wood Work – shop now >
Ekok Design – shop now >
The Turners in the Church – shop now >
Wadds Woodturning – shop now >
Woodturned Concepts – shop now >