Get Set to Turn
Throughout my 35 years of teaching I’ve encountered a lot of novice woodturners who nearly abandoned the craft thinking they’d never get the hang of it, when in fact their problem was not so much with themselves but their lathe and the way it was set up, and the tools they were using. And that’s before we get to how they were using the tools. You can purchase the cheapest new motor vehicle secure in the knowledge that it’ll get you from A to B in the dry and at a reasonable speed. It might not be as comfortable as the 12-litre supercharged midlife crisis you’d like, but it will do the job – unlike a cheap lathe. Cheap lathes are a total waste of money, never living up to expectations raised by images on the box of large bowls, long spindles or tabletops. Such images are optimistic to fraudulent as many of these very cheap lathes are barely up to even basic spindle turning, let alone anything else. So here’s some advice on what you need to get into woodturning and how to set up a lathe.
Choosing a lathe
Many embryo turners try not to spend too much on their first lathe in case they don’t like the craft. Back in 1970 that was me who, despite advice that I’d be wasting my money, purchased a Coronet Major with a saw-bench and sander accessories. Within a couple of weeks I realised my error and ordered a new Harrison Graduate Short Bed. It took three months to arrive, but was worth the wait. I was seduced into buying the Coronet by an image on the brochure of a guy in a shop-coat purportedly turning a tabletop 4ft diameter. As an aspiring professional turner I’d been thinking in terms of small boxes, but suddenly tables seemed a good idea too. The Coronet was adequate for centrework, but the bearings couldn’t cope with the strain of turning bowls, endgrain hollowing, or my ineptitude. I went through three lots of bearings in as many months and broke several rests and faceplates. The Harrison Graduate introduced me to the joys of a decent lathe, and I have never looked back. I used it hard for 25 years and never needed to replace the bearings, motor or rests. Twenty-five years later I sold it cheap for six times what I paid for it. Second-rate lathes are unlikely to hold their value like that. A good lathe won’t lose value and if you don’t take to the craft you’ll likely sell it for at least what you gave for it. Names to look for include Jet, Vicmarc, Powermatic, Robust, Steinert, Laguna, Record, Axminster, Oneway and many more. But do your research before you buy.
Know what you want to turn
When you decide to purchase a lathe, it helps to know roughly what you want to make, because no single lathe can do everything you might want to do. Unless you want to work only large scale, it’s best to start with a good midi lathe of a style and capacity similar to the one shown at the beginning of this article, and learn the basics on that. A lathe with about 300–405mm faceplate capacity and about 460–600mm between centres capacity allows you to turn a family-sized salad bowl or table lamp as well as most of what I’ve made over 45 years as a professional woodturner. Working small scale means you waste less material, and when things go wrong it’s less dangerous. If you want to turn only long spindles, a small lathe with a bed extension is all you need. Seek advice from a good turner and indeed your club members. They will be able to offer help with what they know about the lathes they have. Buy wisely and it will save you money in the long run.
What to look for in a lathe
New or second-hand, a lathe should spin the wood at a steady speed with minimal vibration. Consequently a lathe needs to be sturdily built and as heavy as possible with a reasonably powerful motor. The headstock, tailstock, bed and toolrest assembly should be cast-iron to dampen vibration. You don’t want anything that flexes or vibrates. My midi lathe weighs 62kg. My stand is constructed of recycled boards 20mm thick screwed to 75mm pine (Pinus spp.) legs, and this offers better support than many commercial stands I’ve encountered for this size lathe. Manufactured bases or stands should be cast-iron or steel at least 5mm thick. Avoid any lathe cast in aluminium or constructed of thin sheet steel. If a lathe is easy to lift, it’s probably not worth having… even if it’s free.
The headstock houses the drive shaft so has to be well constructed. It’s essential that there is no play in the bearings. Look for a drive spindle at least 25mm diameter – 30mm is better – mounted
in roller bearings. Look for a hollow drive shaft machined to accept a Morse taper spur drive. Headstocks constructed of thin sheet steel on cheap lathes with the spindle bearings simply clamped to the steel without any additional support cannot possibly support any chuck without rattling, so may be dangerous to use. A hand-wheel on the outboard (left) side of the headstock is useful as it enables you to bring the lathe to a rapid halt, or rotate a job by hand. You must be able to lock the driveshaft so you can remove a chuck. This can involve a pin, a rod or a wrench. Some lathes come with in built indexing. This is very handy.
The tailstock and rest
The tailstock and rest assemblies also need to be heavily constructed, with cam action levers that can lock them quickly and easily in position. Using wrenches to lock these components is very tedious by comparison. The tailstock spindle needs a decent sized wheel to operate smoothly and easily. A tailcentre should wind forward at least 50mm. The rest must provide absolutely solid support: any play or vibration is magnified by the time it reaches the cutting edge, and this leads to loss of tool control and catches. If you can flex the rest by hand even slightly, choose another lathe. The toolrest post that slots into the banjo (the bit that sits on the lathe bed) needs to be at least 20mm diameter, and preferably 25mm on all but the smallest lathes. Ideally, the top of a toolrest should slope, like this Robust toolrest with its hardened edge, so a tool can pivot on the top edge. There are many designs, but the rests need to be strong so they don’t flex, and allow you to hold the tools well. Flat-topped rests are greatly improved by welding on a 10mm hardened steel rod to the top.
Motors and speeds
Until quite recently on most lathes you adjusted the speed by moving the drive belt from one pair of step pulleys to another, and you’ll still find this arrangement on the simplest and least expensive models. It is very effective and to change the speed you turn the lathe off and adjust the drive belts by hand. So on these machines, convenient access to the drive belt and pulleys is a must, as is a simple means of locking the motor platform in its new position. If you can’t lock the motor in position it will bounce and this reverberates through the lathe. Fortunately most modern lathes offer Electronic Variable Speed (EVS), which enables you to adjust speed by turning a knob. You might still have a pulley arrangement too, to offer different speeds ranges and torque. A speed range of 150–2,500rpm is a good range.
A self-centring four-jaw woodturning chuck is now regarded as an essential lathe accessory unless you turn only spindles between centres. A chuck is typically sold with a set of jaws, with others available as extras. A chuck is bought either directly threaded or with an insert to fit your lathe’s drive shaft. The chuck I use has jaw rims that enable me to grip jobs without marking the wood. A good screw chuck is a must too. Many chucks have screw thread accessories – some are excellent and others not so good. You might find that a dedicated screw chuck might be superior to any screw accessory supplied with a standard chuck. I use Shark Jaws (shown on the left of this photo) for endgrain work like boxes, spinning tops or drawer knobs, and my Step Jaws (shown on the right of the photo) make turning bowls a lot easier. Everyone works slightly differently and there are many good chucks available: Oneway, Record Power, Robert Sorby, Nova, Axminster and no doubt more. Ask fellow turners or club members and do your research. Each chuck manufacturer has different jaws designs. With most brands you cannot cross fit jaws from other makes, but there are a few where this is possible, which helps you to pick and mix.
First up: NEVER purchase a very cheap set of turning tools unless you particularly want the box they come in: even those claiming to be High Speed Steel (HSS) never hold an edge for more than a few seconds. Likewise, if you hope to cut wood cleanly, avoid cheap sets of scrapers with replaceable tips claiming to make turning easy – although if you enjoy hours of sanding, they could be just what you want. Having said that, there are some scrapers with replaceable tips and some which are able to swivel or have shanks that are articulated that are very helpful and work well. Most novice turners purchase tools they will never use, so unless you’re a serious tool junky, purchase tools as you need them. A basic set of tools is all you need to turn almost anything. In the photo, to the left are tools for facework like bowls and platters; to the right are tools for spindles and endgrain work like boxes and goblets. In the centre is a 13mm spindle gouge, the tool to have if you can only afford one. To the left of that is a 9mm spindle gouge, my preferred tool for cutting beads, coves and finials on both face- and centrework. Next left are 9mm and 13mm bowl gouges, then a bowl scraper. To the right of the spindle gouges are a 19mm skew chisel, a parting tool, a 19mm square-end scraper and 19mm round-nose scraper for hollowing endgrain but also useful for facework. Names to look for are Sorby, Henry Taylor, Hamlet, D-Way, Crown handtools, Thompson and P&N. There are more, but check with friends to see what they are using too. Buy good quality tools and you only buy once, not twice.
There are no ‘absolute grinds and angles’ for turning tools, although some will claim there are, but there are some common shapes that will help. Few tools come from manufacturers fully sharp. However, many manufacturers provide tools with a ‘functional grind’ but not all. Invariably you are likely to shape the cutting edges to your own preferences when you’re more proficient with tool use. Turning tools shift a lot of wood and need sharpening often, so a grinder with both fine and coarse wheels is essential. CBN wheels might be expensive, but are the way to go in my opinion as they grind cooler than friable wheels and never change shape so you never have to reset a grinding jig. But, there are very good aluminium oxide wheels at a far cheaper price that do a good job too. You need a 36 grit wheel for reshaping tools and a finer 80 grit or so for sharpening tools. To make sharpening easier, invest in a grinding jig and platform rest.
You can measure and layout using only a ruler and pencil, but a few pairs of callipers and dividers will make life a lot easier. In the photo below you can see my collection of measuring tools. The silver double-ended and black callipers help ascertain the thickness of a bowl wall; the dividers are ideal for marking circles and laying out diameters for chucks. As well as good overall lighting, it’s handy to have a bright spotlight that can be adjusted all around the lathe. Strong light casts shadows that help you discern the smoothness of curves. Whatever type of work you do, spare eyes are still in short supply, so eye protection is absolutely essential. Safety glasses come in all shapes and types, so you should be able to find something to suit you. However, an even better option is to use an impact resistant face-shield. No matter how careful you are and how many precautions you take, one day wood will fly off the lathe and you could sustain serious injuries. In my 45 years of turning I’ve needed stitches on at least five occasions. It pays to minimise the risk. Dust is a major health and fire hazard in the workshop: you should do all you can to limit your exposure to it. A small dust extractor can remove most fine dust coming off the job if you have intakes both sides of the headstock. Heavier shavings are best shovelled into a bag for removal or vacuumed up. In addition to at-source extraction, you should wear a dust mask, even when clearing up. However, these can fog your glasses, so the best option is to use a powered respirator. Dust extraction can easily be the most expensive item in your workshop, but it’s well worth the investment.
When I took up turning, for three months I was lucky enough to have Rendal Crang across the workshop, churning out bowls for Douglas Hart. I’d paid to be there and the workshop sold everything I made that was up to standard. There were very few woodturners in the early 1970s, so after that it was the school of hard knocks, literally, as I entered my own apprenticeship and learned from my misadventures. Today it’s easy to find help that’ll get you started. Connect with your local woodworking or woodturning club or start your own, and keep a look out for hands-on workshops and symposiums, any of which can teach you the most unexpected things. Then there’s the mixed blessing of the Internet ‘woodturning gurus’, many of whom seem woefully ignorant of how much they don’t know. And finally there are quite a few very informative books and DVDs made by professional turners, several of which I’m happy to recommend even though I have my own to sell.