Turning Pen on the Lathe

Have you ever found yourself thinking that woodturning looks like fun but you haven't pursued it because you're afraid getting started will be too costly or complicated? That's understandable. Turning is a specialized branch of woodworking with its own tools and skill set, and it can seem like an entirely different world even if you know your way around the rest of the shop. The good news is that it's not as hard to get started as you might think. Here's a quick-start guide to woodturning.

1. You'll need a lathe

Excelsior Mini Lathe

No surprise here: You're going to need a lathe. But which lathe? Besides the array of brands available, lathes come in a range of sizes. How do you know whether you should get a mini, midsize or monster lathe?

Your choice obviously will be influenced by your budget and the space available in your shop, but you'll also want think about the kinds of projects you'd like to make.

Do you want to turn pens and pizza cutter handles or big bowls and beefy table legs? Do you want the flexibility to turn just about anything, regardless of size?

Answering these questions is important because they relate to several key technical specifications that can help you narrow your search for a lathe.

Distance between centers: This is the distance between the drive or spur center on the headstock and the rotating center in the tailstock when the tailstock has been moved out as far as it will safely go. It tells you the maximum length of stock that can be turned on that lathe. So a mini lathe with a distance between centers of 18" can accommodate stock 18" long and shorter. That's not going to work for you if you want to be able to turn table legs, which typically are 28"-30" long. In that case, you'd either want to look at a larger lathe or see whether a bed extension is available for the mini lathe to increase the distance between centers. But for turning smaller projects like pens, a mini lathe is a perfect size.

Swing over the bed: This is twice the distance from the tip of the drive or spur center down to the lathe bed. It tells you the maximum diameter that can be turned on that lathe – for example, a mini lathe with a 10" swing can accommodate a blank with a 10" (or just less than 10") diameter at its widest point. If you want to turn large-scale plates or bowls, you'll need a bigger lathe, but for small bowls and candy dishes, the mini lathe will work just fine.

Speed: First, what's the lathe's range of speeds? If you plan to turn large-diameter pieces, you want a lathe that can be set to a slow speed for safety reasons. That's because, at a given rpm setting, the outside edge of a big blank is traveling much faster than the lathe spindle. If the blank is spinning too fast, there's increased risk of vibration and the chance that the blank might fly off. Second, is it a fixed-speed or variable-speed lathe? Fixed-speed lathes offer a set number of speeds that typically are achieved by adjusting the position of a drive belt on sets of graduated pulleys attached to the motor and the spindle. Variable-speed lathes allow for a wider range of adjustment within given speed ranges, and adjustments are easier to make.

Horsepower: A 1/2hp motor is adequate for a mini lathe and smaller turning projects. Midsize lathes will range from 3/4hp to 1-1/2hp, and larger lathes will range from 1-1/2hp on up.

Once you've decided on a lathe, you'll want to make note of two other details: the headstock and tailstock spindles' Morse taper and the size and number of teeth per inch (TPI) of the headstock spindle. Knowing these tech specs is important when buying such accessories as pen mandrels and four-jaw chucks for your lathe. Lathes typically have a No. 1 or No. 2 Morse taper (noted as MT-1 and MT-2), with MT-2 being most common. Common headstock spindle sizes are 3/4" x 16TPI, 1" x 8TPI and 1-1/4" x 8TPI.

2. You'll need turning tools

Turning is a subtractive process – you create by removing material to reveal and shape the final form. Like a carver or sculptor, you need the proper tools to achieve the design and details you want. In turning, you have two broad categories of options in terms of tools: traditional turning tools and carbide-insert turning tools.

Traditional turning tools
As the name suggests, traditional turning tools have a long and respected history. For centuries, craftspeople have used these tools to create beautiful and functional turnings. The modern versions are made from tool steel or high-speed steel; HSS is preferable because it can withstand higher temperatures when sharpening without decreasing its hardness.

Here's a brief introduction to the most common tools in this category.

Different Gouge Styles

Gouges: There are three main types of gouges: roughing gouges (also called spindle roughing gouges), bowl gouges and spindle gouges (also called detail gouges). The tools' names hint at the important differences between them.

Roughing gouges and spindle gouges are used in turning spindles, which involves stock that usually is longer than it is wide and is mounted in the lathe with its grain direction parallel to the turning axis. Roughing gouges are used to take stock from square to round, and spindle gauges are used for creating coves, beads and other details. In spindle turning, the lathe's tool rest typically is positioned close to the stock, supporting the tools close to the cutting edge.

By contrast, bowl turning stock usually is mounted in the lathe with its grain direction perpendicular to the turning axis, and the tool rest sometimes must be positioned several inches from the stock. As a result, bowl gouges are machined with higher walls and deeper flutes to stand up to the increased stress they face because of the increased overhang at the tool rest.

The important takeaways here are to use the tools for their intended purposes and, especially, NEVER to use a roughing gouge to work on a bowl blank. It is likely to catch, and because it's not made to stand up to the stress of bowl turning, it might break and go flying.

Skew chisels: With their angled cutting edge, these tools are used in spindle turning to make smooth shearing cuts and to form V-grooves and beads. They're available in a number of sizes and with flat, oval or rounded shanks. The angled cutting edge can be straight or curved. Many turners find that a fair amount of practice is needed to master the skew chisel.

Parting tools: These V-shaped tools are designed to cut or "part" off a finished spindle turning from the rest of the blank. They are available with either rectangular or diamond-shaped shafts, as well as in especially thin versions. Parting tools also are commonly used to cut grooves for marking cutting depths on spindle turnings with varied profiles.

Specialty tools: These include other tools such as scrapers and tools with cutter profiles designed to cut bead details or to shape the dovetailed recesses required for securing the bottoms of bowl blanks to an expandable four-jaw chuck.

Riding the Bevel

"Riding the bevel" is a fundamental turning technique for safely and effectively using traditional tools such as gouges and skew chisels. It involves several key steps: First, make sure to hold the tool shaft securely in contact with the tool rest. Next, carefully advance the tool until the bevel under the cutting edge contacts the turning stock. (You won't actually be cutting at this point.) Third, while keeping the tool shaft against the tool rest and the bevel against the stock, slowly ease the tool backward and raise the tool handle until the cutting edge begins engaging the stock, creating shavings. While cutting, slowly angle the tool in the direction of the cut and roll the tool to "close" or angle the flute and move the tool in that direction. With practice, you can make smooth shaping cuts.

Rockler carries a variety of traditional turning tools, including convenient, high-quality sets that contain some of the more commonly used tools. If you go the traditional-tool route, you'll probably want to start out with a spindle roughing gouge, a spindle gouge, a bowl gouge, a parting tool and a skew chisel. It's important to note a couple of things about traditional turning tools:

First, they require regsular sharpening. This is best accomplished with a slow-speed grinder or a water-cooled harpening system such as the Tormek, so an investment in this kind of equipment would be necessary. And, because freehanding the precise bevels on the different kinds of tools could prove difficult, special sharpening jigs might be needed. Second, there can be something of a learning curve with traditional turning tools, especially the skew chisel, as the technique of "riding the bevel" is crucial to good results. Of course, with the practice involved in learning this technique comes a sense of accomplishment and a "feel" for turning. Relative newcomers to turning, these tools never need sharpening because they feature replaceable solid carbide cutters that are secured to the tool shaft with a screw.

Carbide-Insert Turning Tools

Rockler offers a full line of carbide-insert tools in three different sizes to fit all scales of turning projects, from pens and other small projects to midsize projects like candlesticks to larger turnings like table legs. All of Rockler's carbide turning tools feature ergonomically designed handles that are made of ash and encased with rubber for a comfortable, secure grip. For beginning turners – and experienced turners who don't want to have to worry about sharpening – they're a great option.

3. You'll need to think about safety

Man On The Lathe Wearing Face Shield

To grasp the importance of proper safety equipment and practices, it might help to remember that woodturning essentially involves poking a really sharp metal tool at a hunk of wood that's spinning really fast. You want to do what you can to keep anything from flying off the lathe and to protect yourself in case something does.

At minimum, you need:

  • A face shield - Not just goggles; they can't stop a chunk of walnut burl from whacking you in the nose.
  • Dust collection and respiratory protection - The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says wood dust exposure has been linked to allergic skin reactions, respiratory issues and even cancer. And contact with shavings, especially from exotic woods, can cause skin irritation.
  • A Turner's Apron - If you want to protect your clothing and keep shavings from going down your shirt.

Besides having the right safety gear, you need to do a few other things to protect yourself:

  • If you've got long hair, tie it back. Don't wear dangling jewelry. Roll up long sleeves. Remove anything that might catch in the lathe.
  • Make sure that your stock is mounted securely in the lathe and balanced to avoid excessive wobbling.
  • Make sure to run the lathe at the appropriate speed for the stock. If the lathe starts walking across the bench or floor, slow down.
  • Keep the tool rest close to the stock to reduce the chance of the tool's getting caught between the tool rest & the workpiece.
  • Make sure the lathe is set up at the right height for you. Ideally, the center of the spindle should be at elbow height.
  • Before sanding, remove the tool rest
  • When sanding, hold the abrasive to the bottom of the workpiece (where the direction of the spin is away from you)

4. You'll need turning stock

Obviously, you have to have something to turn. In theory, you can turn any piece of wood that will fit on your lathe, so long as it's sound and doesn't have any loose knots or other structural defects that might cause it to come off the lathe. For beginners, though, it's best to start turning between centers with stock that's longer than it is wide – say, a piece that's 1-1/2" square and 12" long. A tight-grained stock such as maple is a good choice.

Once you get a little experience, you can branch out. Sometimes you can salvage good turning stock from your firewood pile. Just make sure it's sound, and cut it into a blank that's as symmetrical as possible.

Different Types and Sizes of Turning Stock

So that's it – all you really need to get started is a lathe, a few turning tools, the right safety gear and wood. The overall price tag will depend largely on the lathe you buy, but if you go with a mini lathe, a set of Rockler's Ergonomic Mini Carbide Turning Tools, a basic face shield and some dust masks, you could be off and turning for around $500. (You'll need to buy sanding and finishing materials, too, but they're not big-ticket items.)

Chances are that once the chips start flying, you'll be hooked on turning. And once you see how easy and fun it is to make one-of-a-kind gifts and special pieces for your own home, you'll be glad you didn't wait any longer.