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Chapter 1: Learning to turn

1.1 The art of woodturning

Woodturning is an art not a science. Each skilled practitioner has his own particular way of doing things. The reason for this is that wood unlike, say, metal or plastic, is not an homogeneous substance. No two pieces of wood are identical even when cut from adjacent positions in the tree. In contrast, consider a piece of steel to be used in (for instance) a motor car: numerous metallurgists, and other specialists, will have been employed in its production, and testing, to ensure that it has the required characteristics, and that these will be consistent from one batch of material to another. This means that properties such as its granular structure, its hardness, its elasticity and its tensile strength will be the same for every sample.

Wood is not at all like that. Adjacent pieces will exhibit differences in such features as fibre structure, grain pattern, hardness and elasticity. As each unique work piece spins on the lathe and is traversed by the tool the turner has to make subtle adjustments to his technique as he is presented with a stream of changing information. To add to the choices which have to be made a variety of tools can be used to achieve the same basic forms and these tools can be ground to a variety of shapes and bevel angles. Even the lathes that turners use can affect their style. As turners develop their skills so they find their own solutions to the problems they encounter, and blend together the various tools and techniques they have at their disposal in their own unique ways.

One unfortunate result of the development of individual styles is that beginners can be confused by an apparent conflict in instructions in teaching manuals, methods used in demonstrations, and even in techniques shown in woodturning videos. The beginner should not be upset by this. Underlying this variety there are certain principles which are followed by all successful turners and which enable the novice to experiment and to explore different techniques with confidence and without danger. These principles and the way they can be applied to different situations and different tools are set out in the following chapters.

However, because there are a variety of ways to tackle problems, I, like everybody else, have my favourite way of doing things. As a consequence the views I will be putting forward may differ from those of other instructors. They are an amalgam of the things I have found to work for me and my own particular attitude to woodturning.

Because of such differences in views there is a principle which I think is very important: one should not make statements in a book of this kind, particularly if they are controversial, without explaining the reasons for them. The reader (or listener) should always treat unsupported assertions with suspicion.

1.2 The learning curve

Turning requires manual dexterity, visual judgement and the co-ordination of hand and eye. In this respect it is similar to games like tennis. Such activities require the development of what psychologists term ‘motor skills’. The learning and development of these skills require relatively long periods of practice.

It has been said that it can take seven years, working full-time, for a turner with aptitude to reach the peak of his abilities and become fully skilled. But again this should not deter the beginner. What does ‘fully skilled’ mean? It means that the turner can perform all the operations with speed and accuracy. At the top level, for a professional needing to earn a living, speed is an important ingredient in skill.

This can be illustrated diagrammatically by the so called ‘learning curve’ which may be familiar to the reader. The general shape of the learning curve is illustrated in Diagram 1.1.

Diagram 1.1 The learning curve

It can be seen from this that typically, with continual practice, the individual goes through a period of steady improvement. Then after some time the rate of improvement begins to level off and eventually there comes a time when very little further improvement takes place. In reality it is found that some individuals have more innate ability than others. Generally, too, where motor skills are involved, it is best to start young. Usually, those who have an early start eventually reach higher levels of skill than older people. But older people should not despair: on their way through life they may well have acquired skills which will be of assistance to their endeavour in the woodturning field.

Because of the differences between individuals, their innate ability, their age, or their previous useful experience then each turner will have his own distinctive learning curve. Some possible, contrasting, curves are shown in Diagram 1.2.

Diagram 1.2

Individual C is a very slow learner but he improves little by little. Individual B is a quick learner and reaches his full capacity earlier than individuals A or C. But, although A is a slowish learner, he eventually becomes more skilled than B.

1.3 Developing skills

In the case of woodturning there is a bit more to it than motor skills because, with the right attitude of mind, it is within the power of the individual to alter the shape of the learning curve. Indeed the key to skill is attitude. What does this mean? To begin with it means developing an understanding of the correct basic techniques. If the turner does not get the basics right then, however much he practises, he will not improve. In contrast he may develop a lot of bad practices which will be difficult to eradicate.

It is necessary to have a strong desire to learn and progress but at the same time one must have patience. It is no use the turner trying to make things which are way beyond his level ability, particularly in the early stages. On the other hand it is necessary for him to stretch himself with projects of steadily increasing difficulty.

It may be a good idea for the learner to set himself a series of achievable goals but it has to be recognised that the hobby turner with only limited time at his disposal is in a different position to the aspiring professional. Learning to turn is a little like learning to play a musical instrument (although turning is far less difficult). Regular short periods of practice are preferable to periods of intensive effort with big gaps between them. Having said that it must be acknowledged that the hobbyist will have to fit his turning into the free time he has available and do the best he can. Life is full of compromises, and this is one of them.

In developing skills and working out the best way to progress it will be necessary to experiment with the various cuts, tools and techniques. In order to avoid dangerous practices, some caution is required in doing this, but experimentation is a very necessary part of the learning process. However, in the early stages the instructions given in the following chapters should be followed with care.

Whatever his circumstances, and however much time he has available, when the aspiring turner is practising he must keep thinking about what he is doing and asking himself questions. When things go wrong he must ask himself: why? What happened? What can I do to try to ensure it does not happen again. It also helps if the turner can recognise when things are going right, so that he will know what things he can do, as well as those he cannot.

Good turning entails careful observation involving the three main senses: sight, sound, and touch. The eyes are the primary source of information. Obviously, it is necessary to look to see what one is doing, but one should also be watching for the results. What is happening to the shape: is it smooth or is it ridged? Will I be able to blend it into the profile I want? Are the fibres tearing? What else can I see?

Sound provides further important information so it is necessary to keep one’s ears open. For example, when a cut is being made correctly there will be a variety of sounds but underneath these it should be possible to hear a relatively quiet, but clearly distinguishable, hiss which is made by the fibres being cut cleanly. The other sounds carry information as well. When I am teaching more than one person at a time I can often tell when someone is having trouble from the sound alone.

Yet more vital information is being transmitted back to the turner through the tool. The turner should try to develop as much sensitivity in the hands as he can, holding the tool as lightly as possible. Even where a firmer grip is required the turner can still feel what is happening as well as see or hear.

In many cases where a cut is not going correctly all three senses will be telling the turner that something is wrong. In other cases just one will be enough. For example, when a hidden split, or other defect, in the wood is encountered there is often a quiet click which warns the turner to stop the lathe to have a look.

In summary therefore it can be said that these three senses are providing the turner with a stream of information which has to be continually interpreted. Much of the time, it is to be hoped, the signal will be that all is well, but the turner must be vigilant.

In conclusion it can be said that by applying himself diligently to the task, developing a sensitivity to the stream of information, continually analysing his actions and their results, and practising as regularly as possible the turner can learn more quickly and will eventually reach a higher level of skill.

1.4 The basic principles

It must be noted, however, that although skill can only be acquired by practice, by ‘making shavings’ as the saying goes, it is futile practising unless the basic principles are being applied. The basic principles are comprised of four main elements:

  1. The choice of the correct tools
  2. The use of properly sharpened tools
  3. A good stance
  4. The use of correct cutting techniques

Consideration must also be given to safety. Safe working habits should become habitual and are as much part of basic principles as the four points covered above. Unsafe practices may not prevent good turning but they may cut short a turner’s career.

Much of the first part of this book is devoted to these basic principles. However, before he can practise the basic principles the prospective turner must provide himself with a certain amount of equipment. At the very minimum this will be a lathe, a grinding machine and a set of tools. He will also need somewhere to keep it and somewhere to work; usually, of course, these are the same place, namely the workshop. The question of a workshop and equipment is discussed in the next chapter and tools in the one after that.

1.5 The pleasure of woodturning

Some of the comments made above may make learning to turn seem daunting but it is not intended to put people off. Anyone, from nine to ninety, male or female, with a modicum of manual dexterity, can learn to turn successfully. Given a reasonable degree of application it will only take most beginners a few hours of practice to learn to make simple but attractive objects which provide immense satisfaction. Many of these objects only take an hour or so to make. (Some ideas for these objects, and instructions on how to make them, will appear on this web site.)

The great pleasure which can be derived from wood turning stems from two things. One is that, whilst very satisfying results can be obtained with relatively little experience, learning and improvement can go for the rest of a lifetime. The other source of pleasure is that hand turning brings the maker into a very close and intimate relationship with his material. Turners get to know wood as few other people can.

© Brian Clifford (March 1999)

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