From wood to wow




Woodturning, one of the most ancient of crafts, is a way of producing wood creations using razor-sharp chisels and gouges. It has been suggested that woodturning was practiced at least as early as the sixth century BCE.

This ancient craft is still popular worldwide; locally, members of the Comox Valley Woodturners Society (CVWS) meet every month to discuss design and form, view demonstrations of new techniques, and share safe work practices.

What is woodturning?

Turning is a process where a piece of wood is spun between two pivot points (a lathe) while the turner cuts material from the outside of the wood with a sharp tool to shape it into a useful and/or decorative object. While modern lathes are powered by an electric motor and a synthetic belt, there are still “purist” turners who use a foot-treadle lathe.

Any piece of rough wood can be turned, subject to the size of your lathe. Some turners make functional items such as salad bowls and vases, while others focus more on artistic pieces that they can enhance with stains, dyes, pyrography (wood burning), and carving.

Many CVWS members search out trees damaged during winter storms or salvage wood otherwise destined for the chipping machine or fireplace. Salad bowl makers will seek blocks of wood that are free from cracks, bark, or other imperfections, while other turners look for wood blocks with bark inclusions, knots, and/or interesting grain patterns.

Wood turners have developed many terms for describing woods’ different appearances, like striped, quilted (a rippling appearance), fiddleback (a tightly curled-looking grain), and chatoyance (a cat’s-eye-like glow). For many turners, the real treasures are trees that, because they have begun to decay, display wonderful black lines or striking colours in the heartwood. The decaying wood is referred to as “spalted” and is valued for its uniqueness as much as the great burls some trees will develop.

Woodturning in the Comox Valley

Choosing a wood species

The choice of wood species can greatly influence the final look of the finished project. In the Comox Valley, we are lucky to have a great variety that includes bigleaf maple, arbutus, Garry oak, yellow cedar, and even the occasional cherry. More exotic woods can be ordered through specialty outlets. Wood turners will try any species at least once and will establish their own favourites.

All cutting—which is really more like sculpting—is done “by eye;” developing this skill takes some practice. Items like table legs are normally turned with the grain parallel to the base of the lathe (the bed). Bowls, platters, and plates will have the grain oriented at 90 degrees to the bed. A tool called a bowl gouge is used to shape objects due to the wood being more resistant to the tool’s cutting edge.

Learning what tools to use, and methods of fixing the wood block to the lathe, can be learned through good instruction and hands-on practice. A new turner will gain years of experience by joining a club where they can learn techniques and tips from more experienced turners.

Safety is a very important part of woodturning, as even a small project can become a lethal missile if not properly secured, if the wood blank has flaws or loose bark, or if an improper gouge technique is applied. With the project piece turning at several hundred revolutions per minute, things can go wrong very quickly if the craftsperson is not focused. Again, joining a woodturning club is a good step towards minimizing the hazards of “spinning wood” and affords novice turners the opportunity to learn good safety practices.

Whether it’s a decorative or functional item being created, the hum of the lathe is music to a turner’s ears. The satisfaction of using one’s imagination (and those razor-sharp tools) to create something beautiful is only equalled by the delight of the recipient.

If you are curious about woodturning or you would like to improve your skills, you are welcome to email the CVWS at