Improve Your Turning: Try a Pole Lathe

Let me preface this post by saying that my lathe work is just north of horrid. I have been turning for a few years, but not frequently enough to get really good at it. I turn a spindle here and there for tools and appliances for the shop, and very occasionally for furniture parts.  I don’t turn bowls. At least I haven’t up to this point. With that said, I have seen continuous improvement with each item that I have turned, and that is always the point.

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Over the years, I have turned on spring pole lathes, flywheel treadle lathes, great wheel lathes, and ‘lectric lathes. By far, the most challenging lathe for me to turn on has been the spring pole lathe. I suppose there is some irony in this considering it is the simplest lathe to build (and consequently the one I built and currently have in my shop). The reciprocal action of the lathe is probably the reason most people who have not used one would  give for this difficulty.  But believe it or not, the reciprocal action is probably the easiest thing to get used to.  It can be a challenge on really fine, small detailed work to place the bevel and edge in precisely the right spot on each down stroke after relieving the contact on the up stroke.  But with practice, the in and out movement of the chisel becomes so small that it becomes more a release of pressure than a complete disengagement of the cutting edge. The bigger challenge becomes getting a clean, precise, consistent cut at such a low speed.

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With so few RPMs on a pole lathe, it becomes incredibly important to use tools that are surgical sharp. Going from the grinder right to the lathe like you might with an electric lathe is just not going to work. The tools have to be honed with stones just like paring and carving chisels. Using a lathe with so much power but such low speed also teaches you to make sure you are slicing correctly, and not scraping. Regardless of the type of tool, and how sharp it is, a scraping cut is simply not going to work well on a pole lathe. You can see in the picture above where I got the tool handle a bit too perpendicular to the work and scraped a bit too much. Not what you want.

The shaving coming off of the roughing gouge above is what you are striving for. The surface to the right, where the tearout is, is not. That surface is the result of scraping with a tool that needs sharpening. In this case, because I was just roughing out the cylinder for the bench screw I’m turning, I wasn’t too concerned with the tearout. I was leaving the cylinder over sized to be brought to final size with a razor sharp planing chisel later on.

Another thing I tend to try and avoid on the pole lathe is sanding. That tearout above could potentially be sanded out, but it will take ages, some really coarse paper, and it will never look really good. It’s much better to plane the surface with a wide, straight chisel. I use a 2″ single bevel straight chisel to smooth and level the surface. After that is done, only very light sanding with 180 or 220 grit paper is required (good pole lathe turners require no sanding…but like I said, I’m not good). Planing with a chisel, held at a skew, makes a very clean slicing cut and leaves a glass smooth surface behind, just like using a really sharp smoothing plane on a flat board.

The upside to all of this careful practice at the slow speeds of the pole lathe is that it makes you more attentive and improves your turning on pretty much every other kind of lathe. I notice when I use the flywheel lathe or great wheel lathe at the museum, I tend to get better results than I used to because the pole lathe has forced me to improve my technique and make sure I’m not letting my tools get too dull. My work on electric lathes is similarly improved.

So even if you have no intention or desire to work on a pole lathe, I encourage you to at least try one out for a bit, or at least slow your electric lathe way down, and practice making clean slicing cuts with very sharp tools. You might be surprised at the improvement you might see in your regular lathe work.

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William & Mary Bible Box Completed

I finally finished my reproduction of the William & Mary bible box I have been working on. If you missed the previous posts about it, you can check them all out, including pictures of the original, here: William & Mary Bible Box Posts.

To give you the short version, this project was a group build with my woodworking club, the Central Jersey Woodworker’s Association. I co-mentored the build with our club president, and each group member built their own box. We met as a group four times, once a month from January through April, to discuss key steps in the build process. Then each member went back to their own shop to complete that phase of the build. For certain specialty tasks, like the veneering and turning, we did those at the mentor’s (Frank’s) shop so that everyone wouldn’t have to invest in specialty tools that they may not have. Overall it was a really fun project.

My biggest take-aways:

  • Veneer work is fun stuff! Everyone should try it.
  • Turning small items on the pole lathe is a bit of a challenge. One needs to be sure to leave an extra 4 to 6″ where the drive cord wraps around for turning small things like the feet for this box. For long items like Windsor chair legs, it’s not a big deal. You can just turn the leg end for end in the lathe and continue to go at it. For turning small stuff though, having extra length is the way to go. I didn’t have that here (the blanks were designed to fit Frank’s Jet lathe) and I struggled a bit with the turning (not just because of the short blanks, but that’s a post for another day).
  • The parting tool isn’t a lot of fun to use on a pole lathe. The skew works much better.
  • The tool rest on my lathe flexes too much. This was the first time I’ve done any serious turning for a piece of furniture on my lathe. Previously it had been only practice pieces and rough turned items for the shop, such as the handles for my tool chest. I hadn’t noticed the flex in the tool rest with those turnings, but it reared its ugly head while turning the feet for this box. So I’ll need to remake the tool rest before I do any more turning. If you make this lathe for yourself, do yourself a favor and use a stiff hardwood for the tool rest and not construction grade lumber. The hem/fir I used just flexes way too much to make a solid tool rest.

Tonight is our club’s annual member showcase meeting where the club members bring in projects to display and talk about. It will also be the unveiling of our group’s finished bible boxes. If you’re in the area, you should stop by. You can get the address from the club’s web site, linked above. There’s no cost for your first meeting, so you have nothing to lose. It’s sure to be a great meeting with lots of really great work on display.

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Get Woodworking with the Classics

So if you’ve decided that you want to pursue learning how to work with wood with hand tools, one of the best recommendations I can make to you is to study the classics. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books on the subject put out by contemporary authors. However, even if the book is all about working with hand tools, most of the more modern books (like those written in the last 50 years or so) still have some obvious power tool influence. The problem with this, as I see it, for woodworkers that really want to learn to do things primarily by hand, is that some operations described in the contemporary works on the subject are approached as if the person was using machines, even though they aren’t. This can be very misleading to those who have not studied older texts and older woodwork, and often leads to the assumoption that hand tools are slow and inefficient. This is simply not true when traditional methods and techniques are understood and employed.

This is where studying the classic texts and period furniture and other woodwork really become important for someone wanting to really be able to work efficiently with hand tools. The main difference with the older texts is that those authors didn’t have power tools to work with, so the methods they describe are all based solely on working traditionally with nothing more than a sharp hand tool. Similarly, the classic furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, being built 100% with hand tools, is very telling of methods and thought processes employed while the maker was building the piece. Even if you have absolutely no interest in building period furniture yourself, studying the forms and the historical texts is a great way to understand the traditional processes. Once the tools and the methods and the joinery are understood in theory, it’s very easy to take those traditional methods and adapt them to a more contemporary furniture form, if that is more your taste. Going the other way, however, trying to take a machine operation or type of joinery designed around a machine, and adapt it to be done with hand tools, usually leads to frustration, confusion, and right back to the assumption that hand tools are slow and inefficient.

So to get you started, here are two great English sources for traditional trade knowledge:

Joseph Moxon, Mechanik Exercises…, published in the late 1600s. The 17th century English can be a little hard to get through if you aren’t used to reading it, but after working through the first dozen or two pages, you get used to it. This is one of the first, if not THE first English language book on the early tools and trades. One thing to pay attention to is how few tools are discussed in the section on joinery. It really gives one an appreciation for how much can be done with very few tools.

Peter Nicholson, The Mechanic’s Companion…, published in the early 1800s. This book has some similarities to Moxon’s book, and in fact it was based upon Moxon’s book. However, Nicholson goes into much more detail in many of the sections than Moxon did, and he also includes more tools and more information than Moxon did. This version is also a little easier to read if you have trouble with Moxon’s 17th century English. Nicholson’s English is much closer in dialect to modern English.

These two texts are free through Google Books and will get you off on the right foot if your goal is to really become effecient working wood with hand tools. If you read these books and then go into your shop and try some of the techniques described within them, you’ll have a great foundation to discovering and understanding the lost arts & mysteries of traditional woodworking.

Get Woodworking, Together

One of the best way to get started in the craft, learn a great deal, and meet other like minded individuals of all skill levels is to take a class or get invloved in a local woodworking club. Classes are great because you get hands on instruction. They can be expensive though. Local clubs on the other hand are an absolute bargain, and often you can attend a meeting or two for free to see if the club is for you. The benefit of local clubs is that you can meet local people who usually are more than eager to help out newcommers and get them started right. Most clubs have lectures and demonstrations fairly regularly, and many have special seminars, group wood buys, and mentor led group builds to help you get your feet wet.

My own club, the Central Jersey Woodworker’s Association, has recently started doing mentor led group builds as a way for us to get together in small groups, work out project details and learn from each other. Participant experience levels run the gamut from rank beginner to seasoned professional, and skill sets are equally as diverse, from CNC to hatchet and drawknife. Group projects like these are a fantastic way to see other woodworker’s shops, learn new skills, build new projects, and make new friendships for nothing more than the cost of a club membership.

So seek out classes, but especially get involved in your local guilds and clubs. The cost of annual membership to one of these organizations typically pays for itself the very first meeting. If you’re around the New Jersey area, feel free to stop in to the CJWA meetings. New members are always welcome. We meet the second Wednesday of the month (except for July and August) and are centrally located to many areas. Click the link above for more information and directions to the meetings.

What is “Hand Made”?

It’s a hot topic that always manages to ruffle some feathers. There are lots of opinions on what constitutes “hand made”. At one extreme are folks, often deemed the “purists”, who believe that the use of electrons in any way shape or form immediately disqualifies a project from the “hand made” category. At the other extreme are those who believe that anything not “manufactured” on a factory assembly line qualifies as “hand made”, even though the only hand tool to touch the project was the rag used to rub out the final coat of paste wax. Then there are those in the middle (i.e. the majority of us), who work with both kinds of tools. Can’t we all just get along?

Of course everyone has an opinion on the true definition of “hand made”. So who’s right? The answer, at least as far as the hobbiest is concerned, is neither; and both. Got it? No?

Well, in truth, there’s no standard definition as to what constitutes that something is “hand made”. So as with many things, it comes down to interpretation. Even in the world of period reproductions you will have propnents on both sides of the debate. I have two opinions about the subject. One is specific to the commercial world and those advertising their wares as “hand made” in order to entice potential customers. That interpretation, however, is the subject of another post.

Since I do this as a hobby, and since I’m sure 99.9% of the readers of this blog are in the same boat, I want to talk about how I interpret hand made as it applies to the hobbiest. In my opinion, when it comes to the hobbiest, it absolutely doesn’t matter to me one iota how much of your work you do with hand tools and whether or not you consider your projects “hand made” (which I’m sure you probably do). The reason is that it has zero impact on me or the way in which I work. I love hand tools. I love using hand tools. I even like doing the “grunt” work with hand tools (most of the time).

But I also realize that not everyone is like me. Not everybody wants to work the way I do. Not everyone is physically capable of working the way I do. But it doesn’t matter. Your work is your work. Whether or not you surface your stock by hand or machine, rip with a Disston or a Delta, or scroll with a bowsaw or a bandsaw, it matters not to me. What is important is that you enjoy the hobby the way you do it. As a hobbiest, the only person you have to answer to is yourself. If you aren’t happy with the way your current setup is working, you can change it.

I occasionally get an apology from someone building the tea table that always makes me chuckle. They will typically talk about their experiences building the project and how much fun it has been to build, but apologize because they used a bandsaw instead of a bowsaw, or because they ran the rough stock through the planer instead of hand planing. They write this as if I’m somehow going to be disappointed because they didn’t do it just like I did. I have to laugh, but then politely reply that I’m glad that they found a solution that worked for them. That’s what being a hobbiest is about. Finding a way that works for you. I do things the way I do them because that’s what I enjoy. If I didn’t, I’d be podcasting how to use a bandsaw to make cabriole legs instead of a rip saw. If you like my way that’s great. If you have another solution that works better for you, that’s great too. As long as you are having fun.

How much hand tool work went into your projects is irrelevant. In the end, it’s your project. You have to live with it. You have to be happy with it. You have to be satisfied with the process you used to complete it. Whether or not it fits your definition of “hand made” is completely up to you. The definition in this sense really only applies to your work and your interpretation of your work.

Here’s my interpretation as I apply it to my own work. If the final fit, finish and composition is a direct result of the work of my hands, then in my eyes, that piece can be called “hand made”. If the appearance and surfaces are not a direct reflection of the work of my hands, then I do not consider that piece to be hand made.

Here’s a little example I like to use. Consider a turned spindle for a table leg. I could use an electric lathe to turn the spindle and I would still consider the piece hand made. That’s because the shape of that spindle and the crispness of the details are all controlled by the tools that I am manipulating with my own hands. The motor serves only to turn the wood. In contrast, if I were to rig up one of those automatic duplicator things to my spring pole lathe, I would not consider that hand made. Even though there was no electrical power used, my hands did not cut the shape of that spindle. It was cut by a machine (which the duplicator technically is even though it does not have a motor).

In that vein, we can look at some pieces and apply a similar definition. Take a Maloof rocker. Would I consider this hand made? Absolutely! He may have used a die grinder to do the shaping, but it was his hands controlling the tool and ultimately the composition of the final piece. Similarly, a Krenov cabinet has a great deal of hand sculpting to finesse the final composition and appearance. He may have rough cut many of the parts on a table saw and band saw, but it was his hands that turned those boards into a thing of beauty. By contrast, a shaker table that had it’s rough milling done on the jointer, planer and table saw, its joinery cut with a mortising machine and router, and it’s surface hand planed, would not meet my interpretation of hand made as I apply it to my own projects.

So to get back to the original question, “What is hand made?” The answer is, as far as we hobbiests are concerned, whatever you interpret it to be. It’s your work. Call it whatever you like, as long as you have fun with it!