Woodturning for Beginners

If this is your first foray into the woodturning world, you may wonder: “what is the best way to get started? Is there a guide that will give me a good idea of what kinds of tools are available and what techniques I need to know as a beginning woodturner?”

If a “woodturning for beginners” guide is what you are searching for, look no further! This post will discuss the kinds of tools available to a beginning woodturner, some techniques that a new woodturner should learn, and a few tips that will help the fledgling woodworker on his or her journey.

Tools for Woodturning

The first question a beginning woodturner might have is: “what tools do I need to get started?” Well, a person cannot turn wood without something that physically spins wood blanks, which means that any beginning woodturner will need a lathe.

Woodturning lathe tools and equipment woodturning for beginners

A woodturner will also need tools to shape the wood. If you would like to read more about specific kinds of basic tools needed for woodturning or about what a lathe is and how it works, visit our previous blog post here. Read on below to find out about the different types of tools that are available to woodturners.

High-Speed Steel Traditional Tools vs. Carbide Tools

Something a beginning woodturner may not realize is that there are different types of woodturning tools, and there is quite a heated debate in the woodturning community about which kind of tool is best to use!

High-Speed Steel Tools

One kind of tool that you may come across is a traditional tool, also known as a high-speed steel or HSS tool. HSS tools are made from steel and other alloy metals and tempered at high temperatures, which allows them to function at high speeds without any risk of the heat from the friction damaging the tools.

In woodturning, HSS tools give a smoother finish, and the cutting technique is often described more like whittling. Long spiral shavings come off the wood as it is turned, and a woodturner does not usually need to sand his or her work after he or she is finished. The precision offered by an HSS tool also means that this sort of tool works better on softer kinds of wood.

Additionally, a single bowl gouge can be used to complete an entire bowl, both outside and inside. Because only one tool is needed, especially for a beginner, it might be more feasible for some people to purchase a single HSS tool than an entire Carbide set.

However, HSS tools also have their disadvantages. Most woodturners agree that HSS tools are more difficult to use and require more hours of practice to fully learn the techniques needed to use the HSS tools to their full potential.

The other issue when it comes to high-speed steel tools is that these tools need to be sharpened often. Depending on the wood one is using, a woodturner may need to sharpen his or her tools every couple of minutes! Because of this, it is important to have a sharpening station set up in one’s woodshop, and this station can cost more than a lathe.

The act of sharpening one’s tools is also an art in itself, and it takes time to master that art to be able to sharpen each tool at the exact same angle each time.

Carbide Tools

The other kind of tool that is quite common in woodturning circles is a carbide tool. Carbide tools are made of metal alloys, like tungsten, bound with a metal, and they are used primarily because they are resistant to wear, which keeps them sharp longer.

One important advantage to carbide tools for woodturning is that they require no sharpening, which also means that a woodturner using carbide tools needs no sharpening station. When a tool gets dull, a woodturner simply needs to rotate the tool 90 degrees and continue turning. When the entire tool is dull, the carbide tip of the tool is replaced. Because these tools stay sharp longer, they are often more useful when working with hard kinds of wood.

Carbide tools also require less time to learn. Carbide tools do not require as much time or practice to master, which means that a beginner can easily pick up a carbide tool and begin turning products that day.

However, these tools are not as precise as the HSS tools. Many woodturners say that carbide tools are rougher, and they scrape rather than cut the wood, which can lead to more gouging in one’s pieces. This means that sanding is necessary to make one’s products smooth.

Carbide tools are also considered less versatile, which is why they come in sets. A woodturner using carbide tools will probably need several different tools to hollow, scrape, and perform detail work on the bowl or plate he or she is turning. Because of this, carbide tools might cost more up front than HSS tools, as one may need to only purchase one HSS tool to get started.

So… Which Kind of Tool Is Best for a Beginning Woodturner?

Carbide tools are often regarded in the woodturning world as beginners’ tools or gateway tools, as they inspire confidence and the desire to continue further into the craft. They take less time to master and require no sharpening, which means that a beginning woodturning would not need to set up a sharpening station. Just purchase a lathe, a set of tools, and some wood blanks, and you’re ready to go!

There are those, however, who argue that a beginning woodturner should use only traditional tools and put their time and effort into learning the techniques needed to master the more precise and advanced tool sets from the beginning.

Ultimately, it’s up to the woodturner to decide what his or her preference is. You will want to consider your purpose for woodturning; are you wishing for this activity to be a side hobby that takes only a few hours every now and then? Or do you want to dive deep into the world of woodturning and learn to be an expert woodturner? Carbide tools will get you started faster, but HSS tools will offer you the chance to spend many hours perfecting your craft.

Woodturning Techniques

Once a woodturner has decided on a lathe and what kinds of tools he or she will use, the woodturner will then need to learn about the different techniques needed to begin actually creating wood-turned projects.

Stance

One thing that many beginners overlook when they start woodturning is their stance at the lathe. A woodturner should stand directly in front of the lathe with their feet shoulder-width apart and arms bent at 90 degrees. This loose stance will allow a woodturner to move easily with the wood as they move their tools along the wood blank.

Holding the tools also requires a purposeful stance. A woodturner should grasp the tool handle with one hand and use their other hand to hold the shaft of the tool below the tool rest. This hand helps guide the cut, which allows for greater precision. The hand holding the tool handle should remain near one’s hip, and the woodturner should use his or her body to move the tool, not just their arms. This allows for less vibration and more control of the tool.

Wood Orientation

Mounting

The next thing to consider is how the wood is mounted to the lathe. The most important thing is to make sure that wood is mounted securely so that it can’t come flying off the lathe, causing damage to the wood, one’s tools, and even the woodturner. This is especially important with bowl turning (versus spindle turning or other kinds of turning), as bowl blanks tend to be larger than other blanks.

Spur Chuck

There are three main ways to mount wood on a lathe: a spur chuck and drive center, a screw chuck, and a faceplate.

A spur chuck is a tool that has a point in the middle and four surrounding teeth that are driven into the center of the wood, often with a mallet, to make sure the teeth don’t slip. This spur chuck then is mounted to the headstock of the lathe and balanced with the live center on the tailstock side to keep the pressure on the wood even.

A spur chuck is helpful because it allows a woodturner to reposition the wood if needed, on both the headstock and tailstock side individually. Spur chucks are most often used for smaller pieces or spindles rather than larger pieces.

They also have a built-in safety measure; if there is too much pressure on the wood as it turns, the spur will slip and potentially stop turning, which stops the wood from flying off the lathe at a high speed. The woodturner then can readjust and make sure the wood is balanced before continuing.

Screw Chuck

The next way to mount wood blanks is with a screw chuck. A screw chuck is a long screw that is drilled into the wood blank, so this is a good option for small to medium sized bowls. Sometimes the screw that comes with the screw chuck is too long for certain projects, so a woodturner will also want to have some spacers on hand to add to the base of the screw so that the length is appropriate for each piece of wood.

With a screw chuck, a woodturner would not necessarily need to engage the tailstock, which makes this a great option for turning abnormally shaped blanks. However, because it is screwed into the wood, it is difficult to reposition once the screw is fastened.

Faceplate

The faceplate is the other main way of attaching wood to the lathe. The faceplate is also screwed into the wood, but this time with five screws rather than just one. The faceplate is therefore ideal for large wood blanks and wood blanks that are green or wet.

However, the faceplate can only be attached to flat surfaces, so this is not as useful for creating an end-grain bowl. A turner must also be sure to use wood screws and not drywall screws, as drywall screws are brittle and can break off when used at high speeds.

Orientation

Once you have decided how best to mount your wood to the lathe, the next step is to decide if the wood will be mounted to create an end-grain bowl or side-grain bowl (when bowl turning). Mounting a log or blank with the same orientation as a growing tree creates an end-grain bowl. If a woodturner shifts the blank 90 degrees, as if the tree were parallel to the floor, this creates a side-grain bowl. There are advantages to both kinds of mount, but each will require some different cutting techniques.

Make sure the blank is secured in the center of the wood to ensure that the wood will remain balanced as it turns. Also, it may seem like common sense, but a woodturner needs to make sure to use the correct size wood for the lathe they are using. If there is not enough room for the wood to turn easily, the woodturner will have a difficult time creating anything efficiently.

It is also essential to learn to pay attention to the sounds and vibrations made by one’s lathe so that one can tell when something is off. If a woodturner notices strange knocking sounds of bouncing, chances are that the wood is not mounted properly, or something has come loose. Instead of continuing, this woodturner would be wise to turn the lathe off and reassess before continuing with his or her project.

Speeds

A beginning turner should start with slower speeds on the lathe so that he or she can get used to how the wood responds to the tools he or she is using. This is especially important if one is using raw wood or a blank that is unbalanced. As the blank becomes more balanced, a woodturner might increase the speed, though he or she will also want to slow down again when finishing.

A good rule of thumb is not to exceed 1000 rpm for medium to large-sized bowls, though higher speeds might be used with smaller projects.

Additional Woodturning for Beginners Tips

Safety

The most important thing a woodturner can do to have a good woodturning experience is to stay safe. This means investing in proper safety gear, which we address in a previous blog post. Also view this safety video for a more in-depth look of safety protocols from our YouTube channel.

Join a Class

Another important thing a woodturner can do is to look for classes nearby. Joining a class or finding a mentor will allow one to learn techniques from other experts in the field, as well as get recommendations on tools and equipment.

A good place to start is with the American Association of Woodturners. The purpose of the association is to “advance the art and craft of woodturning worldwide through education,” and they have over 13,000 members and 365 local chapters, according to their website.

Reed Gray, a member of AAW, says your local AAW chapter “come[s] with monthly meetings and demonstrations, and were for me when I began, my biggest learning spot.” Having someone to answer questions or offer advice can mean the difference between giving up after a few projects and a long and exciting phase as a woodturner.

Key Takeaways

  • High-speed steel (HSS) and Carbide tools are the most common kinds of woodturning tools.
    • HSS tools require sharpening and often take longer to master.
    • Carbide tools do not require sharpening and are easier to master, which make them practical for beginners.
  • A woodturner should pay attention to their stance when woodturning. One should keep a loose stance and move their body with each cut.
  • There are three main ways to mount wood to a lathe: a spur chuck, a screw chuck, and a faceplate.
    • Spur chucks are best for small pieces that may need to be readjusted.
    • Screw chucks are best for small to medium bowl blanks and abnormally shaped wood.
    • Faceplates are best for large wood blanks that require more stability.
  • The best thing one can do when beginning woodturning is invest in safety equipment. The next thing a new woodturner should do is find a class or mentor.

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