Last week while walking home, I passed a house with what looked to be half a dozen sections of a fallen Douglas Fir tree trunk. Each was roughly 24″ in diameter and 10″ thick. I introduced myself to the fellow trimming branches in the front yard and asked him about the wood. He confirmed that it was indeed Douglas Fir and told me that it was free for the taking. He also mentioned that a lady had come by earlier and expressed interest in the wood. I promised to stop by the next day and take one piece.
That evening and the next day, I thought about what I could do with a chunk of wood that size. I knew that I had to turn at least one bowl. I had recently bought a wood carving blade for an angle grinder, so I wanted to save some for power carving. So… I would pick up a chunk of wood and take a few bowls out of it and carve the rest.
The next day, after work, I selected the best piece. I wanted a piece with large flats on the outside so that I could take a couple bark-edged bowls out of it. I found the biggest piece with the least checking (cracks) and rolled it home. This was no easy feat. Being freshly cut, the moisture content must have been well over %75, so the overall weight was probably close to 100 lbs. I managed to roll the lop-sided disk of Douglas Fir home, which was about a block away. The hardest part was contending with the four flights of stairs (each flight consisting of about 8 steps), but I managed.
After dinner that night, I went down to the workshop with my buck saw to cut out a bowl. I soon learned that this is easier said than done. But I was determined that bowl. I attacked it with the buck saw, a reciprocating saw, an angle grinder, and an electric drill. It felt like two hours and could very well have been. I didn’t want to give up, but I was getting really tired and sweating profusely. The mosquitos were coming in swarms, so I admitted defeat to the fir and went for a shower.
The next evening, I went back for round two. I suppose that I had more energy at this point than the previous evening, and the bowl blank was freed within half an hour. I now have an electric chainsaw on my wish list. The blank which I cut out was about 9-1/2″ round and 9″ tall. My midi lathe has a 10″ capacity – and no more. I roughed out the blank with my angle grinder and mounted it a faceplate.
Now for the fun part. I threaded the faceplate on the headstock of my lathe and slid a live center in the tailstock up to the base of the bowl. I gripped my 3/8″ bowl gouge at a 40 degree angle to the bed and trued up the outside of the bowl. I removed the tailstock and trued up the base before cutting a recess for my Nova G3 chuck to grip onto. Satisfied with the way the chuck fit, I stowed the bowl in a plastic bag to slow moisture loss and closed down the shop.
I unwrapped the bowl the next evening and chucked it onto the lathe. I was pleased to see that it still spun true. Of course, wood tends to move (warp) when it dries. This is one of the most interesting parts about turning greenwood. You can turn a perfectly round bowl from wet wood, and when it dries (to less than %15 moisture content) it often takes on an oval shape. This results in a truly unique bowl, unlike anything a factory mass produces. Anyways, at this point, I was ready to start hollowing out the inside of the bowl. I started by selecting my largest brad-point bit, which happened to be about 7/16″. I determined how deep the bowl was going to be, leaving a 3/8″ thick bottom, and marked the depth on the bit with a piece of masking tape. I chucked the bit into the chuck in my tailstock and bored the hole, backing out every inch or so. After the hole was complete, I removed the tailstock and set up my tool rest.
With a sharp bowl gouge, I hollowed out the inside of the bowl. I only worked on the inside, staying 3/8″ away from the barked edge, for a bark-edged bowl must have a bark on its edge! As I neared my goal for 3/8″ thick walls, I began to frequently check for an even thickness all along the walls from the rim to the bottom with a pair of thickness calipers. When I was satisfied, I put down my bowl gouge and grabbed my scraper to put a nice smooth surface on the inside. However, in all the excitement, I had forgotten that scrapers, as a general rule, do not work well in softwoods. What’s more, the scraper had a nasty habit of catching, especially towards the bottom of the five-inch deep bowl. You see, the closest I could get my stock tool rest was about four inches from the bottom. My scraper has a short handle – the entire tool is only about 14″ long. The four inches beyond the tool rest provided enough leverage to make me lose control over the tool. After a bit of experimentation, I found that a custom grind (I’m the only one I know of that uses it) and and sharp edge on my bowl gouge, combined with light cuts, resulted in a pretty good surface.
Now, at this point, the wood was still pretty wet, so I let it dry out for a few days. I repacked the bowl in the plastic bag and closed down the shop. When I came back for the bowl, it had dried some. I decided to chuck it back onto the lathe and start sanding. Wearing a dust mask in addition to the face shield I always wear when turning, I began to abrade the outside of the bowl. I started with some 60-grit sandpaper backed by a piece of medium-density foam. I worked my way up to 120-grit and stopped there – anything more would do little but clog up the sandpaper, give the moisture content of the bowl (probably still over %30). I did the same for the inside. While sanding the inside, however, my knuckles caught the bark edging the bowl, doing a little damage to my knuckles, but more the bark.
When I stopped the lathe, I found that a section of bark was missing. Now, I don’t know if this is the same with all woods, but this piece had what seemed to be two layers of bark. The outermost seemed to be rather fragile. A chunk of this part was missing, so I decided to remove it around the entire rim. The section of bark between that and the solid wood is much more secure and would take some effort to remove. I left this on.
Over the next few days, I left the bowl to dry. The past two days, I left it in direct sunlight for most of the day. I know that this in not generally a good idea because the rapid drying can lead to checking, but I wanted the experiment with this bowl and see what would happen. Sure enough, several cracks appeared. Both sides (where the end grain is) showed a number of small, fine cracks, and one longer, jagged crack about two inches long appeared on one side. All the cracks appeared on the outside, but only the larger one appeared on the inside as well.
While some may regard these cracks as a flaw, I look at them as an opportunity. I might mix up some epoxy and tint it black to contrast with the Douglas Fir. I could just leave them for interest. Some mail-order catalogs offer ground-up stone which can be used to fill voids (turquoise seems popular). Being an experimental bowl, I decided to remove the rest of the bark edge. I pried it off with my fingers and a small knife.
The edge still has the natural shape, but no bark. It does look interesting, but I don’t know if I like it better with or without the bark edge. I’ll leave it to be for a while and let it dry out. Then I’ll stick it back on the lathe and give it a final sanding. Maybe I’ll reshape it too. Maybe I won’t.