I am not a good wood turner. I have put in many, many hours at my lathe but that has been on very simple things like pens. I can count the number of bowls I have turned on one hand and my furniture spindle work is pretty rudimentary. Other than my foray into eccentrically turned cabriole legs in my Queen Anne side table, my furniture pieces are pretty straightforward. I can get the projects done that I need to but I stumble a lot and take a very long time. Moreover, this is tense work. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I’m afraid of my lathe (are you listening Kari?) but I am wary of messing up a project I have spent hours on. This makes me tense, I grip the tool too hard and definitely feel the tension the next morning. All of this means that my lathe doesn’t get used as much as it should. Usually it is just during the build up to Christmas that it is spinning. I won’t go so far to say that I dread turning, but it isn’t a fun experience for me.
I have no doubt that practice would make me better and add more fun to the process. The thing is, the type of stuff I like to build just doesn’t require much turning. Maybe it is my lack of skill that has caused that, I don’t know. So when I finished up filming and building for my second Hand Tool School semester, I knew I couldn’t put off my Christmas elf duties any longer and headed down to the shop for the stocking stuffer detail. I have just a few pens on my list this year since I have done so many in the past. This year added some variety with a lot of pepper mills, bottle stoppers, travel mugs, a few bowls, and some other odds and ends. Nothing really challenging.
This year however, I have a new secret weapon: Easy Wood Tools brand turning tools. Much ink has been spilled on these marvels of turning technology and my intention is not to create a tool review here (that will come later in video format) but if I may be so bold these tools have added the joy back into wood turning for me. The tension is gone and my creativity is allowed to flow. Now when I end up with a cool looking piece with interesting character elements, those were actually planned instead of a lucky accident.
With every piece I turned, I thought less about tool handling and focused more on the shape I was making. With one off pieces like bottle stoppers I don’t have a design in mind at the outset but let the shape happen organically as the wood dictates. In the past I have stuck with rudimentary forms and skipped the embellishments. I always let the highly figured wood do the talking. Not a bad idea in general but a little flourish here and there is fun. My Easy Wood Tools allowed me to create all manner of beads and flowing shapes that my trembling spindle gouge would have torn to pieces. Now as the shapes took form in front of me at 1800 rpm, I was not afraid to push the boundaries a bit and add a small bead right up against the bushing, or a hard line along the tough end grain. or reshape the cove to balance the overall piece.
I am still using highly figured and interesting exotic wood to liven up these small pieces but now I can create a form that embraces the character of the wood…on purpose. For instance, one of the bottle stoppers I was turning out of Cocobolo started out with a gentle curving cove and a rounded top similar to the Sapele stopper pictured above. As this blank began to thin out suddenly a flame of bright orange materialized from the deep brown and red tones. This flame speared it’s way up the blank and changed the look of the whole piece. I shifted gears on my form and changed to a more angular and industrial look which complemented this crazy wood nicely. Never would I have been able to let go of the tools this way before and allowed the inner shape to come forth like I did with these few pieces. With each new piece, my enthusiasm grew and grew and before I knew it hours had gone by and I was done with my Christmas gifts. A total of 12 bottle stoppers, 2 bowls, 9 pepper mills, 10 compact mirrors, and 5 pens had been completed in just 5 hours. More importantly, I lost myself in the creative process and was having a blast.
I know the purists out there will claim that Easy Wood Tools carbide cutters are just a crutch or training wheel that won’t teach you the principles of wood turning and tool handling. I completely agree. These tools lay flat on the tool rest and cut cleanly (I started sanding with 400 grit on each piece) in any wood. There is no concern about rubbing the bevel or angle of incidence. Just put the tool to the wood and shape it how you want it. With a little work you begin to find some subtleties in how the cutters work and use different pull and push strokes to get different effects, but the tool bar is still flat on the rest. If you want a bead, you move the cutter in an arc to roll the bead. No twisting and turning. So yes, there is a huge amount of tool handling removed from the game here so I am not learning to turn wood traditionally.
I feel a little hypocritical with this post because I am the first person to say that building fundamental skills is the key to making you a better woodworker. A Festool Domino is a great tool for making mortise and tenons but learning to cut them by hand first will only strengthen your skill set later. So aren’t Easy Wood Tools just the turning equivalent of the Domino? Wouldn’t I be a better turner if I skipped these tools and learned to be comfortable with traditional turning tools? Probably. But I don’t consider myself to be a wood turner. The bowls and vases and artistic pieces that I see master turners creating are stunning but just not my bag. I would rather build Neat and Plain Period furniture. Does it make sense for me to drop everything and learn to turn when it is a minor part of my everyday in the shop? Personally, no it doesn’t. Others will undoubtedly disagree with me on this, but for a tool to reintroduce the wonder and love of turning to me, I have to stop and take notice.
Easy Wood Tools may be a crutch in many opinions, but I think they are revolutionary. Clark Kellogg, said it best in a casual comment on twitter this weekend.
“[Easy Wood Tools are] the better mousetrap. Now bowls are fun instead of terrifying.”
Crutch or not, I’m done turning for the Christmas season. Usually this is a period of great celebration. So why is it all I can think about doing as I write this is getting back to my shop to turn some more stuff.