Woodturning is fundamentally pretty simple, you rotate a workpiece and remove material from it until you get the desired shape. But it is nonetheless very nuanced, with many subtle details that make it both challenging and rewarding.
I’m putting this one first, not because I want to lecture you, but because getting injured while woodturning can take all the fun out of it…in an instant. There are hazards that you need to be aware of and for which you need to take appropriate preventative action.
I want to be clear, though, that safety is everyone’s responsibility, and I’m sharing the following thoughts to get you thinking about safety so that you can develop your own safe woodturning practices. I cannot provide a perfectly comprehensive set of safety practice, nor can I be responsible for what you do in your workshop.
Lathe safety can be generally thought of in terms of things leaving the lathe and coming into contact with people or the external environment, and things impacting the turning lathe or workpiece. Both of these can have consequences that range from minor to very serious.
The workpiece, in part or in whole, can leave the lathe for a variety of reasons. If it’s not mounted properly, it can wreak damage by flying away from the lathe at great speed. A defective workpiece can break apart and send just part of itself flying, as well. Sometimes there are defects in the wood that are not easy to detect, so this can be an unpleasant surprise. For beginners, this will often be a result of using improper technique and causing a “catch”. And don’t forget the dust and chips that are created while turning.
At the same time, we need to make sure that we don’t come into contact with the spinning tool or workpiece. Moving a body part into a spinning chunk of wood is no fun, but you also have to worry about loose clothing, long hair, jewelry, etc. getting pulled into the spinning piece.
A basic list of things you should consider:
- face shield
- snug fitting padded jacket with no loose sleeves
- tie back long hair
- maintain an uncluttered work area
- learn and use proper technique for presenting your tools
- avoid excessive turning speed
- rotate the workpiece slowly by hand before turning on the lathe
- always turn the lathe on at its lowest speed setting
2. Grain Orientation
There are two basic ‘modes’ of woodturning, and they are based on the orientation of the wood grain.
- Spindle turning involves grain that runs lengthwise along the axis of the lathe.
- Face grain turning (often used for turning bowls) involves grain that runs perpendicular to the axis of the lathe
This is a critical distinction, and you must always keep the grain orientation in mind before presenting the tool to the workpiece. The difference in quality of and effectiveness of the cut is one reason, but this can have a dramatic effect on safety.
3. Bevel Supported vs. Scraping
This refers to the technique used and how the tool interacts with the workpiece. It is true that some tools are specialized toward one or the other, but most tools can be used in either mode, so its important to know which technique is being used, not just what the name of the tool is.
- Bevel supported cuts slice the wood, while the bevel of the tool glides behind the cutting edge to provide support. When done properly, this can result in very clean cuts with minimal need for sanding. Done improperly, the cut can be rough, or it can result in the “catch” which can gouge the wood and possibly send the workpiece flying.
- Scraping doesn’t have bevel support and should be done with the edge at an acute (less than 90 degree) angle to the wood. A sharp burr on the edge of the tool can produce fast and/or clean cuts, depending on the angles and grain orientation involved.
4. Workpiece Mounting and Support
There are many ways to hold the workpiece in the lathe. Perhaps the simplest is spindle turning mode with the workpiece between centers. This is a good starting point for beginners because it doesn’t require additional accessories (a drive center and live center are usually included with the lathe) and it is one of the most secure ways to hold a workpiece. But as you move into more advanced woodturning, you’ll be tempted by different drive centers, live centers, chucks, faceplates, vacuum chucks, steady rests, cole jaws, etc.
My advice is to start with turning between centers for spindle mode turning, and with faceplate mounting for face grain turning. Make sure that you’re comfortable with these methods before purchasing other mounting methods. In general, make sure that you know the proper use of the mounting technique fully before using it, and focus on using the basic methods fully before going crazy acquiring more and more methods.
In order to make safe and high quality cuts, your tools must be properly sharpened. Some people will start with carbide tipped tools, but eventually, every woodturner needs to know how to sharpen their High Speed Steel (HSS) tools as needed. This usually involves jigs and a grinder, depending on the type of tool and the desired cutting profile.
For now, I’m really just pointing out some areas that a beginning woodturner should focus on. Each item in this list is a subject on it’s own, and trying to fully cover each one would require a lot of work to do each one justice.
My advice, though, is to always be aware of these five areas, and every time you present the tool to the workpiece, make sure that you’ve considered each one. Always make sure you’re exercising proper safety, that you’re aware of grain orientation, that you’ure using a proper bevel supported or scraping technique, that your workpiece is properly mounted in the lathe, and that your tools are well sharpened. If you focus on these things, your enjoyment and development as a woodturner will be greatly enhanced.
If you really want to grow, do this when watching other woodturners, either in person or on video. Notice what kind of mounting technique they use, what safety practices they utilize, how the grain is oriented, what type of cut they are making, etc. And be aware that not everything you see is something you will want to emulate. Some of these will provide examples of what NOT to do. Experience in looking at woodturning this way will help you discern which is the case.
I hope this helps you in your woodturning journey!