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A Quick Primer on Bowl-Turning

With a block of wood, wood lathe, some chisels and other tools and materials, you can make a nice wooden bowl and amaze your friends. While not a complete how-to, this article should serve as a basic framework showing some of the steps involved in the process. You will want to investigate in more detail, and there are many good books and videos available to help guide you through all the nuances of bowl-turning. Once you've made one or two bowls, you'll have people lining up to ask you for one. Welcome to the vortex!

Spinning a large chunk of wood on a lathe is a dynamic process that can produce some hazards. I highly recommend that you use a full-face shield to protect your entire face and neck areas in the event something flies off your lathe. Goggles simply aren't enough protection. Keep shirt sleeves buttoned, and avoid wearing any loose-fitting clothing. Good dust collection and an approved respirator are a must, as this process will necessarily generate a large amount of dust.


The reader assumes all responsibility and liability associated with the hazards of working with power tools, chemicals and other woodworking supplies and equipment. The author has no control over how a reader will act as a result of obtaining information in this article. The author shall not be responsible for any errors or omissions that may be present in this article. Accordingly, the author shall assume no liability for any action or inaction of a reader.

This article is directed toward a hobbyist audience and is not intended to serve as a thorough examination of potential shop hazards. As such, this article shall not be applied to a commercial, institutional, or industrial setting. Commercial shops are generally governed by a complex set of worker safety regulations, such as those mandated by OSHA. Satisfying the compliance of such regulations is beyond the scope of this article.

The midi lathe I use for turning. It has a 10 inch "swing" (capable of turning objects up to 10" in diameter).

The 5" x 5" x 3" block of Rose Myrtle burl I used for my bowl project. You can buy prepared "turning squares" for bowl-turning, or you might be inclined to cut up small logs to make your own. Some people even peruse their firewood piles to find suitable turning wood.

I marked lines corner to corner to determine the center of the turning square. The turning square needs to be cut into a cylinder before turning, or you'll spend all day knocking off corners on the lathe. You can use a compass to draw a circle on the top of the block, and cut freehand with a band saw or jig saw. I have made a circle-cutting jig for the band saw, eliminating the need to scribe a circle. All that's needed is to drill a small pivot hole in the center of the top of the block.

Drilling the pivot hole in the center of the block's top surface. The depth of the hole is just slightly greater than the height of the pivot pin. This hole won't matter, as it will be gone once I gouge out the cavity of the bowl later.

My circle-cutting jig for the band saw. The block sits top side down onto the pivot pin, and I rotate the block into the bandsaw. The jig is slidably adjustable to accommodate different size turning squares.

Ready to start the circular cut into the turning square. When properly aligned, the jig will position the square with its edge just touching the side of the bandsaw blade. With the saw running, I slowly turn the block clockwise, feeding it into the blade.

Circle cut complete. I can even salvage four pen blank halves from the corners of the waste piece.

The cylindrical bowl blank, ready to be mounted onto the lathe.

My ever-observant "shop helper." He looks quite content now, but he'll run for cover under the work bench and howl like a banshee once I start up the dust collector.

Unscrewing the faceplate from the headstock to mount it to the bowl blank.

Placing the faceplate on the top of the blank for mounting. I use the pivot hole as a guide for centering the faceplate onto the blank

Attaching the faceplate to the top of the blank using 3/4" screws. Again, I don't worry about these small holes as they will be carved away later when I hollow out the bowl cavity.

I screw the faceplate with blank back onto the headstock. The bowl blank is now ready for turning.

I position a dust collection hood around the blank. The dust collector catches most of the chips, but more importantly, the majority of the finer dust.

A front view of the mounted blank with the tool rest in position. The blank is oriented such that its bottom side is on the right. I will turn the side and bottom surfaces ("outboard" cut) first.

My lathe chisels. This is a cheap set I picked up at Harbor Freight, but they work fine for my needs. Be sure to buy chisels made from high-speed steel (HSS), as they will hold an edge longer, and are less prone to losing their hardness from the heat caused by grinding. Learn to sharpen your chisels and keep their edges sharp.

Turning the sides. I use the lathe's lowest speed -- about 500 RPM. Keep a firm overhand grasp of the tool with one hand, and the end of the tool's handle with the other hand. This takes some practice, and the occasional "catches" you will encounter can be a bit unnerving at first. I use the spindle gouge for the outside cuts, and follow with the skew chisel for better finishing. The better you make the surface with chisels, the less sanding you'll be doing later.

Starting to round off around the bottom. Again, I used the spindle gouge for the rough cutting, followed by the skew.

Using a bowl gouge I cut a shallow cavity into the bottom of the blank. The cut need only be about 1/4" deep and about 1-1/2" in diameter. Never use a spindle gouge for this or any other inside cuts.

Truing up the sides of the bottom cavity with the parting chisel. This puts straight walls into the cavity. This cavity will provide a gripping area for the lathe chuck later when I flip the blank around for the inside ("inboard") cut.

The bottom cavity completed.

Once the outboard turning is done, I sand the bottom side of the bowl with it spinning on the lathe, as this surface will be less accessible for sanding later when the blank is held in the chuck. Apply the sandpaper lightly -- don't let it get hot. I started sanding with 80 grit paper, then progressed to finer grits, up to 400 grit. I don't bother to sand inside the cavity, as that won't be visible anyway when the bowl is finished.

After unscrewing the faceplate with blank from the headstock of the lathe, I take out the screws and remove faceplate from the blank.

My lathe chuck set.

I use the chuck with round jaws installed. The round jaws have serrations allowing it to grip workpieces either internally or externally. I will be mounting with the jaws holding the blank in place with an internal grip, grasping into the walls of the shallow cavity I had cut into the bottom.

Screwing the chuck onto the headstock of the lathe.

Mounting the blank onto the chuck and tightening the jaws into the cavity to hold the blank firmly in place. Give it a couple rotations by hand using the lathe's handwheel BEFORE powering up, to ensure that the blank is mounted straight. You don't want a loose workpiece flying off the chuck.

Starting the main cavity cut into the top of the blank, using a bowl gouge. Start in the center of the blank and slowly work outward. Check the wall thickness from time to time with bowl calipers to prevent inadvertently cutting through the walls.

The blank with the main cavity roughed out. I follow this step with cuts inside using the bowl scraper. This leaves the inside with a smoother surface, reducing the amount of sanding that will be required.

Sanding the bowl while rotating. As before, I started with 80 grit, then progressively finer grits, up to 600 grit. I followed with #0000 steel wool. This process takes some time, and it is important to follow through with each grit.

The Tripoli compound I use for polishing the bowl.

I apply a small amount of the Tripoli compound to a folded piece of paper towel for application to the rotating bowl.

Applying the Tripoli to the rotating bowl. Use a clean paper towel to remove the excess.

The clear lacquer I use for the finish coat.

I apply the lacquer with a folded paper towel. The heat of friction quickly hardens the lacquer.

The finished bowl.

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