The art of woodturning
HARNESSING THE BEAUTY OF WOOD KEEPS THE BODY AND BRAIN BUSY
Harnessing the beauty of wood keeps the body and brain busy for this Whanganui sheddie
Rimu wood shavings curl up from the lathe, cling to Alby Redman’s chest, and pile into the crook of his arm as he turns the top half of a segmented hollow form.
The Whanganui sheddie taught himself wood turning six years ago and went on to the meticulous craft of segmented turning.
The results of his work are stunning, displayed for sale in the Red Door Gallery
on Putiki Drive in Whanganui.
“It’s all about shapes. I love the shapes of vases and hollow forms, and the patterns,” he says.
Selling his pieces is secondary to the enjoyment that he gets from making the hollow forms, bowls, and other objects. But the money does help to fund materials and equipment. He says that it took him a long time to acquire the equipment he needed. He bought his first lathe on
Trade Me for $50 six years ago.
“It was home-made, not very well balanced, and had a lot of vibration, but it got me started,” he says. Now in his tidy, well-organized shed he has all the tools and machinery he needs: bench saw, thicknesser, a wedgie sled that he made to cut all the segments, a lathe and lathe chisels, a belt sander, a drill press, a hand drill with a sanding attachment, and much more.
Work on a hollow form can take 30 hours or more, four to five hours at a stretch, and that’s before he gets to the turning stage, which takes around an hour and a half. He works varied shifts as a police constable, so he uses any free time that he has during the day to do his woodturning.
“I could quite easily spend all my time in the shed but that wouldn’t be healthy,” he tells us. “You do go through days when you feel quite inspired and have lots of ideas. Other days you don’t, so you leave it for a while. Then I’ll see something and come up with another idea.” Left: Alby designs his own hollow forms with different patterns, inspired by new ideas while working on each piece
On the shelf
In his shed Alby has a collection of pieces, some of which he says are “failed, waiting to be redeemed”.
“That is the first bowl I made from a piece of wood from a tree that fell over in a storm,” he says indicating a bowl all in one piece with curved feet coming out from underneath. “It fell over a footpath near where we lived and the council cut the piece of stump off over the footpath and rolled it out of the way, so I went in there with my father-in-law and a wheelbarrow and picked it up.
“The wood was wet and it warped as it dried, which gave an undulating effect.”
On the floor nearby stands a stool or table that combines wood and a transparent blue resin, which he buys. Alby also makes wood and resin pendants.
Another bowl has a natural edge, and a platter made from wood that he acquired through a woodturner’s family selling things off came up beautifully when he sanded it.
“It was just a rough piece,” Alby explains. “The grain is like a map and the spalting [fungus that gets into dead wood] made it quite hard to turn, as the spalting area was less dense.
“Each piece of wood is so unique and individual. The beauty of working with a rough piece of wood is that there is always the surprise element. You never know exactly what you are going to find in terms of patterning, grain, texture, colours. Sometimes I’ll sandblast in between the rings in a piece of wood because it’s softer and you can bring out the rippled grain texture.”
A man-cave haven
“Going into that shed — it’s sort of like all life’s problems stop at the door. Because it captivates your mind, I guess, and you are always pushing the boundaries to try to make things better,” says Alby.
“When you are in there you’re always trying to figure out, how am I going to do this? It’s not an easy thing to do and takes your mind off other things. When I run into issues or problems I can’t solve, when I’m at work I’m still thinking about the form I’m working on and within a
“It was home-made, not very well balanced, and had a lot of vibration, but it got me started”
day or two the solution will come. It is a relaxing thing to do in that sense. It keeps my brain busy and working. And it keeps my mind off things I can’t do anything about. These are problems I can do something about.”
And there’s a feeling of satisfaction when people appreciate his work.
“But I still see all the flaws,” he says as he points out a slight gap at a join. “So I’m thinking, what can I do next time to make it a bit better? Quite often I wake up in the morning and can’t wait to get out there. Or I wake up sometimes at
4am and go and work in my shed for an hour or two before I go to work.”
Alby has branched out into burning designs on pieces with a pyrographic tool. The patterns look remarkably regular, however he says that that is
because the pattern is so busy: “It takes your eye away from imperfections; it’s not very accurate at all. Your brain gets distracted. Pyrography has made me look at wood with fresh eyes — it does become a blank canvas — you can add to the natural patterning and create a landscape.”
“Each piece of wood is so unique and individual. The beauty of working with a rough piece of wood is that there is always the surprise element”
Alby does a lot of research, drawing inspiration from books and the internet. Then he designs his own version, building in the patterns and shapes that he wants, such as diamonds and stars, and deciding on the overall height and shape. “You have to draw it out; you can’t just work out of your head: draw, plan, and work out the pieces you have to cut,” he says. The design process involves quite a bit of mathematics: “From the top I work out how many different rings there will be.
Then I work out the circumference and how many pieces there will be in each ring. You make the rings different sizes and work out the circumference of each ring going down the form.”
The number of rings depends on the thickness of the timber used.
While there are calculators online, Alby makes just four calculations, which he does manually, and says he finds this easier to do. a. Section width = maximum radius – minimum radius
“At this step I add 5mm to the maximum radius and subtract 5mm from the minimum radius. This adds a centimetre to the section width to give room for any errors. It is nearly impossible to get the rings centred when you glue them together, so it’s a good idea to add width here for error margin. For each ring you have to work out your maximum radius and your minimum radius. That tells you how thick each piece of wood has to be,” explains Alby.
b. Cut angle = total angle ÷ 2
The total angle is 360 degrees divided by the number of segments. As each segment is cut with an equal angle on each side, the cut angle is the total angle divided by two.
c. Section edge length = circumference ÷ number of segments
Section edge length = maximum radius (+ the 5mm for error margin) x 2 = maximum diameter. Diameter x Pi (3.14) = circumference. Circumference divided by number of segments = section edge length.
d. Stock length = circumference = section edge length x number of segments
This tells how long a piece of wood needs to be to cut the required number of segments from it — 18 here, for example.
Once he has cut the stock length he glues on any pieces of laminate that he needs for patterned effects before cutting the segments. Different coloured slivers of laminate create contrast on the joins and give a brickwork effect.
The rings are made of segments and the angles of the segments are all the same. “It depends how many you put in each ring,” he says. “If you have 18 segments in a ring, which is 360 degrees, then 360 divided by 18 = 20 degrees. Then your cut is half of that angle.”
The rings are different sizes and will be stacked and glued on top of each other to give the shape.
3. Materials selection and preparation
Alby uses native and other timber, recycled from old furniture and cabinets, buildings, fallen trees (oak, rimu, totara, walnut) and tends to avoid pine, which is too soft. Once he has sourced the timber he removes old nails and screws and rips the wood to size — rectangular batons about 20mm thick.
“I know that the timber I have is 20mm thick, more or less, so I divide it into 20mm rings. Each ring would start off as a little square block; so again that one’s maximum radius is a little bit less than the next one’s maximum radius. I can work it out exactly but I always add a little bit for error, which gives me a bit more to play with — more room to shape it. I always add on up to 1cm.”
He buys new lighter and darkcoloured veneer laminate that he layers between larger pieces to make contrasting patterns.
The hollow form in these photographs is made from rimu recycled from a piece of furniture that someone threw out. The thin wood is veneer laminate that he bought and had in stock. The little light pieces are pine that also came out of a piece of furniture that Alby disassembled. “Recycled timber, even though most of it is rimu … has come from different pieces of timber and varies in colour a bit. It gives extra interest,” he says.
4. Making the segments
Along each wood baton the topside is first marked. The segments are then cut at the correct angles on a wedgie sled, which is set to the cut angle. There is no tolerance for inaccuracies, which would inevitably create gaps. “The method I use on the sled cancels out any error on the blade, so if the blade is not 100 per cent upright, the way I am cutting it doesn’t matter so much. There would be gaps otherwise between the segments if there was any error,” Alby says.
Next, any rough parts on the segments are lightly sanded to enable a smooth, tight join when glued together.
turned around when shaping the form. On the foot piece, an additional scrap piece of round wood, made to fit into the metal chuck, is glued so as to mount the workpiece on the lathe. This piece is cut off on the lathe once the whole hollow form is finished and sanded.
The solid top lip is the same as the foot, however a hole is drilled in the middle ready to be mounted on the lathe with a worm screw.
The neck of the hollow form is initially almost solid, made from long segments (in this case 100mm) glued together. This is mounted on the lathe and the drill chuck attached on the tailstock. Before shaping the neck, a hole is drilled through it. It is perfectly balanced.
8. Turning the hollow form
The top half is attached to the metal chuck and turned, using a bowl gouge initially to shape the interior.
The exterior is then turned, using a gouge and scraper. The same is done with the base half.
The chisels must be sharpened at regular intervals, as the lathe spins very fast and chisels get blunt quickly.
The diameters of both halves are matched with calipers and any differences adjusted by turning on the lathe.
The inside is finished by sanding and finishing with oil or lacquer.
The two halves are glued together, with both surfaces dressed with wood glue, before being left to dry. Once dry, the form is turned until a smooth, continuous curve is achieved.
Alby sands the hollow form using a drill with Velcro-backed sanding discs. The Velcro makes changing between different grades of sandpaper easier. “When it is spinning it sands a lot faster and doesn’t make scratches on the wood. I use increasingly fine grades going from 100 to 140, 180, 240, 320, 600, 800, and for the polishing I’ll probably use 1500 to 2000,” he says. Lastly, lacquer or oil is applied — Alby does not lacquer all his pieces; he also uses an oil finish. With lacquering, the hollow form is sealed with a coat of sanding sealer, then sanded and resealed again two or three times to seal in any loose fibres. Finally, it is sprayed with a clear lacquer and left to dry for a week or two before being sanded again with a very fine sanding paper.
Segmented vessel of oak, walnut, and rimu
Alby makes the hollow forms in two halves, turning them as he goes. Here he shows two examples of the vase featured in the process photographs on the next pages
Gouging out and shaping the interior of the top half of the vase on the lathe
Alby draws the hollow form/vase and does calculations to work out the dimensions and angles of the segments, rings, and overall shape
Above: Alby recycles timber, in particular New Zealand native timbers. He removes old nails and screws and rips the wood into rectangular batons about 20mm thick
Below: Alby cuts the segments on a wedgie sled, which is set to the cut angle. There is no tolerance for inaccuracies, which would create gaps
Turning the interior of the hollow form on the lathe to remove excess wood and make a smooth, shaped surface
Turning the top half, initially using a gouge to cut off extra wood
Turning the top half using a scraper to refine the surface
Sanding the hollow-form top using a drill with Velcro-backed sanding discs