Archive for the ‘Bowlturning’ Category

Last Weekend I went up to Wimpole Hall, near Cambridge, to run a Weekend of Polelathe courses for Simon Damant who is the forester and manages a lot of the work on the National Trust owned Estate. One thing I like about visiting Wimpole is the big skies and it didn’t disappoint over the weekend  as we were treated to sunshine, cloud and impressive thunderstorms.

One of the thunderstorms had a clear funnel cloud and I had to take a photograph just to prove I wasn’t imagining it. It didn’t quite make it to the ground while I was watching – but an impressive sight all the same.

The hall is a big pile, originally started in the 17th Century and added to over the years until handed to the National Trust in 1976 by Elsie Bambridge, Rudyard Kiplings daughter. Thanks to the hospitality of Simon and Jess I got to lay my sleeping bag down in a spare room for a night. Despite Simon’s warning that the wife of the 5th earl still regularly patrols the rooms – I heard nothing – probably due to a few glasses of cider!

This was the first time that Wimpole had offered a poelathe course. I took up a couple of lathes for the course but Simon’s capable team of volunteers, mainly Peter and Jim,  had been hard at work building a set of lathes for Wimpole – and with a bit of tweaking up they are working fine – though one of the advantages of Peter coming in on the Sunday course is that he’s got a few ideas for how to improve the lathes further.

Lindsey was on the course and being local was delighted at the opportunity to learn polelathe skills just around the corner from her home.

Jim brought along a lathe he’d already made for the weekend with the aim of improving his ability to use it and learn a few hints and tips. We didn’t hold his bungie against him and judging by the pieces he made over the weeked Jim is well on his way to mastering his lathe.

As the Sunday course was intended as an ‘improvers workshop’ something I’ve run with some success at the Weald and Downland Museum before, I took along a birch bowl blank for a quick demonstration of  bowl turning on my own lathe.

After everone had had a go with the bowl hooks Simon finished off the bowl which luckily parted gracefully on the lathe and Andy Marczewski gave him some tips on how to smooth off the remains of the core with a crook knife.

Two days with a crowd  of greenwood folk was about all that Simon could take and he made a speedy exit on his 1948 BSA motor bike – almost, but not quite, quick enough to evade my camera though!

But not before leaving me with one of the first knives from his blacksmithing work at the victorian forge on the estate which he and his team have restored, part of his longterm aim to turn ploughshares (or in this case landrover leafsprings) into swords in an ironic twist to the usual story. Being carbon steel it has a good edge to it and I’ll need to make a woode handle for it which suits the blade.

As always I had a great time at Wimpole thanks to the hospitality and enthusiasm of the team there and I think that everyone on the courses had a good time which is the main aim of the event. I look forward to the next chance to visit and see what the team has been upto! Thanks to Simon, Jess, Andy, Jim, Peter and Neil for putting up with me over the weekend.





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With the clear blue sky and the midday temperature at 20degC it’s easy to forget that only 3 weeks ago it was snowing briefly, and it’s not too late for some more with the topsy turvy weather we can have nowadays. Sod’s law that was the day that I’d arranged for Eva to come round and turn her bowl.

I saw ‘her’ bowl because there has never really been any doubt about it, not in Eva’s mind at least. Minor issues such as never having turned wood before didn’t really figure and nor did the weather. My patronising ‘wouldn’t you rather start by turning a dibber’ was quite rightly brushed off with the chant ‘I want to turn a bowl’. And she did – well done Eva!

The more I thought about it the more I realised I was equally interested to see how well Eva got on with turning a bowl on a polelathe without the distraction of turning any spindles first.  There is a lot to learn but by keeping to a small bowl diameter and shallow dish profile the inertia of the wood on the lathe is minimised and so is the amount of wood to be removed. Despite the near freezing temperatures and short snow shower the result turned out well and the exercise turned out useful for keeping warm as well.

While Eva was turning the bowl Gary and I made spoons. Gary is used to precision engineering tools so wielding a knife freehand was an entirely new experience. Gary’s precision engineering is going to come in handy because I can’t see Eva being satisfied with just one bowl and I don’t think it won’t be long before she has her own lathe.

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After plenty of prevarication I got around to putting lids on the small birch pots I’d been commissioned to make. To my surprise I quite enjoyed making the pots and I can see that I might do some more soon but I’ve never put a lid on before. I spent plenty of time failing to make progress before plunging in and turning them the most obvious way just like the pots, but it went well thanks to plenty of good hints from very talented friends Richard Law (aka Flyingshavings) and Steve Tomlin.

I was quite concerned about getting a good fit with the rebate onto the rim of the pot but in the event a pair of calipers is all thats necessary and then a couple of trial fits – just don’t get carried away right at the end!

Then you’ll get a snug fit.

One down, one to go. It’s a fairly laborious task  and the price will be high because of that  so I don’t forsee going into mass production but I think a couple of these on my stand next year would be a good addition to my range with plenty of uses. These two pots are intended for a GO board set being made by Natalie and I was delighted to hear that the board itself is milled from local birch so she also asked me to make a set of turned feet for the board.

Knowing nothing about GO before I started could have been a problem, but the wonder of Google Image soon solved the problem and I turned the feet one after another on the same spindle to make it easier to match the profile and length.

As with the Pots the feet are my interpretation of what was needed rather than a copy of a commercial product as I am working with the raw material that is to hand in the woodland. So thanks for the challenge Natalie and for adding another use for Birch wood to my extensive list!

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The High Street is not my normal habitat these days. But I came  to see Mervyn Mewis’ excellent display of his woody creations at Godalming Museum ‘Out of the Woods’.

I rate Merv’s skills very highly and I think the combination of  Trees, Wood and Music is compelling.  The exhibition is a  great mix of  wood shapes and textures.  The natural shape, grain and character of the wood plays a big part in Merv’s work. Sadly I only had my phone camera with me so the photos leave a lot to be desired.

The exhibition will stay on at the Museum throughout August. If you are in the Godalming area don’t forget to take a look!  There will also be a range of activities and events (mainly Saturday’s) throughout the month based upon Mervyn’s Exhibition, trees, music and wood. Take a look at the museum website here for details – Godalming Museum – Out of the Woods Events.

But as well as a tree surgeon and woodworker Merv is also a talented Luthier and for me the instruments that Merv makes and plays are the icing on the cake. You may have seen or heard Merv playing them with Catherine as a duo – if not they will be playing in Godalming on Saturday 13th August (details on the museum website).  They are traditional instruments and you don’t get to see them very often let alone hear them played. I think this one is called a Bowed Psaltery?

The Hurdy Gurdy – I would love to have heard this one being played but unfortunately it was on display in the cabinet.

……..and the hammered dulcimer. Well done Merv an excellent exhibition. But the music didn’t end there because when I spoke to Merv the day before he reminded me to bring my guitar…..oh dear…..

Somehow on the way back to the station I found myself in the Star with Merv and the dulcimer, Catherine and the rest of the Monday evening folk session. As far as I can remember I’ve not played folk music anywhere other than around a campfire at a woody event before. So playing  in a pub with other musicians was quite an event for me – a real Coming out of the Woods for me as well.   They were very kind and tolerant to put up with me! I really do promise to do a little more practise, and if only I could remember all the words…….

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Well, I am a little tardy with the second part of my bowlhook making article. But I’m going to assume that it’s better late than never. I covered the sourcing of the metal (old car springs) and the straightening and preparation of the rod earlier. You can find the article here Forging again – I’m talking more bowl hooks. A very quick disclaimer – I am not a metalworker, nor a metallurgist. My basic understanding is enough for me to make basic tools that I use as a greenwood worker and I am describing the process as I use it – not necessarily correctly!

The business end of the tool, the hook, is formed by tapering out the end of the rod until there is a flattened surface about an inch in length and an eighth of an inch in thickness. Though the dimensions are all a part of the development and sometimes they will vary depending upon how I plan to use the hook.

To work the metal most easily it needs to be at a bright heat, more than red, a very bright orange – but not yellow. The next step from yellow is when the metal starts to burn and turns into a sparkler. Very pretty but you’ve ruined it and will need to start again. Steel will do this very easily – I assume that results from the carbon in the iron, so be careful.

Before making the tapered end it’s a good idea to make the tang on the other end of the tool. This gets me into the habit of beating a taper into the metal before I mess up the first of the hooks and also to learn to gauge how quickly the hearth heats the steel to the right temperature. It doesn’t really matter if the tang turns into a sparkler.

I persuaded my Blacksmith friend, John, to make one of the tapered ends to compare his work with my attempts, whilst Robert another blacksmith looks on – no shortage of advice there then!

John’s tool has much better definition and evenness in the shape and is less dented – and as you’d expect he used a fraction of the number of hammer blows that I did to achieve the same result. But mine is certainly useable and the point of this comparison is to show that you can achieve a perfectly useable result for a tool without needing to be a professional blacksmith.

At this stage the tapered ends are cooled very slowly by the edge of the fire – perhaps about 30minutes to cool down from cherry red and are not quenched except perhaps just to ensure its cold enough to handle. By cooling it so slowly the iron is annealed which keeps arrangement of the iron and carbon in the material so that the metal is at it’s softest, important for the next stage.  While one tool is cooling the next one can be worked. You should just about be able to see one iron in the fire and one just to the side of it cooling down.

With the steel annealed the bevel can be added to the tapered end of the tool. If the metal is soft enough this can be done with a file, though not all steels will soften enough for this, as I discovered and this bevel was added added by a flap wheel disc on a grinder. The bevel angle is somewhere between 20 and 30 degrees.

The most critical stage is to form the hook on the end of the tool. You only get one chance to do this and subsequent attempts tend to result in a less than perfect shape – though the hook might still be quite useable. The tip needs to be at orange heat (it will heat up very fast when its this thin) and then swiftly bent.

Having spent hours preparing the ends you are suddenly faced with a minute of work which is either going to work or ruin it. So don’t rush it at this stage. I originally used a pair of pliers for this – but I can’t find a good pair again and have taken to forming the curve around another piece of iron rod.  Notice that the curve is offset which helps the use of the hook on the inside of the bowl, so the first bend is on the shank backwards (which I do with pliers) followed by tapping the end gently around the former.

The final stage is to temper the tool. Correct temper will ensure that the tool keeps a sharp edge, but is not so brittle that it breaks too easily.

It’s a two stage process. First the tool is heated to an orange heat, hot enough that the iron and carbon molecules form a material known as Austenite, and not surprisingly this first stage is called Austenising. The tool is rapidly quenched in water or iron to trap the iron and carbon in this form – at this point the steel is extremely brittle and unusable. If you knock it hard it should shatter -but don’t try it with the tool you are tempering!

The second stage is to reheat the tool to a precise temperature to balance the characteristics of  toughness with brittleness and this is tempering the steel.

To do this precisely an oven is a good idea. There is another, less precise method which is to guage the temper by reference to the colour of the steel. This needs plenty of light and a bright polished surface on the tool. A blowtorch is a good way to do this. Using the hearth is probably going to be the least precise method for guaging the temper but it was a bright day and I was keen to try this for once as virtually all blacksmiths would have used this method originally.

There is another madness in my method – and that’s because I don’t actually know the constituents of my material. I know it’s a hard spring steel as it remained too hard to file even when annealed. Also the springs cracked on the vehicle rather than sagged. So for this temper I am going to err on the side of softness to avoid a tool which might break on the lathe – and the downside is that I might have to sharpen more often. But even when annealed it was fairly hard so I think it’s the right way to go with this steel.  Since I have enough of the steel for dozens of tools I can afford to take time to learn this by experiment, so it’s of less importance to me to be able to accurately determine the temperature.

Initially the bright polished end of the tool is silver but you soon see a yellow or straw colour creeping along the shank. But this is still too brittle a temper. Somewhat anti-intuitively the steel is tempered softer as you continue to heat it. I am holding the tool so that the shank receives most of the heat in the heart of the fire and the heat is then moving along towards the tip – the tip will reach temperature really quickly as it has very little heat capacity.

The tip reaches a blue temperature – as soon as it starts to turn blue I quench the tip to prevent it overheating and oversoftening. However it is only an approximation as the tool would need to be held at the correct temperature for some time to ensure that as much of the steel as possible is converted from its brittle form (and why an oven would be an improvement) but with an unknown steel I think it’s a good enough way to start out.

So that’s it. One rusty car spring converted into a range of potentially very useful lathe tools. On this occasion I managed to reform a couple of tools I was unhappy with as well as make a prototype curved knife for bottoming the bowls in a very full day.

I am very grateful to the blacksmiths at the old Kiln Forge for allowing me to disrupt their day. We ended in the traditional way by heating some water on the hearth in a giant ladle for a good hand wash.

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This week is seems that I have been doing everything and anything except turning wood on the polelathe and I’m getting more than a bit paranoid about it. But for the last 3 years I’ve managed to spend a day at the Old Kiln Forge (Rural Life Museum, Tilford) talking plenty of bowl hooks. Last year I produced a couple of hooks that improved my bowl turning and I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do this year so better to do it before the season starts in earnest and I also have to fit with my blacksmithing mentors.

The forge is really coming together. It’s the little things that make the difference and I can sense that this smithy is both loved and used!

My visit to the museum also included the opportunity to drop off this old Avery fuel pump (last used on Haslemere High Street for dispensing Paraffin I’m told – and that must have been a few years ago) to its new home. And on Sunday I’m teaching polelathe turning at the museum so it was a chance to check the setup and preparations as well. But that didn’t get in the way of the metal bashing too much and I got plenty done.

The aim of the session was to make an improved bowl hook for turning bowls on the pole lathe – the search for the ultimate bowl hook is probably just a manifestation of the inevitable gear freak in me. Here’s one of last years in use on the lathe. You can see how the shape of the hook allows working into the deep curve of the bowl and it’s evolved to suit working sideways into a bowl held between centres – but there are few things on this one that I don’t quite like, for example, the tip is too long for undercutting the central core easily.

I was going to put all the bowl hooks (if you’ll pardon the expression) into one post but it was taking a long time to write and I’ll lessen the pain on you by splitting it into more manageable chunks (maybe). A bit like the material I was using, which started life as a coil spring – a 1987 Range Rover coil spring to be exact and first needs to be split into chunks.

In this post I’ll look at the preparation of the material and issues with reusing old metal. It’s invariably the wrong shape to start with and you’re never quite sure what it is. But this can be simply overcome with a hammer (also known as Landrover Special Took No1).

There are several ways to shape the material. I cut a couple of rings off the coil using an angle grinder which makes it more manageable in the fire – you can see the rest of the coil to the left of the fire.

But essentially you just need to heat the metal to make it malleable and easier to bend. It’s not necessary to heat it right up to a bright yellow but its very easy to bend at that heat and here John shows me how to strighten the coil with a minimum of blows from the hammer.

But given a chance he’d prefer to straighten out the spring in one piece with no nasty angle grinders and here Robert gets on with unwinding the coil whilst I’m making up the first hook.

Instead of a hammer Robert does most of the work by using a cunning yoke shape that fits into the hardy hole on the anvil (The hardy hole is the square hole on the top of the anvil).

Using  old springs is a natural place to start for making sharp tools that will keep their edge. Unlike normal mild steel which is relatively soft, Spring Steel has a high level of carbon and will become very hard (and possibly also very brittle) when worked and tempered in the right way.

The first and easiest way to test the steel you have is to try filing it. If it won’t file then its a harder steel than mild steel (does depend upon your file of course). Another way is to put it on a grinding wheel and compare with mildsteel. A harder steel will produce lots more sparks on the wheel.

By using Spring Steel you already know it must be high carbon but unfortunately you don’t know just how much carbon is in the spring steel you have, nor whether small amounts of other metals, magnesium and cobalt for example have been added to give the spring its characteristics. So buying in fresh stock metal to a known specification is a more consistent way to achieve results – tool steel 01 is the commonly used spec. Though its important to remember that consistency and specification are not the same as performance.  It just means its always the same.

But 4 coil springs gives you a lot of metal to try out – it will probably make me enough bowl hooks for life! So I can afford to try out a few and when I find the right springs keep the rest of the set to make more tools. As it happens these range rover springs cracked in service, a hint that they will likely be plenty hard enough for me to use.

When you forge high carbon steel you will soon learn not to heat it too hot. This is probably around the limit -as soon as you achieve bright yellow going towards white hot the steel starts to burn and becomes a sparkler. You’ll know when you see it. This is another test for your steel – mild steel with little or no carbon will not burn in this way. Unfortunately when this happens you will ruin the steel, but you can always cut a bit off or use that end for the tang (handle end) of the tool.

The job is finished using a hide hammer which allows blows to straighten the rod along the flat(ish) top of the anvil without squashing the crossection of the rod. Again a minimum of blows to achieve the job not only saves your back, but also time and burns up less of the hide hammer – though the smell of the roasting leather mixed with the normal hot metal and coke smell of the forge is a bonus.

There is something undeniably satisfying about making your own tools – especially when you are reusing old metal and giving it a new lease of life. It can take a long time to prepare the material for use – but if like me you don’t bash metal too often it’s not a bad way of getting to grips with things again before getting to the business end of the tool, which I’ll look at in another post.

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There is something about this time of year. Cold, damp and gloomy almost all the time. I’ve been finding it hard to write articles for the blog for a couple of weeks now. I thought I’d post on a short simple subject to try and break my blog block and my chosen subject is blanks and bowls.


I’ve made a few Ash bowls before and while they have a very distinctive grain which looks quite good they can be very tough to turn and very fluffy across the end grain which makes it difficult to achieve a good tooled finish. I would tend to choose a different wood but in this case I’ve been ask to make six bowls, I hesitate to say a set that might be a little bit too ambitious,  with Ash.


I’m using some ash left over from spindle turning, it’s nice and straight but its a bit dry for spindles. I’m hoping the centre of the log is still ok for bowls and no cracks. Interesting tree ring pattern, starting off with quite wide rings and then becoming narrower until they are tiny. Any ideas what this indicates? It was difficult to split, I had to use a wedge and that kept bouncing out! But to my surprise it seems to turn ok – providing your tool is sharp enough.


Perhaps you noticed my new toy cunningly acting as a backdrop for the bowls in the photo? I don’t have room for a large circular saw, which has always prevented my from buying one. That and the fact that big ones don’t come cheap. But this one was on its way to the skip as part of a local shed clearance until it accidentally ended up in my shed, where of course I don’t have room for it! It’s not new but seems to be in good condition with a TCT blade. It’s been doing a lot of work since it landed in the shed and as it’s been raining all day I tried roughing out a bowl blank on it instead of using the chainsaw. Went quite well, and I still have enough fingers left to type with which is a bonus.

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Omubazi Mike

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