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The Craft of Woodworking

WOOD & STONE CARVING Wood Craft Introduction

Once a prolific raw material, wood is now a highly valued resource and the current trend in wood carving and turning leans towards showing the natural grain of the wood to its best effect. Wood can also be shaped and moulded until its origins are no longer discernible.

Origins of Woodworking


Wood craft is as old as mankind. Until quite recently, wood was plentiful and cheap. Because so readily available, wood was the obvious material – especially in the thickly forested continents of Europe and the Americas – from which to make everything from bowls and utensils to elaborate ceilings and furniture.

It was in the 14th century that wood carving developed its own style. Instead of using solid blocks, the carvers began to build one layer on another to create more delicate effects and exploit the natural properties of wood. Usually in Britain, oak was used. Older churches and cathedrals are the best places to see wonderful medieval carving.  


The most famous wood carver since the middle ages is probably Grinling Gibbons, who worked with Christopher Wren at Hampton Court and St Paul’s Cathedral. Rather than exploit the woods natural qualities he twisted and spun it into wonderfully realistic carvings of fruit and musical instruments. Today the trend has gone back to styles that show the grain and texture of the material.


Woodturning and French Polishing CoursesBasic techniques of Wood Working


The woodworkers tools are often, in themselves, great works of craftsmanship. The variety of chisels, gouges and planes is vast and most people start by buying some secondhand, building their own collection as their needs and tastes develop. Many woodworkers who develop original designs also invent the tools to carry them out. The last 15 years have seen a revival in woodworking that has improved the range of tools commercially available.


Turning techniques – Turning is almost as old a technique as carving. It was done by rotating a firmly held piece of wood in a lathe and the principle remains unchanged today. Some professional craftsmen still use a lathe worked by foot because it gives them more control and can be stopped and started more quickly than a machine powered tool.

Most people begin with a power drill that can be adapted to make a lathe, though this will only work for small items. It is worth taking lessons from the outset, particularly to get access to a large power lathe which gives better results because it is heavy enough to be completely stable.  


There are also important safety precautions which should be learned early, along with the basics of a good technique. Like driving instructors, most wood turners prefer to teach someone who has not had time to develop bad habits.  


Turning is done either with the wood held in the middle of the lathe, which is called ‘spindle turnery’, or on the end. This is called ‘face-plate turning’ and is used for larger pieces because the lathe bed is not in the craftsman's way. An experienced wood turner can make a bowl about 3inches deep in little over an hour and give the impression that it has just grown under his hand with no effort. The less a turner appears to do, the better he or she is – the knack is in the handling of the tools, not in the muscle power.  


Turning a bowl – To make a bowl, a roughly cut disc – either a section of a log or a piece that has been cut out with a band saw – is fixed to the face plate with screws. It will be slightly deeper than the finished bowl. The turner uses a long handled gouge to make it into a true circle. He then begins gradually to shape the outside of the bowl, smoothing the corner nearest the face plate into a curve. The outline shape of the bowl begins to emerge. To work the inside the turner may cut from the rim inwards, or make a valley in the middle first. Small bowls that can be spindle turned are taken off the lathe with a cone in the middle that is then cut out by hand.

The obvious danger is to let the gouge cut through the bottom or the sides. Paper thin bowls are the sign of virtuoso workmanship. Some turning demonstrations also show how a set of bowls can be cut inside one another from a single piece of wood.  


Natural Effects – The rim of the bowl may be turned too. Or it may be pierced for decoration. Nowadays there is a tendency to emphasize the natural quality of the wood by leaving the edge uneven. The finishing of the bowl is done with curved and domed scrapers. Like all the turners tools they are constantly sharpened and remove fine flakes to perfect the surface.  


The bowl is then taken off the lathe, the screw holes plugged and sanded, and the whole thing sealed with a sanding sealer – if it is to be polished rather than stained. The sealer acts as a good base for the final polish. Many craftsmen have their own recipes for polish and work up to a high silky finish on the lathe.  


Leftovers – One of the advantages of small woodturning projects is that they can often make use of pieces of wood that would otherwise be wasted, such as leftovers from larger pieces. Many craftsmen like to use pieces of old wood, which started life as fence posts, for example.


Different woods suit particular purposes. Sycamore, for example, has been popular since the middle ages for food bowls because it takes no odour.


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