Some Tools and Tips

Some of you have asked to see "the monster", the lathe kept out in the garage for several years just to balance large pieces to the point where I could put them on my Record lathe (Also since departed). The front cover is off so you can see the size of the motor. It runs on 110 volts, and weighs about 200 pounds by itself. I think it dates from the 1940's somewhere.

The lathe was made 35 years earlier by an aircraft machinist and never turned a single piece of wood until I bought it. He also made the band saw he used to cut the solid 1 1/4" steel plate that makes up the headstock and the base of the tailstock. The ways are 3/8" channel steel. The story of how I acquired this machine is on the "1997" page of woodturnings.

I sold this lathe to a fellow who drove all the way up from Minnesota to see it. A long time ago I posted an ad on the newsgroup to sell it, and he found the ad a year later. Enjoy, Tom!

Monster Lathe

This was how I had my Record CL348 x 30C lathe set up in the shop. The lathe was big enough for most work that anyone would want to do, but I finally got a lathe with the capacity to turn the very large pieces I always wanted to turn. In December of 2000 I bought a General 26020VD lathe, likely the last lathe I'll ever need. The only thing I miss in my basement shop is some exterior light. I'd love to work in a bright room with natural light. Ah well, maybe some day.

This lathe was mounted on a large box filled with 600 pounds of sand.

Record Lathe

This is a shot of the steady rest I made for the lathe to provide support for long pieces, as well as support for some of the hollow forms when I first begin to hollow them out. This will now be changed to fit the new General lathe. I also made another, larger one of steel you can find just below.

It's made of oak and uses in-line skate wheels and bearings and 5/8" threaded rod. It's quiet and effective, and if you browse garage sales for used skates it won't cost you much either.

Steady Rest

OK, here's the one I made for the General lathe, shown set up with a 23" tall roughed out vase in its grip. This one is made with 3/4" threaded rod welded into the base. The skate wheels were rescued from the garbage can at the Sport Chek store a few blocks from our house, and I got them for nothing. They were out of round, but a few seconds spinning at 45 degrees to the belt on my 1" sander got them perfectly round.

The cross pieces are of oak, with the holes drilled to 7/8" so they don't bind on the threaded rod. It stands 20" high and can accommodate a piece with a 13" diameter. I used it for the first time today, and it doesn't move a millimetre. You'll note that it's the same color as the lathe. General provided me with a spray can of matching paint. :))

Here are the instructions for making one of these steady rests.

By the way, the white curtain in the background is a shower curtain. They're cheap, plastic and they keep chips off all the other stuff in the shop.

Large Steady Rest

This is the shaft and handle I made of maple to hold a "Termite" tip for deep hollowing. The original tool is fairly short with a " shaft. This baby is over 4 feet long and is made of 1" chromed steel rod that is tapered, drilled and tapped to hold the ring cutter. It will reach way into the deep vessels and cuts like a fiend.

My good friend, Del Morisette, decided he wanted one of these. Del is a big man and he liked the heft of the tool. After I sent it to him he emailed me and told me they had dubbed it "Big Bug". I made a bigger one yet, 1" steel with a telescoping 1" shank in the end of that. It is 64" long. To get into a 26" deep vase that is what is required. The Termite can be an intimidating tool to use until you gain some experience with it. Perhaps this short tutorial on how to use the Termite will help prevent some of the heart-stopping catches this tool is capable of.

I checked into the cost of a fibre optic light for illuminating the inside of hollow vessels during turning, and for turning super thin walls. For thin walls, the light is placed inside the spinning vessel during the hollowing, the shop lights are extinguished, and the wall thickness is determined by the amount of light that shines through. The fibre optic light emits no heat, no electric current is present, it's lightweight and can easily be taped to a chisel shank or held by hand. What I found was a hefty price tag. So, I made my own.

Here are the instructions for making a fibre optic light. Cost - less than $100.

Fibre Optic Light

Thanks to the Internet and a friendly woodturner on the newsgroup, I met C.A (Cajun) Savoy. I called him to ask if he would make me a couple of hollowing tools, and he was kind enough to send me a couple to try out. Now that's trust for you, since he's from Virginia and I live thousands of miles away in Winnipeg. On the right is the 5/8" tool for deep hollowing and on the left is the " tool with a sharper hook in it for getting in close to the neck of the vessel. I wanted C.A. to see the tools with the handles I made for them. Thanks, C.A. They are fantastic!

Hollowing tool

Hollowing tool


I have to laugh sometimes at the lengths some people (primarily vendors) will go to in portraying the sharpening of lathe chisels as a mystery and a skill only a few chosen ones can master, unless, of course, they spend big bucks on fancy gadgets to attain that "perfect" edge. To me, the principles of sharp are quite straightforward - good metal and a fine, polished edge.

Some time ago, on the woodturner's newsgroup, I posted a response to a question about sharpening. I explained what I used to sharpen my chisels and was surprise to get some sceptical and disparaging emails. According to them, I was providing misleading information in claiming my simple sharpening system cost less than $100 and that it got my chisels super-sharp.

Well, here's a photo of the setup. It consists of a 1" belt sander using a blue zirconium belt and an old dryer motor with a 1" felt wheel on it - all put into a box I can just pick up and carry around. The fine blue belt has been on the grinder since 1997 and shows no signs of giving up. The left side of the belt has been used so much it now has extremely fine grit for polishing the edge. The right side has more of the grit left on and removes metal a bit more quickly. If I want to re-shape an edge, I can slap on a coarse belt in 5 seconds. For an extremely fine polish I can use a honing belt (also 5 seconds). All of my belts come from Lee Valley Tools. The metal rest of the grinder is permanently set at 145 degrees (for a 35 degree angle on the chisels). For different angles I use wooden wedges that fit over the metal rest.

The felt wheel is charged with green metal polishing compound. It's quicker than changing to a honing belt on the grinder, although I use the honing belt from time to time. A few seconds on the wheel and you have a lethal instrument in your hand.

By the way, the felt wheel must turn away from you (counter clockwise). The front of the box is deliberately high enough at the front of the wheel so a tool can't inadvertently make contact with the edge of the felt wheel that's coming toward you at the bottom. I shudder to think how the tool could catch on that.

The polish can be seen on the edges of the chisels below (1" gouge, " gouge, 3/8" gouge, " gouge, 5/8" bowl gouge, 1" roughing gouge). I sharpened these just before I took the picture and it took me less than 3 minutes to do them all. It's fast and cheap, and if you lose your razor you can shave with the chisels.

Sharpening Setup




Holes in Toolrest

65 degree wedge with dowels

Wedge in place on toolrest

Different wedge for special sharpening

I added this to this page several years later. I said previously that I left my toolrest on the belt sander at a constant 35 degrees. I use home made wedges like the one shown on the top right photo to sharpen tools that require a different angle, like my scrapers. The wedge shown takes the tool rest to 65 degrees for the scrapers, and another one takes the angle to 90 degrees for parting tools, etc.

The wedges have dowels embedded in them that just fit down into the holes drilled into the toolrest. This is an accurate and quick way to change the toolrest angle and get consistent results.

The wedge shown at the bottom right is an example of how you can create tool-specific wedges for sharpening - in this case for a disk tool.

In 2001, I started making a few tools of my own to work on the large pieces I am now able to turn on my General lathe. I've got a couple of walnut blanks for 26" deep vases, and to reach to the bottom of those I needed some sizeable tools. After making a 56" long holder for my ring cutters, I decided I still needed a couple of very large scraper-type tools to smooth the ridges left from the ring tool on the inside surfaces, so I made the two shown below. The one on the top is 40" long and the bottom one is 54" long.

The shafts are 3/4" stainless steel, with a flat cut into the end of them. The flat surface has been drilled and tapped to accept a small " bolt that holds the cutter. The shafts are inserted into chrome steel pipe with an outside diameter of 1 1/16" and an inside diameter of 7/8". The shafts are simply epoxied into the chrome pipe and the pipe fitted into handles of 24" and 28" on the larger tool. The shafts are extremely rigid, which is what I wanted. There is absolutely no "give" on these tools. They are very heavy which makes them comfortable to use extended way over the tool rest. The handle is stuck under my armpit when in use.

Homemade scrapers

You've heard of people using old files as scrapers. Well, this is a safe way to do that. Files are very brittle carbon steel and can snap quite easily if used full length and extended over the tool rest. I would never recommend you do that. However, these cutters are made from an old file. I simply scored the file, snapped off the cutters and ground two cutting sides onto them (there's no reason why you couldn't grind three or four of different contours). If one side gets dull, or you want a slightly different contour on the cutter, just loosen the bolt and turn the cutter around 180 degrees. It also allows you to swivel the cutter to get just the right cutting edge to the wood.

A word of warning! Don't sharpen two adjacent edges. If you shove the cutter edge straight and level into the bottom of the vase, you are 100% certain to get a catch. You don't want to be smoothing down the side of your vase and have a sharp edge touch the spinning bottom. So, sharpen two sides of your square cutter and put negative bevels on the other two sides. You can use the tool on the bottom, but only as a skew scraper, turned at least 45 degrees.

There's only one way to get a hole in the file material that I could discover. That was to grind it through with a Dremel tool and a small grinder bit. These cutters are razor sharp, and they don't have a burr (I have a nice cut on my thumb to prove it). They don't scrape - they cut very fine shavings. Because the cutting edge is almost in line with the shaft, twisting forces are literally non-existent.

After a considerable amount of experimentation, I abandoned the use of files as cutters. Instead, I simply buy a flat piece of high speed steel, break off small square cutters and grind those to shape. The file material does not maintain an edge. High speed steel is far superior in cutting ability.

Curved Scraper

Straight Scraper

Disk tool for Bowl Bottoms

This is a very interesting and very useful tool. It is made by Record tools, and consists of a single sharp disc mounted directly on the end of a shaft. It cuts at about the 10 o'clock section of the circle, and is drawn from the center of the work towards the outside of the piece with the bevel rubbing. It is used to level the bottom of bowls, and I have found nothing that does it better. It's a wicked tool to learn to use, but once you've mastered it, nothing will do a better job. No sandpaper is needed most of the time, especially across end grain. This is a "skew" for the bottoms of bowls.

The second picture shows a closer view of the tip of the tool. Keep in mind; this is not a tool for the faint of heart, 'cause it can give you some heart-stopping catches. But it is worth its weight in gold, in my opinion.

Tip of Disc tool

Artist's Pallete Knife

Here's a series of little tips and things that I find very helpful to have around the shop. When I thought of doing this, I looked around the place and thought, "What are the things I reach for most often". Here are some of them, and I'll add to this as time goes on.

The first item to the left is an artist's palette knife. Boogey on down to your local art shop and buy one and you'll never regret it. It's most useful in mixing epoxies and getting glue down deep into the cracks where you want it. It's very thin and very flexible and when it gets all gunked up, just lay it on a flat surface and scrape it clean with a chisel.

You don't want to find the next items in your mouth very often, but they are great to have in the shop. Dental picks. I got these from my dentist who was throwing them away. He had a whole drawer full of them and I got about thirty from him. You can grind some of the ends for special purposes, and I even ground one as a chisel to use on tagua nuts. Nothing beats a dental pick for cleaning out cracks in the wood.

How many turners keep a roll of copper wire in their shop? I don't know, but I reach for it all the time. It's very fine wire and is great for burning rings around wood, for gathering up small parts and stringing them together to hang them up.

The next photo shows a pair of scissors I got from Lee Valley. They come in sets and are very cheap. These open up wide for sharpening and they'll cut anything. I use them on aluminum, wire, electrical, etc. Great to have around the shop.

A while ago, someone wondered how to color epoxies and fibreglass resin. Well, the paint in the photo is artist's acrylic paint, and you can mix it in resins to get very nice colors.

Tape. This is special tape and I don't know where you'd get it. I got it in a surplus store for two bits a roll. Even wrapped around dowels I can't break the stuff on a straight pull, and it's only a " wide. However, any strong nylon tape will do, and where you use it mostly is around broken wood to hold it together while you turn it. If you have a piece with a crack running all the way through it, just finish the outside, wrap the tape around very tightly, and then turn the inside. Beats using a big ring clamp and a lot safer.

Dental Picks

Copper Wire

Japanese Scissors

Artist's Acrylic Paint

Nylon Tape

All woodturners sand - there's no getting around it. You can spend a lot of money buying sanding devices, but this homemade one cost me nothing except an hour of my time. I've been using it for five years. The rotating wood in the lathe powers it, and as it spins it sands on two planes, almost like an orbital sander.

It's made of two pieces of maple, the disk part and the handle. Between the two of them is an ordinary bearing I got for free from Luke's Machinery. They had a 5 gallon bucket full of used bearings, not good enough for their precision machinery, but still solid enough for my purposes. A little epoxy glue, a couple of washers and a bolt and this is what it looks like. I use regular loop backed sandpaper and the disk has Velcro hooks from the fabric store glued on to it (It comes in 1" strips). The Velcro was glued on with silicone and hasn't been changed since I put it on there. This thing has sanded hundreds of bowls and vases, and if you want to know how to make it, e-mail me. You can find a plan for how to make this tool in the panel just below.

Self Powered Sander

Here is another little sander I made to do the inside of bowls. It's simply a " threaded rod, bent with a torch, and a business end 3" in diameter with Velcro on it. Put a handle on it, and it is finished.

The sanders are not difficult to make, and very inexpensive. Here are the instructions with photos to help you make your own.

3 inch sander

3 inch sander

I make a lot of sanding aids, and all of them use hook and loop paper.

A few years ago I was frustrated by the fact that I could not find tiny pads that would work with my Dremel or Foredom tools to sand tiny spots. So, I began making my own sanders of all sizes. I made good use of the 1 meter square hook and loop sandpaper I found many years ago online (and have not been able to locate since)

Here are the instructions for making all kinds of power sanding aids.

Dremel Power Sanding Pad

Are you proud of your work? If so - put your name on it, I say. The next thing I'll say is that not all of my pieces have my name on them, so I'm not proud of everything I do. Those that qualify bear this stamp. I love the smoky smell it makes in the shop when I use it.

However, in the past few years I have had more fun using a woodburning pen to put my name and the species on the bottom of all my work. My signature mark is three tiny concentric circles dead center and two more toward the outer dimensions of the bottom. The woodburned name and species goes between these two circles. It can be a real challenge on small pieces.

Yes - that's ny Name!