Decorative Techniques
Creating Unique Surfaces
On Your Woodturnings

Overview: This decorative techniques article will focus on three elegant effects you can add to your woodturnings, to change the visual or tactile quality of the finished piece. Topics to be covered include: 1) Using colouring and dye products. 2) Using the Razertip wood burner to burn the surface, adding texture and colour and 3) Applying metal (gold) leaf to the finished surface.


 Techniques for Colouring: Quick Tips

  • Using spirit dyes to change the colour of the surface is one of the simplest decorative techniques and is almost "goof-proof" within the modern dynamic of a woodturning environment. They are fully intermixable to achieve virtually any colour and dry quickly.
  • If you want to colour the entire piece, either with one colour of several... Fully turn and sand the piece before applying the chosen spirit colours. It's easy to mix the colours on the surface, creating additional colours from areas where the different colours blend together.
  • If you want a very light blush of colour, you can add a tiny bit of your chosen colour to a lacquer, or alcohol based finish creating a tone-spray effect. This yields a very translucent colour that is almost imperceptible, enhancing the overall piece subtly.
  • This effect is best achieved when the finish is sprayed onto the surface, allowing complete control of the colours intensity.
  • Dyes will accentuate any residual sanding scratches, or torn/bruised grain areas. Therefore, always sand to at least 600-grit (1,200 for gallery quality work) and remove any surface dust before applying the dye colour to the surface of the wood.
  • If you want to limit the colour to a specific area, such as the rim of a platter... Turn and fully sand the area that will receive the colour, leaving the rest of the piece rough turned.
  • When you have finished applying the colour and it has dried, finish turn the rest of the project, cutting in to the coloured area with your gouge to remove any unwanted colour, or to clean up the edge boundaries (the platter rim for example) of the coloured area. This will yield a knife-edge between the coloured and non-coloured areas, creating crisp transitional boundaries.
  • Spirit dyes can be applied via brush, rag, paper towel, dip bath, or with various spray equipment like artist's airbrushes, H.V.L.P. sprayers, or small disposable sprayers available at any local home centre.

Decorative Techniques for Wood Burning: Quick Tips

  • One of the easiest decorative techniques for new woodturners to master is wood burning. The Razertip "Create-A-Tip" wood burner offers the ability to make custom tip shapes quickly. In addition, more than 500 pre-made tips are available in a variety of sizes and styles.
  • Both light and dark coloured timbers can be burned and textured. If you're just starting out, choose tight grain, light coloured hardwoods for your initial burning/texturing projects. Good starter projects include platter rims, bowl rims and box tops.
  • Experiment with the amount of heat necessary to allow you to burn the chosen design efficiently. It's best to practice a bit on some scrap wood of the same species before beginning your decorative techniques wood burning project.
  • There are three different tip sizes available, with 18, 20 and 22-guage wires. This allows you to mix the wire tips to create different textures and visual effects, by simply changing the wire tips. Do NOT attempt to change any wire tip until the tip has cooled.
  • Fully sand the surface of the wood prior to using the burner to the desired grit. It's easier to burn smooth surfaces, but as you progress in your burning, experiment with using the tool of rough surfaces, or those whose surface has been textured by other woodturning tools. This adds a highlight to the texture and allows subtle shading of the texture to enhance its visual and tactile qualities.

This White Ash platter has been burned
to enhance the grain pattern


Decorative Techniques for Metal Leafing: Quick Tips

  • The process of applying delicate metal sheets to the surface of an object is known as metal leafing, or gilding and dates back to around 2500 B.C. There are numerous precious metal leaf materials available including gold, silver and platinum. Due to the high cost of genuine precious metal leaf, composite metal alloys are available that are difficult to distinguish from the more expensive genuine metals. These inexpensive alloys allow everyone the opportunity to apply metal leaf to the surface of their woodturnings.
  • Metal leaf can be applied to the interior and exterior of turned decorative pieces. Dyes can also be used in conjunction with the metal leaf, to create beautiful decorative woodturnings.
  • Metal leaf should not be used on the surfaces of any woodturnings designed for food storage.
  • A "sizing" or adhesive is required to make the metal leaf stick to the desired area. This can be easily brushed on and allowed to dry until tacky, but not fully dry. If the sizing fully dries, the metal leaf will not stick to it.
  • Once the sizing has dried to a tacky state, the metal leaf can be gently applied to the treated surface.
  • The metal leaf will only stick to areas treated with the sizing, therefore when applying the sizing to the surface of your woodturning, make sure the desired areas are fully covered.
  • The metal leaf sheets are very fragile and must be handled carefully. Broken pieces, or leftover scraps should be saved as these can be used to leaf small areas, or to fill in textured areas.
  • When applying the metal leaf, do not have drafts or other wind blowing around your work area. This will make application of the metal leaf onto the surface much easier.
  • A small soft brush, or burnishing cloth is useful for flattening the leaf on the surface after application. Be careful to apply the brush very lightly to the surface to prevent damage to the metal leaf.
  • Once application of the metal leaf has been completed, allow the surface to fully dry. Lightly brush the surface to remove any loose leaf and prepare the surface for the sealer coating.
  • A sealer is necessary to protect the surface and should be applied when the surface has fully dried. The length of time necessary for the sizing to fully dry will vary, according to the product used, temperature on your workshop and the particular substrate used.
  • Experiment with various colours of leaf and also the new variegated leaf that features a multi-coloured appearance. Composite metal leaf is inexpensive and allows unlimited artistic freedom in its application and use.

By using these decorative techniques, you can add a touch of elegance and a classic beauty to your work that is easy to achieve.


Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.


Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.