Learning to be a Fluid Turner

Fluid Turner: Overview

Since 2010 is nearing its end, I’ve been reflecting back over a few of the notable successes and some failures that I have had over the last sixteen years of turning wood in my studio. There have been many good times in those sixteen years and countless hours spent in front of my lathe. There have been a few frustrating times as well, but in any endeavor there are times when you are tested.

It’s always good though to sit back occasionally and recall the good times and the not so good times of working with this magnificent material we call wood. I’m fortunate to be able to work at something I love to do and one that continually challenges me to explore the mysteries of what is, or may be possible.

Fluid Turner: Turning in the Zone

There are many projects that immediately come to mind, those where I really felt that I was one with the wood, or what some call being in the zone and everything just falls into place. When you’re in the zone, your gouge cuts produce magical curls and the sweetest surface that you’ve ever seen, even on the rattiest piece of junk firewood in your woodpile! Even cuts that violate our normal rules of cut direction seem to produce a surface smooth as glass.

The lines of your form are in perfect harmony with the golden mean, pure and perfect from any viewing angle. Your curls seem to float off your gouge as if supported on gossamer wings. It seems that no matter how you turn or what you do, the wood responds in just the right way. When this happens, you’re in the turning zone. If you’ve never been in the turning zone don’t worry, you will be. It comes to all of us every once and a while, you’ll know it when you’re there – trust me.

Fluid Turner: Genesis I, Garden of the Gods

This Silver Maple platter measures 11" wide and
is 1.25" high from the foot to the top edge of the rim.

One of my best experiences whilst turning in the zone occurred when I was turning a highly figured Silver Maple platter. From the roughout through the last cut of the gouge, everything was as sweet as it gets. The ordinarily challenging reverse turned rim cut so sweetly that I had to stop and smile… Wild grain can sometimes challenge the best of us, but this blank responded as if programmed for perfection leaving a surface that looked like silk. Smooth, pure and graceful flowing curves seemed to appear as if by magic, with a form that begged to be touched.

This particular platter was titled “Genesis I, Garden of the Gods,” a very appropriate name. In the entire sixteen years of my studio, this project remains a singular reminder of why I love turning wood. Not because everything went so well in turning, but the emotional response I still get when I look at this platter. The exceptional figure stands as a testament to the beauty that awaits us beneath the bark.

The rear of the platter was turned with a simple beaded foot.

As woodturners, we are able to reveal this beauty for everyone to see. For many of us, the first glimpse of the figure in a log is like a drug, one that we are hopelessly addicted to and one that continues to fire our creative imagination and drive us to expand our explorations into new directions. The design I ended up with on this platter was not what I had originally envisioned however. There was a rough cut from a chainsaw that prevented me from turning my original rim design.

This view shows some of the extensive curl
in the top of the platter.

Instead of forcing the design I really wanted (as I was prone to do in the early days of my studio), I stepped back and changed the design on the fly. This was one of my earliest experiences of letting the wood have a say in what I was going to do with it. Yes, I could have forced the issue and turned my original design, but I would have missed the pleasure of turning in the zone and all that entails.

This angle shows the rim design in greater detail.

In the end, all that really matters is that you like what you turned, and in this case I feel that the ultimate form I achieved is the best expression of design for this elegant Silver Maple blank. Through the years I have often thought about this piece and whether I could have turned a better design, one that would have honored this magnificent Silver Maple tree in a better way. My deliberations always end with a resounding no…

Fluid Turner: Fighting the Gods of Wood

This Bald Cypress bowl measures 12" wide and stands
2.25" high from the foot to the base of the rim.

There have also been a few projects over the years that come to mind where the wood and I agreed to disagree… I recall one Bald Cypress bowl that fought me every step of the way during turning and finishing. I thought about pitching it into the rubbish bin several times, but I refused to give up. This timber is so soft that I had to continually readjust my scroll chuck to keep the grip tight on the boss. The back cut on the rim of this bowl was challenging and required me to make a special modification to the grind of a ¼” bowl gouge to achieve an acceptable surface off the gouge. The thin walls of the bowl (1/8”) exhibited a vibration harmonic at certain speeds, which tended to make the bowl undulate during finish turning.

This view shows the foot design and
the triple beaded rim.

After overcoming challenge upon challenge with this project, I thought about acquiescing and just giving up. However, I decided that after all of the effort to get this far, I was going to finish the battle one way or the other. As I found out during the finishing protocol, it would end up a battle royal cage match with neither side acquiescing to defeat. After finally getting the bowl ready to sand, I thought that the worst was over, not a chance bruddah.

Although not visible in this shot, the interior surface
was damaged at a wholesale show in Philadelphia.

The sanding protocol was one of the most frustrating I have ever experienced. This timber is so soft that even the lightest touch of a fingernail against the surface marred it. The folded sides of the abrasive paper marred the surface. Indeed everything that touched the surface seemed to make it worse. Once again, I thought that this was the last straw. No project was worth this amount of effort.

This low angle shows the beaded rim as well
as the undercut on the interior rim of the bowl.

However, I bowed my neck and refused to give in, or give up. It was if we were both locked in a cage match and only one us would be left standing at the end, so I continued to persevere. It seemed as if this bad boy still had a lot of fight left in him and so the fight for surface perfection continued. Just as I thought I finally finished sanding, I would find another area that needed attention. This continued until I eventually finished the bowl.

I named this bowl Winston Churchill after the famous World War II Prime Minister in England, who inspired the British people to Never Give Up, during the dark days of WWII. For all this piece fought me, I felt as if I had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when I finished the piece. Unfortunately, the piece was subsequently damaged at a wholesale show a few months later when another careless exhibitor erected an overhead light support that fell down during the night.

The overhead light support arm from the adjacent booth fell against the bowl and put several deep cuts into the side of the perfectly finished thin wall. When I arrived the next morning to open my booth and found the bowl, I was crushed… In the end, I guess I won the battle, but I lost the war. Winston Churchill now serves as a vegetable bowl in my home, where I frequently reminisce about the trials and tribulations of turning and showing this piece.

We enjoy using this bowl as a vegetable or fruit bowl.

The damage remains on the bowl to this day. I had thought about trying to repair it, but decided against renewing our battle royal cage match. Thankfully, projects that take this amount of effort are rare, but they do rear their ugly head on the odd occasion. Working through these challenges makes you a better fluid turner, one that can adapt to whatever situation that arises.

Fluid Turner: Becoming a Fluid Turner

For the most part, I describe myself as a fluid turner, one that easily adapts to what the blank offers me at the time, regardless of my initial idea of what the finished project should look like. Whilst I may have a basic idea of what I would like to turn, I have always felt that the wood has a say in the process. For example, if you want to turn a semi-hemispherical bowl and you start roughing out a blank, you might find a defect in the rim area that would prevent you from achieving this form.

However, if you turn the defect away, your semi-hemispherical bowl might easily make a semi-enclosed bowl, one where the rim turns radically inward creating a hollow form of sorts. Rapidly changing the design of a project on-the-fly, is hard for some turners, I know it was for me in the beginning. Back in the day, if I decided to make a half round bowl from a blank and the blank presented challenges to this design, I would force the design anyway and spend the next few minutes fighting the blank every step of the way.

A far easier option is to adapt to what the wood gives you and welcome changes to your design. It is none too easy I know, but you can learn to be reactively adaptive. As you become comfortable with this constantly variable design process as a fluid turner, it can become quite liberating. This is what I call fluid turning. You should strive to become a good fluid turner, one who welcomes whatever the blank gives you as you continue your quest to be the best fluid turner you can be.

After all, we work with a natural material, one that is ever changing and highly variable in nature. Blanks from the same tree can present themselves as polar opposites when turning. One blank may cut sweet as butta, the other can be a wild child that fights you tooth and nail for every cut you make. I’ve turned blanks from the opposite sides of the same trunk that acted like two very different timbers. Adapting to these ever changing challenges is part of your growth as a fluid turner. Each day you turn, you learn a little more and you add one more technique to your quiver of hard learned skills.

Fluid Turner: Expect the Unexpected

Remember though that the gods of wood will challenge you every once and a while, just to let you know that you do not know as much as you think you do… If I really examine my past successes and failures, I know that I always learned more from the failures, than from the successes. As many of you know I relentlessly test and experiment with different tools, protocols and products in my studio. It’s hard wired into me to question, experiment and to never rest on my laurels… With this obsession for experimentation comes the realization that I will fail at many of the protocols I try. This is part of pushing the limits and trying to discover new ways of doing things.

As you work on your projects remember that as the unexpected challenges arise, welcome these design changes. If you wanted to turn an 18” salad bowl and for some reason it ends up 16,” then so be it. No one knows that size was not what you intended to turn anyway, right? Some of my best work has evolved from blanks that had unexpected defects, extensive rot, or other challenges that caused me to stop and rethink the design on the fly.

When I first started turning, I was laser focused on creating just what I had originally envisioned. However, as time passed and my skills matured, I found that the magic in turning for me is not the pursuit of the known, but the exploration of the unknown. Becoming a fluid turner will help you to see that which you thought could never be. It frees you from the box and allows you to creatively grow in ways you never dreamed you could. Enjoy this exploration into the unexpected and the unplanned. Embrace these artistic diversions and your creativity will grow beyond your wildest dreams.

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.