Turning Green Wood Bowls

Overview: Turning green wood bowls is one of the hottest areas of interest in woodturning today!

This article on bowl turning will focus on the steps necessary to turn a basic wet wood rough-out bowl. Effective drying techniques and finish turning will also be discussed.

Stack of Mesquite rough outs awaiting interior hollowing

Turning Green Bowls: Quick Tips

  • Most bowls are turned in two stages – They are first roughed out when green, leaving the wall thickness approximately 10% of the diameter and are allowed to dry. Next, when the bowls have dried sufficiently, they are finish turned and completed.
  • Depending on the species and the wall thickness, bowls and platters can take several months or more, to dry enough to finish turn and remain stable in use.
  • Use a cold wax emulsion sealer on the end grain surfaces of fresh cut logs, to help prevent end grain surface checking until you can process the logs into bowl blanks.
  • When using a chuck to hold the bowl blank, insure that the tennon spigot/boss, or internal recess does not contain any defects (cracks, rotten wood, etc) for safety.

Basic Procedures for Turning Green Wood Bowls - Face Grain

  • Prepare the face grain blank for mounting on the lathe with two flat, parallel surfaces.
  • Securely mount the blank between centres using a 1.5" drive spur and true the exterior. Screw chucks, or faceplate can also be used.
  • Turn a dovetail spigot on the bottom of the bowl with a 1/4" skew chisel, or a small 3/8" bowl gouge ground with an Irish grind.
  • Turn the rough exterior profile of your green wood bowls with a 1/2", or 5/8" deep fluted bowl gouge, ground with a swept back Irish grind, cutting from the bottom of the bowl up to the rim.
  • Remove the 4-prong drive spur and mount a four-jaw scroll chuck on the lathe spindle, with the proper size dovetail jaws. Mount the bowl in the scroll chuck and securely tighten the jaws.
  • True up the face of the blank with a 1/2" bowl gouge using a pull cut, or push cut.
  • Hollow the bowl with the 1/2", or 5/8" bowl gouge, working from the rim towards the centre. Note: Larger tools are more stable when working longer distances off the tool rest.
  • Continue hollowing until the wall thickness is approximately 10% of the diameter. For example, a 10" diameter bowl would receive a 1" thick wall for drying. Note: The interior should be of uniform thickness to minimise checking and excessive stress during drying on all your green wood bowls.
  • When the hollowing is completed, the bowl is placed in a closed paper bag to dry. Alternately, the exterior may be waxed with a cold wax emulsion sealer and allowed to dry in the open air.

Basic Procedures for Finish Turning Dry Face Grain Bowls

  • To properly mount the bowl in the chuck, the spigot must be trued up. A 1/4" skew chisel works well for this operation, with the bowl inverted over the chuck and securely held against the face of the chuck with the aid of the tailstock’s ram. This is a variation of the friction chuck mounting method.
  • Once the spigot is trued, reverse the bowl and secure the spigot in the chuck jaws.
  • True up the exterior wall and turn the final profile desired using the 1/2", or 3/8" bowl gouge.
  • Sand the exterior to the desired grit, using a Velcro faced sanding pad mounted in a drill.
  • Complete any rim details with a 3/8", or 1/4" bowl gouge, or small detail spindle gouges. Power sand to desired grit, or hand sand fine details.
  • Complete hollowing of the interior with the 1/2" bowl gouge. Check wall thickness to insure a uniform thickness, according to the profile desired. Figure-8 calipers are available for measuring.
  • Sand the interior to the desired grit and blend the interior sanded surfaces together.
  • Remove the bowl from the chuck. Insert the bowl into a scroll chuck outfitted with a set of jumbo jaws, which grips the bowl by the rim for final turning of the foot. Secure the bowl in the chuck.
  • Finish turn the foot area and sand to the desired grit, blending the sanded surfaces together.
  • Lightly hand sand the exterior by hand, in random overlapping strokes to remove any residual sanding marks with the final grit used in your abrasive protocol.
  • Remove any surface dust and apply the finish of your choice. When the finish has fully dried, buff the surface to the desired lustre.

Need More Help? If you are interested in learning how to turn green wood bowls from the log to the completed bowl, we have a 2 hour, 20 minute, two disk DVD video available. For details, check out Bowl Turning: Step by Step

Additional Tips on Turning
Green Wood Bowls and Kiln Dried Bowls

Working with Rough Blanks: Kiln Dried (KD), or green wood blanks can be used for your bowls. Green wood has many advantages over KD wood including: wider species selection, availability of larger sections, lower cost and the ability to custom cut the log. With pre-cut blanks from a lumber stockist, you simply mount the blanks according to your preference and begin turning.

If you start from a rough log, you have two options: 1.) Face grain or 2.) End grain blanks. Most turners prefer face grain bowls because this orientation allows the easy removal of the unstable pith area during turning. Cutting the log lengthwise creates face grain bowl blanks. Crosscutting the log to the depth required creates end grain bowl blanks.

Finished Honey Mesquite salad bowl

Mounting Options: There are numerous ways to mount your bowl for turning. Screw chucks, faceplates, drive spurs and others are available. In my studio, I begin most of my rough bowls between centres, using a large 1.5” four-prong drive spur, in conjunction with the tailstock. This allows me to retain more options for re-positioning the blanks if necessary, during the initial turning and profile work on the exterior.

Necessary Tools: You will need a few basic tools to turn green wood bowls. The bulk of bowl turning is done with deep fluted bowl gouges. The specific tools you may require depend on the size of your lathe and what type/size of projects you wish to turn. If you’re just starting out, a good set of gouges would include a 5/8” or ½” bowl gouge for rough turning and a 3/8” and ¼” gouge for fine detail work.

Spindle gouges can be used for exterior details (like beads, or decorative rim work), but should not be used for interior hollowing. A ½” skew chisel is useful for creating dovetails and refining beads. You may also want to consider a round-nose, or half-round scraper, or a dedicated set of shear scrapers. M2 High Speed Steel (HSS) gouges are the entry-level alloy for woodturning and are suitable for numerous turning projects. Higher-grade alloys for woodturners include M4HSS, ASP 2030 and 2060 (Powder Metal).

Finishing Options for Completed Green Wood Bowls

There are numerous finishes available for bowls and every turner has their own personal favourites. For bowls that will be turned and used to hold food items, my favourite edible oil finish is a penetrating Walnut oil finish.

For greater durability, a penetrating solvent based polymerising oil, like General Finishes Salad Bowl Finish is used. Mineral oil is another popular salad bowl finish with many turners. Some turners prefer no finish at all on their green wood bowls, allowing a natural patina to develop.

Applying and oil finish to
a Mesquite platter (top) and a Walnut platter (bottom)

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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.