75 Woodturning
Tips and Tricks

Tips and Tricks Overview: Woodturners are among the most creative and resourceful people I've ever known. Though all of us come from different backgrounds with skill levels, one common goal binds us – the desire to become a better woodturner. We constantly strive to perfect our techniques and skills, as we explore the multitude of creative facets in this wonderful passion we call woodturning.

Through the years, each of us learns, develops, or picks up various tips and tricks that make woodturning easier and more enjoyable. These little shortcuts help us to keep our tools razor sharp, reduce the cost of our abrasives, maintain the accuracy of our pen mandrels and produce inlays that are visually provocative. From simple tips to highly innovative solutions, here are seventy-five tips and tricks that have helped me to save time and money everyday I’m in the studio.

  1. To reduce “orange peel” and subsequent wet sanding on cured lacquers, spray light coats of lacquer thinner onto the surface, whilst you slowly rotate the project on the lathe. Small disposable sprayers like the Preval unit are ideal for this application. (Respirators with organic vapor cartridges must be worn when spraying thinners).
  2. To prevent scoring wood fibers when hollowing bowls, smooth the sharp edge transition on the bottom of your bowl gouge bevel with abrasive paper, or on your grinder.
  3. Before starting to turn each day, always clean your lathe bedways, headstock spindle threads and the tailstock ram to insure smooth movement and trouble free operation. Old toothbrushes make a great cleaning aid for stubborn grit and grime and will not damage your metal surfaces.
  4. To reduce subsequent wood movement on finish turned boxes, rough turn the top and bottom sections and let them rest for two days before you complete the final turning and fitting of the lid.
  5. Unless you are turning a significant amount of projects every year, don't purchase large containers of finish. Most finishes have a short shelf life and may become unusable before you can empty the container. Remember, the clock starts ticking on the date the finish is manufactured, not the date you purchase the product.
  6. Use a flat bastard file to remove any nicks and smooth the top of your tool rests before turning every day. A light stroke or two of paraffin wax across the top of the tool rest will also help your tools to slide along the rest smoothly.
  7. When using accelerators or kickers to speed the curing of cyanoacrylate (CA or Super Glue) adhesives, always use pressurized aerosols instead of pump sprays. Aerosols produce a vastly superior atomized spray pattern versus a pump spray unit and will not leak out of the can during storage.
  8. When using finishes from compressed spray cans (lacquer, shellac, plastic finishes etc.), always thoroughly shake the can for 2 minutes before using the finish. The quality of your sprayed finishes will be greatly improved if the finish is properly mixed prior to application.
  9. To increase the accuracy of tool sharpening systems, build a simple wooden protrusion (depth) jig, to insure the tool extends from the front of the jig the same distance each time before sharpening.
  10. Use Bloxygen (an inert blend of gases that prevents premature curing of oil finishes during storage), or collapsible accordion style finish containers to eliminate oxygen in oil finish storage containers to extend the shelf life and prevent premature curing.
  11. If you have fluorescent lighting in your studio anywhere near your lathe, you should purchase plastic tube shields for each fixture. These shields are available at home centres and slip over the outside of each fluorescent tube. Should a piece of debris fly off the lathe and hit the tube, most if not all of the shattered glass will remain inside the plastic shield instead of spraying all over you and your lathe. Money well spent!
  12. Smooth the sharp bevel edge transition on skew chisels (long point end) with abrasive paper, or use a grinding wheel to prevent scoring wood fibers when turning spindle projects.
  13. If your studio floor is a hard surface like concrete, purchase an anti-fatigue floor mat for the floor in front of your lathe. Anti-fatigue mats make standing at the lathe all day much easier on your legs, feet and back. For safety, anti-fatigue mats should be taped to the floor with double sided tape to prevent slipping on dusty floors.
  14. Use tapered (angled) edge, hook and loop sanding mandrels instead of straight sided mandrels to prevent marking decorative details with the side of the mandrel when power sanding faceplate projects.
  15. To make sanding smaller projects easier on the lathe, use and old pair of scissors, or a disposable razor blade to cut strips of varying widths from folded sheets of abrasive paper. Thin strips of abrasive paper are much easier to use in tight quarters than folded sheets of abrasives.
  16. To extend the life of micro turning tools when sharpening on a dry grinder, use the turn-on - turn-off sharpening technique. Turn the grinder on and then quickly off, as the grinder starts spinning down, sharpen your tools. You will be amazed how much longer your micro tools will last using this procedure.
  17. If you enjoy colouring your projects with dyes and stains, but you’re tired of using expensive disposable containers for your mixing cups, use ramekins instead. Ramekins are sold in cooking supply stores (ceramic material with a white smooth finish glaze) in varying sizes. The fired glaze on ramekins will not stain or discolour when using colouring products and can be reused indefinitely. Any residual colour on the ramekin is easily cleaned with the appropriate thinner and a paper towel.
  18. To clean Micromesh cushioned abrasives, place them inside of a small garment bag and wash them in your washing machine with your casual clothing, or by hand in a small bowl of soapy water to clean any sanding residues that may be left on the surface.
  19. To quickly clean abrasive disks when power sanding, mount a crepe abrasive cleaner near your headstock. When your abrasive disk begins to clog, sand the crepe cleaner block for a second or two and resume sanding. Crepe abrasive blocks can be purchased at any home centre.
  20. When applying or using finishes, or products that create hazardous fumes always wear a half mask, or full face respirator outfitted with the proper vapor cartridge to protect against any dangerous fumes. Ordinary dust masks do nothing to protect you against fumes.
  21. Are you tired of having your glasses and face masks fog up on you when turning? Use automotive wipe-on, wipe-off anti-fog treatments to prevent fogging on the inside of your face shield masks, passive respirators and safety goggles. Automotive anti-fog treatments are available at any auto parts store.
  22. To keep the water in the reservoir of your wet grinder as clean as possible, use two rare earth magnets (one inside – one on the same spot on the outside) to remove residual metal shavings from the water when sharpening your tools. When the metal builds up on the surface of the magnet, rinse the magnet under running water and you’re back in business.
  23. Here’s an inexpensive way to use paper backed abrasives for power sanding on the lathe using 3M Super 77 spray adhesive… Cut circles out of each abrasive sheet with an old pair of scissors to make sanding disks in various sizes. Use an old worn out Velcro sanding mandrel that has lost its grip and sand the face of the Velcro smooth. When you want to use the paper backed abrasives for power sanding, simply spray a bit of the adhesive onto the surface of the pad. Quickly place the abrasive paper disk onto the glue and pull it on and off three or four times, as you evenly spread the adhesive across the mandrel face. Then, sand your project. When you finish sanding, IMMEDIATELY remove the paper disk from the mandrel. If you wait, it will tear off in strips. If you happen to forget, simply sand the abrasive against a piece of scrap wood until it heats up a little and it will be easy to remove. I used this system for more than 10 years in my studio when turning production bowls and it works very well indeed. It also saves you quite a bit of money compared to using only Velcro based abrasives. Try it and see what you think!
  24. To save money on abrasives, cut your own 2" and 3" sanding disks from sheets/rolls of abrasives with a hole-saw mounted in your drill press. Grind the teeth off and create a smooth sharpened bevel edge on the inside edge. Then mount a scrap of plywood on your drill press table and stack four or five sheets of abrasive on the table. Use you drill press to cut out the abrasive disks from the sheet. A small hole drilled in the top of the hole-saw will allow you to use a small nail to push out any stuck disks if necessary (drill press is always off when removing disks).
  25. Use a small vibrating tool like an old electric toothbrush, or a small reciprocating tool to vibrate and settle crushed stone inlays prior to applying cyanoacrylate adhesives. This will pack the crushed stones tightly together before applying the binding adhesive, resulting in a better looking inlay.
  26. To easily sand the interior of your hollow vessels, use “The Sanding Solution” passive sander head. This head can be mounted in the boring bar of your hollowing system, allowing you to easily sand the interiors of hollow forms using the security and ease of your captured hollowing system. More information can be found at The Sanding Glove
  27. When buffing the interiors of finished bowls use a round head (mushroom style) buffing wheel, instead of a flat buffing wheel for easier and faster buffing of the interior curved surfaces.
  28. Fill any Allen head screw holes on the tops of hollowing tools with hot candle wax, or hot melt glue to prevent wet shavings and extractives from becoming impacted during hollowing. The wax/hot-glue is easily removed when necessary.
  29. Use 4" paint rollers to apply end grain sealers to rough-cut surfaces on logs and turning blanks. Rollers are significantly more efficient than brushes and provide better coverage on rough-cut/chain sawn surfaces.
  30. When gluing dissimilar materials for inlays like polished stone cabochons and wood, always use a flexible when cured adhesive like E-6000, or another silicone based adhesive for flexible, strong bonds.
  31. To revive green wood wax emulsions (like Anchorseal) that have become lumpy or separated during storage, use a high speed mixing paddle (like the kind sold for mixing sheetrock mud), to thoroughly re-mix the emulsion. Simply attach the mixer to your drill and mix for a few minutes and voila, you’re back in business!
  32. To speed the drying of lacquer between coats, apply short bursts of "Dust Off" (a compressed gas sold to remove dust from surfaces) to the lacquer surface for a few seconds as you slowly rotate it on the lathe. Keep the tip at least 3” – 4” away from the surface and only apply light pressure to the trigger. You want a soft spray of gas, not a hard stream.
  33. Two-part wood bleaches (also called A - B bleaches) are the best product to use when you want to create the whitest timber surface possible. Ordinary laundry bleach is not strong enough to remove a significant amount of colour. Two-part bleaches can be found online, or at any local paint supply store.
  34. To extend the life of hook and loop faced sanding mandrels when power sanding on the lathe, use interface pads on the mandrel face to protect the tiny hooks on the surface against heat and wear. Interface pads are available at any woodturning supplier.
  35. Use a once used anti-static fabric dryer sheet, or an anti-static clothing spray to prevent dust from sticking to the outside of face shields and safety goggles when turning or sanding. Anti-static sprays can be found at the grocery store in the laundry aisle, next to the dryer sheets. If using the spray, apply the spray to a clean rag and then wipe the surface of your face shield. Buff lightly and you’re good to go.
  36. If you looking for free software to manipulate photos of your turning projects for the web or for other uses, take a look at Irfanview. It’s a very good program that is available for several operating systems. More information can be found here.
  37. When working with oily exotic timbers (Dalbergia's and similar), always wipe any mating surfaces with Acetone, or Methylated Spirits prior to applying adhesives for a stronger glue bond. Allow the surface to dry before applying the adhesive.
  38. To easily make uniformly sized wood shavings or dust for filling voids in woodturnings, use an old coffee grinder to process the shavings. Sift the powder into the desired size with small kitchen type mesh strainers.
  39. When applying multiple coloured spirit stains or dyes to a project, start with the lightest colour first and work your way up to the darkest colour in your range. Colours can be applied with a small rubber (cotton cloth wrapped around a small wad of cotton), a brush, or with an airbrush.
  40. To save money on crushed stone inlay materials, build your own rock crusher from scrap steel and use it to crush bulk rocks, chips and scraps from local rock shops and jewelry suppliers. If you use a lot of crushed stone, you can save a significant amount of money every year by crushing your own stone.
  41. Through the years, I’ve tried many different ways to store turning tools and the hundreds of accessories we use like drive spurs, faceplates and other small tools so they do not take up too much space. For me, the best solution has been to use the rolling tool chests made for storing automotive tools. You can sometimes find used tool chests at yard/boot sales during the summer for a few bucks.
  42. A small amount of paste wax works wonders to help eliminate torn grain areas when turning difficult timbers, or high-figured grain. Apply some wax and then resume cutting with your gouge. You may have to apply the wax several times to completely remove any damage.
  43. To keep your cloth buffing wheels from scratching finished surfaces, always keep them in separate plastic bags when not in use to prevent dust and debris from contaminating the wheel surfaces.
  44. When applying end grain sealers, feel free to leave the brush in the container instead of cleaning it after each use. It will quickly return to its previous state when you begin using it again.
  45. Do not store opened bottles of cyanoacrylate adhesive (CA, or Super Glue) in the same area as your kickers/accelerators, to help prevent premature curing in the bottle. Always use separate storage cabinets, or keep them several feet away when stored in the open.
  46. To reduce the darkening of light coloured timbers when using an oil finish, pre-seal the bare wood surface with a lacquer, or dewaxed clear shellac sealer. When dry, lightly scuff if necessary and apply your oil finish.
  47. Used automobile shock absorber rods make great turning shafts for small turning tools like skews, scrapers and parting tools. Use an abrasive cut-off wheel, or muffler cut-off tool to cut the rod where it enters the body of the shock absorber. Insert the threaded end into the hole in the tool handle and grind your favorite grind profile on the cut end. The metal is very good quality and holds an edge quite well, best of all it’s free!
  48. To prevent fingerprints from showing on high lustre finished surfaces, apply a museum grade microcrystalline wax (like Renaissance Wax) as the final finishing step. (Note: Microcrystalline waxes dry crystal clear, with no white residue - even on dark timbers).
  49. To maintain the accuracy of pen turning mandrels during storage, store them in short scrap sections of PVC water pipe. The open ends can be taped, or plugged with scrap wood.
  50. A good X-Y drill press vice is one of the best investments you can make to increase the accuracy of your drilled holes. X-Y vices allow movement up and back as well as side to side, which makes it a snap to center your blanks under the drill bit quickly and easily.
  51. When purchasing polished cabochon stones for inlaying, only choose stones with uniformly shaped domed surfaces and rounded edges at the bottom. Avoid stones that are ground to a knife-edge, as they're prone to chip in storage and they are much harder to inlay.
  52. When using cloth buffing wheels on the lathe spindle, use a Morse Taper extension to gain additional clearance around the headstock/spindle for buffing any large or excessively deep projects.
  53. To prevent cross-contamination of buffing wheels used for finishing, keep a separate wheel on hand for each compound you use. Do not use multiple compounds on the same wheel. Store each wheel in a separate bag when not in use.
  54. To prevent faceplates from seizing on the headstock spindle, apply a few drops of air tool oil (or equivalent) to the spindle before mounting the faceplate on the lathe. When you dismount the faceplate, clean the spindle threads with a paper towel to remove any residual oil, so it will not attract dust.
  55. Use a small artist's airbrush when applying spirit stains and colouring products if you want to control the blending and/or fade-in, fade-out characteristics of the specific colours.
  56. To reduce sanding up to 50%, learn shear scraping. By using dedicated shear scrapers, or Irish ground bowl/spindle gouges the bare wood surface can be scraped to the equivalent of a 240 grit - 320-grit surface before sanding.
  57. You can use a spray lacquer, or spray shellac to stiffen wood fibers on torn or bruised grain areas, when power sanding on the lathe. Simply spray the damaged grain area, let it dry for a few minutes and then resume sanding. This works better on some timbers than using paste wax.
  58. If you work with a lot of finishes or embellishment products, it’s good to keep some compatible solvents on hand for thinning, or cleaning. Check the MSDS sheets for each product to find out what solvent is needed. Quart sizes are available for most solvents are home centres and hardware stores. More difficult to find solvents can be found online, or at a local paint or specialty chemicals company.
  59. Pump up plastic, or metal garden sprayers filled with end sealer (cold wax emulsions for green wood logs) make fast work of sealing large amounts of logs and turning blanks.
  60. Instead of turning bowl centres away as waste with your gouge, use a bowl center saver. Centre savers can easily save one or more bowls for every inch of thickness in the blank (4" thick blanks can yield four or more bowls instead of one).
  61. Copper water pipe unions are a good alternative for brass tool handle ferrules. Look for unions that do not feature an interior “stop ring” or dimple, so the ferrule will easily slide onto the top of your tool handle.
  62. Small 4" diamond cut-off wheels can be used freehand on the tool rest to make an inexpensive diamond-dressing tool for dry grinding wheels on grinders.
  63. To transfer photocopied or laser printed outline images (not ink-jet) onto timber surfaces for carving, use a wood burner with a flat iron tip. Lightly "iron" the back of the image (non-printed side) until the image transfers onto the surface of the wood.
  64. Store unopened bottles of cyanoacrylate (Super Glue, or CA) in the freezer to obtain the longest storage life. When stored this way, unopened CA will last for several years.
  65. When using recycled brass shavings from key cutters for inlay material, always run a strong magnet through the brass to remove any steel shavings that are present. This will prevent steel transfer and discolouration on the surface of your project when sanding.
  66. When purchasing new adhesives, always date the bottle with your purchase date. This will help you to determine when to discard any adhesives that are nearing their expiration dates.
  67. To prevent the wicking of cyanoacrylates into adjacent grain areas when inlaying voids, pre-seal the void and the surrounding areas with spray lacquer or spray shellac. Let the area dry and then add your inlay material.
  68. For a simpler way to light woodturnings for taking pictures, use daylight fluorescents. These professional quality lights run cool, do not flicker, mount in standard light fixtures and are much easier to use than Halogens.
  69. To easily clean the recessed rim area on metal finish cans before storing them away, wrap a bit of paper towel around a small screwdriver and run the “swab” around the area several times until the rim is clean. This insures the lid will seat properly and will be easier to remove the next time you need to use the finish.
  70. To simplify drilling curved antler blanks with a drill press, mount a pencil laser in the Jacob's chuck. Use the laser to adjust and align the antler in the drilling vice. Remove the laser, mount the drill bit and drill the antler.
  71. Always date any new wood that you bring into your studio with a black marker, or pencil. For darker timbers, wrap a bit of masking tape around the blank and mark on the tape. If you know the species, add that as well. When your wood collection begins to grow, it’s difficult to remember how long you’ve had stored each piece of timber.
  72. To reduce checking in green wood rough outs, immediately bag or seal rough outs after turning. Even a few minutes in the open air can cause some species to begin developing end checks.
  73. To reduce the interior moisture content in sealed containers like trash cans that you’re using for short term storage of bowl blanks or rough outs, place a moisture absorbing product like “Damp Rid” inside the can. This will help to prevent any mold formation on the surface until you can complete your processing.
  74. When storing green wood rough outs in paper bags for drying, never nest bagged bowls, or mold will develop. Instead, cut stacking stickers from scrap wood and place inside each bowl, or use wire racks for drying to insure good airflow around each bag when drying.
  75. If you use an air compressor to run any of the tools or equipment in your studio, remember to periodically purge the water from the storage tank. Most air compressors feature a petcock that will allow you to easily evacuate any moisture that has accumulated inside the tank. Consult your owner’s manual for details on how to properly empty the moisture from the inside of your air compressors tank.

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.