Once you start woodturning you rather quickly find out that if you buy wood from commercial sources to feed your woodturning addiction that the cost for wood from those sources is really expensive. A standardized woodturning blank from commercial sources generally is about 6″ to 8″ square, and about 2″ to 3″ thick. Cost of a typical blank can run from $10 or so at the low end up to $75 or even more depending on the species of wood. And as the size gets larger, the price goes up dramatically.
But there is a lot of free wood out there if you can be bothered to go look for it. Like that piece in the photo up there.
Now I have to admit that I completely forgot had this stuff laying around until MrsGF and I found these slabs laying around in the garage when we were cleaning it out this fall. A friend of a friend had cut down some black walnut trees on his property years ago and had them milled into lumber by a portable sawmill. When cutting logs into lumber you end up with these slabs where the bark was sliced off and generally there isn’t much you can do with them except turn them into mulch or firewood. But this was black walnut, which is ridiculously expensive, really nice, and some of the slabs were thick enough in places that I thought I could use them for something so I snagged some of them and stuck them in the garage and immediately forgot about them for something like six years until we stumbled across them a month or so ago.
We now have the time and ambition to finally get around to doing something with this stuff. At least one of the slabs is thick enough, wide enough and long enough to perhaps turn into a garden bench. But a lot of it didn’t look too promising until I thought hey, can I make bowls out of some of this stuff. So I cut it up into manageable sizes with the chainsaw, carried some of it down into the shop and started to experiment with the stuff and the first experiment turned out looking like this.
Not bad for a piece of free wood, I thought.
If you look around you can find free wood just about everywhere. On any given day I can drive around the towns around here and find people trimming or cutting down trees, and most of that wood is going to end up either being chipped for mulch or composted. Most people won’t mind at all if you ask nicely to take a few bits of it.
Wood shows up all the time at my town’s compost site from people who’ve cut down or trimmed trees. They are only supposed to be dropping off easily chipped brush down there, but a lot of people can’t seem to be able to read the signs and we regularly end up with large branches and even tree trunks being dumped down there. You might have seen me down there with my little battery chain saw whacking off bits and pieces that might be useful, along with the locals who burn wood for heat.
And don’t forget Craig’s List! Start scrolling through the “Free” section of the listings and you’ll find dozens of people just begging someone, anyone, to come get the remains of trees they had to cut down.
If you do get your hands on some of this free wood, some caution is called for, however. There can be some issues with this stuff you need to be aware of.
The first is infestations of bugs. You never know what might be living in that wood. I would never store free wood inside the house or even in the garage unless I was sure it was free from things like carpenter ants, beetles, etc. Anything questionable ends up being burned in the fireplace out in the backyard while MrsGF and I sit around it with a beverage or two.
Rot is something you’ll have to deal with too. Now there are ways you can deal with rotted wood so you can still get something useful out of it by soaking it in types of epoxy resin and preservatives and all that. Frankly, don’t bother. Yes, you can do it but it isn’t worth the effort in my opinion. You need things like a vacuum tank, special wood preservatives and other equipment… Ain’t worth it. Chuck it into the firepit and move on to a solid piece of wood.
Nails, screws, wire and other nasties buried in the wood is also something you need to watch out for. People have this nasty habit of attaching things to living trees. They nail ornaments to them, screw signs to them, hang birdhouses to them, etc. and leave the hardware in the wood. Hitting a nail, screw or other bit of metal embedded in a piece of wood with a saw or gouge is not fun. It isn’t easy to find the stuff either because the tree can grow around the object and completely enclose it. Always inspect any piece of wood carefully before you start sawing it up or putting it on the lathe. Metal detectors specifically designed to find nails and the like in wood have come down in price quite dramatically in the last couple of decades. It might not be a bad idea to pick one up.
If you don’t mind glueing up your own blanks from bits and pieces of boards (You can get some really nice looking turning blanks from odds and ends glued together.) there is a lot of free stuff like that out there. Again, check Craig’s List free section and other sources like that. You’ll find odds and ends of lumber people had left over from remodeling and construction projects and things like that. Even some old furniture made from solid wood will end up sitting out on the curb that can be disassembled and used to glue up something useful.
Pallets – the damned things are everywhere, and nobody seems to want them. Should you consider old pallets as a source for turning wood? Personally I wouldn’t use them for a variety of reasons. The wood is generally very thin, rough cut so it would have to be planed before it could be glued up into a blank. They’re a pain in the ass to take apart and get all the nails and staples out of. Tearing apart a pallet to try to get wood to glue up into a turning blank seems like an awful lot of work for very little reward. And, frankly, you don’t know where the hell that thing has been and what it has been exposed to. For all you know that pallet had some toxic chemicals spilled all over it before it ended up in the “free wood” bin or out on the curb where you found it.
The last issue you need to deal with is the fact that a lot of this stuff is cut directly from living trees that were just cut down, so it is very, very wet and you need to be able to deal with that. Now I know a lot of turners who like working with wet wood and have developed ways of dealing with it, and if you’re one of those, that’s fantastic. But if you’re like me and you prefer to work with wood that is already dried, you need to be prepared to store this stuff for a long, long time before it’s going to be dried down to a usable moisture level, or you need to be able to dry it yourself. The walnut slabs I’m working with right now sat in a dry environment (my garage) for about 5 or 6 years so they’re down to about 10% – 15% moisture which I consider to be reasonably low enough for me to work with them without a lot of issues. But a lot of this stuff is going to be dripping wet when you get it. So you’re going to need to either store it in a protected area for a considerable amount of time for it to dry naturally, or you’re going to have to dry it yourself. There are plans out there on the internet for making your own drying boxes to accelerate the process and some of them even work reasonably well.
What’s Coming Up
I’m working on the 2nd part of the intro to resin thing I’ve been doing. Yes, really I am. I haven’t forgotten about it. The project that I’ve been cooking up to accompany the 2nd part is curing in the pressure pot even as I write this and should be coming out tomorrow. I’ve got videos and everything for this one.
Well, I hope I’ll have videos. I’m still not sure if I’m using that dopey camera right. Anyway that will be coming up sometime in the next couple of weeks if all goes well.
I got in a new parting tool from a company called Woodpeckers that I’m waiting to try out. I’ve tried a variety of different parting tools since I got into this and I haven’t really liked any of them very much. The cheap carbide ones that seem to be made by the millions by some outfit in China and sold under a variety of different brand names not only don’t work very well and wear out quickly, they are just -just nasty all the way around. The one I use most often is an old fashioned steel one from Sorby which works but needs to be sharpened a lot.
Oh, and Happy Cat! I almost forgot about her… Let’s see I got that video somewhere…
I’ve been doing this lathe thing for a while now and I get occasional questions about wood turning and especially about working with resin. So I thought some people might find it useful if I put together some of the things I’ve learned over the last couple of years.
I am not an expert on this stuff, but I’ve learned a lot about working with resin since I started this, especially about why things go wrong. I wish I’d run into an article like this when I first started out. It would have prevented a lot of problems, saved me a lot of money and kept me from wasting a lot of time.
This first part is going to be mostly stuff about chemistry, curing, bubbles, mixing and stuff that a lot of you probably know already and is going to be as boring as watching paint dry, but be patient because I’m aiming this at newcomers who may not know any of this stuff. Things will get more interesting in the second part when I actually make something, and I’ll cover that step by step from the initial design process to the finished product. I’m going to make it in “real time”, so to speak, writing up every step, along with photos and, hopefully, videos, as I actually do the work.
If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comment section or at email@example.com
What The Heck Is This Stuff Anyway?
The resin I’m talking about is a liquid plastic that comes in two parts, the resin itself and a hardener or catalyst which is mixed with it. After they are mixed together it is poured into a mold of some type and over a period of time a chemical reaction takes place which causes the liquid to turn into a solid material.
Once cured it is generally crystal clear, but you can add dyes, coloring agents, glitter, iridescent powders and other things to enhance its appearance. That tea light in the lead photo has emerald and gold iridescent powders mixed into it.
One of the neat things about this stuff is that with these resins you can cut and shape it with standard woodworking tools once it is cured. You can use your steel or carbide gouges, skews and other turning tools, as well as normal sandpaper. Although if you want a really high polish and high gloss finish you’re going to need use much finer sandpapers and polishing agents in the final finishing than you would with wood. But I’ll come to that later.
Time To Get Out Your Wallet
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. This stuff ain’t cheap. Which is why I don’t do resin projects as often as I’d like to. The material I use most often, Naked Fusion Deep Pour, is currently selling for about $160 for a one and a half gallon kit (1 gal resin, 1/2 gal hardener). That works out to about $0.83 per ounce. Other brands and types get even more expensive and can cost you as much as $1.50 per ounce.
Eighty three cents per ounce doesn’t sound like much, but projects can use up a lot of material. That little tea light in the lead photo at the top of the page isn’t very big, but there is probably about $20 worth of resin in it. I’ve done a lot of projects that used 40 – 60 ounces so I can have a lot of money sunk into a project in just resin before I even get it on the lathe. For me this is a hobby and I can afford to splurge once in a while. But if you’re planning on selling your projects or you’re on a tight budget you really need to keep costs under control. So remember quality resin is a bit expensive and a single project can use a lot of the stuff.
What to Buy? It’s All In The Chemistry
There is a bewildering variety of different resins out there from a large number of different companies and they all have different uses and different characteristics. If you buy the wrong one for your application you’re going to have a real mess on your hands. First you need to consider:
Depth of Pour
Depth of pour is one of the most important characteristics of the resin you buy. We’re concerned with the volume and overall thickness of the object being made. Resins are generally classified as thin pour and deep pour varieties. To make things more interesting the definition of what those two terms means seems to vary wildly. Always read the instructions carefully before you buy a product because what the manufacturer means by the terms “thin” and “deep” may not be what you think they mean.
Thin pour resins are designed for very thin applications, generally under an inch thick, sometimes even less. A lot of these are intended for use only as coatings on table or bar tops, or for trinkets like key fobs and small ornaments.
Deep pour resins are intended for larger objects. Almost all of the projects I do have a resin volume that is greater than 2 inches deep and wide, and a lot of them are much larger than that, so that’s what I use and probably what you’ll want as well unless you want to make small ornaments or pens.
What happens if you use the wrong type of resin? You can have a real mess on your hands. You can end up with resin that won’t cure properly, will only partly cure, be too brittle to work with, or even end up with a runaway exothermic reaction that will generate so much heat that it’ll melt your mold. So always make sure the resin you’re using is suitable for your application. Always read the instructions carefully before you buy a product.
Another thing you may want to consider is the resin’s viscosity, or how thick it is when it is poured. Viscosity also varies widely, ranging from rather thin, like warm table syrup, to very thick and more like the consistency of cold molasses.
There are two reasons why viscosity is important here. The first is when it comes to releasing bubbles. Generally the thinner the resin, the more easily bubbles can float to the surface. (I’ll talk about bubbles specifically a bit later.)
The second reason is that I embed pieces of wood in the resin when I pour it, and sometimes those have complex shapes. A thinner resin is going to flow into all of the little nooks and crannies more easily preventing voids that can cause problems later. That ugly little object over there on the right was one of the first experiments I did with resin. I basically just chucked a bunch of wood scraps into a mold and filled it with resin. This one didn’t turn out too bad because I used a rather thin resin here. I did one (since consigned to the fireplace in the backyard) where I used a very thick resin and I ended up with a lot of voids because it couldn’t flow into all of the small spaces and because I didn’t provide a way for air to escape from those voids.
This is the amount of time it takes for the resin to turn into a solid after it is mixed with the catalyst. This can vary wildly depending on the chemistry the manufacturer uses. (Other things like ambient temperature and the volume of resin used can have an effect on the cure time as well but the most important is the chemistry of the product.)
Some products cure so quickly that the moment you get it mixed up you have to rush to get it poured into your mold and into your pressure tank (if you use one) before it begins to harden. Others can take literally days to fully cure. Which one you use is entirely up to you. Some people are impatient and want results right now. They’re going to prefer the fast curing types.
Personally I prefer the slower curing ones. The Naked Fusion resin I use can take 36 – 48 hours to fully cure. Why would I want to put up with that? First of all I’m in no hurry. I generally have a lot of other stuff going on so I’m not exactly sitting around watching the clock. The second reason I like the longer curing variety is that I believe the longer the material remains liquid the better the chance any bubbles in it will be released. Thirdly I don’t have to rush to get it mixed up, add colorings, and get it into the mold and then into the pressure tank.
All resins have recommended temperature ranges for storage and curing included with the instructions. Please pay attention to those because they are important. Most resins are pretty liberal when it comes to storage temperatures. As long as you store the unmixed resin in an environment that you are comfortable in, it’s probably going to be just fine. But I do have a specialty product that has to be stored above 55 F. If it gets colder than that it can start to crystalize.
Ambient temperature during the curing process is important as well. The temperature can affect how quickly or slowly the resin cures after it is mixed. Once again generally if you are in an environment where you are physically comfortable, it isn’t going to be much of an issue, but pay attention to the manufacturer’s instructions and try to adhere to the recommended temperature ranges.
Always, always read the instructions and safety warnings carefully when you work with resins. Some of these products are seriously nasty. Follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions to the letter. Some give off toxic fumes, especially during the mixing and curing process. Some can potentially generate a lot of heat during the curing process. The thing I am always concerned with when working with any kind of chemicals is the production of potentially dangerous gasses that can cause neurological damage, lung damage, etc. Some of these products may require the use of special respirators and venting and should never, ever be used inside of a home. Some are relatively benign. Before you buy any resin read the safety data carefully and make sure you understand the potential dangers and that you can deal with those dangers before you buy the product.
The stuff I work with, Naked Fusion, is one of the more benign ones. It gives off no VOCs and emits virtually no fumes. But even so I still take precautions. I always wear nitrile gloves and always wear a full face shield to protect against splashes when I’m mixing and pouring the stuff.
Dealing With Bubbles
There are times you want bubbles, like in a nice glass of beer. But you do not want bubbles in your finished resin project, especially in a project like a tealight or lamp where light shining through the resin is going to make defects glaringly obvious. I’m not concerned about bubbles on the surface the way someone making a river table would be. For most of us bubbles on the surface aren’t going to be a problem because the surface layer is going to be cut or sanded off anyway when the object is shaped on the lathe. The problem we have is bubbles embedded in the body of the resin project itself.
Liquids like water release bubbles very easily and quickly. Resin, however, is much thicker, and its specific gravity may be such that bubbles are not buoyant enough to float to the surface.
The most commonly used method to eliminate or at least dramatically reduce the amount of visible bubbles in a resin project is to put it in a pressure tank and put it under pressure and leave it there until the resin is cured.
Sidenote: Some people recommend using a vacuum tank. I do not. Putting it in a vacuum tank can cause foaming as air is drawn out of the wood that is embedded in the resin. In theory that foam comes to the top, but in actual practice it often doesn’t. So a vacuum tank can actually increase the amount of bubbles you get. Also when in a low pressure environment bubbles actually get bigger and more noticeable. Being in a vacuum tank doesn’t necessarily mean the bubbles will rise to the surface, either. That is going to depend more on the viscosity and specific gravity of the resin. From the research I’ve done putting your project in a vacuum tank can actually make bubble problems worse, not better.
So let’s talk about pressure tanks. We find pressure tanks useful because putting a resin casting under pressure while the resin is still liquid will cause the bubbles to shrink dramatically in size, and even seem to disappear entirely.
The usual procedure is that after you’ve poured the resin into the mold, you put the mold in your pressure tank and use an air compressor to pump it up to about 40 – 50 PSI, and then leave it under pressure until the resin has hardened.
Now you can buy pressure tanks that are designed specifically for this kind of thing, specially certified by safety organizations and all that stuff. But they are very expensive, often a lot more money than most of us would like to spend for something like this. So what most woodturners use aren’t actual pressure tanks but pressurized paint pots used for spray painting that were never intended to be used for this purpose. But they are very attractive because some of them are pretty cheap.
You can get one of these paint pots from everybody’s favorite purveyor of cheap knock off tools, Harbor Freight, as well as from some other vendors, for about $100. They won’t work as-is, they have to be modified. But the modifications aren’t difficult to do and the parts needed are easy to find and cheap. So a lot of people who work with resin use these cheap pots because the alternative is spending several hundred dollars on a piece of equipment they might only need only occasionally.
Now there are probably thousands of these cheap pots in use out there, and almost no one has issues with them. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I have seen enough reports of these cheap pots failing, sometimes catastrophically, that they scare the hell out of me. Just run some searches on Google about Harbor Freight paint pot failure and you’ll see what I mean So if you do use one of these cheap modified paint pots as a pressure tank, be very, very careful. Always keep the pressure well under the manufacturer’s maximum PSI rating. Always secure the lid properly, etc.
Enough of that, though. Let’s get on with this and move on to…
A mold is a simple thing, basically just a container to hold the liquid resin and whatever you might be embedding in it until it solidifies. I mostly use disposable plastic paint mixing containers like the one in the photo over there on the right that I buy in bulk. (Remember that tea light in the very first photo? That’s it before it was machined on the lathe.) They’re cheap, available in a wide variety of sizes, and are printed with a variety of different markings to make it easier to measure out resin quantities.
But people also use just about anything as a mold. Food containers like cottage cheese containers and similar items work well after they’ve been thoroughly cleaned. I’ve used “Cool Whip” frozen topping containers and things like that with good results. If you’re doing a large project those 5 quart plastic ice cream pails work well. There’s no need to use mold release or anything like that because if it doesn’t come out of the mold, well, the mold didn’t cost you anything in the first place so just cut it apart or even chuck the whole thing on the lathe and peel it off with a gouge.
You can make your own molds rather easily for special purposes using silicone caulk or hot glue, and sheets of plastic. Just about anything that will hold a liquid can be used as a mold. But always remember that you have to be able to get your project out of that mold, so avoid using things like glass and metal.
One word of advice: If you’re using a pressure tank, line it with a small sheet of plastic just in case your mold leaks or overflows. Trying to clean hardened resin out of one of those things is a pain in the neck. The better ones are lined with Teflon but even so it can still be hard to clean them out if there’s an accidental spill.
Resin has to be mixed with a hardener or catalyst. You need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly. If you get the proportions wrong, bad things will happen. So always read the instructions carefully and follow them exactly. A lot of resins are mixed by volume, like Naked Fusion, the stuff I use. I mix two parts resin with one part hardener. But the exact amounts may vary depending on the resin you’re using. I have one brand/type of resin that mixes at a 1:1 ratio. Supposedly some of the resins out there tell you to measure quantities by weight, not volume. That seems a bit odd to me, but whatever the manufacturer tells you to do, do it.
At some point you are probably going to want to mix some kind of coloring agent in with the resin. Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, if any. Sometimes the maker will not have specific instructions for mixing in coloring agents. What I do with Naked Fusion is mix the coloring, dye or whatever in with the resin, and then mix in the hardener. That’s worked quite well for me. But if your product has specific instructions, follow them.
The hardener needs to be thoroughly incorporated into the resin. If it isn’t you can get pockets of uncured resin in your project or other problems can crop up. Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for mixing the product. A lot of guys use those paint mixers that chuck into an electric drill. If you’re mixing up a large quantity those things can be useful. Especially if you’re working with a resin that cures rapidly. You want to mix it as fast as possible and get it into the mold before it starts to set up. But also be aware of the fact that using a power mixer like that can incorporate bubbles into the resin, which you do not want.
I use good old fashioned disposable paint stirring sticks. The resin I use cures slowly so I’m not in a rush. I’ve had good results this way. The sticks are cheap. I get ’em for about $20 for 200 of them off Amazon.
Sidenote: Those disposable paint mixing sticks also make great markers for gardening. They’re big enough that I can write on them with a Sharpie to label stuff out in the gardens.
Dyes and Coloring Materials
As I said before most resins are crystal clear when fully cured and you can turn out some really, really beautiful stuff using nothing but clear resin. This is especially true if you’re trying to emphasize the object you have embedded in the resin. But a lot of us are looking to make things that are colorful and eye catching so we resort to using various coloring agents and iridescent powders.
Personally I stick with additives that are specifically designed to be mixed into resin. There are a huge number of dyes, coloring powders, iridescent materials, glitter and I don’t know what all else made specifically for use in resin. Basically you can get just about any kind of look you want. Most of them aren’t super expensive, and you don’t need a lot of the stuff. Over there on the right is a remarkably bad photo of a decorative lamp I made. (It looked much, much better in real life. Seriously.) That resin had two different Pearl Ex powdered pigments in it, emerald green and gold. And despite how it looks in that picture it turned out quite nice.
I’ve seen people use all kinds of weird stuff to try to achieve various colors and special effects with resin. They’ve used things like various types of ground spices, inks, you name it. I saw one guy try ground up Cheetos. Seriously. Yeah, it didn’t work very good.
My advice is to stick with additives that are specifically designed to work with resin.
Working With The Stuff
Once you have your resin project cured, you can work with it as if it were a piece of wood. Sort of. Kinda. I’ll be going into that in more detail in the second part of this when I actually make a resin project and have you follow along.
First of all, safety.
Yes, here I go again with the safety warnings, but you only have one set of lungs, one face, one pair of eyes. Wearing respirators, face shields and other protective gear is inconvenient, yes, but it’s better than losing an eye, suffering from face lacerations, or ending up with lung disease. I put up a video of me working on the lathe recently and you can see dust and wood chips flying up and bouncing off my face shield. That face shield I’m wearing costs less than $30 and not only has it kept dust and chips out of my eyes, it’s kept me out of the ER a couple of times now when things have gone very, very wrong. The first thing I do when I even so much as walk into my shop is put on my respirator and that shield.
Attaching It To A Lathe
You can attach a resin object to a lathe just about any way you want, but one word of advice about the use of faceplates. You don’twant to run screws into just the resin itself. Resin doesn’t have the strength and resilience that wood has, and it can be brittle. If you attach the faceplate with the screws anchored only into the resin, the vibration of the lathe can cause the resin holding the screws in place to disintegrate. So avoid using screws driven into just resin. When I use a faceplate I either have wood embedded in the resin itself as part of the project that the screws can bite into, or a sacrificial wood disk embedded in the resin that I can later cut off during the machining process.
It is going to be a mess. A serious mess
Resin is plastic. It might be soft enough to cut with wood working tools, but that is where the similarities end. You aren’t going to end up with nice shavings. You are going to have long strings of half melted plastic coming off your tool that will stick to everything.
See what I mean? And that up there isn’t even all that bad. I took those photos when I’d just started rounding off a project. The really serious mess didn’t start until after I took those pictures.
The stuff will get everywhere, on your tools, on you, on your clothes, all over your shop, it will wind around your lathe…
Wear a hat. Seriously. Trying to get that stuff out of your hair is not fun. I also wear a high necked woodturner’s smock that fits tight around my neck to keep the stuff from going down inside of my clothes. You’re probably going to have to stop frequently to clean the stuff off of your face shield so you can see and off your lathe. The long strings will get twisted around your project so you’ll have to stop to clean that off.
You don’t need any special tools to work with resin. Just about all your normal woodturning tools, whether steel or carbide, will work with resin. Just be careful until you get used to the different ‘feel’ of working with the stuff. Your tools need to be sharp to avoid chipping.
Resin can also be brittle. Be cautious when you work with the stuff. Do not be overly aggressive. Make only light, shallow cuts at least until you get a feel for how the stuff behaves. Different resins have different machining characteristics. Some are more brittle and chip easily, others are more malleable.
Sanding resin is a pain in the ass. Remember we’re working with plastic here, not wood. Plastic melts at relatively low temperatures and sanding causes a lot of friction which generates heat. If you try to sand resin as aggressively as you’d sand wood you’re going to end up with the plastic melting and clogging up your sandpaper. Keep the lathe speed down and don’t try to rush things.
And wear a N95 rated respirator and use some kind of dust collection and air filtration system. You do not want to inhale the dust from this stuff!
I’ve seen guys resort to wet sanding in order to avoid problems with the plastic clogging up their abrasives. That will work of course, but dear lord it’s a mess. I used to do auto body work a long, long time ago and I wet sanded a lot of cars and it is something I would rather avoid. If you use a light touch, relatively low lathe speed and are relatively cautious, you should be able to avoid having to resort to wet sanding. But if you need to get into the higher grits like up beyond 600 grit sandpaper, you might have to. If you do try wet sanding, get that cheap plastic sheeting painters use for drop clothes and cover everything within about 10 feet of your lathe, including your lathe itself. Wear a rain coat, face shield, etc. It gets seriously messy sometimes. You’ll be amazed at how far a spinning object can fling water droplets.
You might want to consider getting a tool like the one over there on the right. That’s a hand held bowl sander with a variety of different padded heads. 2 or 3 inch sanding discs attach by velcro to the head. The pad is attached to a free spinning bearing. I’ve got one of those and I’ve found it well worth the $50 it cost me. When held against an object spinning on the lathe, the head of the tool holding the sandpaper also spins around. You get an effect similar to a powered orbital sander which makes marks left by the sanding process less noticeable.
Sanding is a tedious process. The first step is to use a relatively coarse abrasive to remove any tool marks left from the initial shaping. After that first step, what you’re trying to remove aren’t took marks, but scratches left from the previous sanding. So if I sand with 80 grit first, sanding with 120 removes the marks left by the 80 grit. Then sanding with 220 removes the scratches left by the 120. Sanding with 400 removes the marks from the 220… You get the idea. Sanding is always going to leave scratches. Always. The idea is to end up using a grit that is so fine that the scratches are invisible to the human eye and to us it appears to be completely smooth.
Now with wood I almost never sand beyond 4o0 or 600 grit. With resin I generally take it to even higher grits. That’s when you might be tempted to try wet sanding because otherwise that fine sandpaper clogs up fast.
If I want a really smooth, high gloss surface, the last thing I’ll do is use a sanding paste. This is a very, very fine abrasive suspended in a carrier of some sort similar to the texture of car polish. Well, basically that’s what it is. When I was doing autobody work the last step we did was use polishes that were actually extremely fine abrasives suspended in a paste like carrier, along with a random orbital buffer to apply it.
I do the same with lathe projects. I’ve been using Pita’s for a while now with good results but there are a lot of others that work just as well. I just rub it in with a bit of paper towel, and then buff it up with a clean, lint free rag.
You’re going to want to put some kind of final finish on to bring the project up to a high gloss and to protect any exposed wood. I’ve used straight carnauba wax, but that gets a bit tricky for me at least. I have to be very, very careful or it gets kind of ‘streaky’ looking on resin. I’ve had good results with good old home made “OB shine juice” made with shellac, linseed oil and alcohol. Personally I’d avoid lacquer because lacquer thinner can react badly with some types of plastic.
Before you put on a final finish, though, you should apply some kind of sealer to any exposed wood. Unsealed wood can absorb whatever finish apply over time and cause splotching and dull spots.
Embedding Stuff in Resin
I stick bits of wood into resin to make stuff, and that’s probably what you want to do also or you wouldn’t be reading this. You can embed anything in resin, of course, but I’m going to stick with wood because wood and resin seem to get along with each other pretty well.
I haven’t had any problems with any of the various species of wood that I’ve embedded in resin. At least none that I’ve noticed. But all of the projects I’ve done so far have used wood that is already on the dry side, at 10% moisture or less according to my meter. I don’t know what would happen if you took a piece of wet wood straight off a tree and encased it in resin. If you want to try that you’re on your own.
(I get these weird ideas I’d like to experiment with. Like embedding a Big Mac in resin just to see what would happen to it over time.)
If you go scrounging around YouTube you’ll find people embedding all kinds of weird sh*t in resin and chucking it up on a lathe, including golf balls, roofing nails (seriously, roofing nails), various bits of food, and just about anything else they had laying around, with varying degrees of success and quite a few utterly spectacular failures and quite a few personal injuries. If you wish to continue this tradition of insanity feel free to do so, but you’re on your own there.
Dealing With Failure
Stuff goes wrong. It just does. Things are going to go bad and you’re going to end up with a project that is an utter failure or, as occasionally happens to me, so ugly you sneak it out into the firepit in the backyard in the middle of the night before anyone else can see it. That’s what happened to the project over there on the left. Dear lord, the color that thing turned out to be… (Shudder) That was supposed to be a lamp but just about everything was just – just nasty when it was done.
Sometimes things just don’t work. You figure out what went wrong, correct the problems and move on. I’m a pretty good furniture maker and my house has tables, chairs, bookcases, etc. that I cranked out myself and turned out pretty darn nice. But what people don’t see is all of the mistakes, screwups, disasters and other things that happened while I was in the process of acquiring the knowledge and skills I needed. Same is true with woodturning. Things are going to go wrong.
Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. If you don’t stretch yourself, if you don’t experiment, if you don’t try to acquire new skills, well life would be pretty darn dull, wouldn’t it? Don’t be afraid to screw up. We all do it. That’s how we learn and grow.
And if you do screw up spectacularly, well, bring the remains over to my place and we’ll consign it to the firepit in the backyard and have a coffee or a beer and I’ll tell you about all of the massive screwups I’ve had.
Let’s Wrap This Up
I’ve been babbling along here far too long already so let’s finish this part up. I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.
They say that the best way to learn how to do something is to actually do it. So that’s what I’m going to do in the next part of this. I’m going to make a decorative lamp from resin and wood. I’ll cover the whole process from the initial design phase right through to the finished product.
I’m not sure exactly when I’ll get that posted here because I don’t even have a basic design in mind yet. Anyway, stay tuned…
(Someone told me I should mention the email address here for people who have questions or comments and don’t want to leave them in the public comment section. It is old.grouchyfarmer.@gmail.com, or, of course you can use the comments section. I only check that account once a week or two so it may be a while before you get a response that way.)
I’ve been getting some questions about wood and woodturning, specifically about what types or species of wood work best, give the best results, what different species are like to work with, how to get wood, how to deal with wet or green wood and other things, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about wood itself. I’m going to write a couple of pieces about wood, starting with what it’s like to work with different species of wood. I’m going to stick with commercially available wood bowl blanks for this bit because if you’re new to this, that is probably what you’ll be working with, bowl blanks you pick up off Amazon or directly from a wood vendor.
Now I come from a furniture making background. When making a piece of furniture I am making an object that not only needs to look good, it needs to have considerable structural integrity. The wood needs to be strong enough to be able to deal with the stresses of being a functional chair or table or bookcase or whatever item I’m making. This limits the kind of woods I am able to use in a project.
But structural integrity isn’t an issue with wood turning. I’m concerned almost entirely with appearance on that situation. The projects I crank out don’t require structural strength. Even a plain, utilitarian bowl doesn’t need a lot of strength, it just needs to hold together and look good. So when selecting wood for a bowl, especially one that is intended to be primarily decorative, the things I’d worry about when selecting wood for furniture don’t really matter to me. All I really care about is appearance. And with turned objects, things that would be considered defects in furniture grade wood can actually make interesting decorative features in a turned object. A lot of woods that would be horrible for furniture work very well for wood turning and can result in some beautiful artistic pieces.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work with a wide variety of different woods ranging from the common to the exotic, so here, in no particular order here are the woods I typically work with and why I like or dislike them, along with some samples of a finished projects with that wood to show you what it looks like. If you’re new to this you’re probably going to be buying pre-made bowl blanks online from Amazon or some other retailer, so I’ll include info on what this stuff can cost if you buy it commercially. Some of these photos have appeared before, some are new.
Black Walnut – I’m going to start with my absolute favorite wood to work with, walnut. I love working with walnut. Generally it cuts easily on the lathe with either traditional steel or carbide tools. It is easy to shape, easy to sand. I think the color and grain is beautiful. It can range from a deep, rich chocolate brown to a beautiful, almost iridescent brownish gold depending on how it is cut and finished. It will handle just about any kind of finish you want to use on it, from a low gloss satin to an ultra high polish. Either will work well with this wood. I’ve used waxes, spray lacquers, OB shine juice, bees wax and even just plain shellac and have had good results with all of them. If it gets dull looking all it takes is a quick buffing or polish to bring back the luster.
It is commonly available either kiln dried or green. Cost isn’t too bad either. Prices on wood vary all the time depending on market conditions, of course. A decent sized bowl blank about 6″ square and 2″ thick is going for about $7 – $12 each right now if you shop around. Thicker pieces… Well, prices go uprather quickly as the wood gets thicker. All things considered walnut a darn nice wood to work with and prices are generally reasonable.
Side note: A lot of places are selling green wood, not dried. I’ll talk about that later in more detail. But here’s a hint – if you’re new at this, avoid green/wet wood. Stick with kiln dried at first. Learn the basic skills first, then worry about how to deal with green wood. Some people like to work with green wood, I don’t. It requires lengthy drying times, is subject to warping and cracking and has other problems. I’ll deal with green/wet wood in a later post.
Padauk – Since that piece up there includes padauk, let’s go with that one next. It’s imported from Africa. It is a very striking wood, especially when freshly cut. Color ranges from red to brilliant orange, with the grain showing up as darker, brownish and in some cases almost black stripes. The first time I saw a piece of this I couldn’t believe it was real. As it ages the brilliant color begins to fade. It will eventually fade into a somewhat duller, reddish brown, even chocolate hue, sometimes even fading into gray. It will still be a beautiful piece of wood, it’s just that the colors change over time. How quickly do they fade? It depends. A good finish seems to help slow down the color changes, but nothing will really stop it.
As for working with it, it’s great stuff to work with. It machines about the same as walnut. It cuts easily, although you may need to sharpen your tools a bit more often than with some woods. It sands easily, but use a dust extraction system. The dust will get everywhere if you don’t, leaving a fine, red film over everything. For finishes, all I’ve used with it so far is a thin seal coat of shellac followed by buffing carnauba wax onto it to get a high gloss. It’s imported from Africa and is available kiln dried only. (Generally speaking wood imported into this country must be kiln dried to prevent pests and diseases from getting into the U.S.)
It isn’t cheap though, typically going for 2 – 3 times the cost of walnut. A 6″ square by 2″ thick piece of padauk is currently going for around $30.
White Oak – You wouldn’t normally think of white oak as being all that suitable for wood turning. But in a lot of cases you use what you got, and I have a lot of white oak cut offs from larger boards that were used in furniture projects. The stuff was too nice to just throw out or burn, but what can you do with 1″ thick boards of random short lengths and widths?
Glue it up into bowl blanks, of course. So I glued a few 1″ thick board scraps together into a 4 inch thick bowl blank and gave it a try and, well, damn… The results weren’t utterly horrible? I stained it to bring out the grain, finished it with a sealer and top coat of wax and it turned out as a decent little bowl. I made an even bigger one, almost 11 inches across and about 4 inches tall which was an absolute beast to work with on my midi sized lathe, but that worked out reasonably well too and I ended up with a pretty nice fruit bowl with rather striking grain patterns brought out by the stain.
It was not easy to work with, though. White oak is very hard, dulls tools quickly, and can be prone to chipping, especially if it is really, really dry, as this stuff is. White oak is one of the few woods where I used carbide tools almost exclusively because my steel gouges were dulled within just a couple of minutes and I was getting tired of running over to the grinder every little while. Once I switched to carbide it went better, but it was still a relatively slow process. Sanding wasn’t a lot of fun either.
(Which is possibly why it seems nearly impossible to find white oak bowl blanks on the commercial market? At least I haven’t seen any. )
Ash – Go read the comments about oak again but replace “oak” with “ash” and that pretty much describes it. Ash seems to be just a wee bit more forgiving than oak. I can generally work it without having to resort to using carbide tools. Certainly it has a nicer color, or at least I think so. But like oak it can be pretty bland looking, so you might want to experiment with stains. And wood suppliers who carry bowl blanks seem to frequently have it in stock at fairly reasonable prices. Mostly I’ve seen blanks offered as green wood, but I do see kiln dried stuff available from time to time. Alas, while I’ve made some projects with ash I don’t have photos of any.
(Sidenote: In some areas there is a glut of ash on the market because of infestations of the emerald ash borer, which is decimating the ash tree population all over the country. In a lot of places it is illegal to transport ash wood into or out of certain areas to try to restrict the spread of the beetle and the disease it carries. These restrictions generally don’t apply to kiln dried ash because the kiln generates enough heat to kill the borers. I’ve seen a few vendors offering “green” ash wood. This is possibly illegal in some jurisdictions.)
Red Cedar – I really, really like working with cedar. It’s a soft wood, cuts beautifully on the lathe, and wow, does it smell amazing! It sands easily to a smooth surface, is easy to finish to a brilliant shine. I used OB shine juice on this one. Personally I think the grain and colors are absolutely beautiful but some people don’t like it for some reason. Colors can vary wildly, even in the same piece of wood, as you can see, ranging from a deep chocolate brown, to rich purplish reds, to golden yellows. It’s widely available, and if you live in the right part of the country you might be able to source it locally and save yourself a considerable amount of money.
Cedar does have some issues. It can often have “defects”, knots, inclusions, wild grain, but personally I think that adds to the beauty, like that unexpected knot I discovered in this piece as I was hollowing it out. To me that knot and the wild grain surrounding it makes the piece far more interesting than if had been just plain wood. But because it’s a soft wood, it’s easy to damage a finished piece.
Prices on cedar are pretty reasonable if you can find it. Not every wood seller seems to carry it. My main source for pre cut cedar bowl blanks is Green Valley Wood Products in Indiana and they’re running 6″ square 3″ thick cedar blanks at about 4 for $39.95, or about $10 each. They are green, not dried, but when it comes to cedar I’ve never really had problems with working with green cedar.
Mahogany – Mahogany is, well, complicated. Some mahogany is mahogany, some mahogany isn’t… Heck, I don’t know. I do like the stuff, though. Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. Certainly it can be a very pretty wood that can take on a brilliant iridescence when the light hits it just right. It can glimmer and shimmer. But in order to get that shimmer and iridescence you have to have exactly the right piece of wood and have to do exactly the right things to it.
I honestly have sort of a love/hate relationship with mahogany. I’ve built furniture out of the stuff and frankly I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t think it looked all that good and it can be surprisingly soft and easy to damage when used in furniture. It isn’t difficult to work with, but it seems to produce a very fine dust that clings to anything and everything. It seems to dull my tools quickly. For whatever reason carbide tools don’t seem to work very well at all with this stuff. When I try using carbide I get lots of catches, gouges and tearout. So I stick with traditional bowl gouges, scrapers and skews when I’m working with it. And I sharpen them a lot. And while they claim it’s a hardwood, it sure doesn’t behave like one. It’s relatively soft, it is easy to get dings and dents in finished pieces. I ended up somehow with a 15″ square, 5″ thick hunk of the stuff that I into a fruit bowl that looked nice for, oh, about 10 minutes. Oh, it’s a perfectly good utility bowl, and that’s what we use it for, but it sure didn’t stay looking good for very long. But every once in a while a piece like this below comes off the lathe, and and I start to want to work with it again.
This is a mahogany and walnut canister or box or jar or whatever you want to call it. About 5″ wide and 10″ or so tall, and it turned out way better than it had any right to. (The crappy camera in my iPhone doesn’t do this justice. I don’t care what the reviewers claim about the iPhone camera, it’s garbage, especially when it comes to rendering color.)
Back to mahogany, though. It’s decent wood, it can be very pretty. It isn’t all that difficult to work with, but it does have some issues. Prices for dried, pre-cut bowl blanks are generally a bit higher than walnut, depending on where it is sourced from. Right now it’s going for about $11 – $13 for a typically sized 6″ square 2″ thick precut bowl blank. It should be provided kiln dried, not green, because all of it is imported.
Hickory/Chestnut – Okay, I’m going to make a confession here. I’m not sure if that bowl over there on the right is hickory, or the one on the bottom is hickory. I’m not even sure if that is what they actually were, to be honest because I’d never worked with either before I got my hands on these two pieces of wood. That’s what they were labeled when I pulled them off the shelf, though, so we’ll go with that. My experience with these two is extremely limited. Still the results for both were good and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again if I could get my hands on the stuff. Both were hard, about the same working characteristics as ash, but with a much more striking grain. And the one above had some beautiful coloring and inclusions. Once I saw how nice the grain was, I kept the shapes simple and tried to cut them to show off the wood.
I wish I could remember where I got these two pieces of wood and what they cost so I could give you more info because the wood was really nice.
Rosewood – Rosewood is amazingly beautiful. It has a rich, lush, chocolate color with a lighter colored, reddish brown streaks, and can include wider bands of lighter reds.
I see the stuff for sale all the time, but only in small pieces suitable for ornaments and pens. I’d never seen the stuff in larger pieces suitable for making bowls or larger decorative objects like I’m interested in making until I ran across these three pieces. One was about 4″ square by 3″ thick and the other two were about 6″ or 7″ square by 3″ thick. I’d never seen it in pieces that large before. The reason why is simple. Holy cow the stuff is expensive! I probably shouldn’t have blown that much money on these three pieces of wood because as it turned out I had serious problems with all three, but I’ll come to that in a minute.
The stuff works pretty nicely. It cuts well, sands well, looks especially good with a high gloss finish. I think the coloration and grain is absolutely beautiful. It doesn’t show up well in the photo but that larger piece has a beautiful band of a lighter, red tint running through it horizontally that really adds interest to the piece. I can see why penmakers like it so much, the stuff is beautiful.
Drawbacks? You bet. Some serious.
First, it stinks. It literally stinks. To me it smells like sewage. Seriously. The aroma isn’t overpowering but it is definitely there and it is unpleasant. Once it has a finish on it it’s barely perceptible. MrsGF can’t smell it at all, thankfully. I’ve worked with three pieces of this stuff and all three smelled really bad. It is also oily. It left an oily, dark brown residue on my tools and lathe while I was working with it. Nothing serious, but I couldn’t just vacuum it up, I had to wipe everything down when I was done.
The real deal killer, though, is that all three of the pieces I made have developed what I call micro-cracks, very thin, hairline cracks that aren’t noticeable at first and may have developed days or even weeks after I’d finished the bowls. If you look closely at the bowl in the top photo you’ll see what look like scratches. They aren’t, they’re micro-cracks that developed after they’d been finished. The wood should have been stable, they were kiln dried and the moisture content was low, the bowls haven’t warped or distorted to indicate there is some issue with stress going on. But it’s obvious that something is going on with that wood.
So, to sum up rosewood: The wood may be absolutely beautiful. It may cut and finish nicely. But based on my experience with these three pieces I can’t recommend it. It’s expensive. Really expensive. Those three little blocks of wood I used were well over $50 each. I’m going to do some experimenting to see if I can make the cracks less visible, but I’m still disappointed. If I were doing this commercially I would consider all three of the rosewood projects to be unsellable because of the cracking.
There are a whole cluster of woods that can be classified as ‘maple’, ranging from very hard versions suitable for flooring, other types suitable for furniture, and even very soft types that aren’t useful for much of anything except maybe firewood. I’m going to stick with the one that most woodturners are probably interested in, so-called ambrosia maple. Ambrosia maple isn’t a separate type of maple, it’s standard maple that has been infected with a fungus carried by the ambrosia beetle. The beetles bore into the wood, carrying the fungus into the wood. The fungus causes spectacular staining and discoloration similar to spalted maple. The discoloration is generally centered around the path the beetle bores through the wood. You’ll almost always find holes in ambrosia maple that were made by the beetles.
(Spalted maple and other spalted woods also exhibit similar colorations which is also caused by a fungus, but in the case of spalted woods the fungus is part of the decaying process and you can also find parts of wood that are literally rotting away inside of a piece of spalted lumber.)
Ambrosia maple is generally very easy to work with. It is usually relatively soft, cuts easily, and the end result can be spectacular. Prices are a bit steep, about the same as padauk. If you shop around you can sometimes find some real deals on the stuff if you’re willing to deal with green wood. A single 6″ square by 3″ thick bowl blank will set you back about $20 – $25, green. Larger size blanks get expensive real fast. If you remember the cake platter I made for MrsGF that top piece which started out at about 13″ square and 2″ thick cost me about $75.
Potential problems? It’s generally soft and easy to damage. You can sometimes find “punky” (i.e. rotting) areas buried in pieces. And you have to remember that the discoloration is caused by a fungus, so chances are good there are fungal spores lurking in that wood. Now I’ve never heard of anyone getting actually ill or getting a fungal infection from working with this stuff, but I would always wear a respirator when cutting or sanding it, along with a dust extraction system and air filtration system.
Sapele – I’ve only worked with this stuff once and it was such a disaster that I gave up and chucked it into the burn pile.
Catches, gouges, tear outs, chipping, kick backs… It was horrible to work with. It didn’t matter what tools I used, what techniques I used, how sharp the tools were, whether I used carbide or steel – nothing worked right with this stuff. I don’t know what the heck was going on with that piece of wood but it became obvious real fast that it wasn’t just bad, it was downright dangerous. It is entirely possible that it was just some quirk with that piece of wood I had. Don’t care. My experience with it was so bad that I’m never going to work with it again. There are more than enough other species of wood that are actually pleasant to work with, so I’m not going to risk it again.
If you want to try it, fine. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did. The stuff is going for about $15 for a kiln dried 6″ square, 2″ thick blank.
Cotton wood – I’ve only worked with this stuff once, and the piece I had was really large and very, very wet. I mean seriously wet. Since I didn’t want to wait for, oh, three or four years for it to dry out, I went ahead and roughed out a bowl shape and stuck it on the shelf for a few weeks to dry. Frankly I fully expected it to crack and warp horribly, but surprisingly it didn’t and the end result was pretty darn nice. Fairly nice grain and the color isn’t bad either.
But stink? Holy cow this thing smelled bad when I was working with it. It was worse than the rosewood. It had a sort of pungent vinegary, swampy, rotten kind of smell to it that even came through the respirator. Fortunately once it dried the smell went away but wow, it almost made my eyes water while I was working on it.
I rather liked working with it. Surprisingly it didn’t warp or crack while the roughed out bowl dried down, and when I finished it up after it had dried down to a reasonable point I ended up with a fairly nice bowl. It cut well, sanded well. I finished it off with a seal coat of shellac topped off with homemade “ob shine juice” and it turned out a pretty decent looking utility bowl.
Cotton wood is fairly cheap. I see Green Valley is selling it for under $10 for a 6″ square, 3″ thick bowl blank, green. It can often be found at reasonable prices for much larger pieces suitable for larger bowls like salad or fruit bowls. The drawback is that it is almost always sold green, so you’re going to have to deal with trying to dry it down yourself.
Pear – The only pear wood I’ve worked with comes from the wood I saved when we took down the pear tree here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it for sale commercially. But if you know someone who is taking down a pear tree it’s worth looking into getting your hands on some of it.
It cuts well, sands well, and was very easy to work with all the way around. The little bud vase over there on the right was sanded up to about 320 grit, then sealed with shellac, buffed out with OOOO steel wool, then finished with carnauba wax.
Personally I think it’s a bit on the bland side and I’m not sure if I really like the color. MrsGF likes it a lot though. Anyway, if you can get your hands on some, give it a try. It’s worth looking at, especially if you can get it for free from a neighbor taking down a tree.
Cherry – You’ll find a lot of cherry bowl blanks for sale commercially. It seems popular with woodturners and I’m not sure why. I’ve worked with it and I don’t like it all that much. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is easy to work with. It cuts and sands well, easy to shape into just about anything you like, and it isn’t all that expensive, about the same as walnut.
So why don’t I like it? Dear lord, it’s boring! If I’m going to go to the trouble of making something on the lathe I want the end result to be eye catching. I want prominent grain patterns and interesting colors. And cherry is, well, it’s just dull to my eye. The color is blah, the grain is blah. Insipid, that’s the term I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just the pieces I had. Every piece of wood is different, after all. Maybe I’ll try it again. I have a half dozen blanks sitting on the shelf still, but I’m going to have to be awfully bored before I resort to using it again.
Cost is about the same as walnut, around $10 – $13 for a standard 6″ square 2″ thick blank. It’s not a bad wood. It’s not real expensive. As I said it is very nice to work with. It’s just, well, dull.
Elm – I’m going to be completely honest and admit I have no idea what elm wood looks like so I can’t be sure if this is elm or not. It came with a shipment of “miscellaneous bowl blanks”, a sort of grab bag kind of deal. It was labeled elm so I’m going to go with that. Elm was almost completely wiped out in North America because of dutch elm disease, but there are still some out there and occasionally it shows up.
I worked this blank while it was wet, which is normally something I don’t do, and there was some issues while drying the bowl down but nothing too serious. It was easy to work with. It seemed a bit on the abrasive side and I had to sharpen my gouge more often than normal, but nothing serious. It has a very striking grain, with dark brown and black streaks running along with the normal grain making me think this tree had some kind of fungal infection. Personally I don’t like how it looks, but MrsGF likes it. As for cost, I don’t really know. It was in a grab bag deal with a bunch of other chunks of wood.
Holy cow, this got long, so let’s wrap up this part up. There are more types of wood I could have looked at but I wanted to stick with the types that are generally available commercially.
Eventually I’m going to get around to talking about the difference between kiln dried, air dried and wet/green wood, and how to deal with it, why some woodturners really like wet wood (I suspect they’ve been inhaling lacquer fumes), how to dry wood, including the “great microwave experiment”. Well, if I don’t start something on fire or blow something up. I’m stocking up on fire extinguishers for that one. Also how one man’s defect is another man’s “decorative feature”, working with epoxy as a decorative element, playing with india ink and whatever else I can come up with.
… wait a minute, how did a blog about gardening, farming, photographing flowers, travel and ham radio turn into a tutorial on wood turning?
On the pandemic front, MrsGF got her first vaccination last week and I’m getting my first one this week! Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hug our kids by summer?
Yes, a Christmas rose! It was a beautiful sunny Christmas morning here, if a bit cold out, I walked over to the window and saw this. One of two new budding roses on that goofy little rose bush that started out life as a $5 teacup rose I bought on impulse for MrsGF a few years ago. Roses blooming in Wisconsin on Dec. 25? Hey, I’m not going to complain. It was an unexpected and amazingly beautiful Christmas gift.
Her Christmas cactus is being equally fruitful. It has been in full blossom since October and is still going.
Anyway, let’s get on with this…
Wow people must be bored out there because people have actually been emailing questions to me (firstname.lastname@example.org is how you can get in touch with me but be warned I do not check this email account more than once a week or two. If you want a fast response the best way is to just leave a comment). So I’m going to talk about some of the questions I’ve received over the last few weeks.
First someone told me they heard that KFC was coming out with its own gaming console. Yeah, right, I thought. Sure it is… Only, yeah, they are.
There it is, folks, the Kentucky Fried Chicken’s gaming console. KFC is supposedly coming out with its very own video game console, completely with a special warming unit to keep your chicken warm while you, oh, blow up aliens or something. And yes, it’s real. At least according to Snopes. Supposedly there is a special rack inside of this thing that uses the heat generated from the electronics to keep your nuggets or whatever warm.
At first I thought this was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of, but then I thought, well, why the heck not? Yes, it’s silly and utterly ridiculous, but we need something that’s ridiculous and fun and silly to take our minds off what’s going on out in the real world right now. So go for it. Heck, if it isn’t too expensive when (if) it comes out I might buy one.
So let’s talk about sanding next. A couple of writers mentioned in emails to me there are some people out there, especially woodturners, who get a bit, well, weird shall we say, when it comes to sanding. Both of them turned my attention to YouTube videos showing woodturners going to extraordinary, even ridiculous lengths, like sanding a bit of wood to 1,000 grit or even higher, in one case wet sanding at 4,000 grit. Then using all kinds of exotic polishing abrasive pastes and, well, it’s just ridiculous. Yes, I understand they want a lovely, high gloss finish on their finished product. But a lot of what they’re doing is a complete waste of time and money.
Look at these two bowls. Both of these have a beautiful, very high gloss shine on them. And if you could run your fingers over them you’d feel that both are as smooth as glass. Even the one on the left with all of it’s bark inclusions and peculiar grain structure is like that. Both of those bowls were only sanded up to 240 grit. That’s it. No special expensive and exotic polishing abrasives, no wet sanding at 1,000 grit. No fancy tools or anything else. Just plain old sandpaper starting at 80 grit and working up to 240. And no fancy, expensive, difficult to apply finishes, either. One has nothing but OB shine juice on it and the other is carnauba wax over the top of shellac sealer.
Yes, I might have gotten a bit better finish if I’d gone up to 400 grit when I was sanding, but after a while you reach the point of diminishing returns. The effort and expense doesn’t justify the end result. I look at this the same way I look at sharpening tools. There is such a thing as “good enough”. Yes my chisels might cut slightly better if I went to the trouble of putting a mirror finish on them, but not that much better. And that slight improvement is going to be lost after making a few cuts anyway. I know that from experience. So what’s the point? I feel the same way about sanding. Yes, if someone examines one of those bowls up close with a magnifier they’ll probably see some very fine scratches. But so what? People aren’t going to be taking out a jeweler’s loupe or magnifying glass to look for every defect they can find. They’re going to be looking at that bowl from a distance of several feet. Even if they pick it up they aren’t going to see a problem. So why go to the additional work and expense of carrying things farther?
Of course there are exceptions. There always are. I’ve been talking about wood. When it comes to resin things are different. Resin is great fun to work with, but it presents its own unique challenges. One of my first resin experiments is over there on the left. The end result doesn’t look too bad, but lordy did I have problems getting it to that point because, frankly, I had no idea what the heck I was doing when I started messing with this stuff. I had to do considerably more work to get this little lamp smooth and scratch free, but in the end I still didn’t have to go to the extremes I’ve seen people go to on YouTube. This one was sanded to much higher grit than my wood projects, but only to 600 grit. And I did use a final abrasive paste/polish before putting a finish on it. But that’s it. I didn’t sand it up to 1,000 grit or more, didn’t wet sand it, didn’t do anything extraordinary. The wood parts were treated with my usual sealer, and the whole thing was topped off with a buffed coat of carnauba wax.
All of this only applies to woodturning, of course. If you’re working with flat surfaces like furniture you may want to go with an entirely different approach, which is to not do sanding at all. I rarely resort to sandpaper with my furniture. I use cabinet scrapers. Once I learned about these and how to properly use them, I found out that if used properly you can often get away with not needing to sand a flat wooden surface at all before applying the finish. These things have saved me hours of sanding, and it’s well worth the effort to learn how to use and sharpen them. Here’s a short video explaining what they are and how to use them.
Getting the proper burr on the edge isn’t a big deal, either. You can do it by hand but I use one of these things over there on the right. It’s from Veritas and it will put the proper burr on a scraper in just a few seconds.
How well do they work? Well look at that table down below. I made that, oh, must be 20 years ago now. It could probably use some refinishing about now, but considering how old it is and that it has survived two teenaged boys and their friends, a rambunctious golden retriever and several crazed pussy cats, it’s held up pretty well. And except for the curved edges, none of that wood was touched by sandpaper. It was prepped for finish with just cabinet scrapers.
Of course it all depends on the “look” you’re trying to achieve. Personally I like wood that looks and feels like wood. I think wood is beautiful all on its own and doesn’t need much to make it look better. And on my furniture I want people to not just see that beautiful grain, but to feel it, too. My stuff is made to be used, to be touched, and to be lived with. I don’t like these high gloss, glass smooth finishes that a lot of people put on furniture. I think it makes it look like plastic, not real.
Anyway, that’s my two cents on that. Remember that there is such a thing as “good enough”, and once you reach that point, seriously think about whether it is worth the effort to go farther.
And to wrap this up, here’s a violet in the early Christmas morning sun.
I have a ton of stuff going on around here, but none of it is important enough to make a single post so I’m just going to shovel everything into this one [grin].
Cheap crappy lathe
I’m working on another lathe project, this one a bit larger than the last two, and that cheap Harbor Freight lathe is showing the strain rather badly. I got this as a gift so I shouldn’t complain… Oh, hell, sure I should complain. This thing is just plain nasty.
Harbor Freight has a reputation for selling cheap, cheap tools of questionable quality. My experience with HF tools has not been good, and this lathe certainly hasn’t improved my opinion of their stuff. While it worked fairly well for tiny stuff, putting a substantial chunk of wood on it has brought out all of its faults. I already knew it was made from cheap, thin, stamped sheet metal, including the base. In a real lathe, the bases are made from heavy, cast and carefully machined cast iron or steel. So this thing flexes and vibrates and shakes and rattles. The bearing are worse than awful. The motor is woefully underpowered. According to the label on the motor it’s rated at 1 HP. I’d be willing to bet it’s not even a quarter of that.
So I have to decide now if I like woodturning enough, and will do it enough, to justify dropping about $500 – $700 on a good lathe. I still haven’t made up my mind.
MrsGF tried something new this year, pattypan squash. We really like squash, but we haven’t had much luck growing it here. Last year our acorn squash was overcome by powdery mildew, and other years we had other issues. So she thought to try this. And it seems to be working beautifully. The plants are ridiculously healthy and absolutely loaded with fruit. We’ve never eaten this variety before so we’re looking forward to trying it. We have about three now that are ready to eat so this week we’re going to try them.
Biking as Meditation?
Everyone thought I was nuts when I dropped about $600 on a bicycle after I retired, figuring it was something I’d do for a couple of days and then it would end up hanging in the garage and getting in the way. Instead, several years and about three sets of tires and three thousand miles later, I’m still at it. And I have to admit that even I am a bit surprised at how much I enjoy it. But I’ve always been a bit of an outdoors person. I spent most of my childhood at the farm down in the woods, watching tadpoles in the streams, sitting in the woods watching chipmunks gathering acorns, watching frogs, listening to birds and trying to spot them in the trees… It was a journey of learning, amazement, wonder, and beauty. Well, except for the mosquitos. And somewhere along the way I lost that, only to have rediscovered it now. I get out on the country roads around here, especially down on the trail, and I can start to lose track of time.
And birds everywhere! Especially down along the river by the old stone bridge on Irish Road. Herons, ducks, egrets, even pelicans come down to the river. Yesterday I was watching a belted kingfisher perched on a telephone line running across the river, eyeing the water, and every once in a while diving down to try to snatch a small fish. I can hear the cardinals calling in the trees, but rarely see that flash of red. I see more of those in town where the trees are more sparse and it’s easier to catch sight of them.
And the smells… I am blessed with (or cursed with, sometimes) a hypersensitive sense of smell. As I’m out riding I can smell everything – the chicory and clover along the side of the road, the corn, the alfalfa fields, people mowing their lawns or cutting hay, a whiff of tractor exhaust wafting across a field from a distant farm, the fuel the RC airplane guys use in their planes as I get close to their flying field off Hwy 57, the wood preservative on the wooden bridge over the river on the trail, the occasional dead animal in the ditch, the asphalt outgassing on a hot day. And more often than not, an undercurrent of manure from some farm emptying its storage pits miles away.
I took up biking originally for the exercise. I went from a job where I was on my feet all day, walking for miles a day, to essentially nothing, almost literally overnight. So I figured I needed to do something or I was going to blow up like a balloon. And while the exercise is important, yes, the other benefits of being outside, the sights and smells and sounds and all that goes along with it, probably does more to keep me healthy than putting on 10 miles or so a day.
It’s been a spectacular year for growing stuff this season. Weather has been just about perfect so far. We’ve had an unusually high amount of rain so we’ve only rarely had to resort to dragging out the hose and watering cans. We’ve been blanching and freezing wax and pole beans about three times a week for a couple of weeks now. We’re rather sick of it, to be honest. MrsGF came up with a bean salad recipe that is absolutely fantastic, so she’s been using up the beans, along with some of the peppers and onions we’re also growing, and canning that. Holy cow that stuff is good.
The tomatoes are just starting to come in. Not enough to process into a batch of sauce or soup, so I’ve been dicing them up and throwing them in the freezer. Just wash ’em, core ’em, slice or dice them, throw them in freezer bags, and then pull them out whenever we need tomatoes for something.
Pretty soon though we’re going to be deluged with tomatoes, so we need to decide what we’re going to do with those.
And flowers. The whole yard is alive with flowers this time of year.
Anyway, that’s about it for now. Stay safe out there.
So I’ve embarked on a new project on the lathe, and we’ll see how that turns out. As with most of my woodworking projects, it starts out with a mess:
It starts out looking like this glued up mess and will, hopefully, end up as a rather nice bowl. I started actually turning it this morning and currently it looks like this.
That lathe leaves a great deal to be desired, alas. When working on small items it’s not bad, but as soon as I start working with anything with some significant weight to it, the issues with the really bad, cheap bearings and poor balance quickly become obvious. And the whole thing flexes. The base is cheap, thin, stamped sheet metal. This blank is only about 5 inches across and is about 6 inches long, and this lathe has trouble handling even something this small. If I’m going to keep on playing around with wood turning I’m definitely going to have to look into a better lathe. But considering what lathes cost, the good ones anyway, I’m not going to stick that kind of money into this unless I’m absolutely sure this is something I’m going to do a lot of.
And in case you’re interested, and you probably aren’t, this is what I look like after spending an hour or so woodturning.
Is all that safety gear overkill? No, not really. NIOSH certified respirator and cartridges, goggles or face shield, are the minimum you need when doing stuff like this. It isn’t just chips and shavings flying off when you’re turning, it’s the very fine wood dust that’s generated when doing just about any kind of woodworking. Even with a dust extraction system and good ventilation the dust can wreck havoc with your lungs. Some woods are actually toxic and can result in severe allergic reactions with some people.
And those whining little crybabies complain about wearing a surgical mask in stores? I have no sympathy for them at all. They should try wearing this getup for a few hours. And to be perfectly honest, it is not that uncomfortable once you get used to it.