a simple bowl, from tree to table…

Dead or dying trees, hazard trees, blowdowns – this is where it all starts. This was a smallish elm tree that was leaning dangerously and the owner of the property wanted it removed. Elm grows prolifically in this part of Colorado and can produce some nice looking pieces.
Here the tree has been felled and I’m dicing up the stuff that’s too small for what I want to do so it will fit in the homeowners woodstove. I stacked it in his barn as payment for hauling off the wood I did want.

Yeah, I know, no chaps and no goggles or ear protection. I’m a bad boy, shame on me. This is an upcut close to the tip of the chainsaw bar too, which is lurking close to kickback territory. Don’t imitate this lunatic, he’s a terrible example of safe chainsaw technique.


Usually I cut the length in some multiple of the diameter, so that it can later be cut again into pieces that are ready for the lathe.

Freshly cut wood is preferable – it contains a lot of water (it’s referred to as “green” when in this condition) and is much easier to turn.  Winter is the best time to harvest the wood too, there is less sap and it’s a little lighter. Also I can bury fresh cut wood in a snowbank where it will keep without drying and splitting … in the summertime when conditions are hot and dry I have to keep chunks of wood in plastic bags if I can’t get to them right away.


Once at home the wood is cut again into blocks ready to be turned. Here we have a piece of the tree trunk cut to a length equal to the diameter and then split in half through the center.

Each half will yield one bowl, sometimes more if it is large enough to extract a “core” or two from the inside of the largest bowl  – there are special tools designed to do just that, and when I have time I’ll do a photo essay on how it works. It’s a technique that avoids a lot of wood ending up on the floor as shavings. I’ll knock the corners off with the chainsaw and it will then be ready to mount on the lathe and rough-turned into a thicker and chunkier version of what it will eventually become.


Here’s one of those pieces, with the corners removed, now mounted between centers on the lathe.

The center on the left has spurs that are jammed into the chunk of wood, so that when it turns, driven by the lathe motor, the wood will revolve. The other on, on the right, has a bearing that revolves, so the whole chunk will spin at whatever speed I want.

What will eventually become the top of the bowl is on the left. The first task is to turn off all the bark, and get the piece round and reasonably well balanced, so the speed can then be increased without things jumping around too much.

And here’s the beginning of that process. The tool being used here is a heavy gouge which cuts really fast, but leaves a pretty rough and chewed up surface.

That’s not a problem at this stage at all. I want to get all the junk of the outside of the chunk off as quickly as possible so as to see what I’ve got to work with.

With wood from back-yard trees especially it’s not uncommon to hit a nail or something at this stage, so I’m wearing a full face shield.

Here now the piece is more or less round and balanced, so the speed is increased quite a bit.

I’m beginning to shape the outside of the bowl to something like the final shape, but still quite roughly.

I also have to decide now how I’m going to hold the bowl at the bottom when I turn it around to hollow the inside. You can see the beginnings of what will be a round tenon, which I will be able to grip with a chuck, at which point I will not need that other center that you see here in the foreground.

Here’s a side view of that tenon, which is dovetailed in shape. I have a number of chucks in various sizes which grip tightly on tenons like this, and will hold very securely. This tenon has been sized to fit one of them.

The rough outside of the bowl is now complete, and I’ll take it off the lathe, remove the spur drive and replace it with the right sized chuck, then spin this piece around and mount it back on the lathe facing the other direction.

The other center, the one with the bearing (on the right here) will then be slid totally out  of the way so that I can hollow out the inside of the bowl.

On the left you see the threads on the lathe spindle, which is hollow, and the spur center is jammed into a morse taper inside the spindle.

After the piece is removed from the lathe, I’ll knock the spur center out of the spindle and the chuck which will grab the dovetailed tenon will screw onto those threads you see here.

Now here’s the bowl mounted and held by the tenon in the previous picture. IMG_0341The tailstock can now be moved totally out of the way so that hollowing can proceed using a heavy gouge specially designed to be effective in this operation.

This is the first cut which begins close to the center and digs into the wood with a sweeping motion, the idea being to have the cut roughly follow the profile of the outside shape.

This is a quick operation, with the rotation speed somewhere around 1000 rpm or so and the gouge taking off more than a half inch of wood in each pass.

IMG_0366And now here it is after about five passes, perhaps a minute or so later. You can see that the middle is almost completely out and the walls of the bowl are now about an inch thick. This is just about right for this stage.

Perhaps one final pass after this one, checking to see the wall thickness is just a little thicker at the rim than at the base, which seems to give the best results for drying.

Below we see the finished rough-turned bowl which will be painted on the outside surface with a wax-based sealant which will retard moisture loss from the outside of the bowl. This means that the bowl will dry primarily via moisture loss from the inside surface which dramatically reduces the possibility of it cracking as it dries.


I’ll write the month and year on the bowl with a marker and then toss it onto a shelf with a bunch of others to dry. One this size will dry in about 8 months probably, with the bigger ones taking more like 18 months. So this work proceeds in batches. I may rough turn 50 or even 100 bowls like this in one session lasting a few days depending on how much green wood I have accumulated outside, then switch to finishing rough bowls that went through this process a year or more ago and are now dry. That’s what will come next just as soon as I get things together and take the photos.