Wood turning: Early considerations

People are often intrigued by the pieces that I make, particularly the wood turned pieces. Inevitably I get asked about the best way to get started wood turning. Advice pertaining to early considerations vary widely, there are many different paths to any task really. So in this article I hope to provide insights based upon my own personal experience in hopes that it can help guide others to their path.

Most people think that the lathe should be the earliest consideration but I disagree. Any turner will tell you that sharp tools are key to a satisfying and successful turning experience. With that in mind, deciding on just how you will keep a keen edge on your tools should really be the very first consideration. Today there are two different approaches as far as woodturning chisels go, carbide and traditional. There are lots of arguments out there for each side but for the sake of this post, we will simply focus on startup cost and initial considerations.

It may surprise you to know that startup costs are very similar. To get started with carbide insert tools, you will need at the very least a tool with a square cutter (rougher), a round cutter (finisher), a diamond cutter (detailer), and a parting tool. I recommend starting with the full size tools because they can do smaller work as well as large work (this addresses future needs right up front). A full-sized set will cost around $400 for off brand tools to $500 for top brands. Advantages of carbide tools include the fact that you do not have to sharpen the tools and the carbide holds an edge longer than the high speed steel of traditional tools. The carbide inserts also feature multiple cutting edges on each insert allowing the insert to be turned to expose a fresh sharp edge.

Getting started with traditional tools may seem more expensive on the surface but in reality it is very similar in cost. I am going to start by saying that the 5/8″ bowl gouge is the most versatile turning tool (in my opinion), it can be used for spindle or bowl work as well as many other turning projects. I have also found that mastery of the bowl gouge flattens the learning curve on other traditional tools, making it a great tool to start with. With that in mind, you will need a method to sharpen your tools, most likely a grinder and a jig as well as an assortment of tools including a 5/8″ bowl gouge and a parting tool.  The jig can be omitted as traditional tools can be sharpened by hand however, consistent geometry in respect to the grind on your tools is key to success and reduction of frustration.  A good quality jig will provide the necessary consistency far easier than hand sharpening.  A slow speed grinder such as the Rikon 80-805 ($140) and the One-way Wolverine Grinding Jig with Vari-Grind ($150) can be purchased for as little as $300 ($250 if leveraging commonly occurring sales). There are several off brand tools available for as little as $40 per tool such as the Hurricane 5/8″ Bowl Gouge and “3/16” parting tool. For a grand total of ~$400 you can have everything you need to start turning with sharp traditional tools. For an even better sharpening experience, the aluminum oxide wheels on your grinder can be replaced with diamond wheels for as little as $250 for two.

Here’s a perspective on off brand tools featuring Chinese steel. The argument that these tools do not hold an edge as long as higher quality tools featuring specialized steel is very true, but that is actually good for a beginning turner as learning to sharpen is very important and frequent sharpening means lots of practice. These tools are also economical, there are many different grinds that can be utilized on gouges and often times changing the grind removes years of use from the tool by shortening during the grinding process. Inexpensive tools provides a means by which to discover what grinds you prefer without wasting years of life off of a higher quality tool. These tools also provide a means to “test out” a new type of tool at a significant savings to know if that next big tool purchase is something that will receive regular use.

The third option is the option that I personally use, a hybrid approach. I really enjoy the wide variety of cutting options and the challenge of learning to use and sharpen traditional tools. However for certain operations, I prefer carbide such as hollowing. At this point, I am really enjoying the Easy Wood Tools Mid-Size Hollowers. I have had great difficulty using the traditional hollowing tools that are currently available to me. Carbide tools also do a very nice job when cutting acrylics and other man made materials particularly when using the newly available negative rake cutters.

Getting started with woodturning is a very broad subject and this post is obviously not the end all be all. This post is not intended to be persuasive, just provide insight into available options sprinkled with the opinions of this woodturner. I would also like to note that this advice is based on my personal experience and is in no way intended to challenge any other advice as right or wrong. Hopefully these insights along with others can provide the guidance you need to make your own decision.

-Dread Knot and Make Something!

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