“how to source wood for woodturning” or “wood does grow on trees”

Friday was sourcing wood day for me, I bought a tree which will make many hundreds of bowls and keep me busy for a few months. The importance of getting the right tree can create or save hundreds of hours work over that time and will also affect the character of the bowls available for sale on the website over the coming months, it’s an important decision.

Most wood turners when they start buy their wood from timber suppliers who cut them into “bowl blanks” like this, ready to pop on the lathe and turn a bowl. Nice and easy but expensive and also many of the important design decisions have already been taken for you. You are a very long way from the raw material, many folk will be turning wood which came from foreign trees that they have never seen growing and have little idea of the woodlands from which they came. Bowl blanks are often kiln dried to avoid movement in the wood.

When folk get into it a bit more they often find a local sawmill or timber supplier who mills local timber into 3″ thick slabs which they take home and cut into bowl blanks with their bandsaw. When I used to work for the National Trust as a forester I used to run a woodmizer sawmill and market our timber direct to these sorts of folk. Cutting up thousands of trees taught me an awful lot about timber, how it moves and how to spot a tree that will work well. Having said that when you work with hand tools you learn even more because you have more feel for the tool cutting the wood and it makes more difference if the wood is just right since you can’t just turn up the power and speed to mash your way through it.

Now I like to buy whole trees, locally sourced. If I was a potter I would have to source my own clay and fire with wood, to me this sort of thing gives me control over the variables in the process but still allows the natural variation that gives the work life. To me buying kiln dried wood or homogenous clay produces homogenous products, it is very like the difference between an artisan produced unpasteurized cheese and the product of a large creamery. The former is not inherently better but it is more interesting.

Anyway as a craftsman much of the delight of the work is in the raw material, get perfect raw material and the job is a breeze, perfect bowls with a fraction of the effort. I don’t begrudge the times when I am struggling with less than perfect material though because that is when I really need my skills to get a good finish. Peter lane an old hurdle maker I used to do shows with told me his father used to say that any fool could make a hurdle out of perfect material. When Peter and his father bought a coup of coppice every hazel rod no matter how crooked had to go into a hurdle that was the only way to make it pay.

So I arrived at MrAnderson’s the tree surgeon who has supplied most of my timber over the last 15 years and spent a good while going through the various trees in the yard. I take a few slices off likely looking trees with a chainsaw and then work a bit of the wood with an axe to get a feel for the state the wood is in and how it will work. Unfurtunately the tree I wanted was at the bottom of the pile but Richard dug it out for me.

 When seen besides this large machinery and other large timber it doesn’t look such a huge tree but it is 25″ diameter at the narrow end and 17 feet long, that is a lot of 7″ bowls. This is my big chainsaw, a 120cc husqvarna, the biggest saw they make so again it makes the tree look smaller than it is.

Normally I buy bigger older beech trees than this which have more colour and character but this was such a clean straight tree and just felt right that I thought I would give it a go. This will be a bit of a return to the roots of the craft really since the old turners did not bother with fancy coloured patterned woods, they made simple bowls with clean lines and good balance from straight clean slightly bland wood. Such bowls are very functional and maybe take just a little more time to darken in use and develope their character. Anyway the most important thing having committed myself to working this tree for the coming months was to get it home, cut it up and get a piece on the lathe. Once sliced up the wood can dry and split so I keep the in process wood covered in shavings to slow drying.

And here is the first bowl, it didn’t work quite as easily as I would have liked but I am pleased with it, it seamed naturally to end up being very similar to bowls made by George Lailey “the last bowlturner”. I will adjust my tools and techniques over the next week or so and would expect to get them optimised for this wood, then full on production starts. I am demonstrating turning next Saturday at the Museum of English Rural Life where Lailey’s lathe is centrepiece of the displays.

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One Response to “how to source wood for woodturning” or “wood does grow on trees”

  1. Joseph June 11, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Hi Robin,I really love your work that is a beautiful bowl and would love to learn the skills of spoon carving, its something I wanted to do before I took up clay work.I have only ever turned plaster on a lathe and that is the most homogenized material I have have ever had the misfortune to work with. I am a potter just graduating from Uni and I would love to source my own clay, but it is more of a long term goal for me, as when I first start my business I won't necessarily have the time to experiment with raw clay as it was, it takes a good six months to mature the clay enough, as it has to be dried, rehydrated, sieved and then left for a while to mature before drying on bats, wedging and then ready for use.I spoke to Jack Doherty when he came to visit our university, he runs the old Leach Pottery down in St Ives and for all their standard ware they make using local clay and then soda fire it removing the need for sourcing glaze materials. They don't produce traditional looking pots or shapes that Bernard Leach used, as he said it wasn't true to the craft if they just try and falsify Bernard Leach's work, so they are creating something a bit more now with all the traditional techniques.For the time being I have use which has plenty of iron in and gas fire it so it comes through the glaze I mix myself from the ingredients. I have previously dug clay from my own garden but only ever found enough to fire a few small test pieces. My grandfather was a builder and I did get introduced to local clay quite young but never thought I would be a potter as I pressed it through my fingers. It also only fires up to earthen ware temperatures which doesn't give the clay the strength I love from the stoneware.

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