Turning Wood

Woodturning brings another dimension to the art of woodworking.

Whether it’s basic spindles or table legs, bowls and platters or free-form sculpture, when you shape wood in the round while it spins on a lathe, you’re spoiled for choice.

Turning for the home woodworker is a rewarding diversion. With just a lathe and a bench, you have all you need to spend a lifetime practicing your craft.

The Woodturning Lathe

The lathe is unique among woodworking machines…

Usually with power tools, you move your wood onto the cutting blade. This is reversed with the lathe. You offer the cutting tool up to the work.

This demands a new approach and means you need to develop a different technique for tool handling.

You need to start out woodturning under instruction.

Wood lathe

A course of some description makes a wise starting point. You can get fully to grips with safe working practice. You’ll also get the chance to experiment with a range of lathes and tools. This gives you the chance to try before you buy.

Your biggest investment will be the lathe. This is not a purchasing decision you want to rush. It’s best to shoot for one at the lower end of the professional range if you can. Although turning is not easy to pick up, your progress will be swift once you get going. Small and lightweight lathes have severe limitations so be sure you don’t buy something you’ll quickly outgrow.

Lathes are labeled according to the distance between centers. This translates to the longest piece of work a particular lathe will accommodate.

A variable speed motor provided the headstock with rotary power. This turns the work. The other end is supported by the tailstock.

If you plan to concentrate on hollow work and bowl making, a lathe with a swiveling head is ideal. This lets you work with large diameters.

For a more multi-purpose lathe, go for one with a self-centering chuck.

Whatever your preference, always look for a lathe with solid mountings and a nice sturdy tool rest.

Turning Tools

Turning tools are often made of carbon steel.

High-speed steel (HSS) alternatives are more expensive but mean you’ll hold on to your edge for longer and you’ll find sharpening easier.

A top-notch turning chisel isn’t cheap. Take it slowly and invest in the best you can afford whenever that is. You only need to buy one of these essential tools once and you’re all set. You can build your collection up from the basics as budget permits and you advance in your craft.

  • Domed scraper: This rigid scraping tool is used for finishing the inside of bowls or goblets. It’s got a curved profile and a flat end. Sizes vary from ½-inch to 1-inch
  • Roughing gouge: This deep U-shaped gouge has a 45-degree outside bevel. This allows for the rapid removal of waste. Use a roughing gouge to turn square stock round. The optimum size is ¾-inch
  • Spindle gouge: This is an all-purpose turning gouge. These have shallower bevels than a roughing gouge. The end is rounded. ¼-inch and ½-inch are the best sizes. You can turn beads and other profiles with a spindle gouge
  • Parting tool: These cutting tools are diamond-shaped. They are designed for removing or parting off the finished workpiece. You also commonly use parting tools for notching and grooving
  • Skew chisel: Skew chisels are highly versatile. You can use the angled, V-section blade for all sorts of smoothing and shaping. Go for ½-inch or 1-inch skew chisels and you’ll have all bases covered
  • Square-end chisel: Square-end chisels deliver remarkably smooth finishes to conical or cylindrical surfaces. ¾-inch and 1-inch are the most useful sizes

Safety First

Once you’ve got your lathe and tools, think first about some basic woodturning safety points.

While a lathe might not have cutters or a sharp blade, you still need to exercise caution. The workpiece always has the chance of catching the end of your tool and kicking back so work carefully at all times.

  • Focus fully and keep your eye on the workpiece at all times
  • Use the tool rest to support your tools. It’s there for a reason
  • Make sure that all safety guards are in place
  • Cater for your movement with the workpiece. Make sure you have adequate space to operate
  • Offer the cutting tool to the work very slowly. Move with the direction of rotation. On any curved or angled surfaces, work downhill to stop the tip from digging in
  • Keep your work area clean at all times. Consider a dust collector
  • Wear safety goggles and a dust mask
  • Don’t wear loose clothing. Remove any jewelry
  • When you need to make any adjustments, always switch off the lathe
  • Let the workpiece stop revolving on its own. Do not interfere

Good Woods For Turning

You can successfully turn almost any type of wood.

Some species have properties that make them especially attractive:

  • Ash
  • Beech
  • Cherry
  • Maple
  • Sycamore
  • Yew

You ideally want medium-hard timber with a close, even grain. As you become more adept, you can use sharper chisels and the correct lathe speed to attack harder materials.

Start with what works best to make your life easier.

Woodturning: Get Started

Your first job is to become comfortable with your lathe. This is only possible through practice.

Reading and studying is a good start but you need to get into the workshop.

Before launching into a project, master the basics by working with off-cuts. Learn how to reduce square stock to round effectively and efficiently.

Use your chisels until manipulating the long handle feels natural.

Set your lathe up so the tool rest is level with your elbow and it’s at a comfortable height for you.

When you work, your posture is important. Proper balance is essential to avoid digging the end of your tool into the workpiece.

Practice by trying to turn a square length of stock into a round cylinder…

  • Center your work on the headstock
  • Mount in the lathe
  • Slide the tailstock to meet the work
  • Clamp tightly and turn by hand. When it revolves evenly and without obstruction, you can fire up your lathe
  • Position your roughing gouge on the tool rest. Make sure it’s just away from the work so it will only remove a small amount
  • As it cuts, move the gouge sideways along the rest. By rolling it slightly in the direction of movement, you’ll generate a slicing action

This technique forms the first stage of most turning projects. Master this before you move on.

Advance to cutting, scraping and profiling when you feel confident.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the art of turning wood.

As with all aspects of woodworking, take your time when it comes to getting the right tools for the job. Rushing in and buying a lathe that will prove restrictive is senseless. Take your time and enjoy years to come mastering the craft.

You’re welcome to contact us with any questions or feedback. We always love to hear from our readers.

Happy turning!

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5 thoughts on “Turning Wood

  1. Judging by the comments, there are a lot of beginners reading the articles on this site. I just wanted to wish you all good luck with improving at woodworking, it really is an interesting hobby to have. There are so many woodturning techniques, so you’ll have a very interesting journey with your lathe.

  2. I’ve been a beginner at woodworking for quite some time now, so I guess I am not that much of a beginner anymore hahaha. To be more precise, I’ve been doing woodwork and using a lathe for about 4 months now, and I think it’s about time to start experimenting. I’d like to make vases, spheres, and I’d even like to start putting my creativity into work and just make objects that I myself come up with. That said, I need your advice on which lathe accessories I need to buy. You seem to be very good at creating lists and guidelines (I can see that in your articles), so I just thought this was the right place to ask.

  3. Could you recommend me a few lathes for beginners? I recently started getting interested in woodworking and I don’t know what kind of lathe I need.

  4. Hello, staff at mitersawjudge.com. I’ve been doing some research on vertical lathes, but, to be completely honest, it is too hard for me to understand what those are since I’m not familiar with all this woodworking terminology. Can you or someone who’s reading the comments tell me more about these lathes, but as if you’re talking to a 5-year-old? xD xoxo


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