Bowl Turning Basics for New Woodturners

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Bowl turning is probably the first idea that comes to mind when anyone thinks about getting into woodturning. There is just something beautiful about taking a raw piece of wood and shaping it into a beautiful and functional bowl using only a lathe and your turning tools.

My first memories of woodturning were roughing out green turning blanks with a scraper (the horror!). Water was flying off the blank as it turned but I remember having a ton of fun.

As I have progressed as a woodturner I actually don’t make very many bowls anymore. My Etsy shop sells a lot of turned items but I very rarely list bowls for sale. Making them is more a labor of love and something I do when I want to disconnect from the work side of woodworking.

Chucking up an roughed out, dried bowl blank and finishing it is a great way to relax and recharge in the shop.

If you just picked up a new lathe and want to get started with bowl turning then you’ve come to the right spot. We’ll walk you through the basics of turning your first wooden bowl.

Where to Find Bowl Blanks

Finding bowl blanks can be, for some, a matter of walking down the street and they’ll stumble upon a freshly cut down tree. For others, their only option may be to order blanks online. It can be a real feast or famine type of deal depending on where you live.

I have, luckily, lived in the Pacific Northwest for a majority of my life and we have a ton of great tree species out here. Walnut, maple, elm, oak, and fruit trees all grow plentifully in this area.

Finding Bowl Turning Blanks Locally

Finding bowl turning blanks can sometimes just be a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right tools.

At my old shop, we had neighbors bring down an old big leaf maple tree and they were nice enough to leave me a large section of the trunk. All it took was asking.

Keep your eyes open and ask around!

Owning a chainsaw is another great way to get your foot in the door when it comes to free wood. Being able to offer to cut up a downed tree will make people a lot more willing to let you take some wood for free. A saw with a 20-inch bar will typically be enough to handle most turning blanks.

Facebook and Craigslist are a great option for finding wood locally.

You’ll certainly have to sort through way too many posts where people want a tree taken down for free in exchange for wood. But eventually, they’ll all realize they have to pay someone to take it down and will then be posting free wood ads.

Keep an eye on the free and materials sections of craigslist and set up keyword alerts on Facebook. This can help keep you at the front of the line as, in some areas, competition for free wood can be pretty fierce.

Woodturning Groups are another wonderful avenue.

Local AAW woodturning chapters often participate in wood harvesting projects. A member or friend will let them know they had a tree taken down and the chapter will get together to process the log and distribute it to the members of the group. If you have a chainsaw or are just willing to lend a hand for a few hours this can be a wonderful way to get your hands on some free bowl turning blanks.

Buying Bowl Blanks Online

Back when I first got started with woodturning the only viable option for buying wood online was eBay. The prices were fairly cheap but shipping most certainly was not.

Now though, there are A TON of sites that sell every type of wood blank imaginable.  From fresh-cut, green blanks to roughed out bowls to kiln-dried blanks. Amazon has even gotten into the wood blank game and sells everything from bowl blanks to pen blank packs.

Etsy is another great option for finding bowl blanks and specialty woods such as burls or resin infused woods.

What Bowl Turning Tools You’ll Need

Woodturning is definitely one of those hobbies where, once you start researching the tools you need to get started, can get expensive really quickly. With bowl turning though it can be a choose your own adventure when it comes to the tools needed.

By upgrading to the latest and greatest tools and chucks you can certainly make things a bit easier on yourself but they are by no means necessary to get the job done.

Chucks for Bowl Turning

If you’re brand new to woodturning and the only chuck you have is the faceplate that comes with most lathes then you can certainly get the job done with just that! You’ll have to allow for some extra room for the screws or glue a waste block to the bottom of the bowl blank. From there you can turn the entire bowl, part off the bottom or waste block, and sand it flat.

If you’re looking to get more mileage out of your wood blanks though and don’t want to go through the hassle of gluing on waste blocks then picking up a quality chuck is a good move.

Expanding jaw chucks can either grip a tenon cut into the bottom of the bowl or expand into a mortise cut into the bottom.  I prefer the expansion method as there is less chance of the bowl coming loose.

This is coming from the experience of having a tenon shear off once!

Some popular 4-jaw chuck options are:

I use the Vicmarc VM 120 and consider it the best chuck available on the market. Although the quick-change capabilities on the Easy Wood chuck certainly are an attractive feature!

Many chucks also come with a wormwood screw which can be used to screw into the blank for roughing it out before turning it around to mount on the chuck jaws.

The great thing about picking up a chuck for bowl turning is you can use it for so many different projects. Most chucks have a wide range of jaw options available.

These can range from small pin jaws to hold small spindle turnings to extra large cole jaws for finishing the bottom of bowls.

Turning Tools for Bowl Turning

Wood bowls can be turned with either traditional tools (scrapers and gouges) or carbide tools. While I prefer to use traditional tools, as that is what I learned on and I do believe they are more efficient and leave a better finish, I can’t fault anyone for starting with carbide tools. 

Carbide turning tools do have a much easier learning curve and you don’t need to worry about sharpening them like you do traditional tools.

Traditional Wood Turning Tools

My tool of choice when it comes to turning a bowl is the bowl gouge. The bowl gouge can quickly remove lots of wood fast when roughing out the blank and can also leave an incredibly smooth finish when making the final cuts before sanding.

It really is a versatile tool!

My favorite bowl gouge right now is the Carter & Sons 1/2″ bowl gouge. Their gouge really shines in all aspects from its weight and feel to keeping a nice edge after sharpening.

While you could easily turn and finish an entire bowl with just that one tool there are a few others that come in handy as well.

  • Roughing Gouge
    Roughing gouges are used to remove stock from very irregularly shaped blanks. Think chucking up a half slice of log onto the lathe where you have a lot of corners and you are just trying to get the blank into round. When I was younger I would use a large scraper for this step but I have found roughing gouges to be a far better tool.
  • Bowl Scraper
    Like I mentioned earlier I used to use scrapers almost exclusively when turning a bowl. When well-sharpened they do a good job, especially on green wood, of removing material quickly. They also require almost no learning curve so they are easy to get started with. Scrapers don’t leave a very good finish though and can be very grabby in the wood if used too aggressively.
  • Negative Rake Scraper
    Negative rake scrapers are a relatively new tool on the woodturning market. They look like a regular bowl scraper but instead of a flat top, they have a slight bevel. This bevel leaves an incredibly fine finishing cut. Negative rake scrapers are a great tool for taking a final pass over the bowl before sanding to remove any tear-out or tool marks.
  • Bottom Feeder Gouge
    The bottom feeder gouge is a somewhat niche tool that would probably only be worth the money if you’re turning a lot of bowls out of softer woods. Woods where tear out in the bottom of the bowls is an issue. This gouge is shaped to leave a smooth cut when finishing the inside bottoms of bowls where a normal gouge may have trouble.

Carbide Tools

Carbide turning tools are another somewhat new addition to the wooturning world. While many traditionalists will turn their nose up at them I believe they have a place in any woodturners tool arsenal.

If you’re new to woodturning then carbide tools are a great way to get started without having to learn the techniques that come with bowl gouges. They also do not need to be sharpened so that is another bonus.

I personally have never used carbide tools to turn an entire bowl. I do use them though to make finishing cuts on the inside of narrow dried bowls as they can be easier to get into tight spaces than a gouge and do leave a nice finish.

Carbide tool sets that include a roughing and finishing gouge are a good way to get started if you need the basic tools for turning a bowl.

Safety Gear

Turning bowls is the only times I have ever had wood come apart and fly off the lathe. When that happens, especially at high speed, it can be a jarring experience.

Because of this I ALWAYS wear a full face shield. While these shields really can only do so much if there is enough mass behind the wood they are still far better than nothing.

Turning smocks are also a great idea when turning wet wood as you’ll find that some species will throw off A LOT of water which will leave you soaked. Woodturning smocks are also designed to help keep chips out of your pockets so they are nice to have around when turning any projects.

Some turners will wear gloves as well when roughing out bowls as the chips can take a toll on your hands. I have personally never been a fan as I have always heard enough horror stories about gloves getting caught on power tools. Quality, tight-fitting gloves should not present that problem but it still something I shy away from.

How to Turn a Wooden Bowl

Rather than walk you through, step-by-step, how I turn a bowl I’m going to show you a couple of videos that walk through the same process I use but in much better detail.

Note that this video uses a wormwood screw to initially attached the bowl blank to the lathe but you can just as easily use a faceplate.

One piece of advice when using faceplates. Don’t use wood screws! Wood screws are thin and prone to shearing. Check out these sheet metal screws instead. They are far thicker than wood screws and the square head makes driving them into and out of the wood a lot easier.

Final Thoughts on Bowl Turning Basics

Turning a wooden bowl is a ton of fun and there is no better feeling in woodworking, in my opinion than cutting through a green bowl blank with a sharp gouge. Sending off ribbons of fat shavings is a feeling that every woodturner should get to experience a few times.

Cleaning up the shop after roughing out a few large bowls is a whole another story though!

Happy turning!

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