My Turning Journey

Turning is very addictive! I had no idea at the time how much fun working projects at the lathe could be. It was almost therapeutic to turn the lathe on and watch fine shavings magically dance off of the skew. It did not take long before I was under the spell of woodturning.

I was presented an opportunity to purchase a very small pen turning lathe. The price was good, the lathe did not take up much room and it came ready to start turning. I went down to a very well-known tool store and asked the sales folks what would be best to start out with from a tool perspective. I left with a spindle set of turning tools of decent quality to attack my projects. I bought a few pen kits and a few pen blanks along with an adjustable pen mandrel to get started with some easy and fast projects. Christmas was coming soon, so I figured it would be a great time to learn how to start small and also have some projects to give as gifts. I proceeded to read the instructions supplied with the pen kits, and noticed right away that the instructions were not written by someone who English was their first language! I struggled to identify the parts and pieces and the set up for the kits to be cut and turned. I went to the local Woodcraft and purchased several pen turning books to clarify the steps and provide better instructions on the pen turning process. Now things were coming into focus much faster. It was time to get started making some pens. I cut, drilled, glued, end milled and placed the blanks on the pen mandrel. The moment was near when I would embark on my turning journey.

The first blank I turned was a very plain dark piece of American black walnut. I am often asked what my favorite wood is and if you want a more detailed answer to this, please see the FAQ section for “My favorite wood”. Woodworking for me is a multi-sensorial experience.   The cutting of a piece of wood for me is a very tactile, along with the sound and smell of the wood being worked, it encompasses all my senses (don’t ask me about the taste, it is a non-flattering story!). That simple walnut blank released smells that only a crazy woodworker can describe, but suffice to say, the curls coming off of that simple pen blank, were hypnotizing to watch, and the smell was intoxicating!

The mechanics of using the skew, the setup of the lathe and my turning techniques were very uncomfortable. After only 15 minutes of turning, my back, neck, shoulders, forearms and legs (How the heck did my legs hurt?!) were tense and I was very sore. Not that I have ever been compared to an Olympic athlete for physical fitness, but this little tool was kicking my ass! I proceeded to turn the remaining piece of the pen, and sanded the pieces for final fit and finish. Again the instructions provided for the pen kit assembly left much to be desired. The very first project from the lathe that I had created was a 7mm slim line gold pen. Hardly a complex and daunting project, but you have to start somewhere! I had finished the black walnut pen and was amazed at how great it had turned out. I still have that pen and when I need to remind myself just how far my turning skills have come, I pull that first project out and bathe myself in humility.

I am hoping that each of these woodworking journeys are starting to have the same paths. I fell straight into the production phase with the lathe. I made several hundreds of pens using that little pen lathe. I was getting pretty good at it, but I was not getting consistent results, and I felt like I could definitely improve my turning skills. Oh yeah, there is this sharpening thing that rears its ugly head again! My father and I planned to visit a local Rockler store and attend a demonstration on pen turning. I felt pretty comfortable with the pen turning operation, but wanted to see others tools and techniques. This visit would change everything about my pen turning experience. The skew that I was introduced to during this demonstration changed the entire way I turn today and how I teach my students. Al introduced me to the Alan Lacer 5/8” radiused skew. This tool was brilliantly designed, and it made turning pens much easier than the multiple tools I was using to create my pens. I purchased the skew that day and am thankful each time I use it, that Al shared his experience.   I bought The Alan Lacer video that day as well, because I was told that sharpening the tool was covered in its content, along with some basic projects to create with the skew.

I attacked my pen turning journey with much needed vigor and renewed passion. The new tool and technique moved me to the “if I can see it, I can do it” phase. My new tool stayed sharp and I was creating very complex and beautiful projects. Then it started to happen. I was getting inconsistent results and the frustration factor was creeping in to my turning sessions. I needed to reevaluate what I was doing. The first step was to try and sharpen my tools better. What a disaster. I brought my skew in for some guidance on how to sharpen, because I was not able to get good results. I have to admit a sense of shame in handing over my skew to Al and having him appraise my efforts. I certainly did not get offended by the short burst of laughter that ensued, nor the guffaws, or drying his tears of laughter. I had taken a new tool, and ground 4” of HSS steel off of it, and still had no sharp edges.

We watched the sharpening video together and then he showed me exactly where my issues were in the process of sharpening the tool. When I went home with the sharpened tool (I did purchase another skew as well) the magic was back! Never underestimate the power of a sharpened tool.

Turning pens was fun and a quick way to make projects to sell and give as gifts, but after turning several hundreds of pens, I needed a new project. My little lathe was not going to do much more than very small projects, so I decided to find a turning club and start asking about equipment and projects that were within my skill set.

Once again, I was able to find someone that was a master turner that was able to provide advice and encouragement. I would be grossly underestimating the fortuitous meeting of Don Russell. Don holds a turning club meeting every month, and again I had found a group of people that had vast amounts of experience and patience. This one meeting changed the way I approach woodworking and working with wood! I cannot in any way approach describing the infinite patience Don had during my first meeting. I must have asked Don 1000 questions all of which he addressed in his logical and humorous way.   I was able to see projects that meeting that were fabulous pieces of stunning art. Not just from the forms of the objects and their stunning finishes, but from the skill and techniques used to create them. For more on my relationship with Don, see the Mentors section and who influences my woodworking style.

Enter the “if I can see it, I can make it phase” ALMOST! With my new knowledge, new tools and some larger equipment, I was on my way to projects other than pens. Candlesticks, table pedestals, chess pieces, bowls, platters and other exciting projects started to show up in my showcase.

Again, my natural progression was to head towards the teaching arena for woodturning. I was invited to teach a pen turning class at the highly regarded John C Campbell Folk School. I remember writing the class curriculum for my pen turning class. I wanted my students to get a clear understanding of all the steps that were needed to create great pens, but covering safety and tools was also important. I settled on the course content and decided that 4 different pens could be completed in the weekend. It was an ambitious goal, but I felt like the experience would empower a new pen turner to continue making pens after the class. The first weekend that I taught the class seemed to last only 2 hours. It was over so quickly. I had 10 students who completed all four pens. I was extremely happy with their results and met some very nice people. I have taught this class at John C Campbell Folk School over 20 times and it would appear it could be very easy for it to become rote and boring. Every single class has its own personality and pace and continues to challenge me to present the material in an inspiring way.

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