In the lull between the frenzy of December/January holidays and the activities of the anticipated winter, the shop is relatively quiet. The backlog of architectural copy/multiple orders have all been completed and shipped; I have almost caught up with the several Christmas gift certificate lessons of 2022; and my grandson helped me give the shop its annual deep cleaning (not that that will last very long). As a result and benefitting from the unusually mild winter thus far, I have some rare discretionary time to work on projects of my own while I build inventory for the upcoming summer season. (In reality, Downeast/mid-coast Maine is known for only having two seasons – “off-season” of 10 months and “summer” of two months (July and August) when our population and activities swell geometrically.)
This year, I decided to hone my basic skills by turning a series of calabash bowls waiting within several elm logs and four beautiful black ash tree logs dropped off by a friend whose conscience would not allow him to split them for firewood. To vary my occupation, I also planned to turn a number of natural-edge hearts (Valentine’s Day is coming) by tackling a sizable pile of likely crotch blanks I had accumulated for “later.” Now has happily become “later,” and with the calendar and a recent visit to the local pharmacy in mind, the avalanche of Valentine’s Day gifting is nearly upon us.
The popular calabash bowl distinguishes itself from a standard bowl by its smoothly rounded bottom. The starting blank should be green (pictured in elm), should be turned to a smooth finish using only the bowl gouge (not sanded), and the sustained thickness of the thin wall should extend all the way around the rounded bottom. The interior of the bowl should be a matched copy of the outside profile.
A more typical bowl (pictured in ash) has a flat bottom to keep it from rocking on the tabletop and might even include a foot or other profile decoration. While the interior of the bowl will be gently rounded, there is usually a thickened section of the wall where the inner side curves more severely to the inside bottom and the exterior profile of that wall extends to the flattened table-top outside bottom surface frequently with a reverse curve.
The beauty of the calabash bowls is that it is truly a “once-turned” bowl from green. As the finished wood dries, the bowl warps to an irregular shape giving each its own unique profile. Each bowl is characterized by its natural color, grain, figure, as well as its warped profile.
The skill challenge for turning calabash bowls lies in first establishing a pleasingly rounded curve from the sides through the bottom on the outside that in the second step when the blank is reversed for hollowing is accurately copied through the bottom on the inside. When the bowl is reversed to turn away the tenon required by the chuck in the final step of the process, the turner is challenged to accurately predict (imagine) where that inside curve runs as the bowl gouge carves away the tenon to complete the rounded bottom.
Like so many woodturning projects, the sensual return of handling the smooth, finished surface – using the hand’s palm to stroke the outside curve and then tracing the inside curve with the hand’s back – is enormously rewarding. The creative insights come from studying and trying to anticipate how the drying process of only a few days will re-designed the shapes and curves of the carefully carved profile. The eventually finished dry bowl, sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle, affirms nature’s artistry well beyond the turner’s skill with the gouge.
Contrasting with the calabash bowl’s stringent tool-control and design discipline, the natural edge, heart shaped crotch pieces offer a different kind of challenge. With these the final design begins with and is totally controlled by the selection and positioning of the blank at the beginning. Many wood types lend themselves to making these, but oak, cherry, and maple seem to yield the most dramatic and pleasing results. The goal is to display the clear outline of a bark-lined heart which at its center reveals the chaotic interweaving of grain where the two branches joined as the tree grew. (Pictured – maple)
Identifying and harvesting the crotch in the woods is relatively easy, and the most desirable part is the swollen ridge of bark along the seam where the grain of the two branches converge/diverge (depending on your point of view).
Ideally both branches should be of similar size, and the blank should be sawn on the bias before being trimmed to a rough circle for turning.
During my week of turning on my own for a few hours each day, I alternated between turning the green bowls of calabash and digging into my store of crotch/heart blanks.
Turning several bowls in the morning and several crotch/hearts in the afternoon encouraged me to explore different techniques and test the boundaries of my skills while building my inventory for the gallery and summer customers. More importantly and beyond the simple pleasure of being free to spend the time turning, I know from experience that my sustained time practicing and experimenting with similar forms and projects leads me to a new level of performance.
Ultimately, the message I regularly offer my woodturning students as well as my readers is that focusing on each set of skills – regardless of the level of past achievement – and spending the time and effort practicing by setting new goals that replicate that rehearsal pays off in the clear gain over time.
In 1969, I vividly remember telling my (then) girlfriend (later wife) that I had decided I wanted to become “really good” at something that required skill in my life rather than hit-or-miss “pretty good” at many different kinds of things that I could see in others around me. Fortunately, my wife and her mother, both of whom like me knew nothing about woodturning at that time, steadily encouraged and supported me from the beginning. My adventure continues today as I happily spend hours each day working in my shop with the wood, the lathes, the tools, and a host of wonderful friends who share my passion.
Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at email@example.com. Take a look at Temple’s Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/