Woodturning for Beginners

Woodturning is a skill that can be both practical and creative. Here’s the best way for beginners to get started.

By Bob Beacham | Published Aug 31, 2022 8:29 PM

what is wood turning

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Woodturning is a fascinating hobby and not quite like any other kind of woodworking. Even though it involves a machine and tools, it is a very hands-on process. The wood responds to how you control the tools, and watching the wood shavings fly off a lathe can be tremendously satisfying and relaxing. However, this practice involves the use of a power tool that can be dangerous without proper safety procedures, so beginners should brush up on woodturning basics and find a safe place to start.

Woodturning allows woodworkers to create practical items, and also to explore creativity. You can make useful items for the home and create fine gifts for friends. In this comprehensive woodturning for beginners guide, we introduce you to the techniques and tools you need to begin.

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What is Woodturning?

Technically speaking, woodturning uses a rotating lathe and sharp chisels to produce curved or cylindrical items. These can be anything from large-diameter platters to long columns.

Woodturning can trace its origins back at least 1,000 years. The first lathes were operated by a rope wound around a shaft, pulled by hand. Much later in early 20th century England, artisans called bodgers cut their own trees and used springy saplings to power their lathes.

Today, bodging has been replaced by mechanization, and woodturning jobs are rare. However, woodturning can certainly be a profitable side hustle, and it might even become a full-time source of income for a few.

what is wood turning

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Woodturning Techniques

While a huge variety of items can be made on a wood lathe, they all use one of two techniques: spindle turning or faceplate turning.

Spindle Turning

Spindle turning is used to make anything from rolling pins to candlesticks to corner pillars for four-poster beds. It is also called turning between centers. The piece of wood to be turned is supported by steel points (called centers) at either end of the machine. A chuck is sometimes used at the headstock end (the part that houses the motor and gears). Because chucks cost extra, beginners usually manage without one.

The centers are called “dead” or “live.” A dead center is fixed, and the friction caused can sometimes scorch the wood. A live center has ball bearings that rotate with the work, so they don’t burn and run much more smoothly.

Wood lathe specification usually gives the distance between centers, and this defines the maximum length of wood that can be turned. It may also be called the bed length. Small benchtop lathes might be just 7 or 8 inches long, whereas large floor-standing lathes can be 36 inches or more.

Faceplate Turning

Woodturning lathes are almost always supplied with a faceplate. This is a slotted disc that fits into the headstock. The woodturning blank is fixed to the faceplate using screws that pass through the back.

Faceplate turning is most often used to make items like bowls and platters. The chisel moves along the side of the blank, and across the face. The part of the base where the screws hold the workpiece to the faceplate is inaccessible during turning. This can either be sanded smooth before mounting, or it can be cleaned up later.

So in addition to the distance between centers, lathe specifications also give a swing, or swing over bed, dimension. This is the maximum diameter of a workpiece that the lathe can support. Bear in mind that this is not the practical size of the finished piece. Some wood will be removed during the turning process, so it’s likely the true maximum diameter will be an inch or two smaller.

On some lathes, the headstock can swing through 90 degrees. Without the restriction of the lathe bed, larger diameters can be turned. There are also lathes dedicated to bowl turning that have no bed at all. These can make very large bowls and platters, though they are specialized tools and well beyond the budget of most beginners.

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what is wood turning

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Essential Supplies

There are hundreds of different woodturning tools, but let’s focus on the basic tools most appropriate for beginning woodturners.

Before investing in these items it’s a good idea to see if there are any woodturning classes, clubs, or co-op workshop spaces in your area. These can often allow you to ‘try before you buy’. You will also meet like-minded individuals. While it is possible to learn woodturning by yourself, experienced woodturners can often give you tips to improve your technique. They can also help source key supplies like woodturning blanks, abrasives, and finishes.

Lathe: A key decision when choosing a lathe is its size. Quality is always important, of course, but unless you have a specific interest (like making pens, for example) we recommend the largest model you can afford and have space to accommodate.

The reason is simple: You can always turn small items on a big lathe. You can’t turn big items on a small lathe. Our guide to the best woodturning lathes has information on a variety of options, all of which are suitable for beginners.

Woodturning Chisel Set: There are hundreds of woodturning chisels available, but the most economical way for beginners to get started is with a basic set like this one from PSI Woodworking available on Amazon. The handles are 10-inch-long hardwood, which is a helpful feature. While it might seem like small tools would provide greater accuracy, actually long handles allow much better control. As with many wood cutting tools, the blades are made from high-speed steel.

Each woodturning chisel has a specific function. The PSI woodworking set includes one or two of each of these, and provides the beginner wood turner with every chisel necessary to get started.

  • A roughing gouge is a heavy-duty chisel used to quickly remove the edges from a woodturning blank to make the blank round.
  • Spindle gouges are used for spindle turning, and they can create anything from small rounded areas, to long flowing curves.
  • Bowl gouges aren’t just for bowls, but they can be used for all kinds of faceplate turning.
  • Skew chisels can cut fine detail lines, make indentations, sharp corners, and long, straight turnings like a rolling pin. Perhaps surprisingly they can also cut gentle curves.
  • In skilled hands the tools above can produce good finishes, but a scraper is often useful for smoothing out small ridges, particularly inside bowls.
  • A parting tool is mostly used to remove the waste at either end of spindle work, though it can also be used with the faceplate turning.

Abrasives: After getting your piece as smooth as possible with gouges and scraper, final finishing is usually done with handheld abrasives. Cheap sandpaper sheets crack and tear when used with woodturning, and don’t allow a woodworker to follow the contours of the work. We recommend the more flexible silicon carbide sheet, such as this sample set from Atosun. There also are sanders available for bowl and vase work, but they don’t work well on spindles.

Grinder: Keeping chisels sharp is vital for good woodturning. Any bench grinder could be used, but most general-purpose models have wheels that are too coarse and rotate too fast. This overheats chisels and weakens their cutting edge. The Bucktool dual-speed grinder overcomes this problem, and has two wheels so you can use one for turning tools and the other for ordinary grinding jobs.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Turning wood is normally a safe hobby, but shavings do fly around and occasionally a piece of wood might break off. With a lathe that can be rotating at upwards of 1,000 RPM, a woodworking face shield should always be worn. Although cheaper models are available, this Uvex face shield available on Amazon has a tough polycarbonate visor and an anti-fog and anti-scratch coating.

Wood dust can cause respiratory problems, and some exotic woods can even be toxic. Wearing a dust mask is a must. Some woodturners use powered respirators, and they can be very good protection, but a disposable N95 mask is perfectly acceptable.

If you usually wear a necktie or necklace, be sure to tuck it inside your shirt or take it off. Tie back long hair and tuck in or take off anything else (including gloves) that could dangle and get caught in the spinning lathe. Wearing a woodworking apron like this highly rated option available on Amazon can also help keep loose clothing away from the lathe.

Blanks: Woodturning blanks can be bought in stores and online retailers, and some exotic examples are available. However, these can be expensive, and many woodturners prefer to get their hands on stock to inspect it before they buy it.

Your local hardware store may have lumber that isn’t specifically sold as blanks, but could do the job. However, most woodturners prefer to turn hardwoods because of the denser grain, and most stores deal in softwoods. Speciality suppliers aren’t hard to find, but it’s also worth checking out local lumber yards or sawmills.

Additionally, spread the word about your new woodturning hobby, and people will often offer wood they would otherwise have thrown away. The best wood for turning is always the stuff you don’t have to buy.

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Woodturning Projects for Beginners

Wondering what you can make on a woodturning lathe? Let’s take a look at a few ideas that would be great for beginners.

  • Bowls are always a favorite, and they’re a great way to get started with faceplate turning. Shallow designs are easiest to begin with, and provide good practice in developing simple curves.
  • Handles for bottle openers, corkscrews, or small garden forks provide excellent practice for spindle turning.
  • Rolling pins are also an interesting challenge for the beginner. Turning a parallel cylinder is not as easy as many people think.
  • Pen turning is very popular. It can be done on a very small lathe so it doesn’t need much space, and even novice woodturners can produce beautiful, highly desirable finished items.
  • Turning salt and pepper mills is another great way for beginners to learn woodturning while producing attractive, useful items. The mechanisms are widely available. You just have to decide whether to go for a traditional style or something more eclectic.
  • A mortar and pestle can involve both spindle and faceplate turning. Shapes are uncomplicated, so it offers good practice and it is easy for beginners to produce high-quality results.
  • Candlesticks can be entirely spindle turned, or they can involve faceplate turning for the base. The same approach could be used for table lamps.

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Final Thoughts

It’s easy for beginners to get started with woodworking, and the basic skills can be mastered in a matter of weeks. However, be warned that woodturning can be addictive. What starts as a weekend hobby becomes a lifelong passion for many. Part of the appeal of woodturning is that there’s always something new to learn or a new technique to try. Combining wood with epoxy resin, for example, can produce some stunning artistic results.