Alburnam's Archive

Ó 2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

Turning on a Treadle Lathe

 This is a discussion on turning wood on a treadle lathe, although the techniques are similar for modern powered lathes, some methods and techniques are unsafe on modern lathes.  The precision of wood lathes is greatly overrated.  You can make a fine turning between two fence posts with a couple of nails, a belt and a sharp rock.  The lathe is one of the oldest woodworking tools in existence dating back to Egyptian times and earlier.  Not all turning techniques are treated here only the basic traditional methods that were used for production work in the historical past.  Many new tools and techniques have brought forth a large number of ‘artistic’ turners that produce stand-alone turnings, not part of furniture or architecture.

 Turning on a Treadle Lathe

Illustrations from Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001

  There are two basic methods of turning, between centers (spindle) and faceplate.  There are also two basic methods of turning wood, cutting and scraping.  The two techniques can be used with the two methods, however most faceplate turning is done using scraping and most spindle work is done using the cutting method.  You can actually achieve the same results using both methods however the different techniques work better depending upon how comfortable you are using those methods.  Scraping turning is much easier to master and you seldom have the problems you can encounter when cutting turning on the lathe.  Scraping is a great method to learn the craft of turning, then you can move on to cutting turning where the art of turning comes into play.

The methods discussed here are using a foot powered continuous action treadle lathe; this also applies to other lathes with flat belt power.  These methods may apply to modern power lathes, however some may be dangerous and are only recommended for a foot-powered lathe that has the safety of the belt jumping the wheel if the work is jammed.  Another advantage of this type of lathe is that it can be operated backwards which can be of great help if you do sand your turnings.  Scraping turning usually requires sanding while cutting turning can be done so as not to require any further smoothing work.

The chucks for holding the wood vary a great deal and some can be made to hold just one particular size of wood.  The two most common methods are a spur chuck connected to the lathe mandrel, that holds the end grain of the wood while spindle turning and the other is the face plate which is attached to the mandrel of the lathe and the wood being turned is screwed or attached to the plate to hold the work for plate or bowl turning.  Other chucks include cup chucks made of wood that will hold square or round turning stock, jammed into the cup, which holds and centers the wood.  Screw Chucks, which can hold the work on a single treaded screw, either between centers or faceplate. 

The center of the stuff must be accurately located in order to be able to mount it properly on whatever chuck you choose.  You want the piece to be balanced so it doesn’t excessively vibrate as the work is being initially trued up.  Saw kerfs can be cut in the end of spindles for the spur chuck to positively engage the stuff as it is placed between centers and turned.  Holes should be predrilled for screw chucks as well as for the screw holes for faceplate turning.  On square stuff it is relatively easy to locate the center by making a mark from opposite corners and where they intersect is the center of the stuff.  If it is out of square, use dividers or a marking gauge to determine the center area of out of square stuff.  From there you can better determine the center.  See Turning Chucks.

Spindle – Spindle turning is done between centers and produces, as one would suspect, spindles.  These could be chair or table legs, turned balusters and newel posts or any other piece that is not stable enough to turn faceplate.  With spindle turning most of the work is done with cutting rather than scraping.  After the centers are laid out on the ends of the stuff it is placed between the power head spur drive and the live or dead center on the tailstock.  The tailstock is secured against the end of the work and the center tightened.  It should not be too tight or it will cause thin spindles to bow and wobble and this can be a dangerous situation.  After you have turned a bit, check the tension on the tailstock to make sure that it is snug up against the stuff to keep it engaged in the driving chuck.  On thin spindles you can place your free hand behind the work to steady it while you are turning or you can use a Steady Rest for the same purpose.

Faceplate – Using a faceplate allows the turner to work on one center, the power head instead of two.  This allows for turning bowls, plates and other large turned short pieces.  The limit of the size you can turn on a lathe depends upon the size and weight of the tool.  Some large heavy lathes can turn enormous pieces of wood faceplate.  The faceplate is attached to the power head usually with external threads on the mandrel and internal threads on the inside of the iron faceplate.  The faceplate has holes for screws to secure the stuff.  You need to determine the center of the stuff being turned by the usual methods and the stuff must be held securely to the faceplate with strong iron or steel screws, do not use brass screws, as they are too soft.  If you do not want screw holes in the bottom of your work you can glue as scrap of wood to the bottom of your turning stuff with a piece of craft paper between the scrap and the stuff à la split-turnings.  The stuff should be made close to round before turning to prevent excessive shock by removing square corners and stubborn end grain.

Cutting – Cutting turning is one of the two basic methods of removing wood from the turning stuff.  The tools are used to actually cut the wood from the surface rather than scraping the wood.  The tool is used at a higher angle above the center of the turning stuff.  The tool rest is placed at the center level with the centers and the tool is used above the center of the stuff.  As with any cutting if the tool edge is at a skew angle to the work the cut will be much smoother.  The cutting tool engages the work at a high angle so the cutting edge will shear off the wood in fine shavings.

Scraping – Scraping turning is a common method to use when faceplate turning.  The tool rest is set just below the centerline and the scraping is done at the centerline or above.  Never set the tool rest too low, as you never want to work below the centerline of the stuff.  The scraping tools are used at a perpendicular angle to the center of the stuff and the shavings are usually a dust or powder rather than fine shavings.  Some prefer a burr on the upside (flat side) of their scraping tools to produce a finer cut; this is a matter of personal preference.  See Turning Tools.

Sanding – While sanding turnings is considered by some as a beginner’s technique and many turners can produce work that requires no sanding, off tool.  Some woods may require sanding and some work may need to be sanded so here is the most important thing I can tell you about sanding turned work.  Always keep the sandpaper moving, never allow it to sand in just one place or you will score the work instead of smoothing, requiring further sanding.  The speed for sanding should be as fast as you can treadle and the sandpaper must always move back and forth quickly when it is touching the wood.  Start with a low number grit and work up until all of the previous grits sanding marks have been removed.  Traditionally sharkskin and scouring rushes (Equisetum spp.) were used for smoothing turned work.  Remember on a foot treadle lathe it can be used in either direction of rotation.  By sanding while the work is turning backwards you can get a much smoother finish and helps eliminate ‘fuzz’ that happens with some woods.

Burnishing – Burnishing is a technique for smoothing and in some cases finishing turned work.  Using handfuls of shavings you have removed from the stuff and forcing them against the stuff as it is turning does the burnishing.  This burnishes and polishes the surface, sometimes to a mirror finish.  Be careful to have enough shavings in your hands to burnish the stuff and protect your hands from friction burns.

Finishing on the Lathe – Finishing on the lathe is a handy method of applying certain finishes on turned stock.  If parts of your turnings such as the tenons on the ends of spindles are going to be glued, the areas should be protected so no finish gets on the wood where the glue will go.  The finish can prevent the glue from properly holding on the piece.  Oil finishes can be used on turned stuff and can be applied with a small rag or by hand and the friction of your hand will heat up the wood causing the oil to penetrate deeper into the wood.  The end grain will absorb more oil than the flat grain and the end grain may require repeated applications of oil.  I oil the piece thoroughly while the piece is stationary and wipe off any excess.  Then I start the stuff turning and stand back so any excess oil that flies off the stuff misses me.  The oil should be allowed to dry, can be sanded between coats and additional coats are applied as necessary.  Shellac is another finish that is excellent for turned stuff.  It is quite easy to do a French polish on a lathe while the stuff is turning.  See French Polish.


Steady Rest – The steady rest is a handy and necessary tool for turning long spindles between centers.  This keeps the center part of the long thin turnings from wobbling or deflecting as you are working the stuff.  This particular steady rest is one that can be worked through.  In other words you can turn the stuff without the steady rest interfering with your turning.  It automatically adjusts by the falling wedge to the diameter of the stuff as it is being turned.  The steady rest can be adjusted along the ways of the lathe to the right position to support the work.  The V-notch is at the centerline of the lathe and will rub on the backside of the stuff allowing you to turn through.  I made my steady rest follower from beech, which wears, smooth with use and I also use beeswax to lubricate the notch to prevent burning of the stuff.

Treadle lathe showing Steady Rest 

Index Head – With an Index Head the lathe can be used to produce wooden gears, for fluting or reeding columns as well as ornamental turnings.  The index head holds the work steady and in a particular location for working on the stuff between centers.  This is used after the stuff is turned and the lathe does not turn while the index head is being used.  The holes in the metal disk are at predetermined spacing to produce a certain number of facets or sides around the stuff.  The arm secured to the lathe holds the disk in position with a pin that locks the stuff while it is being worked.  With different number of holes in the different circles any number of combinations can be produced.  

Index Head

Overhead Power Arm – Is used to in conjunction with the Index Head and can power cutting heads for making gears or cutting flutes, reeds or other details on the surfaces of stuff turned on the lathe.  This tool requires a treadle lathe that has a mandrel that can be disengaged while the power is transferred to the overhead belt and to the power head at the bottom of the loop of the belt.  The weight on the end keeps tension on the belt, which powers the cutting head.  The cutting head is mounted on a special tool rest that can be moved along two axis.  By moving the cutting head into the stationary turned work it can cut a variety of shapes into the surface.  Moving the cutter along the length of the piece can produce fluting or reeding with the proper cutting head bit.  By using the index head complex spirals and twists can be machined into the work.

 Overhead Power Arm

Drilling – With an overhead power arm you can use a drill instead of a cutting head to drill holes at any place around the circumference of turned work when used in conjunction with the index head.  If you are going to bore a hole in the end grain of the stuff while it is centered on the lathe may require a support for spindle work.  If the tailstock cannot accept a chuck then you may need to make a puppet especially for this purpose.  It has a hole in the proper place centered in the ways and of equal distance from the ways as the power head mandrel.  The hole is used to steady the drill as the stuff is being bored.  In this case the stuff is turning and the drill is held stationary and advanced into the center of the turning stock.  Another special purpose puppet is one designed to hold the stuff steady as it is being drilled.  The upright has a tapered hole in the side towards the power head.  Riding in that tapered hole is a hollow tapered cone made of a hard dense wood such as lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinal).  This puppet replaces the tailstock and holds the work after it has been turned in a position to be bored.  Because the tapered cone can hold the work as it is turning and has a hole in the bottom a drill can be advanced into the stuff to drill a center hole.


End boring puppet


Sawing Attachments – There are several different attachments to a lathe that can turn it into a power saw.  The treadle action provides for two types of power, one is continuous, from the power head or reciprocal from the crank of the lathe or to a crank attached to the power head.  A simple saw can be made by placing a small fine-toothed circular saw on a mandrel that can be placed between centers of the lathe.  A small work surface can be made and attached to the tool rest and this tool can be used for small cutoff work or any type of sawing that a small circular blade can cut.  The lathe has to be used in a specific direction for circular saws so the teeth are cutting in the right direction.

Another attachment that has been made for centuries is the scroll or jig saw.  A framework is made to support the saw table and the mechanism for holding the thin delicate blades under tension.  The power needed for this tool is reciprocal up-down motion and this can be taken directly from the crank or if the stroke of the crank is too large then an adjustable crank can be made and attached to the power head.  This turns the circular action of the power head into a reciprocating action to power the scroll saw.  A tensioning device needs to be placed on the rocking (parallel) arms of the saw to keep the blade taught to prevent it from flexing during the cutting process.  Because the motion is reciprocal it doesn’t matter in which direction the lathe is turning for using this tool.

Other Attachments – Such as small stone grinding wheels can be mounted on a mandrel, placed between centers and the tool rest is positioned as a steady rest during the grinding process.  Cloth, felt, cork, leather or wire wheels can be mounted and used in the same way, to polish and hone tools.  Having the ability to quickly mount a grindstone or polishing wheel on the lathe to grind and touch up turning tools.  Again the treadle lathes allows the wheels to turn in either direction depending upon your preferences.  I have made small wooden wheels mounted on mandrels that hold sandpaper.  I cut a small slot in the edge and drill a hole at the bottom of the slot.  I then take a piece of sandpaper the width of the wooden wheel and as long as the circumference of the wheel with extra to go into the slot.  The ends are placed in the slot and held in place with a small circular wedge.  As the paper wears out it is easily replaced.  Turned solid wooden cylinders can be covered with sandpaper and makes a serviceable small drum sander for the lathe.

1805 Turning Bench – Complete detailed plans for making a foot powered turning lathe, 8 sheets 11” by 17” plus 4 pages of instructions,  including materials and parts lists are available only on our web site.  See Publications.

   1805 Turning Bench


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Turning Chucks

The turning chuck is the heart of the lathe that secures the work while it is being turned.  Some old chucks for lathes are made of metal, but a great number of traditional turning chucks are made of wood with some metal parts.  There are many types of attachments to the power mandrel for both spindle and faceplate work.  There are also chucks that do work such as a tenon cutting chuck that I will discuss later.  Because there were no machining standards for uniform production, many old lathes have unique mounting systems for the chucks to the power mandrel.  It might have coarse threads on the outside of the mandrel or a keyway to secure the chuck.  It might also have a square tapered hole in the center to hold metal spur chucks or drill bits.  

Square taper metal spur chucks

I have made several reproduction treadle lathes and have tried several traditional techniques.  My favorite is coarse threads on the outside of the mandrel, which is the most common method of attaching faceplates as well as for making and securing other chucks.  Most of these chucks are made of wood unlike modern lathes, which have metal chucks.  Traditionally there are many more unique chucks that were developed for a specific purpose by innovative craftsmen.  They were not reliant on manufacturers that make only certain types of chucks which usually only fit specific lathes.  Turners in the past made a lot of their own chucks and it is something lost to modern turners today.  You can make and use wooden chucks on modern lathes by attaching the wooden chuck to an existing chuck fitted for that lathe.  Cup chucks can be turned on a faceplate chuck and used by reattaching it to the faceplate chuck when you need to use the wooden chucks.  One of the first lathes I built I had a metal mandrel machined with coarse threads and a matching bottoming tap to make wooden chucks.  Wooden chucks are the most common type of traditional turning chuck.  Burls were the choice wood for chucks because of the interlocking grain that can take the continual abuse that turning can impart.  Whatever wood you choose it needs to be strong and as dense as possible. 

 Spur Chuck - 2 spur and 4 spur

Spur Chuck – The spur chuck is the most common spindle chuck and it is easy to make this wooden chuck; the wood is marked for a center hole which is drilled the depth of the length of the threads of the power mandrel.  The hole should be undersized so that threads can be cut into the wooden chuck.  After it is threaded it is secured tightly down on the mandrel it is turned to the desired shape.  The center of the chuck is marked and drilled for the center point that most spur chucks have.  I make the metal parts from wrought iron so if the turning tool hits them there is a chance they will give before the steel of the tool is damaged.  The center point is round and shaped to a sharp point that projects from the center.  On a line intersecting the center hole a spur is placed on both sides of the center point.  I pre-drill small holes for the cut nails and drive them in until secure.  I then cut off the ends of the nails to leave flat sharp spurs that will engage the turning stock.  This makes a two-spur chuck; if a four-spur chuck is required then the spurs are placed at 90º to the first two spurs.  Two spurs will hold the work but four-spurs will hole it more securely.  When the stuff is being prepared for turning saw kerfs on the ends will provide a positive engaging slot for the spurs of the chuck.  I also use an awl to make a precise center hole for the center point to align upon.  Make sure that the spurs engage the wood to securely hold it as it is being turned.  After a little turning it is a good idea to check the tailstock to make sure has just enough pressure to hold the stuff against the chuck.

 Wooden Cup Chuck with iron rim

Cup Chuck – This is a large group of chucks that are among my favorites.  These can be as small as ¼ inch inside diameter to a large iron bound cup that is 6 inches in diameter.  The cup chuck is as you can imagine shaped like a cup.  The inside of the cup is usually tapered from the largest at the rim to the smallest inside diameter at the bottom and the outside is just thick enough to support the shape.  These chucks rely on friction to hold the work in place.  An advantage of a cup chuck is that it will hold a square piece of wood and does not require any centering of the stuff prior to turning.  The cup automatically centers the stuff, as it is jammed into place.  These are also referred to as jam chucks since the stuff is jammed into them to secure it tightly.  The tailstock is then advanced to hold the stuff in place.  These chucks can slip and with particularly problematic pieces I will rub some rosin in the cup chuck to enhance the friction fit.  Some tight fitting cup chucks can do faceplate turning without a tailstock if the friction fit is very tight.  I have seen old cup chucks with one or two small holes around the edge that could have been used to fasten stuff into the chuck to allow for faceplate turning.  I have a small cup chuck with a ½ inch hole drilled straight in with no taper.  After I have turned a number of wooden knobs on spindle, I cut them apart and put them in this chuck to finish off the tops à la faceplate.  By preparing turning stock such as a number of spindles for a chair that have uniform tenons, a matching cup chuck can hold the tenons and makes quick work of repetitive turnings.  For making tenons see the section below on Working Chucks.

Square Cup Chuck

There is another type of ‘cup’ chuck that can be very useful and that is the square cup chuck.  This is usually made with square sides on the inside but they can be tapered.  This is an excellent chuck for repetitive turnings with square sections on the end such as table legs.  The square cup chuck is more positive connection than a round cup chuck, which can slip.  You will need to make several of these chucks for the particular size stuff you will be turning.  The square mortice must be centered exactly in the chuck so the stuff does not wobble out of balance as it turns.  I have seen one old square cup chuck that had a 5 inch deep square mortice and was probably used for table legs where the entire square section remained inside the chuck while the rest of the leg is turned.  This invariably prevented split out that is common in the transition from square to round.

 Screw Chuck

Screw Chuck – The screw chuck is an early standard and can be used to secure work for both spindle and small light duty faceplate work. This chuck can resemble a small faceplate chuck and I have seen an old burl screw chuck that had a couple of small well-worn holes on either side of the screw.  These could have been used as a key to prevent the stuff from turning on the screw and stripping out the threads.  The screw chuck is made of wood with a hole in the center and a flat face to engage the flat surface of the end of the turning stock.  At the bottom of the inside threaded hole, the center hole has a countersink on the inside to accept the head of the wood screw.  The screw threads should have fairly coarse threads and needs to project beyond the face of the chuck to properly engage the turning stock.  The stuff is marked for center and a bradawl or small drill makes a hole for the screw.  I also put a slight countersink on the end hole to insure the stuff can go flat against the face of the chuck.  It is important that the end of the stuff be square to sit flat on the face of the screw chuck.  This chuck relies on the screw and a flat connection between the face and the turning stock.

  Keyway Chuck with key

Keyway Chuck – The keyway chuck is a specialized type of chuck that is made to hole turning stock by a hole drilled in the end of the stuff.  It is like a reverse cup chuck, in other words it holds from the inside (of the hole) rather on the outside of the stuff.  The chuck is made of wood and a round tenon is turned on the face of the wooden chuck.  There should be a slight shoulder for the stuff to rest against and the hole in the stuff needs to be just slightly deeper than the length of the tenon.  These can be of various sizes depending upon what type of stuff being turned in this manner.  One side of the chuck has a flat spot or a slot that runs from the shoulder to the end of the tenon.  A flat shim or key the width of the flat spot is placed there and the stuff with the pre-drilled hole is placed over the tenon and shim and forced down to the shoulder.  The shim needs to be thick enough to exert enough pressure to prevent the stuff from turning on the keyway chuck.  These are generally used between centers for spindle turning but if properly secured stuff can be turned faceplate with this interesting chuck.

 Faceplate Chuck with 4 screw holes to secure stuff Faceplate Chucks

Faceplate Chuck – The faceplate chuck is unique in that it can be used on one center, the power mandrel.  This allows the turner to make bowls, plates, rosettes and other flat work not needing two centers.  This gives freer access to the stuff being turned; the tool rest can be placed directly across the work.  Traditional wooden faceplates have the threaded socket for the power mandrel with a flat surface turned on the working side.  On careful layout lines, holes are drilled and countersunk to accommodate the screws that hold the stuff to the faceplate.  Faceplates range in size from as little as two inch up to 6 or 7 inches in diameter.  The thickness of the base plate must be sufficient to provide proper strength required when turning faceplate.  The faceplate can also be composite construction with the threaded socket made from a separate piece of wood and fixed permanently to the flat plate with joinery, glues and pegs.  The faceplate should be balanced and the greater the weight the better the lathe works as it acts as a flywheel.  

Working Chucks – Working chucks are a group of tools that have fallen into the shadows with the introduction of mass produced modern tools.  These tools can be a little dangerous to use as in some cases you are moving a stationary piece of square wood into a whirling cutting face that forms a tenon faster than you can sharpen a pencil.  These chucks utilize the power of the turning action of the treadle lathe to power a wooden tool with a steel cutting edge to do a specific task.  The use of a tool rest to steady the stuff being worked will stabilize it as you push it into the tool.  A special table with a fence can be fabricated and attached to the tool rest to hold the work securely.  The set up might seem extensive but for production work these tools can greatly reduce turning time.

  Tenon Cutting Chucks    Tenon Cutting Chuck, single cutter

Tenon Cutting Chuck – These tools have the needed threaded socket for the mandrel and a large head that has the proper shape of the desired tenon drilled or turned into the end of the block.  Cuts are then made to seat the metal cutter into the wooden block at the proper place and access for the chips to expel needs to be fabricated into the block.  There can be single bent cutters to cut both the shoulder and length of the tenon or it can be two cutters, one for the shoulder and a separate one to trim the edge of the length of the tenon.  The length of the tenon is controlled by the by the depth of the hold in the chuck block.  That is the maximum length of the tenon and adding shims inside the hole to prevent the stuff from going any deeper can shorten it.

Spoke Pointer

Spoke Pointing Chuck – These are lathe-powered versions of the standard spoke pointers but can be larger and are made from wood with a steel cutter.  The wooden block is machined to fit on the mandrel and a conical hole is turned into the face of the block.  The angle of the inside taper will determine the bevel it will put on the spoke, peg, dowel, tenon, etc.  The blade is sharpened along its edge and drilled with holes for screws to secure it to the wooden block.  Slots are cut at the proper angle and a throat for the chips is provided.  With the blade in the proper position as the chuck turns wood is introduced into the cone and the metal cutter quickly shaves of the edges at a bevel.

  Tapered Reamers, different cutters

Tapered Reamer Chuck – Is just the opposite of a pointing chuck in that it is a large countersink.  It is a large wooden block prepared to be threaded onto the mandrel and the other end is turned into a large tapered cone.  Again the angle of the cone determines the angle of the internal (countersunk) bevel.  There are a couple methods of attaching the cutter.  On one old tapered reamer the blade was a spokeshave blade and it was mounted along the axis of the cone, with the appropriate chip throat.  It is adjusted just like a traditional spokeshave blade.  This type of cutter cannot go to a point because of its design.  The other method is by using a flat cutter sharpened along the edge and secured with screws at the proper angle to do smooth cutting.  Adequate throat clearance for chips and the tool is ready to use.  The cutter can go to the point of the cone and bevel very small holes.  As the lathe is brought up to speed, a piece of wood with a hole is pushed against the turning tapered reamer chuck and it will cut a beveled edge around the hole.

  Bit Chuck, for drilling on the lathe

Bit Chuck – While this may seem redundant for some craftsmen this was a valuable chuck that turns the lathe into a horizontal boring machine.  Early bits had square tapered bits and a wooden chuck with the appropriate square tapered mortice will hold a drill bit securely.  The work is advanced into the drill bit to produce the hole.  If this were my only power drill, I would use this particular chuck more often.  The tool rest can be used to steady the work as it is advanced into the bit or a table can be made to attach to the tool rest to more adequately secure the work as it is being bored.   Some old lathes have external threads and a square tapered spur or bit holder that can do the same process, see illustration at the beginning of this article.  

As you can see there is an endless variety of wooden turning chucks.  They can be devised to hold an unlimited number of possibilities not only to hold the work while it is being turned but also powered chucks that can become valuable tools to produce uniform shaped parts.  Think of the lathe as a horizontal power tool that can be used for much more than turning.

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Turning Tools

Turning tools have two categories those used for cutting and those used for scraping.  While turning gouges are always used to cut and seldom to scrape most flat chisels can both cut and scrape.  The difference between the two will be discussed in the article Turning on a Treadle Lathe.  Turning tools can be small and delicate for fine turnings or long and strong for large faceplate work.  The following are the common turning tools used during the nineteenth century, the Beading Chisel, Bowl Gouge and the Sizing Tool are added to this list but were not as common.  Many old tools were fashioned from old files by turners for specific purposes with specially ground heads.  There are modern tools that have come about for special purposes but they will not be discussed in this article.  Many turners become proficient with all of the turning tools but end up using just one or two tools and will use those tools more than others.

 Beading Chisel is a flat chisel with a concave bead ground into the end of the blade to match the angle of the cutting edge bevel.  This tool is used like a scraper and makes convex beads of a predetermined size.  One problem with this tool is that it only makes one size of bead and tends to chip out cross grain.  Care must be exercised when using this type of tool.  A spindle gouge or skew can make a better bead that this tool.  Works well for production where the same size of bead is needed repeatedly.

Diamond Point Chisel is a flat chisel that is sharpened to a point in the center tapering back on both sides.  This therefore generates two bevels on the same side, the angle of the point is about 30º and the bevel is about 30º.  Excellent for smoothing up end grain on spindle work, as well as scraping flat grain on faceplate work.  Can be used as a cutting tool or as a scraping tool.  Makes nice v-cuts for decoration and layout marking.  Also called a Spear Point Chisel.

Diamond Point Chisel

Illustrations from Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001

Flat Chisel is much like a regular chisel but the single bevel is ground to 45º and is referred to as a nose chisel when ground square.  There also ground at an angle of about 45º to the blade and then the single bevel is ground to a 45º angle.  These chisels are also longer and stouter that regular chisels.  Used mainly for scraping the flat or nose chisel can be use for cutting as well.  Narrow flat chisels can be used as a parting tool or as a sizing chisel and are available in sizes from ¼” to 2”.  The flat chisel is one that is commonly ground into different shapes on the end for specific applications such as shallow dovetail turnings or as a side scraper.  I have two of these tools one with a single bevel and one with a double bevel; I use the single bevel flat chisel for scraping and the double bevel for cutting.

Parting Chisel or Cut Off Chisel has a special shape; it is a flat tool with a thicker ridge down both lengths of the blade.  The end is sharpened with two bevels at 50º and should be equal and meet at the ridge.  This tool is used standing up on edge with the thickest part at the ridge where the bevels form a point is the cutting edge.  The slight angles of the facets of the blade prevent the tool from binding up in a deep cut.  This is an excellent tool for delineating the depths of certain parts of turnings


Parting Tool - made from an old file


Round Nose Chisel is a handy tool for scraping; this tool is a flat chisel that is ground round on the end of the tool at a 40º angle.  Useful for forming inside curves and hollows as well as doing bowl and plate work on the faceplate.  I use two of these tools one ½” wide and the other I made from a beading tool and is about ¼” wide and is handy for very fine small work.


Round Nose Chisel - made from an old file


Sizing Chisel is actually a sizing tool because it attaches to a narrow square nose chisel and holds the cutting edge a predetermined distance from the follower on the other end of the tool.  The sizing tool looks like a giant question mark (?) with the chisel secured to where the period is and the curved follower at the hook at the top.  As the chisel is advanced into the wood, the follower is lowered until it rides on the wood.  As the handle is lifted the follower will eventually fall free below the center and the piece will be perfectly sized to the setting of the tool.  The distance between the cutting edge and the follower can then be easily duplicated with this tool.


Sizing Tool - adjustable


Skew Chisel is perhaps the most useful turning chisel; it can be used as a scraper but is more commonly used for cutting and when properly used produces smooth turnings that do not require sanding.  The tool is a flat chisel that is sharpened at a 60º angle forming the skew.  It is sharpened with a double bevel from 40 to 50º and is ground flat, not hollow ground.  This is also the most difficult tool to master, when it works it works well, when it doesn’t it can ruin your work.  I have two of these tools, one with ½” blade and one large blade 1” wide.  When using this tool, keep the cutting on the lower half of the cutting edge when using as a skew or as a parting tool or a beading tool to produce the best results.  And you must keep the angle less than 90º or the tool will climb the work and ruin your turning.  Rubbing the bevel will also produce the finest cut by presenting the cutting edge at the lowest possible angle for the smoothest cut.  This tool produces the straightest and smoothest cylinders.


Skew Chisel - maker 'Jackson'


Gouges have an inside curve to the length of the tool and have the advantage of being able to remove large amounts of wood with deep cuts.  These tools can also produce very fine cuts for detail and finish work.  When using a gouge you are always turning on one side of the center of the cutting edge or the other.  You can turn the gouge to smooth but you need to keep the angle of the cut below 90º or the cutting edge will dig in and possibly ruin your work or your afternoon.  The gouge is held firmly against the tool rest and the bevel is rubbed on the turning stuff and the end of the handle is lifted until the edge engages.  This is the optimum angle for smooth cutting.  By rubbing the bevel, the cutting edge is at its lowest angle possible.  Gouges are cutting tools and not generally used for scraping.

Bowl Gouge is a very long and strong tool, with very thick walls of the gouge itself.  Like the roughing gouge, the bowl gouge has a deep U shaped blade.  It is ground at 30º on the bevel and is usually sharpened rounded like a spindle gouge.  This tool needs to be strong as many times it is extended beyond the tool rest and needs to be able to withstand enormous forces.  A steep ground angle on a bowl gouge is good for the sides, but a shallow ground gouge is best for the bottom of bowls where the turning can be difficult.


Bowl Gouge

Roughing Gouge & Thumbnail Gouge   Roughing gouge on left, Thumbnail on right.


Roughing Gouge is perhaps the most common turning gouge and is used for roughing square work round and for initial shaping.  Like a regular bench gouge but longer and stronger, the roughing gouge is a deep U shape and is sharpened straight across the end of the tool at 90º to the blade and the outside bevel is ground to 30º.  The bevel should be fairly flat and the tool can be used from the grinder with a burr or the edge can be honed.  It is important that the inside is ground and polished flat following the curve of the gouge.  You can slightly round the square edges on each side as you grind but my roughing gouge is fairly straight across the cutting edge.  The gouge is used at a high angle, first rubbing the bevel then lowering the blade until it engages the wood.  The tool can be turned to get the proper cutting angle depending upon the direction of the cut and the grain of the wood.  This is the first tool I use at the lathe to remove the square corners, form cylinders and removal of excess wood.

Spindle Gouge or Thumbnail Gouge is a long and strong tool but has a much shallower U-shape and is usually not as wide as a roughing gouge.  The inside is honed flat and the bevel is ground on the outside of the curve to about 30º.  The end is ground to a round or thumbnail shape unlike the roughing gouge that is sharpened square across the end.  This gives the end a rounded point for turning tight inside coves and hollows.  By turning the gouge up on its side and cutting below the highest point of the rounded end, tighter coves than the width of the gouge.  I have four of these tools from a large 1” wide, one ½”, one 3/8” and one ¼” and I use the half inch one almost exclusively.  

Turning tools are sharpened to a larger angle than regular chisels and gouges.  Most are sharpened to between 30º to 50º and are seldom honed to a mirror sharp finish.  Some prefer the burr created during grinding to add to the cutting action.  A turning tool can be burnished much like a cabinet or hand scraper to a burr edge.  I chose a ground edge that is honed until smooth but not mirror bright.  This works fine and considering the amount of touching up the turning tools get, the less time spent on sharpening the better.  Unlike other chisels and gouges that are forced into the wood, turning tools are held steady and the wood is moved into the tool.  As this motion is circular, the larger angle engages the wood at a higher angle allowing for the greater angle and a cleaner cut.  See Sharpening.  

I could describe how to exactly hold the tool and exactly how it should be used but there is no teacher like experience.  I read many books and articles on turning over the years but there is no better way to learn how to turn than grab a chisel and start making shavings.  There are differing views on how to use certain tools and how to do different techniques.  You will probably find that you have two or three favorite tools that you use for most of your turning projects.  Maybe because I am lazy but I will sometimes use a tool in a manner that it was not originally intended rather than grabbing the proper tool.  I may use the edge of a parting tool to scrape the end grain of a knob or use a roughing gouge to make a cylinder rather than picking up a skew to do it properly.  The only thing I can tell you for sure is that your tool always needs to be in contact with the tool rest before it engages the wood.  The first time your tool touches the wood before the tool rest, you will definitely remember that moment.  The first time your tool goes off the end of the tool rest while you are turning is another of those memorable moments.  This can be painful and dangerous, so always keep the tool in constant contact with the tool rest while you are turning and watch the ends of the rest to make sure you don’t go off the edge.

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