May 17, 2012


getting the tooling ready

I took on the project of making a disused wood-lathe functional and workable. This involved investigating all of the working parts and making sure everything was working as it should be. Nothing big was missing or damaged, although there was a bit of rust built up in places that had to be cleared. After the machine was in tip top shape, I moved in on the other working components. I made sure that all the hand tools (chisel, gauge, grinder, etc.) were rust-free and sharpened. I determined that all head pieces and supplementary parts were present as well. And when I plugged it in and turned it on, every thing worked!

So after I was satisfied that the lathe was safe and ready to use, I wrote up a manifesto of how I was going to use it responsibly.

Lathe-working Manifesto

getting started

With these things done, I was ready to start on my first project. Through discussion with others at Windward, I decided that a useful, yet simple, first project could be to produce some mallets for use in various capacities. I picked out a length of oak as long as my arm and about six inches across from a pile near the woodshed. After bringing it down the hill to the Artisans’ Workshop, I cut it to approximately eighteen inches and mounted it, revolving around the heart (not geometric center), on the lathe.

turning a section of oak trunk

It’s very important to check and double check that all adjustable points are tightly secured, before you start turning wood. If anything comes loose, the wood could seriously harm you. Also if the components are not rock-solid, they may shift, and cause your tools to catch and fly away at great speeds.

So after making sure that the wood was secure, and the tool rest was tightly fastened, I turned on the lathe at the second lowest speed. T first I was surprised when the whole work bench started wobbling. But it did so because the heart of the wood was not perfectly centered and the unbalanced weight, revolving as it was, was causing the machine to vibrate. To manage this, I put my weight on my hips and leaned into the tool rest, as I gently, but firmly, applied the gouge to start removing bark. As I started working with the wood, shaving off, incrementally, small amounts of flesh, the round slowly became more balanced. After all the bark was gone, the wood no longer wobbled.

a first pass at turning a mallet

It was at this stage that I was able to start thinking about the intended shape of the finished product. After all unevenness was worked away, I could speed up the lathe to something much faster. Using the gouge and the grinder, I started working into the wood to form a handle. After I had one that fit comfortably in my hand, I worked with the chisel to flatten the head of the mallet. When I had the shape I wanted for my mallet, all I had to do was cut of the ends and I had my finished product.

After making my first mallet, with some feedback, I started in on another, only bigger and more refined. All steps in the process went much smoother this time around, and I was able to see things I could do differently. I gave a little more room for wrist movement around the handle. I made a bigger pommel to offset the increased weight, and I had the energy to do some scrollwork on the grip. With this done, I sanded it while turning, to make it much smoother than my first one, and cut off the ends. I ended up with a very fine looking mallet after all that.

turning something larger

But the next day I discovered many cracks going along the grain. I was disappointed that my mallet seemed ruined after a full day’s work on it. But I chaulked it up to experience and set about to solve the problem. It seemed that the wood I was using had dried too quickly, and unevenly. The outer layers of wood, drying faster than the inner, had shrunk and caused the cracking.

My first method of solving this was to immediately oil the mallet after I finished. I did so with used motor oil, which is what was handy at the time. And I proceeded to give it another coat several hours later. This was better than not oiling, as the cracks were smaller this time. But next I used oak that had been cured for two years in a pile, and oiled it immediately when done, and was pleased with this method. This last method did not prove perfect, as cracks did appear, but they remained small and did not hinder the mallet’s usefulness.

a range of mallets to choose from