Wood for turning is actually very easy find if you know where to look, especially in North Carolina where there is such abundance and diversity. I work with over thirty species of trees, most of which have already fallen or been taken down due to damage, disease, storms, etc. Once a tree is down, it is cut into sections, just as you would if you were using it for firewood. At that point a section is cut down into multiple blanks. The main thing to note here is the pith of the log (Figure 1). The pith is the most unstable part of the log and is where cracks start as the wood dries, so it has to be cut out. This is a typical way the log is sectioned into blanks, and you can see what I am planning to get out of it already (Figure 2). Generally I try to keep bowl blanks about 18″ long by 16″ wide by a depth ranging from 4″-8″. This is also a point in time to do some grading, so sections of the tree that contain big obvious cracks and defects in the wood will need to be used for decorative items. It is important to keep utility pieces as defect-free as possible. When sawing blanks for hollows and urns I cut them just about any size and I am a lot less stringent about eliminating defects (Figure 3). For decorative pieces, there is more flexibility to incorporate these types of characteristics. After the blanks are cut, I then seal the ends of the bowl blanks with a wax sealer, called Anchorseal, to help prevent cracking, and stack them up for later use. Any blank that will be used for hollows or urns I prefer to seal all cut surfaces, as it is more likely to have end grain exposed to more than two sides.
Ready for turning, the bowl blanks need to be cut into rounds on a bandsaw or chainsaw for balancing (Figure 4) and should clear the bed of the lathe. A round bowl blank can be mounted on the lathe, and turning begins.
Most of the wood is still “green,” meaning its moisture content is still high and is prone to wood movement as it dries. The bowl blank rounds are turned into a rough bowl shape, with the thickness being approximately 1/10 the diameter of the rim dimension. I mark them for date and species and completely seal the rough bowl with wax. (Figure 5). At this point, the rough bowls are moved into a less humid area to spend the next several months. Rough turning speeds up the drying time and allows the stresses in the wood to release, helping to prevent defects. I like to keep rough bowls stored for about six to twelve months so they dry out well. The variation in drying time generally is impacted by how much water the wood had in it when it was gathered. A tree just felled will have much more water than one that has been down or dead for a while. Species of tree also impacts the drying times as well, and some woods hold on to water longer than others. Less humid climates also affect the drying times, and these areas require less time but can be more prone to cracking as evaporation is much faster. Once a bowl has dried, I remount it back on the lathe and turn it to its final shape and thickness. I then sand and finish it, either with walnut oil or Danish oil depending on its function.
I skip the roughing phase for hollow forms, as they are turned much thinner, and therefore dry much more quickly. Being as thin as they are, the hollow forms are much more elastic, so cracking is not a problem. I sand and apply a seal coat of oil on the hollows before I put them in a paper bag to rest for several of weeks. Once the resting period has passed, they are signed, numbered, and the final coats of finish are applied.