The Art in Turning

Russian Olive Pepper Grinder

Suppose you have just seen a beautifully proportioned turning. Your mind begins mulling over the possibility of reproducing that shape.

Next time you are at your lathe, you begin your attempt. You might find yourself wishing for a pattern, cut from some stiff substance, to hold up to your turning to show you where and how much you need to cut in order to achieve the desired shape.

Well, I’m here to tell you that patterns, for producing works of art, are not only useless but harmful.

Look at the object you want to produce. Do you admire the flow of the contours? That sense of grace and easy movement from one curve to the next can’t be achieved by the rigidity imposed by trying to make your turning conform to a pattern.

The first step in turning your object is to discover an easy and graceful style with the gouge or other turning tools.

The second step is to learn to see shapes as a whole. While a linear approach might be to reduce the shape to the diameters and proportions of each principal part, this “see” is something quite different. You will need to be able to visualize this shape. Let it haunt you. Feel the emotion that it embodies. Play with the shape and feel what happens as you distort it, turn it upside down, use different woods, etc.

The third step is to do your turning in this state of mind. For me, this works out as though I were many different people rolled into one. One of me holds the vision of the shape and emotion I want to produce. Another watches the shape coming from my gouge, comparing it to the vision, yet always ready to find new variations. A third me is concentrating on my hands and arms and their effects upon the approach of the gouge, making its movements fluid and free. The fourth me resides in my feet and legs causing me to shift position in harmony with the fluidity of the curves I want to produce. The fifth me is aware of the dangers and hazards, keeping watch where my fingers, hands and arms are in relation to the rotating headstock and turning. The sixth me sits up in the air above the lathe watching and directing the whole process.

This process may not work exactly the same for you, after all we are not out to produce a rigid pattern of “The Wood Turner.” But you will accomplish an unapologetic ease of seeing and then rendering your own version of an object of interest. Gone will be the tense, timorous movements of one who is afraid to cut too much. Instead, your approach will seem almost careless. Your gouge will seem to effortlessly float around the contour following a line supplied by your inner vision of the shape you want. Your turnings will take on a character and emotion of their own.

Ellis Hein, author of The Woodturner’s Project Book

Have you seen the plans I have up for sale for the space saving cabinet?


About Ellis Hein

I am a woodturner and the author of The Woodturner's Project Book. I have a life-long interest in the gospel preached by George Fox and the early Quakers. You can see some of my material on that subject at
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