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Acquiring and Preparing Bowl Blanks

One of the great things about bowl turning is that I get most of my wood for free. Assuming you don’t count labor. Over time I’ve built up a bit of a reputation among friends and family as the guy who will help take down or clean up fallen trees. That means several times a year I spend a Saturday or night after work I get to spend some quality time with my chainsaw. As a reward I get my choice of wood for turning before the rest gets turned into firewood or otherwise disposed.

Required tools
Since bowl blanks cleverly disguise themselves as trees, you will need some tools to before you start hoarding. The saw is the most important tool for harvesting your own bowl blanks, but there is some additional equipment which can make things go much smoother.

  • Chainsaw – Beside the saw, make sure you have files for sharpening, bar wrench, PPE, and consumables (chain oil and gas).
  • Tarp – Bring a tarp to keep chips and bugs out out of the carpet of your trunk or interior.
  • Trailer or hitch carrier – Either work great for moving logs, but keep in mind you will need straps to secure the wood.
  • End grain sealer (with brush) – I use Anchorseal2.

Chainsaw
You will want to get a chainsaw with sufficient power and bar length for the bowls you are interested in turning. Our lathe has an 8″ swing which means just shy of 16″ diameter for bowls are the largest we will be turning. The blanks to reach that size for a standard orientation bowl (not live edge) will need to be slightly larger to start. Then figure that the widest part of the tree is going to contain the pith and discarded. That puts me in the range of about a 20″ bar to get the maximum size bowl I will be turning.

I use a Husqvarna Rancher 455 with a 20″ bar which has been reliable for me. In the winter I have found that I need to let the saw warm up a bit before it reaches full power, which is normal for small engines. In addition to the saw you will need the standard tools for saw maintenance such as the sharpening files, bar wrench, bar oil, and a gas can. You will also want to consider your PPE: glasses, ear muffs, and gloves.

Types of wood
You will most likely want to harvest local wood so it would be good to familiarize yourself with the local species. While it is possible that you will find something not native to your area that was brought in for landscaping, you will mostly be dealing with native species. For the most part you will be interested in hardwoods, but do not rule out all softwoods as I have seen beautiful work in some cedars and even pine root bundles.

You will want to familiarize yourself enough with your local species to be able to identify the woods during the growth seasons by their leaves (which is easiest and most consistent). Though after the leaves have dropped you will still want to learn how to identify trees without having to cut into it if possible. Walnut and cherry have some distinct bark which are easy to identify. Birch is fairly easy to identify also, but not necessarily the subspecies. Those are a couple species local in my area of the midwest. Other types of wood I find especially desirable in my area include maple and box elder. Fruit trees can also be very attractive, such as apple and pear, so keep an eye out for when orchards are being turned over.

Beside the species of wood, you will also want to consider which parts of the tree you may be interested in using for bowls. The trunks tend to produce nice straight grain bowls. Limbs are also usable for bowl turning since they are not subject to the same requirement of not warping as lumber. Burls are odd growths which can be found on trunks and limbs where the grain changes directions and can be quite desirable in turning. Root bundles for smaller trees, usually decorative trees in yards, can be pulled up and cleaned with a power washer, and these pieces tend to have lots of bark inclusions and can be otherwise similar to burls. Another portion which is often overlooked is a nice even crotch, especially in walnut. These can be turned into beautiful heart shape pieces.

How to find wood
Assuming that you are new to bowl turning, you will need to work at developing a network of friends, family, and acquaintances who know that you are on the look out for wood. Until you have built up a steady stream of wood and a backlog of blanks you probably do not want to be too picky. Since you are probably still in a learning stage turning any wood will be good experience, especially to learn the ones you really like and which ones you will want to pass on later. Having a handful of business cards printed up with your contact information, social media links, and your interest in acquiring wood will which can be given to anyone can also make it so people will contact you when they have a tree down. I give the cards to folks I have gotten wood from so they can give them to anyone they know.

When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. – Genesis 9:16

Craigslist
The Craigslist free section is a good place to start after a wind storm. Within a day or two after a storm lots of people will post ads for free you cut firewood. They are just looking for someone to get the tree cleaned up as fast and cheap as possible. You want to be one of the first on site to pick out the sections which are ideal for your purposes, otherwise a well meaning person may show up before you and cut up the best pieces into firewood length. Once the wood is firewood length and not sealed in a short period of time it will check and become useless for bowls.

Tree service
Tree service companies often consider the trees they take down as an expense since they need to take them to the landfill unless they also process and sell them as firewood. If you can develop a relationship with a tree service company you may be able to get them to call you on interesting finds, such as burls or unique trees they need to remove. So stopping by a tree service company may be a way to get a line on some exciting wood. But until you make a relationship with someone from the service it will likely be the least reliable source.

Processing logs into bowl blanks
Once you have acquired some logs you will need to process them into bowl blanks. This process can be intimidating the first time, but will get easier once you have found a method which works for you. I cover my process in the video below. Below the video I will cover a few things that didn’t make the cut for the video.

You will need to setup a location where you will process your logs into blanks. One of the sites picked up some wood I acquired some very large cut offs from some white oak. I use these pieces to hold the log sections as I rip them. This is easier on my back since I do not need to bend over when cutting. It is also a good idea to keep a few off cuts around to help prop the wood in place when cutting.

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