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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.

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

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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Milling Firewood

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. – Ecclesiastes 3:11

8" Grinder
8″ Grinder
The Thursday before Independence Day a post popped up on the local Facebook group about a tool sale. Always interested in a good deal on tools and the fact it was just a couple miles down the road I hopped in the truck to see what was there. There were some nice tools, in fact I picked up an eight inch grinder. What really caught my eye while looking around was the neatly stacked firewood behind a number of tools in the barn. From the ends I could see that a number of pieces of maple were spalted. And several pieces seemed like they would produce enough wood to be usable in smaller projects. Especially pens which Elizabeth has been showing a lot of interest in turning. The woman (and her son) who were selling the tools graciously allowed me to buy some of the pieces of firewood and I loaded them up into the back of the truck.

Spalted Maple Firewood
Spalted Maple Firewood

I brought in a couple pieces of the wood into the shop. Since I don’t have a moisture meter I figured I would try a couple of the pieces and see how they react. I didn’t want to cut up everything and find out they all curl and twist. It turns out it is a good thing I didn’t go too wild milling it all up as there is still enough moisture in the wood that it will cup and twist as it dries. Though there are a couple tricks to deal with that, like microwaving the thinner pieces at lower powers for a while.

Firewood on the Jointer
Firewood on the Jointer
The first step to milling is getting a couple decent reference edges. For that I brought the wood over to the jointer and removed the blade guard. This is not suggested behavior, but I’ve found when more or less free-handing like this the guard just gets into the way. I started with the heartwood and holding the log so the outer part of the log was mostly level to the bed of the jointer. Next I needed a reference edge 90º to the bottom and rotated the log. This edge does not need to be the entire edge as it is only going to be used as a reference surface on the bandsaw table in the next step.
Rough Reference Edge
Rough Reference Edge
So rather than removing a ton of extra material as wood chips I will still get a decent portion of the log as usable material. Trying to minimize waste is essential to getting the most usable lumber out of the logs.

The heartwood of the log does not have any spalting through it so it really isn’t as desirable for my purposes. If you were going to be milling up some wood that you would otherwise not have access to or wanted more of the wood, you could obviously choose to skip this next step. I removed the heartwood by cutting with the log on the rough reference edge on the surface of the bandsaw table. This left me with the remainder of the log having quite a bit of spalting throughout.

Ripping Parallel Edges
Ripping Parallel Edges
I then turned the log 90º to rip the rough edge parallel to the partially cleaned up edge from the jointer. This revealed what I figured would be the case, that a line of spalting would separate the darker heartwood of the tree from an outer lighter sap wood which head been weakened from the mold colonies. I could see some of that along the ends of the logs, but it was nice to see that it would carry through both edges.

Removed Bark Edge
Removed Bark Edge
Removing the bark edge is the next step. This worked out really well since I had tried to make the bottom about as parallel as possible to the outer edge of the log. Since the sap wood was quite a bit softer, not quite to the punky state that some spalted wood gets, it cut very easily. The rest of the cuts I went nice and slow with to get the best cut I could manage, this one was about half the time. The outer edge did not show much of the lines of the mold colonies. This makes sense since the edges will likely not be near the surface of the log.

At this point I have a four sided square log. One of the tougher parts of this step is trying to imagine what you might find within the wood. In my case I took one of the edges and cut about a 5″ portion off the end with the miter saw to make a small bandsaw box. With the remaining section I ripped two small boards about 7/8″ thick in a quarter sawn fashion. This gave me the two book matched pieces which I will turn into a pen box. Additionally I left another piece together which was a couple inches square and about 9″ long, which I will probably try turning either a goblet or candlestick. Some additional pieces were used to make pen blanks for my wife to make some pens.

Usable Material from Log
Usable Material from Log