With quite a few members away on holiday attendance was rather disappointing with just 40 voting for the challenge. We had just 8 entries from 7 members but what was lacking in numbers was compensated for by outstanding quality.
Mike Haselden’s superb bowl of balls of various wood was first choice. The balls were hiding a lovely burr elm bowl.
Inventive as ever, Denis Hilditch entered a ring with a handle with a choice of balls to run round the inside. The trick was to move the ring smartly in a vertical plane to get the ball revolving without falling out. There was a certain knack to this which nobody mastered for more than a few seconds. Denis’s entry got second prize.
Third went to Phil Hill for his amusing toy tortoise whose legs were balls and the shell was a larger ball which rotated backwards as the creature was pulled along.
Pictures of all the entries are on the website.
During the counting we had an illustrated talk from John Bennett a local ex-teacher and no mean expert in wood.
He explained that hard and softwoods are distinguished by the cell structure and perversely some hardwoods are soft (e.g. Balsa) and some softwoods are hard (e.g. Yew). Hardwoods lose their leaves in winter whereas softwoods are evergreen and are also coniferous. That is except Yew which doesn’t have cones despite being softwood and Holme Oak and Holly which keep their leaves although they are hardwood. Got that?
The way to tell the age of a tree is to cut it down and look at the ring structure. Of course this doesn’t do the tree much good. Rings are caused by variable rate of growth during the season. The outer rings conduct nutrients to the tree and are called sapwood. The inner rings are older and lose this function but are essential to support the considerable weight of the tree. They form the heartwood. The sap and heart woods exhibit quite a different appearance in some trees like Yew and Laburnum whereas in others it is difficult to distinguish between them. Around the outside is the bark beneath which is the growth material. At the centre is the core or pith.
The rings are not necessarily circular. Growth on one side is frequently greater than the other depending on weight if the wood is not vertical and prevailing weather conditions.
Some wood has radial marks called medullary rays. These can be prominent in Oak and London Plane (Lacewood). The latter is quite a plain wood except when quarter cut to display the rays.
Another interesting and bizarre phenomenon is the case of the Lignum Orientalis Varigatus tree the section of which, if carefully cut at the correct angle has a pattern of contrasting squares. This is sought after for manufacture of checker boards.
John regrets that you probably wouldn’t be allowed to wind-up students like that these days.
Does that about cover it John?
Oh yes there were a few other things, like Lignum Vitae being the only wood known commonly by its Latin name which incidentally is one of the very few woods which sink being denser than water.
Woodworm love sapwood because it is softer and tastier than heartwood but the waterborne Toredo beetles like it all and bore great holes in wooden ships unless thwarted by copper sheet. Hence the expression “copper bottomed”.
Fascinating stuff and I apologise if I haven’t got it all right or if I’ve missed something important. Perhaps you’ll let me know?
Robert Bishop is a professional woodturner from the High Wycombe area specialising in hollow forms whose favourite woods are monkey puzzle, yew and burrs of any type. He looks for interesting features in the wood which at one time would have been called defects by furniture makers. He prefers to call it “character” and can be burr, bark inclusions, branches and spalting.
He wondered if we knew the origin of the word “spalt”. As nobody seemed to he explained that when furniture makers of old found such fungal pattern they considered the wood “spoilt”. It’s a good story anyway.
Robert’s usual method is to rough turn wet wood outside then hollow the inside to a uniform wall thickness of about 15 mm then to allow it to dry slowly before re-mounting on the lathe to finish turning. He will have turned a tennon (spigot) at the base for re-mounting. The drying process has to be slowed down or the wood will split. Robert uses multi-layer paper sacks (from Ecosack ), turning the sack inside out every so often to allow the wet inside layer to dry. This can take months so you need a lot of space to store the work in progress. The wood will distort during drying so the wall thickness has to be large enough to allow re-turning but small enough to allow it to dry without splitting.
Clearly this process is too long for a one night demo so he just showed the rough turning process using a log of wet yew which he had already mounted on a faceplate. Those in the front row will have shared the buzz you get as the shavings come streaming off when turning wet wood with grain parallel to the axis. Best not to think about having to clear up the mess later.
For this initial shaping of the outside, Robert used a roughing gouge and a bowl gouge with a long grind.
Hollowing starts by drilling a deep hole with a sawtooth bit mounted in a Jacob’s chuck in the tailstock. Small items can be hollowed with a bowl gouge and scraper but for deep hollowing a specialist hollowing tool is required. These can be just long tools with a swan neck and scraping tip but the best have a cutting tip with an adjustable shield to control the depth of cut. It helps to have a tool rest with a vertical peg against which to lever the tool. These tools are not cheap. Robert had an eye watering collection ranging from medium size to enormous. I believe they were Hamlet Big Brother. He warned against tools with numerous adjustable links at the tip. They can create excessive twisting leverage and are prone to coming loose. (I entirely agree, but you don’t have to fit the links just because they are supplied. I wouldn’t reject the Munro tool just because it comes with a number of links – ed.)
Hollowing fills the cavity with shavings that need to be cleared out regularly. Robert had adapted a large plastic spoon with the sides cut off for this purpose.
Having been asked so often whether wooden vases can be filled with water for flowers, Robert came up with a neat answer. He uses an optional waterproof insert made from a plastic loo brush container.
There was just time for a look at the members’ gallery. Robert was brave enough to offer some criticism and advice about shapes and finishing. I hope people were not upset by this. I thought it was helpful. The gallery items can be seen on the website.
Sometimes I think we don’t appreciate the talent in our midst. Some of our best evenings are when our own members entertain us and for me this was a good example. I confess I have never made a pen, I don’t fancy the repetition nor the investment in jigs etc that is necessary to do the job efficiently, but I have to say that turned pens can be beautiful and there is obviously a large demand. Ron is very knowledgeable on the subject and the activity is a significant part of his business, Acorn Crafts at Weyhill Fairground.
Though the UK market seems very impressive, it is dwarfed by the demand in USA and it was from there that the first pen kits were introduced into the UK by Dale Nish in 1990.
Ron told the story of how George Bush wanted a presidential gift that was made in America but couldn’t find anything – everything was made in China! Dick Cheney was given the job and came up with hand-made pens incorporating an inlaid presidential seal. I’m not sure which lucky turner got the job but it was a great boost to the market for pens. (I wonder where the pen mechanisms were made though.)
When the British Company Planet introduced a flexible adjustable mandrel it avoided the need for a lot of different sized ones. This has been copied by Axminster and Sorby but Ron thinks the Planet version remains the best.
So on with the show. Pen kits are supplied with the mechanism fitting inside metal tubes. The tubes are inserted and glued into pen blanks and assembled onto a jig for turning between centres. The blanks can be made of any material which can be turned; wood, acrylic, bone…The procedure is the same though tool technique and finishing may vary. What makes a pen really saleable is an attractive material and a high standard of finish.
Ron was using olive wood for his first demo. This is one of his favourites, especially Bethlehem olive. Alarmed by the loss of olive trees which take hundreds of years to grow, the Israeli government now prohibits felling. But pruning is allowed though this has to be done by hand to minimise damage and trees do die, so there is a supply albeit at a price. Still, you don’t need much wood for a pen.
The tube must fit snugly into the drilled blank. Ron gently abrades the tube surface and uses a polyurethane glue which works better than superglue. Another pen expert, Ian Woodford, asked whether Ron uses plugs to keep excess glue from the inside of the tubes. Ron acknowledged that some do, using potato plugs, but he is just careful. For a 2 part pen, the blank is parted in 2. To maintain a matching grain, the inside of the inserts is marked with a felt pen at the mating ends. Turning between centres is straightforward with a gouge and a skew. Special sets of small tools are available of course but standard ones will do the job.
To avoid sanding marks, Ron sands along the axis without the lathe running, rotating slowly by hand. Ron favours Renaissance wax as a finish. It is synthetic wax which repels the skin oils so the finish is very durable. It can be used on almost any material. The British museum even uses it to protect stone and marble exhibits. Ron no longer uses cloth for buffing as it can snatch and remove fingers. Paper is preferred. Safety cloth is strong but tears when snagged though toilet or kitchen roll works for those on a tighter budget.
Once removed from the turning jig the tubes and mechanism parts are assembled and pressed together. Ron uses a jig from Miles Craft.
After the break Ron gave a critique on some of the items that caught his eye on the gallery table. You can see all the pictures on the website.
For his second demo Ron made a pen from acrylic. The method is similar though for finishing, Ron used micromesh, wet, first with the lathe rotating then with it stopped with an axial movement of the mesh to remove any sanding rings. Having wiped off the slurry, the pen was burnished with Profile 300 and 500 cutting compound.
If you are wondering about those bespoke inlaid designs like the corporate pen with a penguin logo, the blanks are made to order by Ken Nelson. I Googled Ken Nelson inlaid acrylic and found a comprehensive article in downloadable pdf format.
If this has whetted your appetite, you might like to talk to Ron about all those jigs and materials and even sign up for a course. www.thepenmakers.co.uk