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4th November – Les Thorne

11 November, 2013

The regular November slot for Les Thorne is as popular as ever judging from the attendance and gallery entries. It’s easy to see why. Les always has something interesting to do and say and does so in a compelling if sometimes provocative fashion.

Tonight his main course was about salt and pepper mills and there was a delicious dessert to follow.

It’s a pity our mill specialist Chris West wasn’t there to heckle, I think Les was actually looking forward to the banter, but in the event there was no shortage of that. So, on with the show…

Les  3 mills      Les with mill

Les tries to standardise designs and procedures as far as possible to reduce production time to a minimum. He has developed a particular design for his mills and makes them in batches of about 50. However he gives them a “bespoke” appearance by varying the finish. He always colours them because plain wooden mills are readily available and cheap. The coloured finish makes each one individual and helps to justify a price of about £60 a time.

He only uses the crush grind type mechanism in spite of the cost. These always work, so he gets no complaints, and are guaranteed for a long time. Even the occasional one replaced under warranty is turned into an earner since a new mill is required because the mechanism doesn’t come out and the mill is chargeable. Even O’Leary could learn something from this man!

Les section thru mill

The picture shows a section through a mill together with the mechanism. Les starts with a hexagonal blank (always worth taking the “corners” off a square section with a band saw to reduce turning time and initial vibration). Before turning, the blanks are drilled on the lathe using Forstner bits for the large holes and a twist drill for the straight through as that is much faster. Beware though, drilling on the lathe like this requires a powerful lathe with robust bearings and tailstock mechanism. The recess for the securing tabs on the grinder is cut with a modified thread chaser with teeth ground off but it is common practice to simply glue the grinder in place. Either way it is almost impossible to remove it once it is in.

Using the drilled hole to locate the blank, it is mounted between centres and driven by friction. The bead at the bottom is turned and shaped by sanding. This is quicker than cutting the bead. The bead is then spray painted black before the body is turned. This avoids the need for fiddly masking or brushwork because the overspray is removed.

The cap is turned with the capstan in position for support. The end grain at the top doesn’t stain well so it too is spray painted black. It’s also a nice contrast with the body stain.


The 2 parts are pushed together and stained with acrylic stains. Les applies different colours in turn, allowing each to dry and gently sanding with the grain between applications. The variation in wood hardness, particularly if there is a natural ripple produces a pleasing variation in colour density. Final finish is with multiple coats of acrylic clear gloss for a shiny hard wearing finish. Finally a button of black or white Corion is popped in the hole in the top to indicate salt or pepper. Les usually leaves this until the customer has selected the mills. He does not attempt to make matched pairs as experienced has taught him that people like to select them individually anyway.


The “dessert” was pure indulgence. Les doesn’t regard wet turning as commercially worthwhile (Bert Marsh might have disagreed) but it can be great fun and there’s plenty of wood around after the gales.

Les making shavings   Les - Steve sheltering

The joy of making streams of shavings from a log of holly was evident and prompted Steve Page to shelter under his brolly. (OK Les, we’ll clear it up). Shaping the inside first is a challenge to most people as you can’t see the shape but if you can get away with it, it leaves the easier task of turning the outside to a very thin wall thickness. Les made me promise not to use the more exciting images from the demo for fear of the pc brigade so I’ll just say this. It involved illuminating from the inside of the bowl with the house lights off. Great entertainment and a brilliant result.

Les wet bowl

There was just time for a few well chosen words about some of the items on the gallery table. A most impressive display of 19 items tonight, pictures of which can be seen on the website.


Follow that!

Dave Gibbard


Post script. 36 hours later, the wet bowl had shrunk to give a delightful wavy edge, one of the things I love about wet turning. However, that large foot had split. I’m sure Les would have said the lesson is either don’t put such a foot on a wet bowl or make a separate one from contrasting dry wood.

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