In the basic woodturning classes I teach at Woodcraft, students often ask about what they need to do woodturning. It is both an easy and a complex answer. You need four things -- a lathe, tools, sharpening system, and wood. But how do you know WHICH ones? The best single piece of advice I can offer is to join a woodturning club. You will find a wealth of knowledge and friendly members willing to offer advice and even hands-on help.
If your space is limited, a mini-lathe may be just the ticket. If your funds are limited, that mini-lathe may still be the right way to go. If you want to go a bit bigger, start talking to your fellow club members to see what they have and ask if you may test-drive something in which you may have interest. But whatever you do, whenever you buy a new lathe, whether it is your first or your fifth, don’t ever say to your spouse, “Honey, this is the last lathe I’ll ever need,” because it will be used against you when you want to upgrade!
As for sharpening, I have to advise you to get the slow speed (1725 rpm) grinder with the Wolverine and Vari-grind jigs. There are other sharpening systems around, but the vast majority of turners use these. You can get whatever you like for your shop but when you go to someone else’s shop, do a demo, or someone comes to your shop, it would be nice for everyone to use a system with which they are familiar. Once you have the grinder set up for the tool you are using, you can leave the lathe, sharpen the tool, and be back at the lathe in 15 seconds. Don’t turn with dull tools.
And that brings us to the tools you may need. You can do nearly everything with a 3/8” bowl gouge and a 1/8” parting tool. I recommend not buying the tool set with six or eight tools. You will get tools you will rarely use. Buy them one at a time and just get what you need as your skills improve. I also advise new turners to buy the Wood River brand tools. That is the Woodcraft store brand and they are just fine. They are inexpensive but there is a downside. That problem is that the flute is short. Being short, a new turner will likely grind off steel pretty rapidly as you learn to sharpen and will soon have that tool ground down to the point at which you can no longer sharpen it. But by then you will have learned to sharpen. Buy a replacement with a much longer flute and it will likely last for many years.
The 1/8” parting tool is the best all-around tool for that purpose. Later on you may want to add a 3/16” diamond-shaped parting tool or other sizes. Sharpening is quick and easy and your parting tools will last for years because you will only use them occasionally and not for hours on end like the bowl gouges.
But what would be the next tool to buy? Three come to mind. If you want to turn spindles, anything from pens to table legs or porch posts, the bowl gouge will work BUT having a spindle roughing gouge will be handy. A 1” spindle roughing gouge is the best overall size for that tool and is to be used ONLY for spindle work, not faceplate work such as bowls as it can be dangerous when used in that manner. Why dangerous? Two reasons, both relating to the grind on the tool. The cutting edge on this tool is wide so when presented to a piece of wood with the end grain spinning past the tool rest twice each rotation, there is a good chance of getting a bad catch in that end grain. That will be a surprise and could jerk the tool out of your hands and slam the handle into your face or up into your armpit. You will be very out of control. The other “danger” is to the tool itself because of the thin tang which sticks down into the tool handle. If you get a really bad catch, the tang may snap off right at the top end of the tool handle, rendering a very nice and reasonably expensive tool totally worthless. Stick to spindle work with this one.
If you find you are spending more and more time turning bowls, you may want to add a ½” bowl gouge. It is fatter so there will be less vibration and you will be able to hang it a bit farther off the tool rest. You can also rough out green wood faster because it takes a bigger bite. The third tool in this second wave of tools to buy is the spindle gouge. Turning spindles is great with a spindle roughing gouge but only if you want to keep them smooth and straight or with a light curve. If you want to turn beads, coves, and other details, get a 3/8” spindle gouge.
So, to recap, you need a lathe, tools, and a sharpening system. Yeah, you need wood, too, but that is a topic for another article. Buy tools in two waves. Get a 3/8” bowl gouge and an 1/8” parting tool first, and then add a 1” spindle roughing gouge, a 3/8” spindle gouge, and, if needed, a ½” bowl gouge.
But how about scrapers? You bet! They are great tools in spite of being denigrated by many. Lots of people started out with scrapers and there are many skilled turners who are well known for their products and they primarily use scrapers. Remember, never rub the bevel with a scraper. That is inviting a catch. Always angle a scraper down so the only thing touching the wood will be the edge of the tool. I particularly use scrapers in two cases -- smoothing out any irregularities in the bottom of a bowl which I am having trouble smoothing with the bowl gouge, and spindle turning, mainly beads and coves. I think a slicing tool will give a better finish under the cut but scraping with a nicely rolled burr will give a very good finish. A scraper can be a very aggressive tool but I don’t use it that way. I like to use it with finesse rather than aggressively, taking off very fine shavings.
That’s enough for now. My intention is to produce several articles about woodturning with the hope that newer turners will find this information helpful. Topics will be sharpening, other tools, peripheral equipment, and so forth. If you have a particular question which you would like to see addressed, please let me know.