As regulars know, our good friend Jeri lost her husband on March 19th.
She asked me if I would be interested in making a cremation urn.
I was honored to do so.
Jeri and I talked about designs and what she wanted. I forwarded her some ideas. And I started out with something very specific in mind – and like almost all of my work, it evolved along the way and what I ended up with is not what I originally had in mind at all.
Wood is like that. It’s organic. It grows. Its beauty (or ugliness) is hidden inside under layers of bark and sapwood and knots – and a lot of the time I never know what I’m going to get until the final piece emerges under my chisels and scrapers on the lathe.
It has taken me several weeks, but the urn is now complete.
I forwarded pictures to Jeri a couple of days ago, hoping that she would like the final design. She did. I asked if I could post the urn’s development here on Stonekettle Station. Jeri said she would like that.
I started at the wood pile. I have several piles of green stock, sorted into type and grain, in various states of drying. The piece I selected was a 4’ long birch log, with a crotch or branching at one end that had been drying outside for about a year. I cut a large piece, about 20” long, centered on the crotch (in this case, actually called a “shoulder”) using the chainsaw.
I intended to turn this piece longitudinally (with the grain) – sort of like hollowing out a log. Because of the shoulder, the piece was heavy and dense and irregular shaped. It weighed about fifty pounds. Now, you can spindle mount a piece like that and turn it, but it’ll knock the crap out of you in the process. I wanted to square up the piece first, and balance it. That way it would turn much easier and faster, and reduce stress on the lathe and, more importantly, on me.
I first squared the log into a rough rectangle using the chain saw and a squaring template (just a square of hardboard, cut to the dimensions I wanted). I could then have run the piece through the thickness planer, but I decided to do the squaring by hand. There was a soft bark line and complex grain running up one side of the log, and I was afraid that the thickness planer would damage those areas. A hand plane gives the woodworker more of a visceral feel, unlike the power planer, and better control. It takes practice to learn how to sharpen, tune, and use a hand plane properly – but you’d be amazed at the results if you saw it done by somebody who knows what they’re doing. I’ve had a lot of practice. That’s a Bailey No. 5, a Jack Plane, in the picture below. Using that and the Bailey No. 7, a large Jointer Plane, made very short work of shaping the log. When a plane is properly sharpened and tuned (the art of truing and adjusting the tool, which can be a complex process), it produces long, soap bubble-thin curls of wood. In the picture below you can see a 4” wide, translucent curl next to the plane.
In the following picture, you see the pile of shavings after about five minutes of work. That’s a Stanley No. 2 smoothing plane (with the red wedge) in front of the Bailey No. 5.
Once the piece was balanced, I squared the ends up with the big radial-arm saw and spindle mounted it on the Shopsmith, using an 8” cast iron turning plate on the drive end and a heavy-duty live center on the tailstock. A lot of turners don’t care for the ShopSmith, which is actually a multifunction machine and not a dedicated lathe. Me? I love it. I’m left handed and have nerve damage in my left arm and hand, which affects how I work. I tend to use nonstandard techniques, my tools are ground differently, and most turners would go mad if they tried to duplicate my techniques. The Shopsmith works perfectly for me because it can be configured in ways that a standard lathe cannot. I actually have two Shopsmiths, an old Mk V, Model 500 that I use as the lathe and Beastly’s much newer MK V Model 520 which he kindly left here last summer. My 500 has been modified, and I own a number of aftermarket add-ons. I can do things with it that you just can’t do on a regular lathe. Now, I’ve been told that it’s impossible to get professional results from a Shopsmith. Bah. Basically, when it comes to woodworking, one size doesn’t fit all and the proof is in the results – You’ve seen my work, you can decide for yourself if it’s “professional” or not.
I began by shaping the wood with the roughing gouge, turning it into a cylinder.
Sometimes birch itself can be very plain, sometimes spectacular. It was fairly obvious almost immediately that this piece would of the spectacular variety.
Next, I marked out the basic dimensions of the original design and began shaping the cylinder. I wanted that dark bark line and the surrounding complex grain to be the center piece of the final urn. I’ll show you why in a minute.
With what I thought was the basic shape established, I stopped turning for the day and began enhancing that bark wood line. This area was formed around the original shoulder, a place where a large branch split off from the main trunk. Sapwood, heartwood, and the bark line all grew together in complex patterns. While, ultimately, this creates very beautiful effects in the final piece, it’s an area of weakness in the wood. With a piece this large and heavy, spinning on the lathe, well it can cause the whole thing to fly apart. It can also cause the final piece to distort as the wood dries, causing cracks or even making the finished urn split apart.
I stabilized the area by cutting away the soft wood and crumbly bark with a Foredom rotary tool and a carbide cutter. Then filled those areas and any cracks in with a custom filler mixture made from a fast setting glue and various types of wood dust and precious metals, specifically gold (forgive me if I’m a little vague here, it’s taken me a long time to perfect this technique, and I'm kind of proprietary about it). In the picture below the filled areas appear yellow orange, almost like amber, because of the glue. Once cured, the area will transform from being a weakness to the strongest part of the entire piece, and the gold will stand out like ore seams in stone.
I let the piece dry slowly for a couple of days, wrapped in a plastic bag to control the process. If the piece dries too fast it will distort and crack.
After a week, the wood’s surface moisture level was reduced by about half. The center of the block was still very wet. The filler was cured and very strong (I used a type of glue that bonds with moisture and, in fact won’t cure properly without it)
Then the piece was reversed and remounted.
I parted off the top, what I originally intended to be the lid, and then began hollowing out the inside.
Once the interior was roughly hollowed out, I parted the urn in half.
Why would I cut the urn in half? Well, first because it makes hollowing out the endgrain interior a hell of a lot easier, but really so I could glue in a exotic hardwood piece – in this case bubinga (Guibourtia demeusei) commonly known kevazingo, a species of exotic hardwood from the African Congo. The pieces spent a night in clamps, waiting for the glue to cure, I then turned and balanced the whole piece spindle-mounted against the tailstock. Cut bubinga smells like exotic spices and flavored pipe tobacco.
Then the interior of the bubinga is cut away, carefully in order to preserve as much of the wood as possible. Bubinga is very expensive. The piece removed to create the bubinga ring, which I call the donut hole for obvious reasons, will become the base of the urn in a later step. I also added more gold flake to the bark line at this point.
With the bottom portion done to rough, I moved on to the upper section of the urn. I had intended to reattach the original top that I parted off during the hollowing process, unfortunately (or actually in retrospect, fortunately) that piece disintegrated on the lathe.
So I fashioned a new piece from the same log that the original wood came from, and changed the design in the process.
I hadn’t intended to change the design, but as the grain emerged from the new piece I decided to follow where it led. In the picture below, the new upper piece is sitting on top of the lower piece and the bubinga ring so I can see how it looks and check the shape. The whole assembly is sitting on the shattered original upper section. You can see the difference in shape. The new piece will make the whole urn taller and more elegant.
You might notice that the grain of the upper piece perfectly matches the lower piece, even though the two pieces came from different sections of the original log. That took some careful engineering. I was happy with how it all fit together, so I glued it up, including the bubinga base, and let it sit for a couple of days, this time inside a paper bag to control the drying process. The lid is inside that plastic bag on the bottom right of the picture below.
After a couple of days in the drying cabinet, the moisture content had dropped to about 15% and the piece was ready for final turning. The following picture shows the whole urn spindle-mounted on the lathe using a set of large Cole jaws to drive the urn against a live center. In the background you can see the bottom portion of the powered dust collector intake. That sits on top of three large 400cfm/2 micron canister filters and is driven by a 1hp motor attached to 800cfm squirrel cage blower. When I’m sanding a turning piece that dust collector system is directly behind the lathe and gets 99.9% of all dust and fines, which allows me to turn without a respirator. The filter stand also holds my work light and various tools.
I carefully shaped the hardwood pieces, stopping frequency to put a burr edge back on my turning scrapers. A catch or gouge at this point could completely ruin the piece. The following three pictures look very similar, but if you look carefully you can see the piece subtly changing shape.
The last turning step was to complete the lid. I had turned the basic shape from the same piece of stock that the upper section of the urn came from. I dovetail mounted it in a Nova chuck and turned the final shape. Then I reversed it in the chuck and turned a recess for a bubinga finial. I cut a rough bubinga disk on the bandsaw, then trued it against a disk sander using a simple circle making jig. This is something that the Shopsmith makes incredibly easy. I set up the jig on the second Shopsmith, the advanced 520 I use for special purpose work, configured for disk sanding and in minutes had a perfectly turned disk of bubinga cut to exact size. That was then glued into the lid’s recess, clamped, and left to dry. A day later I remounted the lid and finished the finial. Then the whole piece was allowed to dry to a final moisture content of about 9%, remounted in the lathe, sanded and burnished with birch wood chips. Then saturated in several coats of natural Danish Oil.
All surfaces inside and out were sealed with wood sealer, and finally the piece was coated in a dozen coats of glossy varathane finish.
The final urn is 17” tall and 8” in diameter at the shoulder.
The idea here was to create an urn that incorporated Alaskan themes (the birch and the gold) with hints of deeper complexity and mystery – and elements of the world outside (the African bubinga). I wanted to create something that spoke of Bryan, Jeri’s husband, an Alaskan at heart but experienced in the world and with a sense of adventure, complex, warm, and unique. Flawed, as we all are, but within the flaws are seams of gold.
I don’t normally name my pieces, but for certain very special ones I do.
This one is called Heart of Gold.