Friday, January 2, 2009

Latest From the Lathe

At the beginning of December, I got commissioned to make three lathe turned wine buckets.

Yep, you read that right, wine buckets.

You know, buckets to hold ice and water and keep a bottle of wine cold. Yeah, like that.

The buyer saw one of my urns, on the desk in my wife’s office in the Port of Anchorage, this one actually:

And he wanted something similar in style.

Hmmm. Here’s the problem – making an urn, which sits displayed on a desk in a stable environment, is one thing. Making a wooden bucket that’s going to be filled with water and ice is something else entirely. Ice water implies condensation, and big temperature gradients, and lots of moisture, thermal expansion and contraction and a number of other things that don’t go well with woodwork, especially woodwork turned from green birch.

What I needed was a way manage all those problems and still be able to create artwork similar to the piece above.

After a little research, I obtained a number of generic wine buckets from my local supplier of fine culinary products for low prices (The Wasilla Target). Each bucket was a plain stainless steel cylinder, 6 inches in diameter (large enough to fit a standard wine bottle, or a couple of magnum sized bottles if you use a hammer) and 13 inches tall. With a vacuum core between the inner and outer surfaces like an insulated metal coffee mug to reduce heat transfer and prevent condensation.

Then I proceeded to build the turned exteriors around the cores. That took about two weeks. Each piece was to be different and unique in design (the buyer intends them to be gifts for three people who all know each other, so they had to be similar, but different enough to be unique).

Each bucket would be made from several different pieces of wood, rather than being turned from a single large blank. This allowed me to more easily shape the final piece around the metal core. I selected the wood and cut it to rough size, then let it dry for a week or so. I cut extra blanks just in case, and to provide a wider range for matching grains and contrasts. The urn in the picture above uses both Alaskan Birch and Bubinga, an exotic hardwood obtained from the flowering tree Guibourtia which grows in the African Congo. It’s frightfully expensive and difficult to work with and has different expansion properties from birch. I was afraid that mixing the two types of wood in the wine buckets would eventually lead to cracking and joint failure. So I decided to make the contrast pieces from 1” thick flat sawn Alaskan Birch heartwood that had been kiln dried and stabilized. See, the contrasting pieces are more than just decorative, they provide stability for the green birchwood that makes up the bulk of the piece. The contrasting pieces are attached cross grain at the top and bottom of each greenwood piece and prevent the drying green wood from distorting. (If you have no idea of what I’m talking about, don’t worry, there’ll be pictures in a minute). Once everything was rough turned, each piece was glued together and allowed to dry for several days. Then the pieces were mounted on the lathe using live centers and a friction chuck and turned to the final shape and burnished.

Then I inserted the steel cores and let them dry for two weeks in under the gas heater.

The rapid drying process did two things, it caused the green birch wood to shrink down tightly around the steel cores, and it caused the uncured wood to crack.

Yep, crack.

Which is exactly what I wanted.

I then filled the cracks with gold, silver, and copper – and added turquoise and crushed red coral to two of the pieces – mixed with a crystal clear epoxy matrix. And I sealed the steel cores to the wood by filling the gaps with an injected marine grade waterproof epoxy.

Then I let that dry for a while.

Then I put the pieces back on the lathe and finished them with sand paper and wood chip burnishing.

Each piece was then soaked in several coats of Danish oil.

And finally (I thought), each piece was covered in Mirror Coat, a thick crystal clear epoxy finish that when cured looks like the piece has been dipped in glass. Each application of Mirror Coat takes 24 hours to cure. After two applications the wine buckets were completely water tight, and utterly beautiful.

I should have stopped there, but noooooooo. Not me.

I decided just to be safe, I’d put on a third coat.

It was a disaster.

Mirror Coat is a two part epoxy. Either I screwed up the proportions or the temperature in the shop dropped too low (we had a power outage on the night of the application). Whatever the cause, the final coat didn’t set. The buckets became basically beautifully made flypaper. Gah, what a mess.

This was about two days before Christmas. I was supposed to deliver them on Christmas eve, and there was just no way. The customer was most understanding, and said he really didn’t need them until, well, today as a matter of fact.

So, I stripped them down and started over.

This time they came out perfect. Thankfully.

The first one my wife calls “The Top Hat”

Wine Bucket 1

Personally, I like this design the best. The rim makes it easy to carry, even when full of water, ice, and a wine bottle. The red veins are crushed red coral and copper. In this design the main cylinder was turned end-grain, and the top rim is where all the interesting grain is.

The second one is more complex:

Wine Bucket 2

The top and bottom sections are turned from cross grain pieces and large heartwood rosettes. The contrast piece in the middle provides reinforcement and a handgrip. This design can be a little slippery when wet. Cracks in the wood are filled with gold and silver.

The third piece was the most complex of the set:

Wine Buckets 5

This one is probably closest in style to the original urn design. The lower section contained a deep bark indentation which I really liked. I filled it with gold, silver, and turquoise chips – giving it the appearance of a cut and polished geode (which you can see in the close-up inset).

They were delivered this morning and the customer is happy. Which makes me happy.


I turned a number of other pieces during the last month, most are still unfinished, but I did complete a few that I gave away as Christmas presents. Here’s a vase I did for my parents:

Vase 1

The base is bleached Alaskan birch, the crown is bubinga. Finished in tung oil and Mylands friction polish.


And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back out to the shop.


  1. Jim - that 'top hat' is just fabulous. Delightful. Hope you're charging enough.

  2. Purty!

    I personally like the second vase/urn best. :)

  3. Ewan, me too.

    Also, it occurs to me that I may owe you a coffee press.

  4. All three are absolutely amazing.

    I'm jealous.


  5. Jim, those are very lovely.

    Something occurred to me, though. Periodically you gloat about your retired lifestyle. Your free time, your ability to write, to choose a few consulting engagements, to enjoy your hobbies and your time with your family.

    Lately you've sounded an awful lot like a stressed and overworked craftsman/small businessman.

    How'd that happen?

    But congrats on all the business. :D

  6. Jeri, you're right, I'll try to gloat more. Thanks. :)

  7. Jim, those are just fantastic. I'm gonna have to make a trip down there some day and take a peek (and pick up some of that there 'Valley' turning stock).

    Yeah, gloat some more, you've definitely earned it :)

    (shuffles back to the shop)

  8. Man, I'm green with envy. Beautiful work, Jim!

  9. I figured I had hassled you about coffee presses enough and you were busy repressing the Forces of Righteous Physics or something.

    On the other hand...man, if I had a press that looked anything like that hat, well, I'd drink more coffee.

    Maybe there is a downside after all.

    [If/when you have time, let me know. Thanks. Should I sign myself off as Dr. McNay?]

  10. Meeza wants. Wants, wants, wants.

    Are you still taking commissions, or do you have other fish to fry?

  11. Pretty. Me want. Husband wise to packages from Palmer Alaska, though. Rats.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.