Saturday, February 14, 2009

Latest from the Lathe – Beastly’s Cherry Burl

As regulars know, my pal Beastly spent last summer here at Stonekettle Station.

He drove up the Alaska Highway in his RV and brought along a pile of hardwoods and turning blanks that he had scrounged from various places across the country. Last summer he turned a few of those blanks, and I turned a few. And we incorporated some into other things. But we worked mostly in Alaskan Birch and so some of Beastly’s stock sat untouched in the wood rack.

Including a large, very gnarly cherry burl.

Cherry is highly prized by woodworkers. Straight grained and dense, it makes beautiful furniture. When you’re working with it, it makes the whole shop smell like cherry pipe tobacco - without the burning tobacco under current. But it’s difficult to work with, it burns easily, it doesn’t take certain finishes well – finishes tend to come out blotchy if you don’t use special preparation and sealers – and it tends to splinter and chip out if you’re not very careful.

Cherry is also expensive – especially burled cherry.

So, somehow neither Beastly or I got around to turning that big burl. We’d pick it up. Look at it. Feel the weight. And put it back on the shelf. I’d say to Beastly, “You should turn that.” And he’d reply, “No. I brought that up here for you to turn.” And I’d reply, “Maybe next time.”

At the end of the summer, he left for warmer climes and that cherry burl remained unturned.

Periodically, Beastly asks me on the phone if I’ve turned that blank. Maybe next time, maybe next time.

Last week however, it was cold and wet and windy out – and I was out of prepared birch blanks in the shop. Going out in the weather with the chainsaw to cut more did not appeal to me.

So I finally turned that cherry burl.

Turning a unbalanced and irregular burl with dense heavy bark is a really good way to either bash yourself silly or cut the hell out of your hands. The smart thing to do would be to cut the burl into a balanced round blank on the bandsaw prior to mounting on the lather. This also did not appeal to me – the burl’s irregular, vaguely oval, shape and gnarly bark were part of what made it so interesting. So I mounted it on a large cast iron turning plate and turned it the way it was. Very, very carefully.

I used only the large Sorby bowl scraper, and stopped regularly to touch up the scraper’s edge. With wood like this you want the absolute sharpest tools at all times.

Some turners, like Beastly, go into a project knowing exactly what they want in the final piece. Not me. I usually have no idea what the final piece will look like and in this case as the piece began to emerge from the wood, I settled on a shallow concave shape with a natural oval rim.

When finished, the bowl contained deep bark lines and a partial under-bark rim. Looking at that, and the wood’s natural pink cherry tint, I decided to enhance those areas using a technique I’ve been developing for a year or so now. I won’t tell you how I do it, but the natural recesses were filled with red and gold flake, mixed with a wooden and crystal filler I created, and left to dry. The final effect is created via layering and takes several days. When complete, the effect very closely resembles the interior crystalline structure of a cut geode and it appears that the wooden burl has literally grown around an interior metallic jewel.

I’m quite happy with it. And the pictures don’t really do it justice. In strong sunlight it is simply amazing.

Cherry 5

Cherry 1

Cherry 4

Cherry 3

Cherry 6

This a large heavy piece. Finished in simple Tung oil and burnished.

The chips and saw dust from this project went into my fireplace and are making the house smell wonderful.

Enjoy your weekend.


  1. It looks alive -- like something found in a cavern on a barren alien world with a dying cinder of an ancient sun... Watch that it does not exact revenge on you for burning its children in the fire.

    Dr. Phil

  2. Your latest from the lathe is fantastic!

    Did you send a photo to FSM? Those knots look a bit like meatballs, and the burl patterns rather like spaghetti. Could it be His Noodliness?

    I wonder if global warming will begin to reverse now that piracy is on the rise again?

  3. One day I will be worthy of your creations. Until then, I will drool from afar and covet.

    Lovely, just lovely. And that you don't plan out every piece, letting the wood tell you its secrets is true artistry.

    -cleans up puddle, goes to get more coffee-


  4. Hey Bro...you make me wanna take up a lathe and tools and quite my day job.

    That's the best kind of art right there bro...the best.

  5. Nice, nice, nice!

    (now jonesin' for a lump o' wood to turn)

    Reminds me to ask: what kinds of chucks/mounts do you use? I guess that one in particular, but also in general. Must be hefty as I'm guessing that burl started off at about 15-18 pounds? Maybe more?

    ::waiting for 5::

  6. Jim, that is stunning. I think Beastly was right - it was yours to turn.

    Thank you for sharing it with us.

  7. Karl, I didn't weight it but I'd say it was around 12-15lbs or so. This was dried piece sealed in wax, so much of the moisture weight was long gone.

    I started it on an 8" cast iron turning plate, mounted to the cut side of the burl with 2" screws, 6 of them. I use turning plates pretty often, at least to start, and in this case I wanted a rock solid mount and the weight of the turning plate, which helped to damp vibration since the burl was irregular. Once the bottom of burl was shaped with heavy scrapers, and a lot of the weight was gone, I cut that dovetail recess into the bottom with a Sorby thin kerf parting tool, an angled box scraper, and finally a 1" flat scraper. The recess is 4" in diameter. I then reversed it onto a Nova 3G chuck with 100" jaws, mounted in expanded dovetail mode. Then it was a simple matter of turning down the concave interior with the large bowl hollowing scraper. I never touched the sides on this piece, only the top and bottom, in order to preserve the bark and natural edge.

    The trick to scrapers is that they have to be razor sharp, especially on woods like cherry or purpleheart or bubinga or they will catch and burn. I use a Wolverine jig on ultrafine 8" white grinding wheels, followed by finish sharpening on the WorkSharp 3000 glass plate sharping system using 2000-4000 grit paper and then buffed on a rotating glass backed leather strop using green buffing compound. If you can't shave with it, it ain't sharp. During turning, I'll stop periodically and touch the tool up on the strop - which is permanently mounted on a dedicated Work Sharp 2000.

    In general though, I use a number of chucks (mostly Nova), turning plates in the 8",6", and 3" size, and occasionally a woodworm screw mount. It just depends on the wood and what I want to do with it. Because I mostly turn green wood, I prefer a chuck mount, butted against a live center on the tailstock until it's rounded and balanced enough for face turning. I like cast iron turning plates for the weight, but can't use them a lot of time on wet wood because they will rust and stain the birch - though I do have a couple of 3" stainless steel ones. Those are good for smaller pieces and if I have to leave the piece mounted for a long time, but they don't have the weight of cast iron.

  8. Nice - never tried the Nova, but I've heard all good things about it.

    I have an old Grizzly Chiwanese scroll chuck that I use if I don't have to remount the work - works great for some things and holds on like a tick... My serious chuck is a PCI Barracuda - has 4 sets of jaws for all kinds of holding, a worm, plus some custom made jaws. I have faceplates for holding the serious stuff until it can be chucked, and a few different wooden mandrels and jam chucks that thread right on to the spindle. I also made a Longworth chuck just to see if I could and it works pretty all right for what it is. Then there's the Morse tapered pieces parts... You have a 5/8" spindle? You ever tap a piece to fit and turn it directly?

    Half my tools I sharpen on the grinder, half on the sanding disc - the scrapers make those pretty little paper thin ribbons right off the sander (120) and the gouges cut really clean straight off the grinder (80-100) - I usually start sanding at 120 or 150. I'll hone if I need to make a cut that I'll never sand.

    Gotta run - I hear banjoes...

  9. I got just about every type of jaw for Nova chucks that they make including the cole jaw. I've actually got duplicate jaws in a lot of sizes, Beastly left a bunch here when he departed last summer. I got a bunch of jam chucks and friction mounts that I made. The usual mandrels and worms and miscellanea that turners collect.

  10. Now there's an advertisement for a real manly man -- "I shave with a lathe."

    Dr. Phil (who hasn't shaved since Amtrak's 10th birthday)

    (which was Friday 1 May 1981)

    (which was the first day of a new job and it was hot and I resented the irritation of the razor -- so went year-round with the beard instead of just winter protection)

  11. Inspiring! Yeah that's what I am. Like a Muse or sumthin. Nice to see you finally did turn that thing and I will be photographing and posting pictures of it's brother that I turned here.

  12. Gorgeous!

    Since I'm trying to learn more about the black arts of wood finishing, with it finished in Tung oil will it remain more blonde in color or age to a darker reddish-brown as unfinished cherry is wont to do?

  13. If allowed to breath, Mensley, it will darken with age.

    If sealed, which is what I will do with this one, it will remain mostly lighter in color.

    Since taking the picture I've sealed this piece with several coats of wipe on varathane. This was done to preserve the wood and seal the inlays.


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