Canadian Woodworking

Basic turning techniques for beginners

Author: J. P. Rapattoni
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: December January 2005
woodturning for beginners
woodturning for beginners

Turning can be very rewarding, but for the beginner, it can also be very frustrating. While you won’t get any better if you don’t practice, it is inevitable that practicing poor technique will inevitably lead to frustration.


turning right and wrong
wood turning

I can’t make you a better turner, but I can try to point you in the right direction with some basic techniques. Practice these techniques regularly using scrap wood. If I’ve been away from the lathe for a while, I’ll often do a few practice pieces before getting into a project.


Set-up and posture are two areas often overlooked by the novice. Stand in front of your lathe with your arms at your side and bend your elbow to 90°. The center of your lathe should be even with your elbow. You can make slight adjustments from there. I prefer about an inch above center point. Position yourself in front of the work in a loose stance with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your chisel with the handle in one hand and your arm tucked tight to your side. This hand controls the chisel. Position your other hand on the front of the tool rest and grasp the shank of the chisel. This hand guides the cut as it progresses. Don’t push the chisel away from you as you cut. Instead, move your body with the cut as it progresses. This may require moving your feet on some cuts. Naturally, not all cuts can be made in this manner but it’s a very good habit to form for most cuts.

First Cuts

For your first cuts, set your toolrest 1/8″ to 1/4″ away from the work, and even with the center of the lathe axis. Always turn the piece by hand to ensure that the rest is clear of the work before turning on the lathe. Start the lathe at low speeds for unbalanced blanks and medium speed for better balanced ones. Increase the speed as the blank comes more into balance. Speed is determined by the size of the work. Larger work requires slower starting speeds; you also use a slower speed for finishing. A 10″ bowl, for example, will require slower speeds throughout the turning, while you can increase the speed for a 6″ bowl as the turning progresses. Begin turning a small spindle at medium speeds and progress to the highest speeds.

Roughing the Blank

Typically you will rough the blank as the first step. Hold the roughing gouge 90° to the lathe axis, (as described above) with the flute pointing up and the handle low. Raise the handle slowly until the gouge makes contact with the work. The first point of contact should be at the bevel of the gouge. Continue raising the handle until it starts to cut. The higher you raise the handle, the deeper the cut will be. Remove most of the waste using just the center of the gouge flute, as that is the strongest point of the tool. Once you have removed the large points from the work you can begin using the sides of the gouge. Swing the handle around slightly to one side and turn the flute to approximately 10:00 on the clock. This will present the long edge on the side of the flute to the work. Approach the work in the same manner – handle low, rubbing the bevel and raising until it begins to cut. You can cut in both directions by mirroring the chisel position on the back cut. If it’s more comfortable for you, you could simply cut in just one direction. You can achieve a very smooth cut by presenting the long edge of the gouge to the work. Remove as much waste as you can with the roughing gouge, then move on to your smaller gouges.

Rub the Bevel

Always rub the bevel when using a gouge or a skew. The bevel of the tool does two things. First, it directs the cut. If the bevel is pointing toward the center of the work piece, that’s were the chisel is going to go. It will try to follow the bevel straight into the center of the work. That’s how you get those nasty catches. If you imagine a line extending from the bevel, passing through the outside 1/16″ of the work, that’s the path the chisel will follow. This produces a 1/16″ deep cut. The bevel rubbing behind the cut prevents the chisel from going deeper into the work. No more catches. Secondly, the bevel supports the grain behind the cut so there is less tearout. As the edge of the tool cuts, the bevel holds the fibers in place behind the cut (much like the mouth of a hand-plane holds the fibers down to prevent tearing the grain). It is this action that determines the height of the toolrest. The toolrest should be set so you can cut in this manner and have the chisel handle in a comfortable position. With the toolrest too low, the handle is too low to be comfortable. It’s the same when the toolrest is too high.

The Scraper

All rules have exceptions and in this case it’s the scraper. The scraper is used at 90° angles (and greater) to the work, with the toolrest slightly below center. You don’t rub the bevel on a scraper. Just scrape the work, as the name implies. There are a multitude of scrapers on the market. From a plain square edged scraper to specialty scrapers made for hollowing large vessels. All are used in the same manner.

Supporting the Cut

Always position your tool so the cut is supported by the toolrest. When you make a cut, only one part of the cutting edge is doing the work. Imagine a line from that point, straight down the tool to the handle. The tool should be resting on the tool rest directly below the point where that imaginary line crosses the toolrest. If the tool is supported by the toolrest to one side of that line, the resistance of the cutting action will try to twist the tool out of your hand. This leads to poor control, poor cuts, and fatigue. Following these guidelines will produce cleaner cuts and reduce fatigue on the turner. A proper cut doesn’t require a “death grip” on the tool. You should be quite relaxed when doing most of your turning. Practicing these basic techniques will lead to more enjoyment from your lathe.

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