It has been slow developing, but I’m now developing a real love for green woodworking, and in particular green wood turning using a pole lathe.
The first time I had a go was in November 2011, when Peter Wood from Greenwood Days came to the woods to give us an introduction. Then in 2012 I attended a stool-making course with Greenwood Days, and Peter very kindly built me a pole lathe. I also managed to get a shave-horse, and was now set up to do wood turning.
Of course that came at the wrong time of year – no new wood would be cut until the winter, so I had no green wood to play with. I did a little bit of turning with dry wood, but it wasn’t really suitable. I turned a few mushrooms from stems we did cut during the summer, but I was waiting for the winter with great enthusiasm.
Our winter started late, thanks to deteriorating health, and a stay in hospital, but having now got stuck in to thinning we have some green wood to work with. So it was that my pole lathe and shave horse were moved into our new wood-drying shed, providing a great sheltered area to work in.
The pole lathe is adjustable in height, which means we can both use it, and also uses a bungee as this allows it to be moved around easily, and used both indoors and out (helpful when the weather turns really cold). The first task was to get some billets large enough to work with – not easy, as most of the stems we were felling were quite small, at least initially.
So it was that I started off turning mushrooms from complete poles of sycamore. In a way this is harder than working with a nice straight billet split from a log, as you don’t get a completely straight pole, so starting off on the lathe is quite jerky and difficult. However I managed to produce some workable mushrooms of different sizes, and tried out some hawthorn and holly as well. The hawthorn was surprisingly easy to work, considering how it is often very twisted, and also a very hard wood when it is dry. But the holly was very hard to work – very dense, very wet, and in the end the mushrooms split too easily after working, early on in the drying process. I will probably leave the remaining holly poles to dry a bit before working them.
I then managed to split some oak and ash logs and started working them. Bearing in mind my entire pole lathe experience to date has been one not-altogether-great garden dibber, three stool legs (they were better) and a few mushrooms, this was a bit daunting. I’d never really used the spindle gouge or skew chisel in anger, never turned a bead, could only work handles and knobs in one direction. In short, I was a complete beginner.
But I tried to apply what I had learned to date. Although I have a side-axe, I find it much easier to use my little Gransfors hatchet to axe off the corners of the split logs. It is light enough for me to use, and although it isn’t a side axe, I find it works more like a knife, and it suits me. I can certainly get the crude billets reasonably round and straight, whereas the heavier side axe is harder to use and I get fatigued more quickly.
I then used the draw-knife to shave the pieces into smoother, rounder, straighter billets. I love shaving, and could honestly get carried away and shave too much before it ever gets to the lathe. It is just a peaceful and therapeutic activity, sitting in the woods, listening to the woodpeckers drumming, sipping coffee and enjoying the winter sunshine.
Then the big test – the lathe. It took a while to remember all the things you need to do. Getting it centred, oiling the spindles, getting it set up so that the gearing is correct (how many turns to the cord to use). But in the end, I managed to get started.
The roughing gouge is easy, and I wasn’t scared of using it, so I managed to get a round piece of wood quite quickly. But then I had to move on to other tools, and just had to make mistakes until I got the hang of turning beads using the skew chisel, turning spindles using the spindle gouge, and smoothing it all off using the flat chisel. Stephen also had some tools he has used on a powered lathe, and I had a go with these – various scrapers and a gouge with a different diameter.
Slowly and surely, I started to produce stuff that wasn’t too bad. Lots and lots of cord-pulls, some toilet roll and kitchen roll holders, a couple of rolling pins, a few garden dibbers, and a honey-dipper. I tried turning round knobs at the end of things – first at one end, and then at the other end of the piece. I learned to turn things in both directions, so I didn’t get lazy and one-handed. It was so exciting to start off with enthusiasm and no skill and very gradually start to gain control over what was happening with the wood.
One thing I really loved was putting the billet onto the lathe and then looking at the wood and deciding what the wood wanted to be made into, rather than starting with a pre-conceived idea of what I would make from it.
Now we have finished thinning, I have a window of a few weeks in which to turn the larger logs I have into stool legs so they can dry out, and be mounted into a stool, bench or table top made from seasoned wood (of which we have plenty). I am enjoying trying out different types of green wood – ash is lovely, but holly needs a bit more work, oak can be a bit flaky, and I’ve got some sycamore, hawthorn and some larch to try (it didn’t work – but I had a go).
I find I can lose track of time with my wood turning. I get up to the woods mid-morning, and forget to eat or drink, even though I have sandwiches and a flask. I can spend all day there, and get home with something to show for it. Something that feels special, because it is part of the woods, was made in the woods, and has a part of my heart and soul and toil in it.
There is so much more to learn. I would love to make lovely handles for tools, for example. I really want to learn how to make a bowl-turning pole lathe and turn bowls from green wood. One day I want to make another shave horse from our own wood. I am SO pleased I took the plunge, went on a course, learned how to do it, and then persisted. I have made lots of mistakes. The stuff I make is far from perfect. But every little bit of wood is an exercise in which I can learn and gain skills. And if it goes really wrong, the shavings can be used in the Kelly-kettle and the rest dried out and used as kindling – so nothing is wasted.