For 5 years I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, quite a change for this born-and-raised New Yorker. It was while living there I was first introduced to woodturning. Just before moving back to New York I bought myself a lathe, a really nice medium-sized benchtop JET that I had saved up for. Of course in the chaos of getting ready to move back I didn't even get a chance to turn it on before coming back to the big apple, and have not set it up even now, 2 years later, as I do not have a good place to use it.
Sigh. What is the longest you have gone between buying a tool and using it for the first time?
Woodturning is intriguing to me. Unique because unlike most other forms of woodworking where there are usually more than one way to skin a proverbial cat, with turning there is really no getting around the fact that you need a lathe to do it (along with turning tools, eventually a grinder, and more, all of which take up money and space). Also unique in that your wood is moving and you bring your tool to it, not the other way around. Fun! When I decided to get my lathe I was warned that turning can also be addictive - that the ability to turn out a finished product in 30 minutes or less for some folks trumps spending weeks or longer on non-turning projects. And I can’t say I disagree. It is a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend anyone interested in woodworking at least giving it a try at some point, whether borrowing the lathe of a friend, working in a studio or shop that has a turning set up, or getting your own.
My first real turning success was a milking stool - aptly named because it is used for milking cows. Traditionally made with three legs (more sturdy on uneven ground), a handle (for quickly moving between bovine), and pretty low to the ground, this is a great turning project for newbies like me because you get to practice both spindle turning (the legs) and face turning (the seat). I made the stool in a turning class with Alan Dorsey (who I have mentioned before), a great turner/furniture-maker/teacher/friend. We made them out of cherry for the seat and a variety of woods for the legs, and the legs were attached with wedged through tenons, a lot of fun to do. Past that we were allowed to do whatever we wanted in regard to style.
It's a simple enough project - three legs, turned longer than needed so we could do a wedged through tenon to attach them to the seat, and a seat. A bit of contrasting wood (or not) for the wedges and good to go!
My leg design was simple and allowed me to practice some important skills - learning how to taper correctly when turning (not so easy), making three things the same dimensions (get to know all the different types of calipers), and making a pretty bead (different tools can do this in different ways.)
I turned the legs - having to toss 2 of them because tapering is not easy for me. I keep going the wrong direction and taking off too much material, overcorrecting as I go. After getting the right tapers on three legs and sort of perfecting my beads (the rounded over bumps in the middle of each leg), the final step was to take down the top of each leg so it would fit into the seat itself. Again, just about going slowly and getting the right thickness. I kept the legs longer than needed for both the wedged tenons and to cut the bottoms at the right angle for a stool to sit on the ground. Also, just always a good idea to go longer than needed, even a bit!
The seat was (thankfully) easier for me, especially since I chose a ridiculously simple design due to the fact that the legs took so long I had precious little time left for the seat. I simply took the bottom of the rim of the seat and pared it down, like you would chamfer the edge of a piece of furniture.
Once the seat was finished it was time to drill holes for the legs which we did on a drill press using a jig to get the correct angle.
Now the fun part, choosing, cutting, and inserting the wedges for the through tenon joint. Wedges are small triangular pieces of wood used to lock in a tenon. I chose a contrasting wood to make things pop, and a simple cut in the top of the legs made it possible to insert the wedges.
I simply picked wedges I liked the look of and that fit well into each leg, threw in some glue to the leg and on the wedge, and hammered them home. Let them dry for a bit then cut them flush with a Japanese flush cut saw. If necessary you can then go over the seat top and tenons with a hand plane or just sanding to make everything perfectly flush.
Looking back at these pictures I can see how messy the drilling was on the leg holes, lots of tear out. I could have taken the time to fill that in a bit (usually with a bit of glue and sawdust from this project mixed together) but didn’t. I also thought about how to orient the grain of the legs and the wedges on the stool, and decided I liked this best - the three wedges are all facing center and the grain of the legs contrast with the seat grain.
Last things to do - cut the bottom of the legs to the final angle for smooth sitting, that took a bit of back and forth taking off very small amounts at a time. Got it eventually and it sits perfectly. I debated finishing it for a while, I tend to like a natural look. But we decided to use it as a plant stand for a while and so a finish made sense. Good excuse to use Tried and True’s Linseed Oil Original which includes beeswax, better to protect it from water. T&T’s oils really give a buttery creamy finish which looked great at first and only deepened as the cherry seat color did. I applied two coats with a rag, careful of fires with oil-based finishes folks!
All in all not too taxing a project and limitless options for design, a great first piece of furniture and/or turning project.
I am proud of my work.
The dog, as ever, remains thoroughly unimpressed.
Join the conversation
03/30/2023 Jeff Gauger
Joe, very nice article. I have a slab of 12/4 cherry that is a little punky that would be perfect for this project. I have a used Delta 46-460 lathe that has 12 1/2 swing. I tell myself I can get a better lathe if I use the one I have more. Thanks for the encouragement.
Really delightful/inspirational. Love these buoyant classic-seeming shapes.
03/30/2023 Jay Simmons
This is the exact same advice I give my flat woodworking friends. Don’t get a lathe if you want to continue making cabinetry. For me a month to build an end table versus 2 hours to turn a nice bowl or a-set of light/fan pulls. So immature of me to prefer the quick gratification. Also now that friends, neighbors and tree surgeons know that I can make something from their storm damage or everyday trimmings, wood just appears outside my shop door. Big difference between $800 of cherry and free apple or any other green wood.