Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Woodturning with Spindle Tools
By Temple Blackwood

In nearly every facet of woodworking, a woodworker's tool selection and management define the efficiencies and success of the project. In woodturning, particularly spindle turning, a wide array of tool sizes and shapes have developed over many generations of woodturners and power-sources making it possible for the skilled turner to work accurately, efficiently, and effectively in a short period of time.

One of the most satisfying reasons to hone spindle turning skills is the confidence the turner gains when turning multiple sets of chair and table legs to complete a project or turning stepped candlesticks, thin finials, or five to several hundred balusters.

Spindle turning, with the grain running between the centers, in the age-old classic form requires several well-sharpened tools: gouges, skew chisels, and parting tools, well-applied with the bevel (sharpened portion of the blade) always rubbing in such a way that the wood is cut cleanly. The spindle tools are universally lighter and host a shorter handle than today's heavier bowl gouges. While learning to apply the bevel and position the spindle chisel to shear cut "the way wood likes to be cut" can be an initial challenge, the rewards of achieving a smooth surface from the chisel are satisfying and endlessly beneficial. Sanding such a turning begins with 220 or 320 grit sandpaper, takes little time, and working up to a friction-polished luster is a pleasure.


Generally, spindle gouges are classed by "roughing", "medium", and "small." My own preferences for gouges are the "continental grind" made by Sorby. In the photo above, the two on the left are both roughing gouges; the center is a medium gouge; right-of-center is an extremely versatile small "fingernail" gouge; the farthest right one is a fine-detail gouge.

The roughing gouge is typically a heavier tool built to take the beating of cutting through the hard edges of a square blank to make it round, a safe and efficient practice that will quickly allow a turner to dimension rough stock to its largest diameter. This gouge can be used to make a wide, shallow cove but is most useful for removing substantial amounts of stock, especially when establishing a long taper.

The medium gouge can also be used to rough smaller diameter stock to round but is most useful for more precisely shaping a standard cove and smoothing transitions between opposing larger diameter shapes.

The small fingernail gouge can cove, bead, shoulder, and smooth, often reducing the need to change to a different chisel to form a design detail (this will be next month's featured tool in this column).

Skew Chisels

The skew chisel is the "best tool in the box" and well worth the effort to learn how to use it. While there are several different styles of skew, my own preference is for the classic (straight across) skew of which there are several sizes (pictured L-to R from 1-1/4" to a round 1/4"). In response to the struggles that many turners have in mastering this tool, some manufacturers introduced a "safer" version which can be straight-across with a slight radius, reducing the potential of a serious catch on the long point. Other styles that claim to be safer and easier to master are the beveled skew and the oval skew. Having learned long ago using the classic straight across version, I find that the newer and reportedly safer styles severely limit the broadly appealing, multi-functions that the traditional shape allows.

Using the "long point" of the skew can beautifully face the long grain, straight or curved out or in, on the end of a piece to an unrivaled smoothness.

That same long point can cut a well-defined vee-groove.

Properly addressing the wood, the "heel" (lower point) can smoothly roll a bead, blending a long smooth cut to a rounded end.

The reputation for "best tool" is clearly earned when the skew performs a smoothing cut.

Parting Tools

The many different styles of parting tools all have unique cutting features: left—fluted, center left–diamond, center right–1/4", right–Sorby 3/8" beading and parting. The most common found in sets of spindle-turning tools is the diamond point parting tool which has a cutting edge that is wider than its sides, allowing it to cut a deep path without binding.

Like most of the other styles, this tool can "part off" (cut through) a blank as well as create a shoulder, roll a bead, slice a vee-groove, and establish a diameter size in conjunction with an adjustable caliper or micrometer.

The most useful all-around parting tool in my experience is the Sorby 3/8" beading and parting tool.

It not only does most of my sizing and marking tasks cleanly, but it is also wide enough at 3/8" to create larger shoulders and allow me to use my "special" non-adjustable tenon-gauges (mechanic's wrenches) to quickly cut tenon pins to the correct size.

This tool is magic for cutting vee-grooves and rolling beads.

The fluted parting tool is an interesting (Sorby) addition to the set as the flute creates grain-cutting points ahead of a shear-scraping side that nearly (but not quite) mimics, more safely, the lovely end-grain cut of the skew chisel.

Sharpening each of these tools by hand on a low-speed, 8" grinder with either stone or CBN wheels is a relatively simple skill to learn and practice regularly.

The current fascination with using the new scraping tools made possible by using carbide-tipped scrapers (which can be replaced rather than sharpened) in a small shop appears to allow a turner to grind out shapes without working to acquire the traditional skills. This is an unfortunate effort to short-cut what attracts many of us to the shop. Using these carbide-tipped scraping tools is not as easy as suggested because the scraping process fractures the bonds of the fibers beneath the cut and create a damaged surface that no amount of sanding can overcome. The scraping practice also makes it nearly impossible to achieve a delicate, long, thin effect such as this finial.

The reality is that much of the pleasure of turning comes from the sensuality of cutting the wood blanks "the way wood likes to be cut." Using the traditional tools and methods, the 220 or 320 sandpaper is typically used to prepare the wood to accept polish or finish – because the rubbing bevel behind the cutting edge seals the wood pores in many species causing the finish materials to roll off without adhering or being incorporated. The resulting fine sanding dust is acquired by the finish and acts as a filler leaving an amazingly smooth finish.

In the end, however, the great tools used throughout a long history of woodturners as well as the many newly developed, more modern, tools depend on the skill and self-discipline of the person handling them. That person will flourish as an artisan directly because of practicing tool-handling skills, seeking first competence, then skill, then expertise and accomplishment that includes the humility to learn more (like so many other fine things in life).

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

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