Turning An End-Grain Hollow Form – Sort Of

The Origin of the Wood

My Dad (shout-out to Steve here) had given me several pieces of Eastern Black Walnut that were too nice and large to chunk up for pen blanks, so one of them was turned into a bottle stopper while the other piece I decided I would use to try out the process of end-grain turning to make a small hollow vessel. It all sounded so easy and grand.

What Is End-Grain Turning Anyway?

For those of you who don’t know, end-grain turning refers to the turnery process of hollowing out a hollow form or bowl by turning into the end-grain of the wood. Technically, the end grain is the grain seen when the wood is cut across the growth rings. The grain ends up parallel to the bed of the lathe when the piece is mounted. The simplest way to visualize this, for me anyway, is to imagine that you have cut down a tree and you are staring down into the stump. That is the end grain and that is what you hollow out in an end-grain turned piece. And it is worth noting here I think that this orientation is NOT the normal orientation taken by a wood turner when mounting a piece to be turned.

What Is End Grain Good For?

Trees are strong in general and wood is an incredibly hardy material depending on the orientation of the grain. The hardest angle of attack when working with a piece of wood, and some might say therefore the dumbest, is the end grain. End grain is so sturdy in fact that it is the orientation used for butcher blocks (although for health reasons wooden cutting boards should NEVER be used with raw meats) and even, believe it or not, for paving streets! From the mid-nineteenth century up until the early twentieth century, end grain wood blocks were used as pavers in municipal streets. They were judged to be quiet, easy to keep clean, and easy on the hooves of horses. If you still doubt that this is a real story, visit Pensacola, Florida where the historical downtown district is STILL paved with end grain wood blocks. You can also just click here.

How I Started

So, by now you have the idea that end grain wood is HARD. And, it really resents being cut into. To make the hollow form, I first turned down the outside and came up with a flared shape that pleased my eye. The walnut was beautiful with a few interesting inclusions that I was able to maintain and I was quite pleased with myself. Then I swung my tool rest around to start hollowing out the end grain.

Walnut Hollow Form

Cutting the End Grain, Or Not

I applied my trusty round nose scraper and lo and behold, nothing happened. Seriously, nothing happened, no chips, no shavings, not even any dust. All that I achieved was a sore arm and sore hands from gripping my tool which was being thrown off the wood. OK, maybe I need to sharpen the tool. I do that and try again. Again, nothing happens. This end grain is seriously hard stuff. The end-grain defeats even my carbide tipped hollowing tool! Yikes!

Drilling It Out!

Now I have the brilliant idea to drill into the end grain to remove material the “easy” way instead of just turning it out. I load up my drill press with a bit, put the blank under the bit, and start to lower the drill into the wood. The first trick is to hold on to the piece, which doesn’t lend itself readily to stability in the Jorgensen handscrew clamp I am using since it is already rounded down. I make a note to self to drill out hollow vessels BEFORE rounding down in the future. I try mounting the piece back in the lathe chuck, but holding that hulking piece of steel is no treat either. I make my peace with the Jorgenson clamp.