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.

Walnut Hollow Form 3

Fire! Fire!

I start drilling and am rewarded for my efforts with a small amount of shavings, but alarmingly, I am generating a good deal of smoke! The frictional force is so intense that the wood is actually starting to burn, as in fire! Perhaps needless to say, that drill bit went to wherever bits go when they die an honorable death.

The Right Bits

What I needed was a Forstner bit, which of course, I didn’t have. The advent of big box home centers and the demise of a TRUE hardware store makes it hard to find something like a decent Forstner bit, so I had to resort to mail order and wait it out.

Eventually I Used the Right Bits

When the bits arrived, I found excuses to avoid the damn hollow form, which set on my workbench mocking me in my defeat. Eventually I loaded a Forstner bit in the drill press and with a second pair of hands to hold the form steady, I gave it, literally, a whirl.

The bit hollowed out the blank brilliantly. Now I had something that I could claim wa a hollow form in that you could, technically, put something inside the piece and that is one definition of hollow. Of course in the world of turnery, hollow forms are generally a bit more artistic and fancy than what I ended up with, but it is what it is.

Walnut Hollow Form 4

Try, Try Again!

That isn’t to say that I didn’t try to hollow it out more once I removed the bulk of the interior wood with the Forstner bits. I did try, but once again, I didn’t have a chuck strong enough to hold the thing in place while wrestling with the end grain turning! I don’t use wimpy chucks in the first place, being a big fan of the New Zealand-designed Nova chuck series. But, whether in compression or expansion mode, the force of the tool impact against the end-grain defeated me. I had even invested in a 35mm spigot jaw set, the strongest jaws there are, and came to discover that due to my less than brilliant measuring ability in metric, that the jaws were slightly, as in mere millimeters, too small to grip the outside of the vessel and I was once again operating in expansion mode. Drat!

The End of End-Grain Turning In MY Shop!

I wouldn’t say that I would NEVER attempt end grain turning again but I would say that I won’t be in a big all-fire hurry to do it again soon. I have read seemingly endless articles about how end-grain turning yields results that are “incomparable” to any other method of making vessel forms, and I have even read an article from a clear masochist who makes pens using end-grain turning methods. Having tried it I am forced to conclude that these authors are engaged in a game whereby they are wreaking havoc on all other turners as a form of passing along the pain they themselves have endured having fallen victim to some other secretly chortling wood turning author who convinced them to attempt end-grain work. Personally I hope my brave confession that I find end-grain turning to be sheer evil will be a first step towards ending the madness before it consumes another wood turner’s drill bits and hand muscles!

Walnut Hollow Form 2

Or, Is It Really the End?

But of course if you really want to try it, perhaps it would be a more reasonable enterprise if attempted with a piece of green wet wood instead of well seasoned dry walnut. At least one item I have read thinks that will work. I think I have just the piece for it downstairs. I’ll get back to you on that one!