Working with Rescue Bowls

A Collaborative Project Like No Other

I have read articles about collaborative projects between two or more turners where each person adds work and some style to the overall evolving piece.  I have also read, and in fact have written, about rescuing wood, with good results, that others might consider garbage.  The collaborative project I have been working on, however, literally spans decades and thousands of miles while also effectively “saving” bowls that otherwise would have been destined for the fireplace or the trash heap.

The Find and Bringing It Home

About a year ago, my Dad bought a large lot of turning wood at auction.  I think the primary attraction was the wood rack that the wood was stored on, but to me, the wood was a potential treasure trove of unknown and untried species.  Very little, if any of it, was marked as to what exactly the wood was, and some of it was admittedly pretty rough with lots of voids and knots.  There was at least one piece that I knew to be a limb or small log from an African Blackwood, complete with sapwood, and there was a fair amount of walnut, but the rest was still pretty much a mystery.  Dad and I simply split the lot in roughly in half and I was able to carry it from Califormia to my home in Georgia, in 3 boxes, each measuring approximately 11” x 11” x 17”.  That gives some idea of the volume of wood, which weighed in at roughly 150 pounds.  All told, the wood traveled almost 2,000 air miles to take up residence in my shop.

Included in the haul were about a dozen roughed out bowls that had obviously been turned wet and green and then left to dry.  According to the best estimate my Dad could give, and he knew the original turner, these bowls were roughed out in the early to mid-1970s, making them at this point over 30 years old!  To slow the drying process, and presumably to try to prevent checking and/or excessive warp, the bowls were HEAVILY coated with a material that has over the years turned a distinctly orange color, which causes me to suspect shellac is the drying agent he used.  As I understand it, this was a common practice before the invention of materials such as Pentacyrl or other such products designed to slow the drying time of green wood.  In addition to simply being old, the bowls were not treated well over the years.  They were sold by the original turner at some point, along with a great deal of other turning wood I assume, and it was from this secondary owner that we obtained them.  I don’t know where or how they were stored, but they arrived absolutely filthy, covered in dust, cobwebs, and in a few cases outright mud.  Simply put they were nothing to look at and Dad was in favor of just tossing them into the trash.  My protective side took over and I decided to take them with me, seeming “trash” alongside some very nice pieces of turning wood.  It took me about a year, but eventually I pulled these pieces off the shelf, mostly because they were in the way of some nicer wood that I wanted to store and dry.  I questioned the wisdom of spending time on items so old and so trashy looking, but decided to give it a go anyway.

Mount and Turn

First, I had to decide how to mount them.  All the pieces had been worked with faceplates and in some cases a sacrificial blank was still glued to the foot, but this was not the case with most of the pieces.  Those without sacrificial blanks had face plate screw holes in the foot of the piece and in most cases these were too deep, or the foot was already turned too small, for me to be able to reverse mount them and turn off the holes and create a new mounting tenon.  I don’t know if the types of chucks available today didn’t exist at the time or if the original turner just didn’t have access to them, but he seems to have worked exclusively with a face plate.  I was hesitant to trust sacrificial blanks glued on over 30 years prior, but I decided that if I couldn’t break them bond with hand pressure I would risk using the blank, of course with adequate eye protection and with the tail stock run up as close as possible just in case disaster should strike.  Suffice it to say that I should not have trusted old glue to hold as it didn’t, but no harm done to bowl or turner.   In the other cases, I simply mounted the face plate in as close to the original position as possible.

To say that the pieces were out of round would be an understatement, so there was quite a bit of wobble and wiggle until they could be worked down to round once again.  And as the shellac or varnish came off and the wood was no longer such a startling orange color, most of the pieces turned out to be quite attractive even if I didn’t always agree with the shape that the original turner started.  I can change some aspects of shape, but there are limits imposed by the amount of material that there left to work with.

The Result of Working with the Lost Bowls

Several of the pieces turned out to be from very nice walnut, and in one case the wood appears to likely be burl wood based on the complicated figure and texture.  The smallest of the pictured bowls turned out to be olive wood, although one could never have guessed that in its original state.  The figure and especially the scent of olive wood is unmistakeable if you’ve ever worked with it and while it is rare to find it in pieces large enough to turn bowls with, it makes sense that the original turner would have had such a piece given that almost all of the commercial olive production in the country originates in the area in which he lived.  And at roughly 350,000 tons of olive oil produced per year, that amounts to a lot of trees!  And in some cases, the trees are grown as ornamentals, so the options the original turner had for sources are numerous.  He could have just picked up trimmings from the side of the road as I have been known to do.  In other cases I was completely baffled by what the wood could be having never seen anything with such a beautiful and natural yellow-orange color.  At first I thought that the color from the shellac or varnish had soaked in really well, but I begin to doubt this as more and more of the surface was removed and the color only deepened.  Ultimately we were able to ask the original turner what the wood might be and his guess was that it was Hollywood Juniper (Juniperus chinensis “Torulosa”`).  This made sense given that the original turner used a great deal of wood that came his way through his tree and yard service.  Branches, or entire trees, that were removed often found their way into his shop so we can pretty well guess that the woods are more likely to be from ornamentals than from timber trees.  That said, I still do not know the species of several of the bowls that I have worked with or that I have yet to try.  All of the woods thus far have turned out to be quite nice to work with.

Overall, working with these “trash” bowls has provided me with hours of discovery and fun mixed in with a fair amount of occasional frustration.  Some of the pieces featured very large knots or other voids that have not always been easy to work with and in at least one case that springs to mind, the wood was simply too old and brittle to survive.  I have also been frustrated by the need to resort to using felt to cover the bottoms of some of the pieces that I couldn’t remove the original face plate screw holes from, but this is a minor matter compared to the largely excellent results thus far.  I still have 4 of the originals to work with and I am hoping that most, if not all, of them prove to be as worth the effort as those I have worked with thus far.  If you are ever given the chance to pick up where another turner left off, even 30 or more years ago, I say “Give it a turn.”  You never know what you might end up with.