The Less Than Auspicious Beginning
Long ago I was trolling through a wood turning catalog and spotted some segmented bowl and vase blanks which really caught my eye. To be honest, I hadn’t done a great deal of turning at that point in my life so I was probably an easy mark. But, since a “professional” turner recently wrote an article about using these very same blanks to make pepper grinders, perhaps my attraction wasn’t due to inexperience after all. At any rate, suffice it to say that I ordered them.
Imagine my surprise when I read the instructions that told me that I should expect to have voids that would require filling! The catalog didn’t say anything about that and given my relative inexperience at the time I was intimidated. Granted, my Dad, my teacher of all things turning, had told me in principle about filling voids with sanding dust or shavings, but my attempts at doing this had not been overly successful to date. The blanks languished on my wood rack for close to a year.
Why I Decided To Use the Blank
I had been given the opportunity by my sister to make a large assortment of pens as gifts prior to Christmas and this gave me a chance to better determine her likes in wood turning. She turns out to be fond of the multi-colored items, and was most taken with an aniline dyed pen made from tiger striped maple, primarily I think because she didn’t expect wood to be blue. Of course, maple isn’t blue naturally but the dye had the positive effects of highlighting instead of obscuring the figure and of creating an unexpected color spectacle. Based on her positive reaction to the blue pen and to her fondness for two part pens made from different woods, I decided that a small dish made from the multi-color block blank would be a winner.
About the Blank
The blank was noted as being made in the Philippines so I strongly suspected that there would be a high content of cheap tropical woods along with what appeared to be at least some leopardwood and padauk. The small off cuts were held together both horizontally and vertically by generous amounts of what appeared to be a brownish colored epoxy. The whole blank was sandwiched between two veneer thin pieces of what appeared to Philippine mahogany or another cheap wood.
Working With the Blank
Even when cutting the square blank to round on the bandsaw the most immediate drawback of using multiple woods in one blank became obvious, namely, different woods have different densities and hardness, making the process of working them uneven. This tendency would become all the more obvious once the piece was mounted on the lathe.
The softer woods would naturally cut faster and occasionally there would be an obstinate harder piece sandwiched between softer pieces. The natural tendency would be for the gouge, scraper, and even sandpaper to act more aggressively when encountering these softer woods, so to avoid craters, it was necessary to be cognizant of this tendency and to struggle to maintain all tools steadily on the plane surface to be worked.
In the end, I was pleased with the overall shape achieved, which amazingly was pretty much what I had intended. This isn’t always the case with free-form items like dishes and spindles where sometimes the wood itself seems to want to do something different than what I have pre-conceived. Usually I assume the wood knows better than I do what it wants to become and I let it guide me. Perhaps because this was a conglomeration of small pieces there was no longer a guiding principle and my desire was adequate.
The Tools Used
Most of the shaping of the bowl was achieved with some basic tools, namely a roughing gouge and a heavy 1” round nosed scraper. To put a small lip on the inside, a hollowing tool with moveable and replaceable carbide bit was helpful, but I suppose people strongly adept with the bowl gouge could achieve the same result. I was most pleased with the flat bottom and 90 degree angle sides achieved with the flat nosed scraper. I just had to be careful since it cuts much more aggressively than I had anticipated.
There were to be gaps and voids but surprisingly not as many as I had feared. I quickly learned to discount the initial voids that appeared in the early stages of turning since most, if not all, of those would disappear in the general turning process anyway. Instead, I only chose to fill those voids that remained as I was performing the sanding stage. Sanding powder mixed on either wax paper or on the mounted dish itself with medium consistency cyanoacrylate (CA) worked perfectly and blended remarkably well with the epoxy sections, the only places void fill would prove necessary. I have found through trial and effort that blending the required dust with a medium or thick CA on wax paper and then applying with applicator sticks available at the craft store gives me greater control over the placement of void fill than attempting the maneuver on the rounded and mounted piece. Using a thicker consistency, and therefore longer set time, gives one the time needed to blend and fill prior to CA set up. Some patience is then required to allow time for the CA to set. Using accelerator will only result in hideous opaque white residue while turning the lathe on too soon results in CA sprayed at high velocity on to your lathe and anything within the centrifugal throw range as well. Typically this will include you, yet another reason to have old, but well fitted, clothes along with safety glasses and a respirator mask as well.
Trying A New Finish
I decided to try a new finish idea on this piece so I used, for the first time, some Minwax wipe on polyurethane in a satin finish with the piece off the lathe. I found that the wood soaked up more of the finish than I had anticipated, although this wasn’t a problem, and that at least a good 15 ml could be poured into the 4-5” diameter bowl of 2-3” height and easily absorbed as it was rubbed into the wood. I assume that the epoxy sections did not absorb the finish, but I could be wrong about this. The wood was thoroughly dry and I believe that the bulk of the absorbed finish went into the wood. The instructions call for an overnight drying time and then a rubbing with 000 steel wool and a reapplication of the finish, a process which can be repeated presumably indefinitely, but which I felt was adequate for my purposes with three applications. I wanted the dish to be useable, although not for food, as opposed to strictly decorative and I felt that the strength of the polyurethane would provide the protection I wanted with a look I could live with.
End Results and Lessons Learned
Overall I was actually pleased with the end result if a bit surprised at the effect the differing densities and hardness of the various woods. It was a good learning and reinforcing experience about the individual nature of the woods and that what works with one species may well not work at all with another. I was also pleased with the outcome and refinements of the dust/CA filling process and ultimately was also pleased with the results of the polyurethane finish. I don’t know that the results necessarily justify the expense of purchasing these blanks given how many beautiful and workable pieces of single species wood are available, but they might be just the thing for someone who really enjoys the variability of multiple species in one piece. What I would like to try someday is to mock up and glue my own multi-piece blank using the seemingly limitless off-cuts associated with pen making! I haven’t done that yet but once I do I will be sure to report on the results.