Monday, September 15, 2008

Game Plan

I recently began a project turning some balusters for a friend who is renovating an old house. The original chestnut balusters are spaced too far apart for safety with small children. I did a similar job in my own house and enjoyed turning something besides chair legs.

These turnings offered a perfect opportunity to show something that I've been meaning to post about for a good while. Creating a process for turning parts is one of the most essential components to making a successful turning. When I began learning to turn, I started making shapes at one end and worked my way down the length of the piece, finishing off each shape as I went. This not only creates a lot of wasted motion constantly exchanging tools, but ignores the problem of vibration that can be avoided by better sequencing. It can also be more difficult to shape the various beads and coves without having the shape that comes next to it defined. Let's face it, learning to make the shapes is hard enough without the confusion thrown into the mix!

For this baluster, I made 3 separate patterns. The first one defines the largest diameters and the different areas that will get more details later. The second one notes the final depth cuts that will be used and the last one has all of the measurements that I need to finish it off. By having 3 distinct steps, the whole turning process flows.

Below are a few balusters in different phases. The one on the left is simply the transition from the square to round. The second one over is the first pattern complete. From this blob of a turning, the final one (on the right)is surprisingly close.

In the image below, you can see the parts formed in the initial turning. I chose them because they defined the major or most easily confused elements. I also chose them because they could be roughed out with a single gouge. After this stage, I move on to the final cuts. By leaving these thin areas for last, I greatly reduce the vibration. Imagine leaving only 3/4 inch in one area and then trying to rough out shapes next to it. A recipe for vibration.

Once I move on to the final cutting, I always start finishing in the middle of the piece. This leaves more material near the ends and helps reduce vibration. The areas near the head and tail stock tend to vibrate less anyway, so working the middle first has always made sense to me.

It did take me a little head scratching to break this turning into a series of patterns and then into steps within the patterns. But within turning only a few of them, I was able to recognize where I was in the turnings and know what step was next. It's a fun challenge, but turning this dry red oak reminds me of the reason that I became a green woodworker!

As an aside, I am matching the old chestnut (shown on the far right of the top photo) by painting the red oak with a very thin coat of orange milk paint, then staining the piece with a thin chestnut stain, and finishing it off with orange shellac. I think that I am close enough to the old (rather sloppily finished) balusters to fool the 4 year old that will be seeing them up close.

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