With a block of wood and some idea of what you want your finished bowl to look like, you’re ready to begin Bowl Carving 1-2-3.
This section has been designed to assist any carver of any level with the how-to’s of getting there. You’ll find tips and techniques on making bowls using your power carving tools where the emphasis is on the creative process – organized in the following step-by-step process.
Getting Started – everything you should know about wood.
- Cutting with/against the grain
- Cutting with dry wood
- Cutting with green wood
+ 2 drying methods
STEP 1. Select Your Wood
STEP 2. Secure Your Wood
STEP 3. Select Your Blade
STEP 4. Mark Wall Thickness
STEP 5. Mark Top
STEP 6. Carve & Shape Inside Small Bowls
STEP 7. Carve & Shape Inside of Larger Bowls
STEP 8. Carve & Level Top Rim
STEP 9. Mark & Carve Base
STEP 10. Carve & Shape Outside
STEP 11. Final Shaping with Carbides
STEP 12. Final Sanding with Flap Discs
STEP 13. Applying Finishes
Today’s Wood Carving World . . .
While traditional woodturning is still the most established way of making wood bowls, this wonderful art has seen power tools and their accessories come into their own in the past few years. Having tested our product line over the past decade with the best carvers in the world, we have a developed a step-by-step guide to bowl carving.
. . . Anyone Can Do It!
Using these tips and depending on the size of your bowl, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to carve, shape and sand a bowl. You can carve bowls from start to finish using carving and sanding accessories on one power tool, a 4-1/2″ (115mm) angle grinder.
Getting Started – everything you should know about wood
The most important step is the selection of wood. Generally, nut trees and most hardwoods are preferable to fruit trees (orange, apple, etc.) Carving with splayed wood (unpredictable patterns within the wood), burls (irregular shaped, wart like structures growing on tree trunks), bark inclusions (bark trapped in wood) and knots will enhance the beauty of the bowl. You can carve wood at any stage, whether green, dry or seasoned but you should understand the expected side effects of drying to avoid any disappointments.
You may not know that a freshly cut tree may hold 300% more water than it will after drying . Due to the inevitable drying process, your wood may change drastically. Cracks and checks are common as wood shrinks and dries through the gradual loss of water. Cracks are gaps or separations which can run along the direction of the grain, or radically across the log. With a radial crack, it usually originates from the center, the pith, and the gap becomes wider toward the outer edge of the log. Checks are small splits frequently seen in end grain. This is due to drying occurring very quickly in the exposed cells in end grain resulting in checking or splitting, about an inch (more or less) into the board. Radial checks originating from the center can start off as small lines and gradually extend further toward the edge of the log, becoming large cracks over time.
What the amateurs don’t know
To avoid many of the pitfalls most amateurs encounter, you might want to quickly read the pros and cons of what to expect when:
A- CARVING WITH vs AGAINST THE GRAIN
here are advantages and disadvantages to carving with or against the grain so we leave the choice to you. Most woodturners seem to prefer working with commercial slabs of wood cut along the grain (length ways up the trunk). The difference is the way the grain patterns and other natural features look when the bowl is finished. We don’t have any preference -with power carving tools it doesn’t matter – they cut in any direction and through knots with the greatest of ease. So select the wood you want, use these tips, start carving and have fun!
B – CARVING WITH SEASONED WOOD
It is preferable to use seasoned wood because it is no longer giving off moisture and will now be at its strongest, hardest and least flexible. It is harder to carve than green wood but all cracking, splitting, shrinking, warping and twisting should by now be over. Also, after carving the bowl, final finish can be applied immediately, which is not the case with green wood.
C – CARVING WITH GREEN WOOD
Pros:First, it’s relatively easy to carve,second, is inexpensive when compared to dry or seasoned wood and third, the selection is better. It’s also very difficult to buy dry or seasoned wood commercially over 3″ thick. So carving dry or seasoned large, deep bowls is difficult unless you have your own source and have the resources to have it kiln or air dried. While there are advantages to carving with green wood , the disadvantage or Cons: are the potential of cracking and checking after carving unless you take precautions which we’ll now address. The key is patience and time.
As mentioned, if you’re fortunate to have carved your bowl when the wood is completely dry, you can apply a finish immediately afterward. With green wood you must take care, during and after carving, to allow the wood to dry slowly before applying a finish. Depending on the size, this could take several months, but certainly a lot less time than had you waited to carve the same wood dry. Remember the natural process – wood will continue to dry until it finds a balance with its environment. Unless you take steps to minimize/eliminate cracking and checking after carving, these conditions will ultimately invade and potentially ruin your work. If you don’t let green wood go through the drying stage, there is the inevitability for cracks and splits after you’ve carved and applied a finish to the bowl. You may think you did a great job, but you’ll be disappointed when the cracks appear a few months down the road.
DRYING GREEN WOOD
METHOD 1: In Wet Sawdust
One method is to surround the bowl in wet sawdust within a plastic bag, stored in a cool place, preferably with temperature control. In Scotland it will probably be a cellar while in Alabama it will probably be in a workshop or garage. In the States, if possible, store in a location with air conditioning. To track the rate of drying you can weigh it every three days. Log the weight on a chart. Keep the sawdust damp with a watering can. The rate of drying varies with the climate, humidity and moisture content in the air. For instance, the same bowl will dry quicker in Florida than it will in Norway. The type of wood and thickness of the bowl is obviously a major factor. A bowl with 1/8″ thick walls may only take several hours to dry:1″ thick may take two – three months.
METHOD 2: Using a Preservative
Another method is using a wood preservative like Pentacryl which displaces moisture in the wood to speed up the drying process. It will absorb all the way through the wood and doesn’t discolor it. When dry, the wood can also be finished with conventional finishes and stained with aniline dyes or oil stains. It can be brushed on, sprayed on or you can immerse small pieces into undiluted Pentacryl. At the end of a day’s carving on green wood, apply Pentacryl with a 2″-3″ brush over the entire piece. Apply as many applications as the wood will absorb (maybe two or three on the first day), wipe off any excess, wrap in a damp cloth or towel and cover with a plastic bag. Refer to storage conditions above. The next day, you can continue to carve, (it acts as a lubricant) but repeat the Pentacryl applications and bowl/cloth/plastic bag storage. Periodically apply coatings again until the wood just won’t absorb any more. We’ve found this product the best on the market for minimizing cracking and checking (better than PEG which can be difficult to apply a finish). We’ve even found it will considerably close gaps with repeated applications. Drying time varies in relation to temperature, humidity, type of wood and thickness. When the bowl is thoroughly dry, clean the surface with mineral spirits, acetone or lacquer thinner before applying a finish.
STEP 1: SELECT YOUR WOOD
There’s an infinite amount of shapes and sizes to raw wood stock suitable for bowls. Proper wood selection is the first and most important part. There are no rules so it’s best to experiment. Some of the best pieces come from discarded wood or an accident that someone made right. As mentioned in Getting Started, nut trees and most hardwoods are preferable to fruit trees. Carving burls add a different dimension to the finished work. We’ve carved in oak, walnut, elm, mulberry, cherry and maple to name a few. Some bombed, developing cracks but most were successful. A professional woodturner told me that if he wants 20 bowls, he’ll turn 25. Allow for the occasional failure. Even if a bowl develops a cracks, you may be able to use this as an enhancement to the character of the bowl by filling it with sawdust and epoxy.
In some of the examples shown, cracks or jagged edges on the bowls were used as features or enhancements. See four examples made out of splayed Elm below.
STEP 2: SECURE YOUR WOOD
The first thing to do is to secure the wood in a work bench or vise. Two additional clamps that can hold the width of your block are also advisable. Don’t take any chances on wood moving while you’re working with power carving tools. It can be dangerous to your health! To achieve the best angles while carving, adjust the position of the wood and clamps as necessary.
BEFORE YOU START CARVING make sure you are;
You’re nearly ready to remove waste wood from the center and to rough shape the sides. The best combination for large, deep bowls is to use two (2) 14 tooth Lancelots mounted on a a 4-1/2″ (115mm) angle grinder. With their 1/2″ wide cut and large teeth, they are the most aggressive combination, doing most of the hard work fairly effortlessly.
A single Lancelot or Lancelot-Squire combo will also do the job effectively but not as quickly. The latter is great for shaping curved surfaces. For salad, dough, bread or similar sized bowls, a tandem 22 tooth, or 22 and 14 tooth or single 22 tooth Lancelot will do a great job.
STEP 4: MARK WALL THICKNESS
The next step is to determine the shape of the sides and pencil mark the thickness of the walls. For large bowls, mark lines about 1″ apart around the top of the wood – these will be your guide for the initial thickness of the sides during the initial rough carving. This thickness also allows plenty of room for error in case of uneven cuts – easily corrected with final shaping and sanding. Use calipers to measure the thickness. If you don’t have one, you’ll be working with eyesight and “feel” which we do regularly. If you mark the sides too thin at the start, one cut too many could easily penetrate the side, leaving a hole or gash you didn’t expect. If this happens, pray that friends and family aren’t around as you’ll know doubt scream a few choice adjectives!
As the bowl starts to take shape and you determine you want thinner sides, remark new side wall lines around the top, gradually going as thin as you want. If you’re making small bowls you can mark the sides between 1/2″ and 3/4″. Keep in mind: the thickness will reduce as you continue to remove layers of wood through the carving and sanding process. Marking and remarking allows you to reduce the thickness while allowing for accidental cuts that can easily be corrected.
STEP 5: MARK TOP
If the bowl lends itself to a flat top surface, mark a pencil line all the way around the outside close to the top at the level you determine. When the center is gutted out, you’ll be ready to level carve the top. Refer Step 8. If, however, you may want to incorporate any natural features as part of the sides and top, carve and shape with the most suitable cuts to achieve the desired result. Burls, knots and uneven edges or indentations add character to bowls.
STEP 6: CARVE & SHAPE INSIDE OF BREAD BOWLS AND DOUGH BOWLS
Bread Bowls: As a guide, the design will be long, narrow and shallow. Doug Lamb sent us a bread bowl for french or garlic bread that measures 31″ long, 5″ wide, 2-3/4″ deep with a hollowed center section 1-3/4″ deep in which to lay the bread. The best cutters for this job are a tandem 22 tooth Lancelot combo – they leave a smooth, round finish. The way to achieve a symmetrical rounded center is to start at the left of the wood with the side to side cut and continue sweeping gently toward the right side of the bowl. Go as deep as necessary. This method applies to the making of dough bowls or any piece where you require long, narrow rounded sides and bottom. The rest of the bowl is made using any combination of cuts, including raker, horizontal, straight, slicing and feathering as described further. These bowls don’t require a finish, however, if you choose to, any natural vegetable oil, linseed oil or bees wax will do the job. Any finish will darken the wood. These finishes are suggested as a guide only – refer Step 13: Applying Finishes for more details. DO NOTplace the bowl in a dishwasher. At most, just rinse and wipe dry. Water is wood’s worst enemy!
STEP 7: CARVE AND SHAPE INSIDE OF MEDIUM TO LARGE BOWLS
Start in the middle of your wood and pull the blades toward you using repetitive plunge and short straight cuts. NEVER PUSH AWAY FROM THE BODY.Work toward the outsides cutting with or against the grain. It won’t take long to rapidly carve deeper into the wood. As you carve closer to the sides, stop plunge cutting about 1/4″ from the inside pencil line. It leaves jagged strokes on the bottom and sides but side to side and feathering cuts will smooth them out. To further shape the sides, brace and balance yourself as you gently but firmly push upwards and away from your body toward the top of the wood. Use a smooth controlled motion. Continue this action to shape the inside of the bowl moving closer to the pencil line. It will result in rapid wood removal and smooth shaping, taking off light layers at a time. Keep carving the inside of the bowl until you “feel” you have gone far enough.
Note: If you’re using a Lancelot-Squire combination you can shape the sides with the raker cut. Lancelot on its own utilizes the same cuts as a double Lancelot combination.
STEP 8: CARVE AND LEVEL TOP RIM
Don’t carve the top until the bowl is hollowed. The fastest way to shape is with the horizontal cut. Turn the grinder on its side so that the face of the twin blades are horizontal to the wood. Hold your left hand over the auxiliary handle, similar to holding a bicycle handlebar, palm down. Comfortably adjust your left hand over the right hand side of the grinder. Brace your legs in a slightly bent but firm position so that they balance your body. Place the Lancelot blades horizontally against the side of the wood, lean into and apply slight pressure as you make a forward cut through the side and around the edge of the bowl, slightly above the pencil mark. You can also use the raker cut to level and shape the edges.
STEP 9: MARK AND CARVE THE BASE
There are two main base types: flat and hollow center bases. The latter has what we call a riser or a rim that is the base. The step is to make a base large enough to support the size of the bowl and will therefore vary according to the shape of the bowl. It can be a circle, triangle, rectangle or irregular – be creative. Make the size slightly larger than the expected end result – you need to leave wood for further shaping. Turn the wood over and clamp it down securely. Through measurements, find the approximate center on the bottom. For a Flat Base: To define the base diameter, you should freehand draw or with a compass, mark the outside of the base. As you carve the outside of the bowl, this line is where you stop. The fastest way to get a flat base is utilizing the horizontal cut with a Lancelot tandem combination to skim across the bottom of the base. You can also use repetitive raker or side to side cuts. Use a level to check for accuracy. For a Rimmed Hollow Center Base:First level the base as described above. Next, either freehand or using a compass, pencil mark the outside perimeter. Mark another line about 1/2″ in and parallel to the first line. Place the Lancelot blades horizontally against the side of the wood, with the top blade level with the top of the base. Lean into and apply slight pressure as you make a forward cut 1/2″ deep around the edge of the base. Stay about 1/4″ away from the outside pencil mark. This cut provides the rough rim shape which you fine tune. The center section will be very gently hollowed out between 1/4″ to 1/2″ deep using the side to side and raker cut.
STEP 10: CARVE AND SHAPE THE OUTSIDE
With the wood clamped securely, begin to carve with short straight strokes or plunge cuts to rough out the outside but be careful with your depth of cut as you work close to the edge and the outline of the base. You do not want to slice through to the other side. Be aggressive but a little more careful as the outside rapidly starts to take shape. On larger bowls, use slicing cuts for waste wood on the surface and sides. A combination of side to side, raker and feather cuts are best as you smooth out any ridges. Finally, use the raker cut gently in either direction to smooth down the surface. Regularly check the thickness of the sides and bottom. As you taper the outside, use whatever natural burls, knots and bark you feel will make the finished product attractive.
By now you will have gone most of the way toward removing the majority of the waste. Viola! The bowl has taken its shape. At this stage remove and inspect the bowl at regular intervals.
Fine tune the inside and the outside by gently carving and removing any excess wood. With the heavy work done, you’ll notice that while the surfaces are relatively smooth, you may have small ridges and unevenness which require touching up. The perfect accessories for the job are any of the Galahad Kutzall carbide abrasive wheels. All of them quickly remove minor obtrusions while completing any final shaping that may be required. The wheels are nowhere near as aggressive or as fast as Lancelot or Squire, and therefore far more forgiving. Looked after properly, they last a long, long time.
STEP 11: FINAL SHAPING WITH CARBIDE ABRASIVE WHEELS
Remove the saw chain blades and fit any of the Galahad Kutzall wheels on the angle grinder. As it’s easier to work on the back of the bowl, secure it so you’re ready to start shaping this area first. Let’s get some gratification, hey! Holding the grinder in the raker position, use a push-pull motion to glide across the entire surface of the bowl. This quickly removes any ridges while simultaneously shaping. Turn the bowl over and start carving the inside with the same motion.
Try holding the angle grinder vertically to remove any rough spots from the sides, sweeping from right to left. Another method is to push upwards from the bottom of the bowl toward the top or sweep down from the top to the bottom. When you’re totally finished, the bowl should be in its final shape. The surfaces will be left with very small round needle like impressions. All that’s required now is final sanding with the Igraine flap discs.Originally used in metal working, these flap discs are incredible for final sanding, taking the hard work out of what we used to consider the most laborious and tedious part of the whole process. Now it’s fun!
Note: To clean wood shavings built up in the Galahad Kutzall abrasive wheels, remove wheel and place on newspapers in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors, spray on “Easy Off” oven cleaner and let sit for several hours. Brush clean with a wire brush and repeat application if necessary. Alternatively, use a torch to burn off the wood pulp. Other spray products are available but we find “Easy Off” the easiest!
The sanding process is the fastest part of the job. Once you’ve removed the Galahad wheel,
1) fit either the bottom disc of any Lancelot or Squire or the grinder’s flange/adapter as the backing plate over the threaded shaft.
2) mount the Igraine course/medium flap disc on top and
3) tighten the nut on the angle grinder.
Inside sources tell us for rough sanding, this 24 grit flap disc is a real beauty. It’s your choice which side of the bowl you want to work on first, inside or outside – at this stage you’re so close to finishing it doesn’t matter. The objective is to rapidly remove the needle indentations with a quality, robust sander and with this great flap disc, it won’t take long for the job to be complete.
In the raker position, use combinations of the push-pull, left to right or right to left passes as you sand the surfaces of the bowl. Inspect your work and continue until all marks have been removed. What you’re left with is a a bowl with a pretty smooth feel all over but just needs a finer grit to finish up with. Now switch over your grinder to the Igraine medium/fine flap disc. (This is an 80 grit sander and is as fine as you want to go using an angle grinder at its high rpm’s. Finer grits clog up rapidly). Repeating the same push-pull, left to right or right to left passes as mentioned above. Finish sanding the entire bowl until complete. Remove the bowl and step back to admire your work. Congratulations! You’re done with carving and sanding. Next step is applying a finish.
STEP 13: APPLYING FINISHES
Any finish is only as good as the final sanding and preparation. All finishes bring out what is beneath, the beauty and the beast! (scratches, sand paper grit marks, gouges etc.) Carving and sanding damage the outer cell layers of the wood surface. Sanding flattens the cells smooth, similar to a car running over grass blades. If left, the fibers will rise causing a rough surface. The next step is to raise the grain. Wet the surface with a damp warm rag and allow to dry. Using a final grit sandpaper, a light sanding will dislodge any damaged cells leaving the surface ready for finishing.
A finish is applied to protect the surface and expose the natural beauty hidden in the wood. There are two main categories: Sealing finishes close and protect the surface of the wood, sealing it off from its environment. The bowl requires little upkeep and the emphasis is on protection. Penetrating finishes (oil) penetrate the cells and fibers in successive layers where the oil enhances the beauty, richness and warmth of the wood. These pieces require periodic oiling and care. Over time the oil will dry out and wood will become bland. Be careful with water – it penetrates the oil to leave water marks and spots.Applying Sealants: like urethane varnishes, water borne varnishes, lacquers and waxes are generally applied with a brush or cloth, left to dry, lightly sanded and re-coated, repeating the process to build as thick a surface layer as required.
Applying Penetrants: such as tung oil, linseed oil, Danish oils (there are many oils on the market) can be coated on with brush or cloth. Be sure to wipe off excess oil after soaking into the wood. If left to sit on the surface, it becomes tacky and extremely difficult to remove. Tung and linseed oil can also be mixed with turpentine and polyurethane on the first few coatings. With small bowls, oil can also be rubbed into the wood with your fingers. This action heats and opens up the pores to receive maximum amounts of oil.
Wax finishes: can be applied with buffing wheels fitted to a small bench motor. A popular and effective make is the Beall finishing system, utilizing three sticks of wax; tripoli, white diamond and carnauba, applied in that order. They remove any fine grit, sand to a brilliant luster and bring out the natural beauty in wood to leave a brilliant protective finish. Colored stains and to a lesser degree, paints may also be utilized to enhance the bowl. With such a vast array of finishes and wood choices available, the choices are infinite.Bowls for food use:
In Europe, many wood utensils, like bowls, spoons, platters, salt and pepper shakers, tub butter holders and the like are used everyday and the wood is intentionally unfinished . Bowls for food use, however, can benefit from a few light protective coatings using vegetable oils, (canola, olive, peanut), linseed oil or bees wax applied with a brush or cloth. The oil will darken the wood, highlighting the grain and beauty.