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Choosing the Right Wood for Turning

Mar 17, 2008
I can well remember my first approach to woodturning, and the subsequent visit to the timber yard in search of a few suitable pieces of wood. All I knew was that I wanted some hardwood suitable for turning and that it had to be well seasoned.

To me, at that time, it all looked alike, but after buying lots of useless pieces, I soon formed my own opinion about turning requirements; perhaps you learn a lot quicker by your mistakes. I certainly did. One big advantage of woodturning is that we need not have the wood prepared for us, and all sorts of off-cuts can be put to good use.

Practically any hardwood is suitable for turning, in particular maple, sycamore, walnut, beech, oak or any other hardwood with close and beautiful grain.

Walnut is, perhaps, one of the most used timbers in turning as it answers all the necessary requirements in appearance and texture, and it is sweet to turn and easy to polish. A simple wax polish will quickly give a really beautiful finish.

Oak, on the other hand, can be quite tricky to handle and the various species vary a lot in texture. American oak works and finishes well, but the pinkish colouring is sometimes difficult to match up. English oak is very hard and finishes well but sometimes it is rather open grained and requires quite a lot of filling.

Sycamore, beech and maple all turn very well, with lovely long shavings coming away from your gouge and chisel. Sycamore and beech will probably require staining as they are so light in colour, but maple is best left natural.

You may have timber offered to you which has been kiln dried; that is, the timber is cut to different thicknesses and stacked in a heated room, for a predetermined period, the object being to drive out the moisture and sap by prolonged gradual heat. From time to time the timber in the kiln is checked for moisture content, and when it has dropped to the desired level, the wood is removed and stacked outside in the air.

Some kilns are not operated properly and the wood is spoiled, although externally the wood appears to be all right. However, in cutting into a 2in. square, for example, you will probably find quite large splits right in the centre of the wood.

For this reason, I prefer to use air-dried timber and although the seasoning period is much longer, the resultant planks of wood are much better. For air drying, the tree is cut up into suitable planks and stacked one above the other, with small sticks in between each plank to allow for air circulation. The drying period is reckoned as being approximately twelve months per inch of thickness, thus a 3 in. plank would take three years.

This period can be reduced, if the planks of wood are cut to nearly finishing size, that is, in 2 or 3 in. squares, or 7 x 1 in. boards. When the boards are cut into squares, they are usually stacked in short lengths and these are most suitable for turning table legs, etc. Each stack of squares usually carries the date it was cut up, so it is quite easy to tell when it is properly seasoned. In this case, you can reckon on six months per inch for seasoning time.

To prevent splitting and end shakes during seasoning, the ends of the wood should be painted with tar or wax. I hope this will give you some idea of what to do if you have some freshly sawn timbers of your own to store.

Short-grained wood should be avoided, if possible. It is quite easily recognizable by the grain running diagonally across the sawn board. For some forms of carpentry this would not matter a lot, but when an article is turned, the grain must run lengthwise reasonably straight, or otherwise the finished article will be weak and easily broken. Also, it will not retain its original shape.

With these pointers you should easily be able to find suitable wood for your projects.
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