I have been intrigued for some time now about nests of bowls. Turning a nest is regarded as the ultimate pole lathe bowl turning achievement. Less wasteful of time and wood, nesting is the ability to get multiple bowls from a single bowl blank. The result is an attractive set of bowls which fit one within the other, with identical grain patterns running through each bowl. The challenge is being able to cut a narrow channel between each bowl, all the way to the core without jamming the tool or ruining the surface, without the benefit of being able to see what you are doing for much of the time.
These are a pair of nests I turned from beech, the one on the right still quite heavy with moisture having been turned yesterday. The one on the left has been off the lathe about a week. When they are both completely dry they will be finished with walnut oil. Each nest is one half of the same log. I have access to plenty more of this beautiful wood. It’s from a huge beech tree which came down in a storm three years ago. The largest bowl on each set is just under eleven inches diameter at the rim. I look forward to making some larger sets, the wood turns very nicely.
The way I see it, turning nests is a natural progression for anyone who has been turning bowls for a while, but only because some very clever people in the past worked out how it could be done, paving the way for those to follow. It humbles me to imagine the first person who had the idea and the journey of discovery which followed, the joy at making it work. What I’d give to have a pint with that person. In Robin Wood’s book ‘The Wooden Bowl’, it is suggested that not until the late 18th or early 19th century did bowl turners begin turning nests of bowls, so a fairly recent innovation in the history of turning, Here’s a close-up of one of my nests showing how the grain runs throughout each bowl.
About a year ago I started to leave larger cores while turning bowls, more to save time than to learn nesting. To begin with the cores were not big enough to get a second bowl from, but with time I realised that I was beginning to make subtle changes to my technique which meant that I needed less space to work in and the cores became big enough to make a second bowl from. This was while using standard straight bowl hooks, and the channel between bowl and core was quite large.
After turning sets of two for a while, I realised that I would be able to turn a set of three but first I was going to have to forge some curved tools. So I set up my lathe next to my forge and got to work forging and turning and experimenting, cutting narrower channels between the bowls. The photo above shows me undercutting the core on a nest of two sycamore bowls. Below you can see a nest of three being started with a curved tool cutting towards the core.
After some time, working by feel and sound and relying to some extent on intuition, the core is snapped away. This is where experience comes in to play, knowing how to get a good, tidy surface cut without being able to see the tool work. Below you can see the stub left in the bottom of the large outer bowl at the place where the core snapped off. The core is now remounted, a ready made second bowl blank.
So the process is repeated, cutting another channel to separate bowl number two.
Until there are now two bowls and a third core which can be remounted on the lathe.
Finally the last bowl is turned using a standard hook tool.
But it did take me two failed attempts…and a fair few broken hook tools to learn how to get three bowls from one blank. Below is a photo of one of these failures. I cut through the outer bowl to get an insight in to what was happening as I knew it was going wrong. You can see that I left the walls too thick initially to make allowances for having a curve on the tool that might not be quite right…but the sweep was not tight enough on the second tool and the wall was getting too thin near the base of the bowl.
Another more dramatic disaster can be seen in the next photo. On this occasion the tool went right through the wall of the bowl much earlier on.
I also broke a few tools along the way by getting the fine hook tips jammed in the channel. But the journey was worth it. I now have a decent set of tools for turning nests and the satisfaction of having riddled out the technique for myself. As far as I am aware there are six people alive today who know how to turn nests on the pole lathe. No doubt in time that number will increase. I know that time spent turning countless numbers of bowls combined with time spent at the forge are the keys which unlock the learning of this technique and anyone determined who puts in the time will get there. It’s fun.