The thing about pole lathe bowl turning that really interested me when I got started was that the bowl turner must first make their own machine and tools before making a bowl. Before making my lathe I forged some tools, reasoning that having the tools would be the incentive to hurry up and build a lathe.
I had done some forge-work many moons ago while studying violin making, so much of the process was familiar. Drawing out a length of steel is fairly simple. The only aspects which need a little thought are the stages of hardening and tempering. This isn’t rocket science either, just a case of bringing the steel to certain temperatures and quenching it to fix it a various states of hardness. When steel is very hard it is brittle and can snap easily, when too soft a cutting edge won’t stay sharp for long. The idea is to reach a happy balance between these too extremes.
My approach has always been to use what I have to hand. My set-up for my first few batches of tools was very basic but worked really well. I have recently started using a gas forge which is quick and easy to move/set up, but I made dozens of tools with bricks and charcoal. Here I am a couple of years ago in a garden using a mix of charcoal and coke with a simple arrangements of bricks on the ground. For my first tools I used old coil springs but found that it was a pain to unwind them, so started buying nice straight bars of 01 tools steel from a supplier in Sheffield. Works out about £5 per tool.
The hoover was the bellows; it had a leaf blowing function which was very useful. I rigged it up to some copper pipe which went under the soil and curved up in a corner of the brick arrangement. I’ve also used hairdryers and they work fine too. I started the fire with charcoal and later added coke, (sunbright singles) to keep it burning for longer. Charcoal alone is ok but doesn’t last long. Copper pipe is fine as it’s below the fierce heat and is easily replaced eventually.
It always amazes me how fast 16mm 01 tool steel heats up to a nice workable orange glow. It’s not worth hitting metal that hasn’t reached this colour.
I must confess to having always had a fascination with fire…there’s something about forging metal too…if I’m not careful to remember that I’m doing this so that I can make wooden bowls I may well get distracted and end up abandoning green wood altogether…. become a blacksmith….especially tempting as winter approaches. I like the way all the elements are brought together…fire, water, air, earth, to create things which allow us to create other things. Something magical about that, even though it is a very down to earth, practical type of magic.
Below are some tools that have been drawn out, had bevels ground on with angle grinders or belt sanders, then had the tips hammered over and been hardened. The second picture shows two tools fresh from the grinder, ready to be re-heated and curled.
Below are some of my finished hooks, hardened and tempered and with handles. As my skill level on the lathe has increased I’ve been able to use much finer hooks without such a risk of breakage from dig-ins. These are useful for turning smaller items like quaichs.
I started making shorter handles too which suit me better than long handles.
I was asked to run a one day hook tool forging workshop for the Chiltern Association of Pole Lathe Turners. The day went really well and everyone made some nice tools. We had two at a time using the forge, taking it in turns to use the anvil. Below Morris and Jamie are watching their steel heat up in the gas forge.
Jamie drawing out the round bar in to a nice rectangular shape, ready to hammer bevels on before taking it to the grinder.
Steve and Larry grinding bevels on with angle grinders and below then Roger doing the same.
Once the tips have been curled over, the hooks are polished up with wet and dry paper so that the tempering colours can be seen moving along the steel.
Here Jamie is curling the tip of a tool. This can be done with needle-nose pliers or by curling it around a large nail but I prefer to use a hammer.
The last stage before fitting handles; tempering…
There are various ways to do this. Traditionally smiths would quench quickly then take the still hot steel out of the quench and watch the colours run, then quench again. I find this a bit hit and miss. It’s possible to temper in an oven, but I always use a gas hob and watch the colours run towards the cutting edge. When the blade is a light bronze/straw colour I quench.
The finished tools.
A lovely group of people at the end of a productive day. But why am I the only one wearing an apron?
Thanks to Richard Charles for hosting the event and for such a great lunch.
I am now running workshops on forging hook tools and bowl turning from Steward Wood in Devon, either as individual days or together. A typical two day course would include forging tools on day one then turning a bowl on the pole lathe on day two. This is a great way to equip yourself with the tools and basic techniques to get you started. With the gas forge I can also offer to run these workshops at other locations. For more info or to book a course get in touch via my website.