Diary of a Professional Woodturner – Part 1

Monday 9 July 2018

Half way through writing my last series of articles for Woodturning magazine, the editor approached me with the idea of writing another series, charting the highs and lows of a year in the life of a professional woodturner, with the aim of giving an insight into what it is like to earn a living from turning. So here it is! I hope that the next year will be full of exciting things or this could be a short lived series!

Woodturning articles

Firstly I feel I need to explain how this whole article writing thing works. I am writing this in July, based on work that I had in June and you will most likely be reading this in October, so there is something of a time delay between us. I enjoy writing articles, even if they can be difficult to squeeze in to my schedule. For the last series of workshop tips I found that I needed to put aside half a day to do the photography, I then write the words during the evenings, working around family time and doing my business paperwork. Email makes the whole process of sending the articles, receiving proofs and making alterations much more simple, I really can't imagine how it all worked in the days of film photography and snail mail!


The last month has been the usual mix of work that has included a set of lawn mower rollers, a piano stool, a batch of curtain pole finials, a set of walnut knobs, a couple of batches of walking canes, a collection of picture frames, some mahogany knobs, a lesson and a couple of demos, to name just some of it. This work includes some regular work from clients that come back again and again as well as items that are purely one off jobs.

Around 50% of my work is from local customers, the rest come either through my website or from regular customers via email or fax. The curtain pole finials for example, are a regular job that I have been making for the last five years. I have never met the people I deal with as they are based in Somerset but every few weeks they will ring or send an email for another ten finials of one design or another. I simply give them an estimated delivery time, make the goods and send them off on my carrier.

Different clients

In my opinion, there are advantages and disadvantages to both local and long distance clients. It can be handy to be able to call in and give the personal touch by delivering the finished articles or speak face to face over a difficult detail on a job. That said, I find that some clients are better off at more of a distance as occasionally, in my experience, a local customer might be tempted to regularly call in to “see how you're getting on… and sod's law says that I will be at the worst possible time that they choose to call in, just as I make a fatal mistake or am trying to work out how exactly I am going to achieve the impossible task they have set me!

Turning MDF

One thing I had never done, until last month that is, was to turn MDF. I knew it could be turned but had never felt the need to try it. I have used MDF extensively in my old work as a joiner, because in industry it is the 'go to' material for so much display work and furniture. I had an email from a local joinery firm that had a job needing some MDF turning into domes. We arranged for the chap to call in to my workshop with the drawing and a sample of what he needed.

It is always interesting seeing other people's workshops and the guy that came to see me had started life as a pattern maker, before eventually working for this joinery firm and now he rarely gets into the workshop, being mostly office bound.

It takes all of two minutes to give the tour of my little workshop, which is around 30 feet long and 12 feet wide. I often feel I ought to be able to offer tea or coffee to visitors but I rarely drink the stuff myself and seeing as everything that stays still for more than five minutes gets covered in a layer of dust, it seems daft having a kettle and the associated bits and bobs out collecting dust for an occasional visitor. I tend to bring things if I have a student for the day but otherwise I don't, so be aware, if you are ever passing and want to call in, you will be quite welcome but thirsty!

Discussing the job

The chap that called in, Simon, brought along a large A3 diagram and a made up sample of the finished article.

The job was to laminate four layers of 18mm MDF and to then turn them into domes. These would eventually be mounted on square baseboards, upholstered with foam and suede fabric and then hung as part of a luxurious cinematic wall. There will be around 60 in total if all goes well with these samples.

Making samples can be a bit of a minefield when it comes to getting paid. Some people expect samples for free, others will pay your quote while some bigger companies understand that it is cheaper to produce a batch than a couple of samples and will pay a little more for them. This firm paid my quoted price, which is fine by me if I get the job!

With the details worked out and the material supplied by Simon, I was asked to make five as an initial run, for them to present to their client. To save material the domes were made up in graduated layers which I glued together with Polyurethane glue, an exceptionally strong glue with good gap filling properties, just in case.

Holding the MDF

As with any job, I had to find the most efficient method of holding the work while turning it. Efficient means not only should it be held securely but should also be fast and easily repeatable, this immediately ruled out a faceplate – too many screws – so I went for a single 7mm hole in the centre of the back of the disc for my large Axminster screw chuck. Once mounted, I started the lathe up slowly as I wasn't sure how everything would react but found that it all was fine so soon increased the speed up to around 1,600rpm.

As with all production jobs, the first one always takes far longer than the last. I had made up an MDF template so I could match the curve accurately, as turning progresses you get the feel for the cuts and the shape you are aiming for comes more and more naturally. I was surprised that I was getting long streams of shavings from the MDF rather than the fine dust usually associated with it; that was until the edge of my 10mm bowl gouge became less than sharp, that is when the fine dust appears. MDF has quite a blunting effect on a tool's edge so regular trips to the grinder were needed. After power sanding with my 75mm (3in) arbor at 180 grit the domes were complete. To combat the dust I had two extractors permanently running along with my air filter and I wore my respirator with a dust mask beneath that.

MDF isn't my favourite of materials to work, although I don't think it is my least favourite either. I can't see many turning enthusiasts rushing out to buy themselves some MDF to turn but there are times when it is the best material for the job and if someone is prepared to pay me to work it, I certainly will turn it again.