Diary of a Professional Woodturner – Part 3

Monday 9 July 2018

A change from the norm is good from time to time but it was nice to get back to turning after last month's lull and the proceeding flat woodwork. The thing about being a 'one man band' is that it only takes a couple of phone calls and I can quickly go from kicking my heels to being rushed off my feet, and that is just what happened this month.

As always there were walking canes to turn; these are my bread and butter work and I usually make a batch every couple of weeks as they are an ongoing order. Another regular customer makes engine valves for an early type of motor car; he tells me that originally they were each supplied in a turned wooden box and likes to keep with tradition by continuing to supply them in my turned maple boxes.

I made some ash and walnut stool legs for another regular that makes a type of folding stool. I also completed a set of stretchers for an antique chair that had some damaged ones; this is one of my favourite types of job which involves copy turning, colour matching and polishing the parts ready for the customer to fit. There was a roof finial for a Victorian greenhouse in softwood which I had to copy from a rather decayed original and an oak bowl with turned apples in different woods, to name just some of the work.

Pieces turned this month

Each month, as I work, I take photos of the more interesting or challenging jobs, or those that I am particularly proud of. I use these photos on my website – when I get round to updating it – and I also submit them to the magazine to complement my articles. This series is a snapshot of life as a professional turner, and that is what I try to show each month. The photos to the right show the mahogany chair stretchers, the softwood finial with what is left of the original, and the bowl of fruit that I mentioned in the introduction.

More big stuff!

I mentioned previously that I seem to be getting more and more large scale work, whether that is in length or diameter, and this month that trend continued with an order for a set of four large oak legs. I was sent a photograph of a table featuring the leg in question and a diagram with not enough measurements on it and told that the deadline was quite tight – could they have them quickly, please? I told them to leave it with me and I ordered the wood.

These legs were 750mm long and 178mm maximum diameter. This doesn't sound too big until you realise that to make up 178mm I needed to glue together four layers of 50mm oak, 800mm long – 750mm plus some waste – by 185mm wide. This of course needed to be prepared first as the timber is supplied sawn, so I had to prepare the timber on the planer-thicknesser, then laminate it using PU glue and all of my sash cramps.

I mounted the substantial lumps of timber between centres on the Jet and made a start. It is worth remembering that a 180 x 180mm square blank is nearer 270mm diagonally across the corners. The advantage of the Jet lathe, and one of the reasons I bought it, was because of its low bottom speed of 370rpm – most lathes in this class start nearer 500rpm. The lathe handled the blocks and I slowly got them turned. Slowly being the key because although I got them balanced and managed to increase the speed, you lose some of the driving power at higher speeds so I had to take my time and find the size of cut that removed a decent amount of material but didn't stop the lathe.

Research and the demo

The legs turned out well and the customer was delighted with them but I was left wondering if a bigger lathe might make life a little easier.

Like most woodturners, I like tools and lathes, and although I have managed to control my need to buy lots of shiny new tools, I like to keep up-to-date with what is on the market so I had a pretty good idea of what lathes are available to do the sort of work I need. The main problem though is a common one: cost!

There were several options available to me but the problem is my Jet has actually got some pretty impressive figures and takes a bit of beating, with its 1,500mm between centres – with the bed extension – and 355mm swing over the bed. Checking out some costs, it soon became apparent that I would need to spend in excess of £4,000 to be able to beat it, but there was one other option I had in mind – I could go old school.

A Wadkin RS lathe would suit my needs; these have not been made since the 1970s so are only available on the second hand market but they do come up, and even a fully reconditioned one would only cost around £2,500.

I decided this would probably be my best option and decided to look into them further. As it happened I had a demonstration coming up at the Middlesex Woodturners' Association which is the local club of my friend, Gary Rance, a well known turner – to say the least – who also happens to use an RS lathe.

Gary had previously invited me to see his workshop and I decided that, as I was to be in the area, I would tie in a visit with the demo. Gary showed me around his well equipped workshop, giving me a number of tips and showing me several of the jigs and devices he uses to make life easier – he also showed me his Wadkin RS6 lathe. He explained that he'd had his 1950s lathe since 1981 and hadn't even had to change the bearings, the only downside to them being the noise they make, which is a little more than a modern lathe due to the design.

After treating me to lunch in his local we headed for the demo which went well, the chairman promising that I would get invited back, which is always a good sign!

Convincing the boss

Having now seen an RS in action I was pretty well sold on the idea, it was now just a matter of finding one for the right price… and the small matter of convincing Mrs. F that I needed a new lathe!

Vanessa, my wife, has been very supportive of my turning ambitions and has been with me since before I even discovered woodturning. She is also great to talk things through with and always has a different, and usually sensible, point of view to balance out my ideas. I gently introduced the idea that a bigger lathe might be a good idea and help me with my work; she listened without much comment.

Over the next few weeks, I kept an eye on a couple of different websites where Wadkin machinery is sold and it was actually on a well-known auction site where I first saw an RS8 that fitted the bill perfectly. I mentioned this to Vanessa and she listened and offered a sensible argument not to buy it due to our finances. I reluctantly let the auction end and decided to myself that, if it came back up for sale, it was destined to be mine! Sure enough it came back up for sale. Meanwhile, I had come up with a cunning plan to convince Vanessa. I suggested that I could ask my Dad to lend me the money and sort out a repayment over the next year or so to make the whole thing more affordable as sadly, there wasn't enough in my company account to pay for it. Vanessa agreed and so did Dad, so I rang the seller to organise a visit.

The viewing

The next issue was that the lathe was in Lancashire, around 130 miles and three hours drive away. Dad, who is my chief advisor in life, offered to come along to look at it. With 40 years in the woodworking industry I thought his point of view would certainly be welcome; his car is also somewhat more comfortable for a long journey than my little van.

After a long drive, we arrived in Colne, Lancashire, to view the lathe. Phil, the guy selling the lathe, met us there and showed us in. His workshop was about half as big again as mine and along one wall was the Wadkin. I had brought some wood to try it out and was pleased with how it seemed to work. Phil had owned it for about five years – it had been reconditioned when he bought it – but had sat largely unused since.

Dad paid the man and we headed home. On the way home the Sat Nav took us a rather interesting route but one of the roads we went down was 'New Laithe Road'. Although not superstitious, I took this to be a sign that I had made the right decision to buy the new Wadkin RS lathe.

I now just had to wait for a couple of weeks until it was delivered and, in the meantime, try and sell the Jet.