Diary of a Professional Woodturner – Part 9

Monday 9 July 2018

Everything is about balance. This is not some profound artist's statement, it is just how it is. Striking the right work-life balance is a constant challenge for many people. Being self employed, if the work is there, it just needs doing. Then there is the balancing act of keeping all of my customers – and the wife – happy, plus juggling the various orders whilst trying to keep calm and sane at the same time!

Last month I wrote about how the bigger production jobs bring in the most income. Balancing out these production jobs against the smaller but regular work can be a challenge but is usually possible, as the production jobs are generally a day or two of work at the most. The problem comes when a really big job comes in; one that doesn't take a couple of days but a week or more. This month I have had two of these to keep me busy, plus trying to squeeze in my usual regular work such as finials, walking canes and trophy bases, all of which have deadlines. When this happens it means longer hours which puts a pressure on family time and you can see the kind of tightrope I sometimes have to walk to keep everyone happy. Luckily I have a very understanding and supportive wife, which does make things a little easier.


A job that has been bubbling away for some time came up last month. A local furniture company had made some hardwood fitted furniture for a house in London, and all of it needed knobs turning to suit the customer's exacting standards. I was approached to do this several months ago, when I supplied a number of samples. Each was sent to the customer and returned with an alteration to the design. Finally, after months of backwards and forwards, changes and tweaks, a design was agreed and the order given. Of course by now the original deadline had changed from “we're still making the furniture so you have plenty of time” to “the furniture is all in and we're just waiting for the knobs.”

My estimation had been for about three days' work but a day or so into production, I hit a problem that would put me back almost to the start. The design was for knobs in three sizes to be turned in a selection of timbers to suit the furniture, including oak (Quercus robur), American walnut (Juglans nigra), maple (Acer campestre), sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) and American cherry (Prunus serotina.) Each of the knobs needed a black inlaid 1mm line adding. My samples had been in oak and I had done it by filling a groove with a mix of resin and black paint. The samples had worked fine so I made each knob with a groove and as I completed each set in a particular timber, I filled it with the resin mix. I had finished all of the cherry knobs and filled them, then moved on to the maple knobs and filled them too. I decided I would then remount the cherry knobs and remove the excess resin. It was here that it all went wrong. As I cut back the resin it was clear that the black had leaked into the end grain of the wood. I re-turned another and then another in the hope that it was just the one, but sure enough, they all had ugly black marks which I knew would be rejected. I tried the maple knobs and these were just as bad!

I had to re-make them but not only that, I had to find an alternative way of adding a black line to all of the knobs. I decided to get them all turned, adding a coat of sanding sealer this time, to help prevent the colour from running, while trying to solve the black inlay problem. I scoured my supplier's catalogues and websites, had a chat with the client and even to another professional turner to see if he could come up with anything. One suggestion he had was to use a piece of Formica to burn a line. This would have been worth a try had I not already turned all of the knobs with a groove. I eventually found some ebony coloured proprietary wood filler which I ordered, with my fingers crossed that it would work. Thankfully it did work and, in fact, worked even better than the resin because the excess filler simply sanded off whereas the resin needed cutting off with a gouge. The photo shows that the rings look a little grey on unfinished work, but once they were sprayed with lacquer, I was pleased that they settled down to a deep black colour.

By the time I had the job finished and had turned the 170 inlaid knobs pictured above – some twice – and the 60 plain turned knobs – not pictured – it had taken almost double the time I had planned for, so more weekends were needed in the workshop to catch up with the other jobs. I was pretty fed up of turning knobs by the end of it but I was pleased with the result and, more importantly, so was my customer.


Working for the trade the best compliment I usually get is a thank you very much or just the fact that a customer comes back to me for more work. On delivery of the knobs, I was paid one of the best compliments I have had. Bearing in mind these guys are used to seeing woodwork of the highest standard and had sent me off with the timber and the words, “the customer is very fussy so they've got to be spot on,” ringing in my ears. I had just smiled and said, “it'll be fine.” After the problems with the job I had doubted myself a little but on delivery the guy opened my packaging and inspected a few of them and said, “so you've got a copy lathe?” “No, it's all done by hand,” I said. He was very surprised and asked how I got them all the same, and I just smiled and said, “I'm pretty good you know.”


A customer I have done a job for each year for the last four or five years came back to me last month. A charity based in Cumbria called The Oaklea Trust presents two employees with an 'Employee of the Year' award. The design is based on the company's logo – an oak tree with an acorn in the centre.

I blew up the logo on my computer and traced the shape onto a piece of planed and sanded oak and cut it out on the bandsaw. I turned two acorns and fixed them on at an angle with a brass screw through the back. This time they asked if I could provide engraved brass plaques and so a quick call to one of my customers in the trophy and engraving trade and they were sorted. You can see the finished trophies opposite.


The big staircase job that has been ongoing for the last few months came to completion last month, but was another that had me tied up for rather longer than I would have liked. The 100 spindles were long gone, a couple of softwood intermediate newel posts had been added to the design by the client, which I made, then came the last part of the job – the three feature newels.

These were made in American walnut and had carved bases, and the main newel for the hallway had a hand carved cap. The design of the carving is known as gadrooning, or gadroons.

The original sample that I had made had been done by hand but I soon realised that I needed a way to speed the job up a bit. As luck would have it, an article in the magazine by Nick Arnull featured a similar design. His 'seedpod inspired box' in issue 236 caught my eye and his technique struck me as the way forward for this job. He used a power carver with a flexible shaft and a carbide burr to quickly remove the waste wood. I have one of these tools but it had sat on a shelf in the workshop unused as I had never found the right sort of cutter to get the best from it. A quick phone call to Nick pointed me in the right direction.

I had quoted for a day's work for each of the carved details on the newel posts; the first took a little longer than this as I experimented with various techniques and processes. The last one took me five hours, which I was pretty pleased with. The cap I had to do almost entirely by hand, though, as, unfortunately, I struggled to get the powered tool to do exactly what I wanted it to.

The turning process itself was pretty straightforward and the centre sections needed fluting to match the turned spindles.

My homemade jigs for the router and the indexer made it an easy job. I managed to take a few photos of the posts before they were taken away to be fitted. I have been promised some photos of the finished staircase so I will keep you posted as to how it turns out.