Turning a Leaf Vase, Part 1

Turning a Leaf Vase, Part 1

by Gord Langer

Turning a Leaf Vase

I have always been a big fan of Brian's leaf vases.  They embody great form and beauty and have proven to be good sellers. To make one there are many woodturning techniques that are challenging but loads of fun. 
 
The procedures we will cover to make this vase will be some basic turning techniques, deep vessel boring, piercing and finally some simple airbrushing. 
 
So follow my attempt to replicate one of these forms.  
 
I will be using silver birch, which is a local wood for me.  When I chose the wood for this project I was looking for birch that was as green as possible.  I also like to find a piece that has grown straight and with as few knots as possible.  These logs were cut last fall and were frozen so while they were cut some time ago, they were still green. 

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I take the best end of the log and mark it as the top. You will note a knot on one of the logs and so I marked that end as the bottom.  In a perfect world a section of log with no knots is best.  I then measure the diameter to find the center of the log and again, in a perfect world, the pith in the center would be best.  It is very helpful to mark each end as top and bottom.
 
If you don't have birch or other light color wood available, I will also touch on using darker wood at the end of this article.  This may require the use of a laser in conjunction with the captive boring bar. 
 
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The first step is to mount the top of the log at the headstock side.  In this case I am using my favorite drive, a 2.5" Elio Drive.

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Here I take care to mount what will be the bottom of the vase on the tail stock side. 

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Once mounted on the lathe it's a good idea to remove the bark layer by cutting through it with a utility knife.  Once the bark is scored, take a flat screwdriver or other such tool to pry an edge of the bark so you can peel it away, as shown here.

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When using birch, removing the bark was an option.  For other species, such as the example I briefly discuss later using elm, it's necessary to turn away the bark with a gouge.  

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After that's taken care of and the piece is mounted between centers, it is time to true up the blank.  It is important to take care truing up the bottom as this is where I will mount a face plate.

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When mounting the log back on the lathe with the face plate, it's a good idea to ensure the face plate has "bottomed" out.  Here I use a dead blow hammer to ensure the face plate is properly seated on the head stock.  The Oneway face plate I use has two set screws to "lock" the face plate on the spindle.   

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Once the log comes off the lathe I use (in this case) a 6" face plate.  I used #14 1.5" wood screws to mount the face plate.  If the log was any longer than this I might have gone to 2" screws but I typically use #14 wood screws.
 
Once the vase is mounted on the lathe, I re-true the log first as a cylinder and then  I remove the tailstock and gently re-true the face.

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I now take out my tape measure along with a sample screw to start figuring out the ultimate size of the vase.  I use the sample screw and make a mark where the screw tips are located on the log.  I then add a mark about a 1/2" to account for the base of the vase, then another 1/2" to account for the bottom of the vase and finally an additional 1/2" for a little wiggle room. I then measure from the top of the vase and the first line; in this case it measured about 8 1/2".  This measurement will reflect the depth of the vase.

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I now start doing some forming of the shape of the vase.  In this case the piece will be relatively short in length so it is possible to form most of the vase.  If the form is larger it is important to leave as much mass at the headstock end as possible.  A good rule of thumb when turning a larger vessel is to form the outside in thirds and then "leap frogging" outside to inside throughout the process.  In other words form the first ~1/3rd of the vase on the outside then work on the inside and keep doing this until you reach the bottom. 
 
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Once the outside has been formed it's time to do some drilling.  In this case I used a 3" Forstner bit  (available from LeeValley), remembering my drilling depth was 8.5".  Using a large bit like this requires turning your lathe speed down to allow the drilling process to work efficiently.

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It's a good idea to check your depth measurement throughout the drilling process. 

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Now I remove the tailstock and get my deep vessel boring system set up ready to go.  While we have sold out of our own boring bars, Carter Products now manufactures this unit in the USA and it is available from Carter Products.  It is great to have the secondary tool rest so that your normal tool rest can be used to keep forming the outside of the vase without needing to remove the captive boring bar.

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Before I start the hollowing process it's a good idea to sharpen the cutter.  Both Brian and I love these scraper cutters.  They only take seconds to sharpen and give a truly excellent interior finish right off the tool.  They are 17% tungsten steel and are ground to the appropriate angle.  They are available from LangerCraftWorks.com.
 
In this case the shape I have chosen has a very open top.  If you want to have a form that requires more of an undercut on the rim, an extended reach cutter holder and long cutter are also available from LangerCraftWorks.com

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Now it's time for the fun part - some boring!  Early on in the process, I need to take several measurements of the thickness of the vessel.  As I am planning to do a lot of piercing when it's finished, it is important to turn the piece very thin.  I am shooting for about 3/32" once the vase is sanded and ready for piercing.  After I have reached my desired wall thickness, I use my light kit and remember the translucency and color at that thickness.  I will continue to turn the interior to that same translucency to ensure the wall thickness is consistent all the way down to the bottom of the turning.

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As I work to form the interior of the vessel I continue to refine the outside form, again leap frogging down the vase.  It's really a lot of fun at this point.  You can actually see the cutter through the vessel as you form the inside.  Our light kits use a standard automotive bulb and have a dual voltage switch.  I use the 24 volt setting throughout the forming of the vessel.
 
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Here we continue down both the interior and exterior of the vessel.

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The Forstner bit leaves an outer recess along with a small center recess.  To remove the center recess you may need to make a micro height adjustment to the secondary tool rest.  I also adjust the cutter angle to more easily refine the very bottom of the vase.

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I take care to ensure my wall thickness stays consistent all the way to the bottom of the piece. 

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I do some light sanding before moving on.  I love to use Siasoft sandpaper.  With its foam back it is easy to work with and lasts a long time.  The vessel is still a bit wet but given the thin wall thickness it has lost much of the moisture.  I will do a final sanding in a few days.  Now I just used some 80 grit to tweak the form. It is now also time to sand the interior of the vase. 

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I now concentrate on the bottom and start the parting off process.  I like to leave about  5/8" of the vase and use a cut off saw to cut off the final part of the vessel.  Leaving this ~5/8" (or whatever you are comfortable with) will help when we reverse chuck the vase later.

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I now have the vase set on my lathe bed with the nub I left in the raceway.  I then take interior and exterior depth measurements.  The difference of the two measurements will help me determine the final bottom thickness.  In this case I have a little less than an 1" so I will take about a 1/2" out of the base.

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Next I mount a spigot to my spindle and reverse mount the vase.  I carefully bring my live center (without the center pin installed) to the bottom of the vessel.  It is important that the piece run true so this may take a few attempts.  I find the ~5/8" nub is helpful in creating this alignment. 

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With the vessel now running true I work on removing about a 1/2" of material.  I use a 1/4" gouge and a dovetail scraper.  It is important to leave the base with enough wall thickness so that the vase can be remounted once completely dry for final sanding.  Once the base is finished I do a light sanding just to touch up the base.  Final sanding will take place in a few days.
 
Before I show you the final product I thought I would touch on using a laser to help determine wall thickness.   A laser can be used when working with darker woods (in this case elm) or if the wood you are using is dry and a light kit won't work.  The laser is set to measure the specific wall thickness desired by measuring the distance between the laser light and the cutter. As the laser light drops off the side of the piece, the desired thickness has been achieved. 
 
Even when using the laser I still like to use my light kit to illuminate the interior of the vessel.  This helps me ensure the interior finish is good and helps when removing the recesses left by the Forstner bit.   

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The laser I use here is made by Carter Products and while simple in design, works GREAT!  I can highly recommend it.

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In the end, I turned four different pieces. The two on the left are elm, the other two are birch.  The one shown throughout this newsletter is the one on the far right.  It also turned out to be my favorite of the bunch.  I hope you will give this a try.  In the next article I will show you how I re-chuck the vase for final sanding and how I remove the nub on the bottom of the vessel. Once the final sanding is complete I will then lay out the leaves and start the piercing process.
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by Gord Langer