04 May 2020
It is said by some that the Italian artist Michelangelo saw the statue of David inside the large block of marble he was about to start carving. The block was some 18 feet tall, and the final masterpiece stands 17 feet tall. There was a lot of marble to be removed carefully with mallet and chisel to reveal the hidden statue inside. How did Michelangelo know the precise moment when to stop removing material and start gently shaping? This particular work of creation took nothing short of three years to complete. The end result was David, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture of the human form created in marble.
Can it be said that woodturning masters of today visualize the end product of their hand tools, in conjunction with their turning machines, within a square or round block of wood? The woodturner actually feels the cutting chisel cut as it is cradled firmly in his hands to begin carving the spinning block of wood. There is quite a lot of wood material to remove in order to reveal the hidden masterpiece within. What will the wood grain look like when exposed on the final surface? The work proceeds somewhat rapidly at first, rounding the square block, removing the outer layers of wood with a roughing gouge. The master knows his tools well. The dictionary says that the gouge is a chisel with a concave blade, used in carpentry, sculpture, and surgery. Isn’t it curious how some of these hand tools are used in largely unrelated fields of endeavor? And it is often accomplished in the hands of a practiced master in that particular field.
The woodturner has an array of specialized tools to complete each phase of his task. We have already mentioned the roughing gouge. In removing wood chips rapidly, it leaves a rough finish behind each passing cut. But that’s all right because there are other tools to remove smaller amounts of material on each pass and to leave a smoother finish with each pass. There’s the parting tool, the spindle gouge, the skew, the spindle master. Some of these come in different sizes. Then there are carbide tipped tools, but that’s the subject matter for another article. It’s a matter of practice that the skew is one of the best tools for spindle work, but beginners frequently have trouble using the skew. Enter the spindle master, which is a combination of a skew and a spindle gouge. It is much easier to use than a skew and leaves a similar smooth finish.
How long do you suppose it takes for a woodturning master to learn his trade? Inevitably, it takes years for any master to inculcate the skill into his very being. Usually there are a host of mistakes, learning experiences, along one’s path. It is essential that one not allow a plethora of mistakes to win out and discourage the new learner. Wood is a fascinating medium with unlimited possibilities when one takes the wood grain into account.
Ars longa, vita brevis.