Getting into woodturning

This past year, I have had a number of people ask me for advice and suggestions for choosing lathes, turning chisels, and other accessories. All of these requests were from people that were considering woodturning but had trouble finding information concerning the initial requirements. I am not an expert or an authority of any kind when it comes to choosing the right equipment but I would like to share the last email I received and the answers I provided. What I can say is that I have been at it for 10 plus years so some of my experiences may be helpful. These answers are not for everyone and will not necessarily suit your own case, but if they get you thinking in the right direction, at least we'll be heading the right way!

The opinions expressed are my own.

This is the latest email I’ve received.

“Good afternoon,
I want to invest in the hobby of wood turning, making bowls, platters, maybe pens, table legs, chair legs... all this said, I am having a lot of difficulty on figuring out what lathe I should consider purchasing. I live in Ottawa and my garage only has 110 volt.
I need a little guidance. I’d rather get something I can grow with, than something I will want to replace in one year. Also I know the purchase of the lathe is one thing, but what are the other things a beginner like myself should consider purchasing.
I have had a look at Delta, Busy Bee’s Craftex and General International... my budget is $1000 to $1500 total for everything. I would greatly appreciate the guidance.”

Hi!

You are asking a very complicated question. Maybe it's a very simple question with a very complicated answer! But I think you already know that. Common wisdom says that when buying tools, always buy the best that you can afford. That being said, how much do you spend on something you have never done, never tried, and might dump after the first try? What if you only have a buck and a half? How do you maximize that buck and a half?

The many activities that you mention (bowls, platters, chair legs, etc) cover almost the whole gamut of woodturning, except for turning hollow forms and ornamental turning. In other words, your selection would point to a need for the higher quality equipment and therefore a little more expensive initially.

You do mention 3 brands of lathes, so let's look at them. You mention Craftex, Delta and General. If you were to compare the three to automobiles, they would be the Russian Lada, the typical everyday Ford, and perhaps a Mercedes or BMW (not quite a Bentley or Rolls, definitely not a Lamborghini), in that order. Of course, people that own any of these lathes will have their own opinions but I'm pretty sure all will agree that the Craftex would not be the highest ranked. (Note: these are my personal opinions only. “Your mileage may vary” as they say. My daughter owns a Craftex and it works for her.)

The biggest expense you will have in woodturning, is not the lathe, it is the tools and accessories you buy for the lathe and the other peripherals required.

To give you an example;
I have 2 lathes. One is a Delta Midi which I take with me to give courses and and for private tutoring. The lathe cost me $299 when new.
The 3-jaw chuck I use cost $199, plus 2 x $45 for different size jaws. I also needed a Jacob's chuck to be able to use drill bits and that was another $30. Add on top of that the cost of the turning chisels and a decent sharpening setup and you see what I mean.

Back to your question. There are 2 ways to look at the situation:

1) You have the money, you know you want to do this for sure.
Solution: just go and buy the best you can afford of everything, hook up with a woodturning club in your area or a teacher and get turning. That would not be my way and I honestly do not think that $1000 to $1500 will allow you to do that and end up with quality equipment.

2) You're not sure if this will work out but you want to try.
Solution: Buy a sturdy, well built lathe with decent resale value. Something powerful enough to turn small to mid-size bowls, a good selection (notice I did not say a good "set") of turning chisels, a decent sharpening set up and hook up with a woodturning club in your area or a teacher. This is my way of doing things and here you can probably make do with your $1500 but there will not be any change from your $1500.

As I said before, I have 2 lathes. A Delta Midi lathe worth about $300 and a DVR worth about $3000. I have no association with either company. My recommendation for you would be for a Delta Midi which has enough torque to allow you to turn bowls up to 9" in diameter or pieces up to 37" long with bed extensions. It has multiple speeds and a cast iron bed and uses standard size accessories such as a 1"-8tpi threaded through-spindle and MT-2 Morse taper. These last 2 specifications mean that just about all accessories you purchase now will fit bigger lathes if and when you decide to upgrade later on. It has been my experience that most accessories you buy to fit a Craftex however will fit nothing else.

Note that Jet, Steel City and General also make lathes the same size and specifications as the Delta Midi and that cost about the same. I have heard good things about them but I don't know actual users and have not used them myself. I do own a Delta though and I really value it. All the accessories I purchased for the Delta can be used on my DVR except for the adapter for my One-Way chucks which can easily be changed in about a minute.

Hand chisels are another matter. I said earlier to get a good selection, not a good "set". There are a number of sets on the market, ranging from $20 up to many hundreds of dollars. In my opinion, they all have one basic flaw in that the manufacturers give you the tools they "think" you will need or that most people seem to have. It is almost 100% sure that in a "set" there will be at least 1 tool you will probably never use. So why buy it? There is one exception which is almost adequate and these are sets that are for one function only. For example a set specifically to turn pens which would have the proper size gouge, skew and parting tool for example. But mostly, "sets" are a waste of money. (If you subscribe to the saying that "whoever dies with the most tools, wins". In that case, buy all the sets you want, and you might win!)

To choose chisels, first decide what you want to turn. Most people start with spindle turning. Whatever it is you are interested in (pens, bowls, etc), will take a while to learn to do properly. People do not jump from turning a pen one day to turning a bowl the next. There is a fair amount of technique required so whatever selection of tools you buy now will last for a while until you decide to learn something else.

So, if you start with spindle turning, skip bowl gouges, hollow turning tools, multiple scrapers and other fancy tools. Look for a spindle gouge or 2, a good skew chisel, a parting tool, and perhaps 1 scraper. Buy quality HSS tools and get gouges with as long a flute as possible! (More on this later)

I have to admit here that I have bought "sets" and they have been good for me. I like to make my own tools, from scratch if I have to. 99% of the time, when I buy sets, it is to modify the chisels. It is easier and more cost effective for me to buy an HSS scraper and modify the end for my own use, than to buy a piece of raw stock and make a whole tool for a result that is the same. The gouges end up sharpened in different configurations for different applications. This obviously depends on your own abilities.

A decent sharpening station or set up is also a must and most people don't think of that. If you have ever done any woodwork, you know that using a blunt tool is like trying to swim with bricks tied to your feet. It does not work. In woodturning, this is even more important. If you use a hand plane and take a shaving of 3' long in one second, in the same second, you remove 471' of wood at 1000 rpm on a lathe. You will need sharp tools and the skill to sharpen them, often. Here you can save some money by making your own jigs and even building your own grinding station if you have an old motor hanging around. Otherwise, count on another $300 or so.

This is getting as long as a Sunday sermon and there is more, but the bottom line is, yes, you can do this for about $1500, especially if you have some shop skills already. Don't let all the details above scare you into changing your mind. 99% of people that try woodturning wonder why they didn't try earlier! It's a lot of fun.

In a further email, I answered:

The lathe you chose sounds like a good choice. I've heard good stuff about it.

I'm not sure on your choice of the Lee Valley economy tool set. I bought 2 of the gouges and regretted it. When you first learn to sharpen, you grind a lot of tool down. For that, you must have a lot of metal to grind to begin with. These tools are too short in the flute which makes them not even good for that. The “feel” somehow didn’t do it for me either. Perhaps from being used to other brands. If you insist on buying a set, I recommend the $85 set of HSS chisels sold at Busy Bee. For a beginner, it is a much better value.

In the Ottawa/Gatineau region, there is no good place to get tools and accessories that I know of. Busy Bee has some but for woodturning, it is mostly questionable quality stuff from China, (except for their Sorby tools and their One-Way chucks) and Lee Valley has a very restricted selection of mostly expensive tools of unparalleled quality but perhaps geared more to the professional.

The best place I have found is Woodchuckers in Toronto. They ship very fast, have very good prices, a very good selection, are very honest and very trustworthy. Their website www.woodchuckers.com sucks, so don't go by that. Feel free to use my name as an introduction (I don't get any kick back but I am well known due to my association with the Valley Woodturners)

To get a good idea of what Woodchuckers stocks, go to www.pennstateind.com and look at their catalogue online. Woodchuckers stocks all of it and then some more from the UK. John Buccione, the owner and a good friend, is also a woodturner and knows his stuff very well.

If you get a chance, consider being my guest, at the next meeting of the Valley Woodturners. You'll get to meet a whole bunch more people with questionable sanity! Just like you and I!

It's free, no strings attached and there's coffee and donuts. Just go to our club website valleywoodturners.userworld.com , under Meetings, to see how to get there.