The Empress Bowl

I love the process of turning wood bowls. Each piece of wood has a story to tell, from the woods where  it grew to the process of harvesting the wood and the bowl shape that it suggests to the turner. While I was visiting Hanover, I took the opportunity to turn a few bowls.

The first step in turning a bowl is to acquire wood. Now, this would be easy if I owned a nice tract of land with all sorts of wood species, both standing trees and fallen spalted trees (the cool figuring that is from slightly decomposed wood).  Alas, this is not the case, and so I have gotten creative. I would put notes on trees that the school grounds keepers were taking down to see whether I could get a chunk. As I began to turn more bowls, I met lots of really cool people who had access to woods, and we would harvest wood together from some fallen dead including one really big walnut tree that I helped fell.

For these particular bowls, however, I was given a unique piece of wood. Not just any wood, mind you, but a a massive Empress burl. My parents met the horticulturists of Laurelwood Arboretum and asked about a large stump in front of the The Knippenberg Center for Education. They had kept the Empress Tree stump with the burl attached, hoping that they could find someone to turn it. Empress is a tree originally from Japan. It has some interesting lore in that you are supposed to plant one for every daughter you have. I wonder what the tradition is for your daughter turning a salad bowl out of one?

Empress Tree burl

My parents brought the burl to Hanover, where I could work on it. Once I have a log (or a giant burl in this case), I need to get after it with a chainsaw in order to get it into a small enough piece to turn on the lathe. Crosscutting this particular piece was a breeze with Rob’s Dad’s extremely sharp chainsaw.


Once I had it in a chunk, I was ready to get over to the wood shop, and make it round on the band saw. Only then was I able to actually put the wood on the lathe.

The first step of turning is to mount the wood to a faceplate and turn the bottom of the bowl. This is when I make decisions about how the wood grain is going to look in the final bowl. I can either make the bottom of the bowl from the middle of the tree, the outside of the tree, or have the bowl actually go with the grain of the tree. Choosing the outside of the tree as the outside of the bowl is traditional and is what I have done with most bowls. It gives me the most wood to work with and makes the final dried shape of the bowl a nice oblong as the wood shrinks towards the pith (center of the tree).


If I put the bottom of the bowl in the center of the tree, I can make the edge the natural shape of the log, and even keep the natural bark on the bowl. The challenge with this is that I have to turn the foot while the bowl is pinched, not held on by the faceplate, with the wood spinning at 500-1000 rpm while held onto the lathe by two pincers –eek. The other challenge is that with the natural edge of the wood, the weight is never going to be even, so the lathe vibrates aggressively when the rpms are turned up. The final product can be worth all of the hassle.

bowl turned with the bottom of the bowl in the center of the tree, bark left on the rim

I have only turned a few bowls along the grain. This can be cool because the grain runs circumferential to the bowl, and I can still get the natural edge if I want. The weird part about this method is that even when turned green (wet), the shape doesn’t get oblong.

I turned the Empress burl with the second method. I turned the outside of the bowl successfully, taking off huge curls of wood at the beginning when the bowl was very out of round and progressively smaller curls as the bowl got closer to the shape. With the roughing done, I used a shear scrape method to get the bowl smooth so I wouldn’t need to do as much sanding at the end.

mounted with the faceplate
turning the foot

After finishing the outside of the bowl, I took the bowl off the faceplate and mounted the bowl into a 4 jaw chuck to start turning the inside. To turn the inside of the bowl, with the natural edge, I need to be really patient and try to keep the cut straight, even though the bowl isn’t evenly weighted or under the cutting edge of the bowl gauge the entire rotation of the lathe. The resulting feeling and cut is very chattery.  The tricky part about cutting the inside of the bowl is that I am cutting in a slight shear. If I am not careful, I can end up ripping grain instead of cutting. I cut the inside of the bowl with a repeated process – cut the side of the bowl, hog out the center, wet the wood to prevent cracking, then sharpen the gouge to get ready to cut again.

the outside finished – flipped into the jaws
the jaws!


almost done!

After rounds and rounds of this process – about 3 hrs of having wood fly at me, that incidentally smelled like gherkins pickles, I had the bottom finished out. Once the bowl looked finalized, I pinched the bowl on the lathe, with the bottom facing out and turned the foot away.

With the bowl finished, all that is left is to dry it over a couple months, sand it to a really fine grit, then finish it with some polymerized tung oil. It should be beautiful!