18 January 2012

Home altar: Making a column, part one.

Work continues on the home altar.  I decided to do a post on making one of the decorations of the altar- one of the long columns for the upper section.

The column is made on a lathe.  Turning on a lathe is about the most fun you can have in a shop.  It was so popular, in fact,t hat years ago noble men had their own lathes made, and would do their own turning for their own enjoyment and relaxation.  One of Tolstoy's noble characters is often found with his lathe, for instance.  However, a nobleman would not be turning wood: their lathes would be used for ivory.

I have two lathes: an old beaver lathe I use for turning large pieces, and my treadle lathe, which I generally use for smaller pieces.  At twenty four inches long, the blank for the column is the limit for a piece the treadle lathe can handle. 

As can be seen, the blank is made from three pieces of wood laminated together.  As I have said before, almost all the wood I use these days comes from whatever I can scavenge- old furniture, pallets, fallen trees.  The main reason is that I am broke, however, I am a bit of an environmentalist, though I avoid that word.  Let me say a word or two (or a paragraph) on that subject.

Let me begin with the case of Charles Dickens.  Dickens was possibly the greatest social reformer in the Golden Age of Busybodi- I mean, the Golden Age of Social Reform., yet he eschewed the term and actually distanced himself from other reformers.  His reason was that he disagreed with their methods, and believed they often brought discredit to otherwise righteous causes.  Although I cannot pretend to be a Dickens, the principle is the same.  I believe we should wisely use our resources and make a conscious effort to preserve them to the best of our abilities.  In that I am like many environmentalists, but so many of the environmentalists are so obnoxious they push away more people than they convince, and bring discredit on anyone who even remotely mentions the environment.  For myself, to put it bluntly, I do not believe we were meant to be Creation's Tyrants.

These days, there are quite a few woodworkers and cabinet makers who, like me, use scrap and found wood.  Essentially, we go through the garbage, looking for something that may be useful.  Many of them flaunt their source material, and their work is quite sought after in some quarters.  To my eye, though, it still looks like garbage, and I suspect it will eventually be like 1960's art pottery: a fad, expensive in its day, now worth a few pennies at a garage sale.  I do not try to flaunt my source material, but I do not hide it, either.  I try and create beauty to the best of my ability.  Perhaps I should emulate them: their sales are better. 

Moving on.

The lathe is based upon a design by Roy Underhill published in Popular Woodworking some years back.  It is a simple design.  The tailstock, visible in the upper photo on the right side of the blank, is held in place by a wedge....

...which is tapped in place with my mallet.  The whacking, unfortunately, knocks the headstock a little out of alignment, which must be tapped back into place with the mallet.  The parts occasionally break from all this pounding, but, since I made this myself, I can rebuild any part of it whenever necessary

One of the modifications I made was the addition of an idler.

The idler moves up an down to adjust the tension on the rope, to keep it nice and taught.  However, slippage is still a problem with the rope.  Roy Underhill recommends using Maple Syrup, as it is nice and sticky.  I, however, regard Maple Syrup as one of nature's most perfect bounties, and would never commit the sacrilege of pouring this precious liquid out upon a rope.  I use a glue stick instead.

With the rope nice and sticky, the blank secured, and the lathe tapped into alignment, turning can begin.  Turning is a rather delicately balanced affair on this lathe.  I stand balanced on one foot, pumping like mad with the other, while holding sharp tools to a rapidly rotating piece of wood.  It is good exercise.  Interesting note, and often a bit of a surprise to first time users of a treadle lathe:  The leg that gets tired is not the one you think.  It's the leg you're standing one.

I begin by rounding the blank.  I start near the tailstock, turn it round, and then move back to the headstock.

In the above photo, you can see a knot in the wood.  If this blank were a single solid piece of wood, I would have to cut the wood short at the knot, as structurally unsound and unsuitable for turning, and found another blank for this piece.  However, as this piece is laminated, the other boards will be strong enough for the column, and I will hide the knot by placing the column so the knot faces the back of the altar.

I continue rounding the piece until the entire blank is a rough cylinder.

Now that the blank is round, it is time to start adding the details, which I will discuss in the next post.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Bear, sometime in the next year or two I would like to have a workshop for our family built under the house. The space is already there, being maybe 5x5 metres square. Do you have any advice for us in what to consider when making a workshop? Our cabinet maker neighbour suggests a concrete floor for example.


Bear-i-tone said...

Ah Louise, you do not know the peril you out yourself in by asking me that question. It is like asking a doctoral student about their thesis. You will quickly find yourself in for a ver long and very boring one sided discussion. I will try and be brief, for the moment.

A workshop is a very personal thing and should, first and foremost, be built around the person/ people who use it. As for the concrete floor, generally speaking, that is a good thing, but not all shops have one. It depends on what the shop is to be used for, and what kind of tools it will house. Assuming you are speaking of a woodshop, if you are going to be using the big power tools, the ones that sit on the floor and take up a lot of space, then go with concrete. It will keep them stable. If you choose to use handtools instead, a vonvrete floor is good, but not an absolute requirement. Full disclosure: I have one, but it came with the house I rent.

For me, the most important tool in my shop isn't really a tool at all in many senses- it's my workbench. Mine is based on a scandanavian model of workbench, witha few modifications, and it suits me well. If you were to start doing research on the internet on benches, you would quickly discover, as I did, that there are as many opinions out there about the benches, as there are craftsmen who use them. That's because every craftsen makes them to their needs. Their needs include a bench that fits them, the kind of work they do, and the space it occupies. So you need a bench that is the right height for you, fits in your shop while long enough to hold anything you do, and is heavy and sturdy enough to provide you with a solid base. There are books, very long books written on this topic.

After your bench... it depends on what you want to do, and how deep your pockets are. A workshop is a very, very good way to blow a lot of money very quickly. Let me know a bit more about what the shop is for, and I can perhaps tailor my answer a bit better for you. In general: concrete is good but not absolutely necessary, (let's say about 80%) and a good bench is absolutely necessary.

Hope that helps a little.

Anonymous said...

You will quickly find yourself in for a ver long and very boring one sided discussion.

I know - you are a man, after all. And it is my womanly duty to sit here admiringly giving you my full attention, unless I am a shrew in which case I will merely try to cut you down to size.

Now that we have our roles sorted out I will give you some more information and also thank you for your reply.

I mostly just want a workshop for basic woodworking projects which we can hopefully introduce to our kids especially the boys. I learned a little woodworking at school and my mother did some at adult ed, so between us we could start teaching the kids with some small projects. I'm not at all keen on power tools, although I'm happy enough with my electric drill and sander. But I guess it's possible we might one day end up with electric saws, so I guess the concrete slab would be the way to go. I don't mind concrete but I prefer more natural materials so I was also considering a wooden floor, or even stone.

I don't imagine anything very serious will be built in there, it's really just for some kids and adult amateurs.

I wouldn't mind a corner set aside for a pottery wheel as well.

Bear-i-tone said...

Chuckle. I wasn't actually speaking along a Me-man-you-woman lines, I was thinking more along the lines of asking, say, a doctoral student what his thesis is about, or a nerd for his opinion on Star Trek: very long and verbose answers.

For a shop for the kids: You definitenly need a bench, and possibly two if more than one kid will be working there at the same time. A word about benches: There is no such thing as a bench that is too long- as long as it fits in the shop with a few feet of room at either end, it is fine- and there is no such thing as a bench that is too heavy- it needs to be sturdy and stable. It can, however be too wide- there's a reason why kitchen cabinets are only a few feet across- and it can be too high- usual height is about the distance from the main user's (make it you or your husband in this case) wrist and the ground. Benches can be outfitted with all sorts of attachments that make them more useful, and make the work easier. Some of them are dreadfully expensive (vices, for example, sem to have no upper limit in price) or cheap, and you can make them yourself.

You will need a few saws- cross cut, rip, coping, backsaw, at the very least, and a few planes of various sizes. (generally, I buy plane blades, and make my own) Try and find some decent quality. Around here, flea markets are and garage sales are good. It is better to buy something old that was of quality, than something new and cheap, and of no quality. But, when you buy old you will most likely have to tune it up before using. At the very least, it will need a good sharpening. So you need to get some sharpening equipment- either some grinders and their wheels or some automotive sandpaper and glass for backing- for your shop, and learn how to use it. Also, most people don't, but, if you can, learn how to sharpen your saws. That is a real help around the shop.

There is a lot written on the internet about sharpening tools. In fact, some guys seem to only sharpen their tools, and never actually use them, as they try and get their tools "freaky sharp" and all that. I aim for "sharp enough", so I can get back to my working more quickly. At any rate, find some information on sharpening, and decide what suits your needs and budget best.

You will need a drill and a good set of bits. Be prepared to replace the smaller bits regularly, as they do snap. Routers are a useful tool, but I would keep it away from kids, because those things are dangerous. For fun, a scrollsaw is good, and, the most fun tool of them all, a lathe if you can swing one. You will also need hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches and such.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful response, Bear! That is all really helpful. I'll keep a copy of this exchange I think.

Anonymous said...

That was fascinating about the height of the bench. For kitchen purposes I like really high benches as it saves my back, but I suppose one has to bend over one's work in the shop? At any rate, if left to my own devices I would have made or bought a bench that was possibly too high.

Bear-i-tone said...

You can buy your own benches, or you can buy plans ofr a standardised bench, but I believe a bench should be made to fit the shop and the user. For example, I am a little taller than average, so my bench is a little taller than average.

Bear-i-tone said...

Re-reading my comment, I see I said a bench can be too high. I should have said it could be too high or too short.

Anonymous said...

You can buy your own benches, or you can buy plans ofr a standardised bench, but I believe a bench should be made to fit the shop and the user.

That makes sense.

Cutie_one4ever'12 said...

Reinforced concrete and masonry columns are generally built directly on top of concrete foundations.

Wood columns