As a pole-lathe turner, it’s often the wood that is available and still green that gets turned. However, there are definitely some characteristics that I look for when choosing the best wood for turning.
What is Greenwood?
Any tree that has recently been felled is termed greenwood. It basically means the wood hasn’t dried out. This does create some challenges for a pole-lathe turner:
Checks and cracks
Wooden logs don’t dry evenly. They lose moisture from the cut ends far quicker than at the centre of the log. This causes a lot of pressure within the log that is released as the wood cracks, or as it’s known in the industry, it checks.
How green should the wood be?
Some trees hold more moisture than others. For example, I’ve turned freshly cut sycamore and been covered in a thin layer of sap is thrown out of the wood as it turns. The main drawback (other than being covered in sap) is that the finish on the bowl isn’t as good as when the wood is a little drier.
However, it’s also important that the wood isn’t too dry. You indeed get a better finish, but it also makes working the wood much harder and you spend a lot more time sharpening your tools.
Finding a reliable source of greenwood can be challenging. One potential option is to contact local tree surgeons. Tree surgeons are professionals who remove and trim trees, and they may have access to a variety of wood types. They may also be able to give you information about the wood, including what type of tree it came from, the age and condition of the wood, and whether it was sustainably sourced. Additionally, you can check out local sawmills and wood suppliers for green wood. They may have a good stock of green wood, which can be used for various purposes. This can also be a good way to buy wood that is sourced from sustainably managed forests.
Once you have found any quantity of greenwood it can be stored for a few months if kept properly. Some turners have the luxury of allowing the wood to remain where it was felled in the woods or at least close by. For me, I store greenwood behind my garage in the garden. I have chosen a northerly facing section of the garden that is also in shade most of the day.
You can slow down the drying process by storing the wood if you follow these steps:
- Don’t cut the logs smaller than you have to.
- Seal the cut ends of the logs with PVA glue or similar.
- Cover the wood with a tarp to protect the wood from wind and sunlight
A note of caution when storing any wood.
There is always a risk that greenwood contains woodworm. Nobody wants to bring woodworm into their home, so I strongly recommend storing untreated wood away from buildings.
So, back to the question:
What is the best wood for turning bowls?
The requirement for greenwood rules out any kind of exotic woods. I also prefer to turn hardwoods rather than softwood because the bowls are more durable once completed and wood like pine can be very sticky whilst it’s green.
The best turning wood is a matter of personal preference, as various factors come into play, including workability, finish, and stability. However, many woodturners often gravitate towards hardwoods such as maple, cherry, walnut, and oak for their exceptional qualities. Maple is highly regarded for its uniform grain and smooth finish, making it ideal for intricate turnings. Cherry offers an appealing reddish hue and a fine, straight grain that finishes exceptionally well. Walnut, with its rich, dark tones, provides an air of sophistication and durability, while oak offers impressive strength and a distinctive grain pattern that lends itself well to various turning projects. Ultimately, the best turning wood depends on the desired aesthetic, functionality, and individual woodworking preferences.
As you will see on my online shop, I turn a lot of English oak bowls, it has a unique grain pattern and it can come in a range of colours from a light beige through red, yellow and to a deep chocolate brown.
Oak for bowl turning
Oak is a robust wood that turns relatively well whilst it’s still green. It is possible to get a good finish on oak and the grain is interesting once the bowl is finished and oiled.
Challenges of turning oak
During the turning process, oak can become brittle. If you are attempting to turn a bowl with thin walls (3 – 4mm) it is quite easy to break the rim. Oak is also quite fibrous, which can make it difficult to get a good finish on parts of the bowl that have strong edges. For example, the rim or the edge around the foot of the bowl.
Maple is a hardwood with a fairly straight fine grain, this means you can get a good finish easily. If you experience any tear-out where the finish is looking rough then you need to sharpen your tools.
There are several types of maple including curl, birds-eye, tiger and spalted maple. This range delivers a beautiful range of grain patterns.
Challenges of turning maple
It is best to allow maple to mature a little on the wood pile as when it’s freshly cut it doesn’t take a finish particularly well.
Cherry for bowl turning
Cherry is one of the more attractive woods to turn. There is often a high contrast between sapwood and heartwood. It is possible to get a very smooth finish on cherry.
Challenges of turning cherry
When turning cherry bowls, it is vitally important to keep the walls and the bowl’s base thin to help prevent cracks as it dries. Drying the bowl slowly will also help reduce the chance of cracks.
Beech for bowl turning
The pinkish-brown colour of beech with its fine tight grain makes beech an attractive wood. It is easy to get a nice finish and it takes detail very well. I think beech is one of my favourites and is among the best wood for turning.
Challenges of turning beech bowls
Some people report that beech can warp or crack. Though personally, I’ve not experienced that.
The heartwood of silver birch can be a light reddish brown with nearly white sapwood. There is so little distinction between the growth rings that birch can be a little dull and uniform in appearance.
Challenges of turning birch bowls
Birch is fairly easy to turn and provides a good finish due to its close grain. The real challenge comes in storing birch for any length of time as it is vulnerable to insect attack and rots quickly when outdoors.
Walnut for Bowl Turning
Fresh walnut is a lovely wood to turn and once oiled it is truly beautiful. Walnut has a tight grain that takes a finish well. Black walnut has a very dark heartwood and light sapwood that if integrated into a piece can make the item really stand out.
Challenges of turning walnut
Walnut dust can be an irritant. Therefore, I recommend that you wash your hands often and take a shower when you finish turning. You may also want to wear an appropriate dust mask. However, I would expect this to be more of a problem for power lather turners rather than a pole-lathe. With a pole-lathe you won’t generate anywhere as near as much dust as you will on a power lathe.
Sweet Chestnut for bowl turning
Sweet chestnut is a hardwood known for its durability. It is easy to split and is highly resistant to rot. It also turns very well and will make a very attractive bowl.
Challenges of turning Sweet chestnut
The wood will “move” or warp during the drying process. Electric lathe turners may choose to allow their bowl to dry and re-turn it. As a pole-lathe turner, I embrace the characteristics of the wood. As with most wooden bowls that warp as they dry, you end up with something unique.
Apple (Fruit Wood)
Apple and other fruit woods (plum) share similar characteristics. The grain of fruit woods can come in a range of colours and will provide a good finish.
Challenges of turning fruit wood bowls
Like cherry, fruit woods tend to crack quite easily. Therefore a good drying routine is vital to reduce the number of bowls that fail due to cracks.
Ash for bowl turning
Ash is a very common wood at the moment. However, due to the spread of ash dieback, it is going to become less common. Ash is a strong durable wood that delivers a good finish. Ash tends to split easily and in straight pieces. This makes it ideal for making furniture.
Challenges of turning ash bowls
With all projects, it is best to use sharp tools. This is vital with ash to achieve the best finish. You need to take care when working near the rim of the bowl. As mentioned ash splits easily, therefore if you catch the rim where the grain is shortest it is easy to knock out a section of the bowl.
There are many more types of wood that people like to turn. I have focussed on the more popular hardwoods found in Britain that I think are the best wood for turning.