Nine Steps to Perfection
August 19, 2023
As a segmented turner, over the years I've come up with the best way (for me) to build a segmented piece, and it all boils down to nine steps which I'll outline below. Each step has to be done carefully and exactly; making a mistake in any one of these creates a problem. How do I know this? Because I've made numerous mistakes over the years in every single one of these steps. My tip: SLOW DOWN AND DO EACH STEP THE RIGHT WAY!
- DESIGN IT. I use 3D software to design most of my pieces. It's a no-brainer for me because it allows me the ability to build repeatable and changeable projects. To design a piece, I start with an idea, something rattling around my brain, that usually is just a shape. The software allows me to add specific color and dimension to any piece. This phase is frustrating (because there are no limits) and also SO MUCH FUN! I'll sometimes spend hours working on a piece before heading to the shop with my cut list.
- MILL IT. After finishing the design phase, I print my cut list and head to the shop where I round up the hardwood to be used. My hardwood isn't just piled up, stacked up, thrown around the shop. Oh, no. I've got a specific place for each specie of hardwood in my small shop. I have to do that or it would be a jumbled up mess! There are about eight species of hardwood that I use routinely. I use horizontal racks attached to the walls that are set up above the machines I use. Below my main 4' x 6' workbench are odds and ends...pieces of wood that are occasionally used such as Zebra, Goncalvo Alves, Ipe, Canarywood, and other exotics that I don't use a lot of the time.
- CUT THE SEGMENTS. After the milling operation, I've got uniform strips of hardwood, cut according to my design cut list, and they're stacked in order close to my table saw. I keep the cut list on a elevated clipboard within easy view of my table saw. I cut the segments using my table saw with a Wedgie Sled, using digital calipers to follow exactly the design. The segments for each row are bagged in Ziplock bags and kept in order. Once this step is complete, it's time to glue the segments into rings.
- SAND AND GLUE THE SEGMENTS INTO RINGS. Tedious? Yep. Monotonous? Yep. But...you better do it right. First I take each segment (sometimes 48 in each ring) and sand all surfaces of each segment. It's quick, usually about 10 seconds for each segment. This step removes all the little chips of wood produced by the table saw. By the way, make sure your table saw blade is super sharp; buy a quality thin-kerf blade probably once a year to avoid chip-out and tear-out. Next, with my color printout at eye level, I place the segments according to specie from the printout in their proper order. ACCURACY AT THIS PHASE IS CRITICAL! How do I know? Well, I have a few "rings of shame" hanging around my shop that mistakes were made when assembling the segments. Hopefully you catch the mistake before gluing the rings together or you've got a real mess. Don't ask me how I know this!!! ;-) Don't use too much glue or it'll be a real mess when you clamp the rings. Experience will dictate how much glue you'll use. I use hose clamps (I have a LOT of hose clamps!) when I glue the segments into rings. After gluing them, I wipe the excess glue off and then hang them up out of the way to dry, which is usually a couple of hours. Oh, by the way, make sure you number the rings. Once the rings are glued up, I take the hose clamps off and head to the sanding station.
- SAND THE RINGS FLAT AND REMOVE ALL GLUE ON THE INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF THE RING. As I've pointed out in another blog article, I have a drum sander that I built a few years ago that is a complete necessity in my shop. I take each glued ring of segments and run it through the drum sander until all imperfections are sanded off and the ring is down to the desired thickness. I use my digital calipers for this. After the rings are all sanded, I go to the oscillating spindle sander and sand the inside and outside of each ring, making sure to remove all glue residue. This step is crucial; the glue must be removed to allow for alignment of the pattern from ring to ring.
- GLUE THE RINGS TOGETHER. Most usually I glue two rings at a time onto the base. Glue a little, turn a little. I need to get the transition from the inside sidewall to the bottom turned into final form pretty quickly because the longer you wait, the deeper you have to reach to get the bottom of the bowl/vessel done. This process of gluing the rings together is time consuming, depending on how many rings the piece has. The most I've done in any given project is about 45. As the piece grows, I turn it on the inside only, saving the outside of the vessel until the piece is fully constructed. After all rings are glued into final form, the inside is turned and sanded to at least 400 grit, it's time to turn my attention to final shaping and turning of the outside of the piece...the fun part!
- TURN AND SHAPE THE PIECE. Now that the inside is complete, with the exception of applying the finish, I turn my attention to the outside of the project. This step is actually a fairly quick step. I start at the base and work my way to the rim, usually an eighth of an inch each pass, eliminating all evidence of glue. This step especially requires a very sharp gouge, so I'll very often resharpen the gouge several times, depending on the size of the turning. After getting the piece about 95 percent done using my 5/8" bowl gouge, I'll pull out a negative rake scraper to smooth the piece, stopping the lathe along the way to inspect EACH segment in EACH row for imperfections, usually marking them with a Sharpie so I won't miss them later. Using the negative rake scraper is the equivalent of producing a surface that has been sanded to at least 220 grit, making the sanding process go much faster. Now it's time to go to step 8, sanding.
- SANDING THE PIECE. Remembering that I've already sanded the inside of the vessel, and now I've finished the turning step on the outside, it's time to final sand the outside. I don't use power sanding of any kind, only by hand. I buy packs of sandpaper sheets from grits of 120 to 400. I cut the sheets into probably 1.5" strips, fold them three ways, and start sanding the piece. I start with the lathe off, using a low grit of usually 150 to 180, progressing through 400 from the base to the rim. Once this step is complete (and in reality, it only takes maybe 20 minutes or so) I spin the lathe to approximately 250 rpm and lightly sand it again. Smooth as silk! Now to the last step...applying the finish.
- APPLYING THE FINISH. My go-to shellac-based finish is Myland's Friction Polish. I've had nice results over many years of using this product. A bottle costs around $30 and lasts me at least five or six projects. Well worth the cost! I apply one coat at a time by running the lathe at its slowest speed, probably 50 rpm, while at the same time drizzling the friction polish onto the spinning piece AND holding a folded paper towel underneath the piece to rub the finish into the piece. I start at the base and work my way to the rim. Once done, I spin the lathe up to approximately 400 rpm and take a clean paper towel, folded into probably a three-inch square, and press it into the piece, creating, you guessed it, friction. The friction produced by the pressure of the towel against the spinning piece creates heat which helps melt the wax in the polish that penetrates the piece. I'll do this step three times...and I'm done! I can spend 40 or more hours building/turning/sanding a piece and then spend 30 minutes or less applying a rock-hard shellac-based friction polish that lasts for years. Not a bad deal at all! Finishing the inside is about the same as the outside with the exception of drizzling the Myland's onto the spinning piece. I will just pour a few tablespoons of Myland's into the vessel and spin the lathe at about 50 rpm while reaching into the piece with a folded paper towel and rubbing the finish into the wood. Three coats also. At this stage, the project is complete with the exception of parting it off the lathe, sanding the nub off the bottom, and signing my name and date to the bottom. If the wood is a light colored species, i.e., Maple, Cherry, etc., I'll burn my name using a woodburner. If it's a dark colored species, i.e., Walnut, Wenge, etc., I'll use a silver Sharpie (AFTER applying the shellac-based finish!) onto the bottom. I always sign my name, note the year, and sometimes write the wood species used. Voila! Done.