What is Turned Wood: A Concise Guide to the Craft

craftsman making turned wood

Turned wood refers to the art of creating symmetrical shapes and objects using a wood lathe and handheld tools. This traditional craft, practiced by skilled artisans known as turners, has been around for centuries and remains a popular pursuit both for hobbyists and professionals. The wood lathe, similar to a potter’s wheel, allows for the creation of various forms when operated with expertise in turnery techniques.

The process of woodturning involves securing a piece of wood on the lathe, which then rotates around an axis at a specific speed. The turner uses different hand-held tools to shape the wood, resulting in a myriad of possible outcomes. Turned wood objects can range from practical items such as bowls, pens, and candlesticks to intricate works of art that showcase the unique properties of the wood materials used.

As an old-school home trend making a comeback, turned wood demonstrates the timeless appeal of working with natural resources to create one-of-a-kind pieces. Modern advancements in woodturning tools and machinery have expanded the scope of this craft, inviting a new generation of followers to appreciate and learn the historical and evolving art of woodturning.

Understanding Turned Wood


Turned wood refers to a handcraft technique that involves cutting wood into symmetrical shapes by spinning the material around its axis of rotation, using a wood lathe. While the lathe turns the wood, the turner – the person skilled in this craft – uses hand-held tools like chisels, scrapers, and gouges to remove unwanted material, and create the desired form. The result is a work of art characterized by balanced and intricate designs.

Historic Background

Woodturning has a rich history, spanning centuries and various civilizations. The ancient technique holds its roots in the production of basic furnishings and functional items. Turned wood appears in many forms, such as elegant table legs, intricate bowls, and decorative boxes. By merging practicality with artistic expression, it has remained a cornerstone in the world of woodworking and design. Today, the art of woodturning has experienced a resurgence, with skilled turners using both modern and traditional tools to create a diverse range of masterpieces.

Turned Wood Process

Selecting The Wood

When beginning the process of woodturning, selecting an appropriate piece of wood is crucial. Factors such as wood type, grain pattern, and size can greatly impact the final product. Carefully examining each potential piece will help ensure success in the woodturning process.

Techniques And Tools

There are various techniques and tools used in woodturning. To generate symmetrical shapes around the axis of rotation, a wood lathe is used in conjunction with hand-held tools. The person operating the lathe is known as a turner, and the skills required to use the tools are commonly referred to as turnery. The lathe turns the wood at varying speeds, depending on the size of the stock; a general rule is that the wider the stock, the lower the speed.

Some commonly used hand-held tools include gouges, chisels, and parting tools. Gouges are employed for rough shaping and hollowing tasks, while chisels are used for more detailed work. Parting tools separate or trim excess wood during the turning process to achieve the desired shape.

Finishing The Product

Once the desired shape has been achieved, the finishing process enhances the item’s appearance and provides protection. The first step in finishing is sanding the piece, eliminating any rough spots and preparing the surface for the application of a finish. A variety of finishes can be used, such as oils, waxes, and lacquers. These finishes improve the item’s durability and can lend a polished, professional look to the turned wood product. After applying the finish and allowing it to dry, buffing may be utilized to enhance the final item’s luster and appearance.

Types Of Turned Wood Items


Turned wood is often used to create stunning pieces of furniture, such as table legs, chair legs, and bedposts. These items are not only functional but can also serve as a beautiful addition to any home. Using a wood lathe, skilled turners are able to create symmetrical and intricate patterns, adding depth and visual interest to otherwise basic furnishings.


Woodturning techniques can also be applied to create everyday items, such as kitchen utensils. Spoons, spatulas, rolling pins, and salad tongs are just a few examples of utensils that can be crafted using turned wood. These items not only serve a practical purpose but can also be cherished as handmade and unique additions to any kitchen.

Art Pieces

In addition to functional items, turned wood can be used to create one-of-a-kind art pieces. From intricate bowls to ornate sculptures, woodturning allows artists to explore their creativity and craft eye-catching, symmetrical designs. These art pieces can be made from various types of wood, showcasing their natural beauty and adding a touch of elegance to any space.

Skill Requirements

Woodturning is a craft that requires a combination of technical skills, artistic vision, and patience. Aspiring woodturners must develop several core competencies to excel in this field.

First and foremost, mastering the wood lathe is essential, as it’s the fundamental tool used for woodturning. The wood lathe secures a piece of wood, called a blank, in place while it rotates, allowing the turner to shape it symmetrically using handheld tools. Familiarity with the lathe’s components, such as the headstock, tailstock, and tool rest, is necessary to operate it effectively and produce desired results.

Secondly, a strong understanding of the various turning tools is crucial. Gouges, skew chisels, parting tools, and scrapers are some of the primary tools used in woodturning. Each tool serves a specific purpose and requires a unique technique for optimum performance. The ability to select the appropriate tool for a particular task and wield it skillfully contributes to a woodturner’s overall proficiency.

Sharpening techniques are another vital aspect of woodturning. A well-sharpened tool can drastically improve the quality of the finished product and make the turning process smoother. Efficient sharpening skills allow the turner to maintain their tools in optimal condition, ensuring clean cuts and reducing the likelihood of errors or damage to the wood.

Additionally, wood selection and preparation play a significant role in the outcome of a woodturning project. Knowledge of various wood types, their properties, and their suitability for specific applications is essential. Preparing the wood blank correctly, such as mounting it securely on the lathe and marking essential points, can greatly impact the ease and quality of the turning process.

Lastly, a successful woodturner possesses the ability to visualize and execute intricate designs. This includes understanding proportions, symmetry, and balance to create aesthetically pleasing pieces with structural integrity. Meticulous planning and attention to detail lead to well-crafted and visually captivating turned wood creations.

In summary, to excel in woodturning, an individual must be well-versed in operating a wood lathe, have a strong understanding of turning tools and sharpening techniques, be knowledgeable in wood selection and preparation, and possess an artistic eye for design and execution.

Common Challenges In Wood Turning

One of the common challenges in wood turning is dealing with wood dust from certain types of wood. For example, the dust from birch wood can be a sensitizer, which may negatively impact those with existing allergies like aspirin allergies.

Another common challenge is using the appropriate centering tools on a lathe. A drive center is essential for directing the lathe’s power and gripping the wood during the turning process. Incorrect usage of tools can affect the final outcome and could pose risks to the woodturner.

While turning wood, achieving parallel and symmetrical shapes can be difficult, especially for beginners. For instance, turning a simple parallel cylinder like a rolling pin requires practice and attention to detail.

Furthermore, wood turning may involve handling wood defects like coarse grains or fungal damage. These defects can affect the strength and structural integrity of the final product. A woodturner must understand and adapt to different wood types and their unique characteristics.

Benefits Of Using Turned Wood

Turned wood offers a variety of advantages that can make it an excellent choice for various projects and applications. The craft of woodturning involves using a lathe and hand-held tools to create symmetrical shapes around a central axis, resulting in refined, beautiful pieces of work.

One benefit of turned wood is its aesthetic appeal. This traditional technique has been used to create stunning furniture and decorative items for centuries. Turned wood can be found gracing the spindles and legs of classic furniture pieces, like the Jenny Lind bed, which features a curved headboard, footboard, and ornate turned wood spindles. The intricate designs and patterns achievable with woodturning can add a touch of elegance and beauty to any space.

Another advantage of using turned wood is its functionality. Woodturning enables craftsmen to create a variety of practical items, ranging from rolling pins and bowls to spindles, legs, and pegs for furniture making. These items often possess better balance and symmetry due to the woodturning process, resulting in high-quality products that can last for generations.

Turned wood is environmentally friendly, as it makes use of a sustainable resource: wood. Woodturning often utilizes small pieces or scraps of wood that might otherwise be discarded. By repurposing these materials, woodturners can reduce waste and contribute to a more eco-friendly mindset.

Lastly, woodturning is a craft that promotes creativity and personal expression. This ancient technique encourages artisans to explore their artistic side while producing functional and beautiful items. The flexibility and adaptability of woodturning provide endless possibilities for craftsmen, making it an immensely satisfying and fulfilling art.

Preservation And Maintenance Of Turned Wood

Turned wood is a form of woodcraft created by shaping wooden objects on a lathe, producing symmetrical designs like those found in furniture legs, candle holders, and the iconic Jenny Lind bed. To preserve the beauty and longevity of turned wood pieces, proper maintenance and preservation techniques are essential.

One method to protect and enhance the appearance of turned wood is by applying a finish. Common types of finish include oil, wax, and lacquer. Oils, such as linseed or tung oil, penetrate the wood and provide a natural-looking finish. Wax, like beeswax or carnauba wax, adds a protective layer while maintaining the wood’s natural beauty. Lacquer forms a tough, clear coat that protects the wood from moisture and scratches.

Another preservation technique is the Japanese method of shou sugi ban, where wood is lightly charred using an open flame. This ancient practice creates a durable, weather-resistant surface that lasts for decades. Although it leaves the surface with a distinctive blackened look, this method may not be suitable for all turned wood pieces.

Regular cleaning is also important in maintaining turned wood. Dust particles can accumulate and scratch the surface, so it’s crucial to periodically remove dust using a soft, dry cloth. Be cautious not to use harsh chemicals or abrasive materials, as they may damage the wood’s finish.

Controlling the environment in which the turned wood is stored can also help in preserving its quality. Woodturning Online suggests keeping woodturning pieces in a dry and stable environment to prevent excess moisture, which can lead to warping or cracking. Additionally, minimizing exposure to direct sunlight helps to avoid fading and discoloration.

In summary, preserving and maintaining turned wood involves applying suitable finishes, using proper cleaning techniques, and controlling the environmental conditions. Following these steps will ensure that turned wood pieces retain their natural beauty and last for generations.