answers to your frequent questions
Here are some additional details about the items I create, including how to best care for them. If you have other questions, please do not hesitate to
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There are many places to learn woodturning. Local turners often give lessons which is a great way to get some quick hands-on experience and see if it's something you like. I recommend joining your local American Association of Woodturners group where you'll find lots of friendly people eager to share their knowledge and joy for woodturning. You'll also see live demonstrations and have access to their library of videos and books on woodturning and woodworking in general as well as access to freshcut local hardwoods. Of course you can see what it's all about on YouTube.com although at some point you'll need a lathe—the only way to really learn woodturning!
Ornamental turning combines general woodturning with an array of tools and techniques not found on a standard wood lathe. In plain turning, the work spins on a lathe while a tool is held in place to make a cut. In ornamental turning, the work is typically fixed in place while a spinning tool is used to make a cut. Then the work is repositioned and the next cut is made, one after another until the entire surface is decorated. For more than four hundred years, ornamental lathes have been used to create objects in many shapes—elliptical, multi-centered, helical, rectilinear, swash and other non-circular geometric forms. The result combines ingenuity with precision machinery to create items that often go beyond utilitarian objects into the realm of decorative arts. It's a fascinating hobby where you're likely to meet devotees intrigued by a nearly forgotten craft, antique machinery enthusiasts, and woodturners pushing the limits of turned wood design. If this sounds interesting to you, you can find out more at these websites:
The rose engine was invented nearly five hundred years ago. It differs from a regular lathe in that the headstock contains a series of patterned discs (called rosettes) that rock back and forth on a pivot as the work is rotated. It's different than indexed work (described above) because a spinning cutter is used to decorate the surface while the work is slowly spinning. These days, rose engine turning is often just called ornamental turning. One kind of rose engine work known as guilloché (or engine turning) is a type of engraving most commonly associated with the renowned imperial eggs made by Fabergé in the late 1800s. The rose engine turned objects I make stem from an earlier tradition of creating intricate designs in small wooden boxes and vessels, but with a contemporary aesthetic.
After years of "programming pages and pushing pixels," my creativity craved a hands-on outlet. I explored a range of craft over several years that led to a natural affinity with wood and the process of sculpting on the lathe.
Early in my woodturning, I became particularly interested in surface decoration. When I first saw ornamental turned boxes in a craft gallery, I was intrigued—in part, because I had no idea how they were made. In my pursuit to learn more, I was given the opportunity to try out a rose engine lathe and was hooked. Then, the search was on!
I’ve always had a penchant for antiques and was fascinated by traditional turning techniques so I set out to find original ornamental turning equipment. At the time, eBay, email, and the internet were not so pervasive so it took quite a while to locate. Eventually, I was able to obtain a turn-of the-century rose engine lathe from a retiring jeweler in New York City. Some time later, I located a Holtzapffel lathe (circa 1836) through a private sale near London.
After a sculpture class briefly introduced me to the wood lathe, I read a couple of books, took a three-day class, and then jumped in. It was several years before acquiring an ornamental lathe, at which point my learning was primarily self-taught, including examples I could find in mostly out-of-print publications and books. For example, Holtzapffel wrote a treatise on ornamental turning in 1894 which continues to provide valuable instruction. And today, there's a growing community of enthusiasts that share information via email, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks. Now, with digital cameras, hi-resolution videos and fast internet connections, there's more sharing than ever and we all learn a lot from each other. Ornamental turnery is the kind of thing one can spend a lifetime doing and still encounter something new every month!
There's a lot that goes into making even a small vessel or box—including the time it takes to setup and maintain a woodworking shop, acquire wood, sharpen tools, clean up shavings, locate and restore antique lathes and tooling, to actually learning to turn wood! It’s a labor of love. That said, the process of making an individual item starts with roughing out the shape and drying the wood. After the wood has stabilized completely, I begin the next steps: For example, if making a Mandala Cup, I'll cut the outside first and then work from the top edge in toward the center. The final cuts at the bottom are the most difficult because I mostly cannot see what I'm doing as the tool is in the way! It’s done by feel. After the cutting is complete, if no mistakes have been made, the finishing process begins: oil and wax are carefully applied evenly throughout and then buffed to a luxurious sheen. In all, there are many hours that go into creating each one. And sometimes, while creating the piece, the wood reveals a defect making it entirely unacceptable. Time to start over!
Just about any design can be achieved on an ornamental lathe, limited only by imagination, patience, and the tooling of the lathe. Often times, I sketch out my ideas on paper, and sometimes use a calculator to figure out the mathematics of a complex pattern before attempting to translate the designs to wood. Some of the patterns are derived from the shape of the rosettes on the rose engine lathe. Often, the resulting patterns can only be designed by working directly on the lathe. For example, by making a cut, then shifting the phase of the rosette (or multiple rosettes) and making another cut, and then repeating the process over and over (sometimes changing the kind of cut being made), an infinite variety of patterns is possible. In all, I really enjoy a very traditional approach, similar to what turners have practiced for hundreds of years.
Much of the enjoyment of what I do and the objects I produce comes from working with antique tools and traditional turning techniques that date back hundreds of years. My ornamental lathe is more than 185 years old and the most significant update I have made is a motor that drives the cutters and lathe spindle, although there are still times I use the treadle to power it instead. The motor simply turns the cutter, but all of the movement of the cutter -- left, right, up, down, in, out -- to form the pieces is done by hand and eye. It is slow, deliberate and repetitive work, and that's the way I like it! I do not use computer software, CNC machines, stepper motors or other automated processes in creating my work.
Ornamental lathes were originally used to decorate objects made from ivory (which, of course, is no longer used) and all of the tooling was sized accordingly. Even when rose engine lathes were modified in the 19th century to create a decorative surface for jewelry, pocket watches, cigarette cases, pens, and other small objects, the scale of the work remained small. The method I use to ornament my pieces uses the very same tools and techniques combined with a more modern aesthetic. I enjoy the challenge of OT design in wood, though only a few kinds of wood hold a fine edge and produce a smooth, shiny cut straight from the tool. Since the pith, sapwood and any branch areas cannot be used, this leaves only the straightest-grained heartwood from each side of the tree to work with. I orient the grain on end to optimize the cut surface which further limits the size of the work that can be produced from each piece of wood. All of these aspects determine the size of the final work.
To create the crisp and intricate patterns of ornamental turning, the wood must be very tight-grained and preferably somewhat oily. This is because, unlike most woodworking, the shiny finish that results comes straight from the tool without any sanding of the surface. Only a few kinds of wood are suited to hold the clean edges of such precision cutting. In addition, the wood grain pattern plays an important role since it generally should not compete with the surface design. Some pierced designs can only be accomplished if the grain of the wood is particularly straight. While it all comes down to simply what looks pleasing, there's more to it than meets the eye!
I'm always seeking out conscious and sustainable options for my materials. From day one, the wood I use has come from second-hand or recycled sources—a product of the urban forest we live in, salvaged from tree trimmers, and saved from the wood chipper, fireplace or landfill. Since the materials for successful ornamental turning require dense, tight-grained timber usually not found locally, I also source offcuts and rejects from instrument and furniture makers. I always try to ensure that purchased wood is from sustainable, environmentally managed sources. Every offcut is saved for use in future projects. Scraps are not burned and shavings are recycled into my community's green waste program.
The pieces I make are kiln dried to 6% moisture content and then adjust to the current temperature and humidity of the surrounding environment. They will acclimate to any equilibrium moisture content without cracking as long as they are given adequate time to do so. However, if the change is sudden—faster than the wood can absorb or release moisture— a split could result. You should not leave the pieces in the sun, on the humidifier or heater, or in an enclosed display case with lights, etc. Under normal conditions, the items I make will have no problems. I stand by my workmanship and will repair or replace any defective item within three years of purchase that is not a result of improper care or use.
The finish I use on ornamental turned work is oil and wax. To care for your piece, use a soft grit-free microfiber cloth or compressed air canister to remove dust. Keep items dry and avoid extreme changes of temperature, humidity, or direct sunlight. All wood changes hue over time in proportion with its exposure to light and air. If a piece inadvertently gets a spot of moisture, rub a small amount of mineral oil to restore the area. If any other changes occur, please send the item to me to be refinished.
It's kind of like the right dress on the right person at the right time.
This is stunning work, quite extraordinary to look into, the rippled edge, the pattern inside and outside, it all just sings.
The craft requires aesthetic, spatial and mechanical chops, firing in concert.
The small, delicate wood bowls give evidence to his industrious hand through smooth, seamless scoops of air carved into patterns of harmonious balance.
Carving complex designs in very small pieces of wood requires the utmost patience and skill, something Salesin has in spades! The result is wood turning at its best – intricately crafted vessels to be admired, touched, examined, and coveted.
Salesin easily has the most individual pieces on display, several dozen at least. The patterns in the cups and bowls are so hypnotizing, you may lose the sense you're looking at wood.
His pattern bowls, which contain radiating textures, use the strategy of reflecting light to a dazzling, otherwordly effect.
It adds to the mystery of the piece—a tiny cup, the repetitive mathematical pattern incised precisely within its concavity, with a hint of color being continually released from within the density of black.
Josh Salesin is a master of ornamental turning whom I met through the Center's exhibition Rose-Engines and Kings: Contemporary Ornamental Turning. His forms, often in African blackwood, are distinctive and unique.
the stuff between the wavy lines
1st Time at Lathe
Stuff To Put Away