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From Log to Bowl, Learning How to Turn Wood

School is finally out across Austin. But here at KUT, class is in session.

All summer long, KUT reporters will learn a new skill or craft from folks who are experts in the field. We're calling it "Summer School" and we hope you'll learn something too along the way. 

In this class, KUT's Ben Philpott gets schooled by his father, Jim, in the art of bowl turning.

The elder Philpott's garage has never had a car in it. Instead the space is filled with dozens of wood tools and machinery: from band saws, grinders, circular saws and his giant Australian made lathe. Even the mini-fridge is dedicated to his craft (no beer, only glue to help treat wood cracks).

Credit Joe Capraro/KUT
KUT's Ben Philpott (L) watches as his father, master woodturner Jim Philpott, prepares to turn a block of wood into a bowl in his garage workshop in Kyle.

To get us started he sliced a log from a Bradford Pear tree in half and sticks it on the lathe.

He has logs from different kinds of trees stacked along the walls of the garage. There are also several half complete or damaged objects around the room.

"People who are going to do something like this need to have a tolerance for failure," Philpott says. "In woodturning, when you're working on something and there's a big catch and you take a big chunk out of the wood, we call those 'redesign opportunities' because the design you had in mind is no longer possible."

Philpott uses a long wood gouge to chip away at the log. The chipping soon turns to shaving, as the wood spins and ribbons of wood fly into the air around him. Once the outside of the bowl looks right, he flips the wood on the lathe and begins to hollow out the inside.

Since a freshly downed tree still holds lots of water, he applies a thick white paste to help the bowl dry out slowly and evenly. Drying too quickly will warp the bowl, and even crack it. He then sets the bowl aside, and lets it dry for about six months. Only then will he put it back on the lathe, reshape it, and apply a finish to complete the project.

Credit Joe Capraro/KUT
Master woodturner Jim Philpott displays a bowl with a rough bark edge, which he describes as a difficult challenge to produce, though the effort can result in beautiful and unique pieces.

Philpott has been turning wood for years. But he's always trying to improve his skills or learn a new trick.

He's a member of the Central Texas Woodturners Association and attends the groups monthly meetings every third Tuesday. But he also uses the internet to get new ideas and learn new techniques.

"Every night I go to YouTube and there will be a new video of woodturning," Philpott says.
"Some of them are wonderful. Some are not so good. But if I want to learn something new I'll type it in and someone will have done it. And it will give me an idea."

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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