turnings #1: from ficus log to turned bowl preform

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 07-24-2009 02:34 PM 5609 reads 2 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of turnings series Part 2: turnings - some failures as prelude to some successes »

This past Sunday I decided to saw a Y-shaped Ficus log in half and get some bowl blanks out of it. I couldn’t fit the 14” section under my band saw’s 12” vertical clearance, so I just cut the first half, up to the Y split. Then I spent about 20-30 minutes sawing through the Y with my 24” carpenter saw. Good workout!

split ficus log

I could fit a 10-7/8” circle on each log in the Y area, which I wanted to try turning for the twists in grain and color.

circle drawn on log Y

I had to give up for the night, and I’m tired of everything I look at splitting and checking, so I’m just coating every cut face from now on. I have a bunch of planks that had no checks, and which I sealed on the ends, and they split completely in half, right down their middles. What a pain.

Anchorsealed log half

10-7/8” diameter circle:

log circle measured

I sawed the ends off the log, and the corners, to start the circular shape, then screwed it to a board so I could prop it against my recently-made, and taller baltic birch fence. I didn’t want the log spinning on me. The board would ride on its edge on the table and up against the fence. Now I had a flat on both sides.

bowl blank being formed

Here’s the back of the temp plywood rig. The deck screws go into the center of the side that will be the inside of the bowl, so they’ll be turned away eventually. This plywood rides up against the fence, and the bowl blank on the other side has its widest edge sitting flush with the table top:

plywood screwed to bowl blank

With the flat, I was able to saw it into a decent circle. Here it is with the other pieces I got out of the same log:

turning blanks and scraps

And a big bowl blank emerges:

bowl blank

bowl blank

bowl blank

And until I can turn it, I’ve sealed it entirely:

sealed bowl blank

Meanwhile… I wanted to see what I could do with this little chunk:

small log chunk chucked in lathe

This wasn’t the shape I was going for, because I’m still learning how to control my tools. This just sort of emerged after a few slips and fixes:

outside turning

And AS EVER, some checks. Unbelievable. They’re just unavoidable for me. Actually, the end of the log was checked, and I think this piece came from down there. I don’t know if ficus is even stable enough to fill.

checks in bowl turning

Another problem with ficus is what I believe to be mold. It’s a crappy wood for woodworking, but I do have a whole tree of it, and it is good scrap for learning how to resaw and turn things without ruining the good wood.

mold in ficus bowl turning

mold in ficus bowl turning

This is how I had it chucked, if you were wondering:

bowl turning screwed into chuck plate

Had to stop for the night, so more sealing:

sealed bowl turning

Yesterday I was able to turn a groove in the bottom so I could slip the jaws of my chuck into it and flip it around to turn the inside of the bowl. Here’s that groove:

groove turned in bottom of bowl for chuck jaws

This was the first time I was able to easily turn the inside of the bowl, through a combination of the right tools, the right angles and roll of those tools, and proper pressure, cut depth, etc. It felt good to see some improvement in my skills finally.

turned interior of bowl preform

turned bowl interior

I turned it very thick so it will hold shape better over the next few months as it dries. Honestly, I’m not sure it’ll even hold up, but we’ll see. Once it’s dry, I’ll chuck it again and turn it to its final, thinner, deeper shape.

I’ve decided to pick up a free shelving unit whenever I can from craigslist (an online classifieds that has a popular branch here in LA) and put it in my office at work. I can bring my turnings in to sit on the shelves there, acting as decorations and conversation pieces all in one. Then as each dries, I can bring it home and finish turning it, and apply a final finish to it. At any rate, this bowl won’t be back in the spotlight for awhile. Wish it luck.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

10 comments so far

View lew's profile


13489 posts in 5097 days

#1 posted 07-24-2009 02:53 PM


Nice Work!

At this stage, I usually put shavings in the bowl, wrap the bowl with several layers of newspaper and then place the bowl in a paper bag packed with the shavings from the turning. This seems to slow the drying process an helps reduce the amount of checking. Just a thought.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View Innovator's profile


3589 posts in 4755 days

#2 posted 07-24-2009 03:12 PM

Good step by step slideshow of the projevt.

A couple of tips I picked up that might be helpful:

  • When turning a bowl and I cant finish it and it sits on the lathe instead of putting sealer I have put a plastic bag over the piece with a little water in the bag.
  • If you see some checks put CA in it quickly to help the spreading of the check.
  • When I have rough turned the bowl I also seal the entire piece not just the endgrain, I have had better results with it this way.

Once again good tutorial, once you turn the final piece hopefully you will add it here.

-- Whether You Think You Can or You Think You Can't, YOU ARE RIGHT!!!

View PurpLev's profile


8653 posts in 4990 days

#3 posted 07-24-2009 05:08 PM

Also keep in mind that lumber from limbs (aka not trunk) have a tremendous amount of pressure in them as they are thinner, and do not run vertically (in nature) thus having to “fight back” with gravity to keep them from growing downwards (as they have “weights” in the form of smaller limbs, leaves, buds, flowers,fruits, etc on them) – this creates lots of stress in the live wood just waiting to get released. so much, that as you discovered, even sealer can only go so far against mother nature.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View FirehouseWoodworking's profile


792 posts in 4615 days

#4 posted 07-24-2009 06:41 PM

Very nice work, Gary.

I really enjoy your blog postings. You take us through each project step-by-step. And even your comments are weighted with an appropriate amount of good humor, despite nature’s setbacks!

Keep plugging along! And keep the blogs coming!


-- Dave; Lansing, Kansas

View whitedog's profile


652 posts in 4799 days

#5 posted 07-24-2009 07:41 PM

i also enjoy all of your blogs … i get to learn with you. you are able to explain and show pictures and videos that help a lot.

-- Paul , Calfornia

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


23350 posts in 5017 days

#6 posted 07-24-2009 11:26 PM

Why don’t you just turn it down thin like the end grain hollow form guys do? They claim it just moves and doesn’t check.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View wyeth's profile


135 posts in 4570 days

#7 posted 07-25-2009 11:31 PM

I recently heard an experienced commercial turner explain that he puts green turned finished bowls in 2 large chest freezers for a few weeks. The ice crystals break the cell walls in the wood causing millions of microscopic cracks that cant be seen and dont weaken the wood but allow even drying out after later thawing. This gives him a much lower failure rate.
More commonly used is the microwave method but that has size limitations and has to be done in lots of short bursts of 30 to 60 seconds weighing each time until the weight ceases to drop indicating completed drying. This can also stink out the kitchen and if you try to do longer burns as I once did the inner wood turns to charcoal and fire alarms are triggered!

-- David Australia

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4723 days

#8 posted 07-26-2009 10:49 AM

lew – I’ve heard that a few times now. Must be something to it. I’ll have to give it a whirl on one of these things soon. Thanks.

Rob – thanks for the tips. I’ve been trying to think of what to do outside of sealing the whole bowl for awhile, because this ficus seems to mold over immediately when sealed. I have a few species of ficus now, and when I end-seal the little logs, they coat over in green spots, and eventually become completely coated in puffy black on the ends, which seems to be mold. This also happens with paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia). The rest of my supply seems to be holding up well enough in this regard.

Purp – true enough. However, beggars can’t be choosers. Here in LA, I take what I can get! Mostly limbs so far, unfortunately. Who knows, though… maybe I’ll figure out ways around it one day, after years of experience, and then we’ll all be talking about the Fixler method of avoiding checks in limbwood :)

Dave – thanks for the kind words. I’m big on showing off my mistakes. It helps push me to make fewer of them, because of course really I don’t want to show failures, and I think it helps embolden the novices (there can’t be too many below my level!), and shows them at least that it’s okay to make mistakes. They’re still the best way to learn. I don’t mind too much rushing headlong into something, especially when I have plenty of extra wood. I juggle a bit, too, and I had to drop probably tens of thousands of balls before I could juggle pretty well, especially when I tried to learn the 5-ball cascade. There’s a saying I learned from my art pals back in art school – not sure who first said it, as it’s been attributed to everyone from Walt Disney to Glenn Vilppu (great figure artist) – but it was basically this: “Everyone has 10,000 bad drawings in them. Once you’ve drawn all of them, you can begin to draw the good ones.” Another saying I love, and I’m pretty sure it was Thomas Edison in reply to someone asking him about his genius was this one: “Genius? Nothing! Sticking to it is the genius! I’ve failed my way to success.”

Paul – thank you! I’m glad the posts are appreciated.

Topamax – I’m going to be doing a lot of that, too, but meanwhile, I want to turn a few things that don’t move, which entails turning thick, leaving to dry for months, then turning to final size to remove the subtle warping that still occurs in thicker pieces as they dry. Heavy wood movement can occur in thinner pieces, and in some cases, I’ll want that, as it makes for really unique, interesting, and often beautiful pieces with warps and wrinkles all through them. I want to know both techniques, each of which is riddled with sub-techniques, of course. If you remember this weird bowl, I never got shots of it before I gave it away to some guy at work who curiously fell in love with it, but by the time he got it it was very dry, and had warped considerably. It was like a wiggly potato chip, but very hard. I guess you could say like a crispy potato chip. The edge of the bowl made about 2 sine waves around the outside.

David – Interesting! You know, I put a very small piece of Hollywood Juniper (Juniperus chinensis) – seen in this post – in my microwave, just out of curiosity, as I’d not heard of this as a technique at that point. It was maybe 2” long, and not quite 1” thick. After only 5-8 seconds, it was hissing like crazy, and blasting a white vapor out of itself. All the microwaves I’ve had seem to operate on high, or super-high, because I always have to back off directions by half, or 2/3ds. When you say 30-60 seconds, I cringe, knowing it would be 10 in my microwave. Anyway, the microwave still – months later – stinks like burned juniper. Parts of the little piece were blackened, I guess where the steam was venting out. Juniper is positively loaded with resin, and it just never splits. I’ve had pieces cut and unsealed now for just about a full year, and none of them have developed checks. I think if you look closely, you’ll see a tiny hairline crack near the pith on a couple of them. It’s the least splitty wood in my collection, and I’m guessing it’s because of the resin filling it up. I was considering using my gas stove in the kitchen to pitch-set a bunch of my small pieces, but then I read that the compounds that come out are highly flammable, and it’s just asking for a small explosion or fire in my stove. I’m always frustrated when my seemingly brilliant plans fall through :)

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View wyeth's profile


135 posts in 4570 days

#9 posted 07-26-2009 03:44 PM

Yes Gary,
I think it depends a lot on the thickness and type of wood as well as the strength of the microwave that determines the time for each treatment. I tried it a few times on several bowls – all only about 7 or 8 cms diameter. If you have thick resinous green wood the steam pressure must be really high in the deepest parts of the wood and you would need to set the microwave as low as possible and start with short bursts. As the moisture decreases you could slowly increase the time. My microwave has 5 strength settings the lowest being one below defrost.I suspect microwaving works best on thin walled turnings. Anyway I also agree that smell can be a turn-off for some wood types.Many turners do however find a way to use microwave as a good way of speeding up drying but they still get warping , just not so often checking.
The freezing method apparently is more successful at limiting warping.
By the way I must say i really like your enthusiasm about everything you try out. You remind my of myself at a very much younger age.I first stumbled across your blog about salvaging eucalyptus branches in the dark hours.
Here of course we live in forests of gum trees. I have about 10 acres of virgin eucalyptus and other Australian natives on my 18 acres.

-- David Australia

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 5502 days

#10 posted 07-27-2009 01:17 PM

this is a great blog and comments. Lots of information here.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

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