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Think About it ...
a personal reflection from Peter Hemsley

Maybe I'm not cut out for this job.  I make my living selling tools but I was brought up in an age and in a family where waste was not considered allowable and was certainly not affordable.  Hence I simply can't help myself when a customer calls me or drops by the shop and asks for a tool that I (in my self-delusional infinite wisdom) feel that he can do without.  The reason that I feel this way is generally because there's, to me, an obvious work-around.  As I say, I may be in the wrong job, but at least I am doing my best to try to keep my customers on the "straight and narrow"!  Or it could be I'm just what our US cousins would term 'an ornery critter'.

Maybe a few examples would serve to justify my point.  If we go back thirty years, very few turners owned chucks: if they did, they were probably engineering chucks that had been 'mackled up1' to work on the woodturning lathe.  When turning bowls, they mounted their work on faceplates most of the time, or on a jam chuck (into which the work was 'jammed').  OK, I have no problem in accepting that the almost universal adoption of the woodturning chuck, and particularly the scroll chuck, has been a great step forward.  But in the absence of such chucks what did they do when they wished to reverse a bowl to clean off, shape, sand, polish or otherwise embellish the base?  Very often they mounted their next bowl blank on the lathe, skimmed it true and then cut a small recess into which a bowl's rim could be pressed if the bowl was of flared shape or formed a short spigot onto which the bowl was pressed if it had an incurving form.  So why do guys (of either gender) come into the shop and ask for a set of 'Cole'/reversing/button jaws which they tell me they cannot afford, or maybe to enquire as to the existence of a larger/smaller set than that which they already own, in order to be able to finish off a particular bowl?  Why not simply do what the old guys did and use a spare bowl blank to make the work holding device (you won't destroy the whole blank and, if you think about it, will have part-turned your next bowl as part of the operation).  If you don't have a spare blank, then maybe you have an off-cut of deal from a building job, or can lay your hands on a bit of MDF you can screw to a faceplate.  Just think about it.

I have a regular client and local club member who, like so many turners, is retired and thus needs to be careful with his spending.  I was therefore amazed when he waltzed into the shop one day and requested a hollowing gouge.  We had a chat to clarify exactly what he meant and what he planned to do with it and it turned out he wanted to take the innards out of an egg-cup or small goblet.  I reminded him that I had only recently sold him a perfectly adequate spindle gouge that would do the job very simply. I took him to the lathe, mounted a block of timber and showed him how to use a standard spindle gouge, ground conventionally, for this operation.  I got him to have a go, until he was hollowing like a good 'un.  He stepped back proudly from the lathe, brushed off the shavings - and asked again for a hollowing gouge because that was what the article he had read had told him he needed to use.  I picked myself up from the floor, took him to the rack, showed him the range of hollowing gouges and let him spend a little of his hard-saved cash.  He went off happily (which is a good thing) and left me thinking of words like "water", "horse", "drink" and "lead".

Why is it that we seem to accumulate tools like the forest floor accumulates leaves in autumn before eventually realising that we do 99% of our work with just a half dozen tried and trusted favourites?  Dare I opine that some tool manufacturers have a well-proven marketing strategy that reads "Invent a problem; convince the world that they have the problem; sell them a solution to the problem".  That's maybe why we have toolboxes full of tools of which it can best be said that the marketing was cleverer than the tool and we fell for it!  Cynical? Moi?  It only takes a few moments to examine the contents of your toolbox and to decide if you couldn't get by with a tool you already own: maybe with a bit of a re-grind or with a minor modification here and there.  And there's almost bound to be a tool (or two) that turned out to be so useless when you got it home that it is best viewed as a steel resource for re-grinding into something more useful.  Just think about it.

We can all find ourselves in situations where a bit of thought beforehand is helpful.  I recently walked myself into one where lack of forethought left me having to do quite a bit of thinking on my feet.  In summary I had arrived to do a demo and found that not only had I failed to prepare my demo bowl blank with a recess (which I normally simply drill on a drill press), I had also failed to pack my Forstner bit to enable me to create said recess on the lathe.  I had no faceplate, no screw chuck but a large and impatient audience, waiting for 'the show' to start. In those circumstances how was I to hold my bowl blank in order to create a 'first fixing' from which I could mount the piece to start the real demo of the evening?  Luckily I found in the bottom of my tool case everything I needed a four-prong drive centre and a live centre.  Drive centres and live centres are used for spindle turning, right?  Wrong: they are used for whatever you care to use them for, provided you take care of safety considerations.  So I quickly mounted the bowl blank between centres, roughed the outside to round and formed a foot on the base.  In fact that's the same method I use when starting to turn irregular lumps of wood such as burrs for hollow forms, so why not use it on a bowl blank?  Sure, the bowl blank needs to be reasonably well centred and the lathe speed kept moderate, but then isn't that just common sense.  Think about it.

I guess that one "advantage" that I have is that I love the written word (who'd have guessed!!) and have a large and well-thumbed library of books.  In reading this background material I come across lots of ideas and hints that simply lodge, rather vaguely, in the back of my mind.  When I am presented with a problem, I am sure that it is this fund of ideas that prompts my thinking of solutions or "work-arounds".  I rarely, if ever, go back and slavishly copy an idea, but I do find that having that mental storehouse of the combined experience of hundreds of turners from various ages in history is invaluable for prompting my old grey matter into action.  Background reading can contribute far more than just a background.

Think of the elation of working out for yourself how to overcome a  'problem' (a.k.a. 'challenge').  My advice is to use your head before reaching for your wallet.  Solutions are devised in the mind, not in the bank.  But if you do need tools, I'll be only too happy to see you!

1 A term from my youth so long ago meaning 'made in a temporary or makeshift manner'.  But I prefer the old term!  English with attitude!

NB:  An abbreviated form of these notes appeared in "Woodturning" magazine as one of the first "tailpiece" articles to be published.

1997-2010 P. Hemsley.  The information on this website is the copyright property of Peter Hemsley.  Coeur du Bois and The ToolPost are trading styles of Peter Hemsley.  Whilst reasonable efforts are made to ensure the accuracy of information presented, no liability can be accepted for errors in this information nor for contingencies arising therefrom.  If you are inexperienced in any aspect of woodworking, we would strongly counsel that you take a course of formal instruction before commencing to practice