Power Carved Bowls with Arbortech Tools: Pt.1
Earlier this year, I worked on a stool project that required a carved seat bottom with a simple concave surface. I purchased the Arbortech TURBOplane to help accomplish this task after seeing a video by Marc Spagnuolo (aka “The Wood Whisperer”). Following the post I made about this project (recently re-blogged with more detail and photos), I was contacted by Australia-based Arbortech about doing a few additional contracted projects for them, using a wide range of their power carving attachments. This post covers the first of two parts of an ideal starter project: a series of carved bowls using their tools. In the second post of this series, I provide a long-form photo gallery covering the step-by-step process of tackling a project like this for you to follow along.
Additionally, over the next several months, I’ll have two other larger projects that I’ll be working on using their tools in a variety of applications including a carved wall sculpture and a stacked lamination coffee table. As with any contracted brand work, I’ve been compensated for these posts. However, the experiences and opinions expressed in this article are my own.
Lumber End-Cuts. What to do with them?
Like many woodworkers, I know I’m not alone when it comes to hoarding those remnant pieces of larger boards. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of holding onto particularly thick and wide chunks of Makore, Sapele, Bubinga and Niangon, Burmese Teak—thinking that I’ll use them for “some small project” in the future. So up until recently, they’ve remained unused, sitting as heavy, unfinished tropical paperweights collecting dust in my shop.
Enter Arbortech’s line of power carving attachments. After taking stock in my stock, I realized that a good way to get the hang of these tools was to make a series of carved bowls. With some of the thicker pieces being close to 2.5 inches (6.35 cm), they were ideal for shallow bowls and servers. This is not only a great project to learn from, but bowls are a nice addition to anyone’s home decor, or make great one-of-a-kind gifts.
As a fan of the Midcentury modern aesthetic, I chose to use a series of irregularly shaped geometries to drive the project designs. The circular shapes of Arbortech’s tools (TURBOplane, Mini TURBO and Contour Random Sander) helped me easily carve a consistent set of round elements on each bowl as well. I’ll cover some design strategies on how to use this to your advantage later on in this post.
Power-carving: Dusty, yet satisfying.
Most of Arbortech’s tools are designed to be easily attached to any standard sized angle-grinder. I used my Ridgid 4″ angle grinder (R1005) successfully connecting all of Arbortech’s tools with ease. As you would expect, when you spin a cutting surface really fast and then connect it to wood, it’s going to produce a good deal of dust. Because angle grinders don’t contain an integrated dust collection chute, you’ll probably want to either get creative with a series of dust hoses around your project, or better yet, do your work outside. This explains why many of Arbortech’s videos are shot outside.
Depending on the carving application, you can remove some of the material ahead of time with a less messy forstner drill bit, attached to your drill, not the angle-grinder. Likewise, a bandsaw can help establish a clean outside shape for your bowl, including removal of materials at a consistent angle. I chose to go this route on two of the three bowls I made, as all of my work was done in my basement workshop.
Practice, practice, practice
The first bowl resembles something more like a heavy wood platter. I used a 2″ thick x 14″ square chunk of Niangon—a West African species used in the boat building industry—including a nice contrast between the golden yellow heartwood and pale yellow-brown sapwood. This bowl represented the first time I used the TURBOplane, so I kept things fairly basic in design. The carved center is a 9″ diameter (~23 cm) and about 1.25″ deep (~3 cm). The slope of the carved inner edges simply matches the circumference of the cutting edge on the TURBOplane. On the outer edges, the bowl slopes away at an acute angle of around 30-degrees and is rounded off on the top and bottom edges.
I opted to keep many of the rougher tool marks along the surface of the bowl, rather than trying to achieve a perfectly smooth surface. I sanded the bowl with #100-150-220 grits, and wet sanded several coats with #220-grit black emory paper and Watco Danish oil. This helped fill in some of the grain with a sawdust and oil slurry. When finished, it gives the wood a reflector-like quality, and is appealing to the touch.
The second bowl is made from extremely dense bubinga, another African species with beautifully rich red colors and a contrasting light yellow sapwood. This gave me an opportunity to really put the tool to the test when hogging out lots of material. The bowl measures 1.75″ thick and is approximately 8″ long on each of the three sides. Keeping with the Midcentury modern theme, the triangular shape is rounded along the edges and points, and was pulled from a series of MCM shapes I came across on Pinterest.
This bowl was a perfect fit for the Arbortechs Mini TURBO plane’s smaller cutting diameter of 2″. The Mini TURBO design holds two circular carbide tips that can be rotated to expose sharper edges. Despite the density of the bubinga, I didn’t need rotate the cutting edge of the tool while working on this bowl. The outside edge is 90-degrees, and has a 1/2″ lip, which then gently slopes down to a depth of 1.5″ at the center. I also had the opportunity to use Arbortech’s Contour Random Sander with it’s flexible backing that holds #80-400 grit adhesive sanding discs. This saved a tremendous amount of time on the super-dense bubinga. I’ll get into more on the use and performance of this tool in my next post. If you’d like to read a more in-depth tool review of the Contour Random Sander, see my review at Popular Woodworking Magazine, from their June 2015 issue (#218). The finish I applied was the same as the previous project, making it silky smooth, and ideal for holding candy or nuts.
Steep learning curve
After using the TURBOplane Mini TURBO and Contour Random sander on these two bowls, I feel like it helped open up a new set of possibilities in woodworking. Power carving offers a nearly limitless range of shapes that can be incorporated into furniture, as well as sculpture, and more utilitarian applications like a simple bowl.
Like using any tool (hand or power) Arbortech’s tools have their own sweet-spot for removing material. Body posture, angle of attack and position of the work piece against the cutting surface all play a role in making the most of these tools. Once you start removing material, you’ll begin to feel where the tool blades dig in and what it’s capable of, as well as it’s limitations. Power carving anything detailed can quickly turn bad if you loose focus or if the tool gets away from you. This can cause a piece to go from nearly finished to your next scrap for the fire pit. Either way, it’s fun to try something like this for the first time, because you immediately start to realize what’s possible.
Knowing the amount of dust that can get kicked up with these tools, I’ve found that outdoor carving and/or removal of larger pieces can be less dusty by pre-drilling. This also can serve as a reference point to ensure consistent depth for your bowls.