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One of the most spectacular looks in the world of woodturning is thinly turned translucent Norfolk Island pine.   It has dramatic colors, with sharp contrasts between lights and darks and luminosity unmatched by any other species of wood.  For those willing to spend the money for supplies and having the patience to work with a turning over a period of two or three months the rewards are well worth the effort.

Norfolk Island pine is not a true pine but is a member of a small family called Araucariaceae, in the family of coniferous trees.  As its name suggests, it is indigenous to Norfolk Island, a small island in the South Pacific discovered by Captain James Cook in 1774.  When Captain Cook first arrived on Norfolk Island he discovered these ramrod straight trees with symmetrical lateral branches, towering as high as   200 ft.  He first considered them as a source for mainmasts, only to find out that the timber was brittle and broke easily.

Today, most of us are familiar with Norfolk Island Pines as houseplants sold in nurseries and discount retailers as novelty tabletop Christmas trees.   Domestically, they have adapted to southern Florida, coastal California, south Texas and Hawaii.   In Florida, they can grow to about 50 ft. and earned the undesirable reputation of being the first trees to topple in hurricanes.  In fact, due to their rapid growth, size, brittleness, and likelihood of falling in storms – veritable house killers - some Florida coastal communities prohibit the use of Norfolk Island pines in landscape plans.

For woodturners, the main feature of Norfolk Island pine is the presence of six to eight radial branches that project out of the trunk at the same elevation.  When turned as a bowl or vase the knots present a uniformly symmetrical pattern similar to the spokes of a wagon wheel.  Freshly cut Norfolk Island pine exhibits a rather plain, pine-like appearance except for its knots which are various hues of red and brown.  If spalted by invading fungi, the wood takes on a spectacular look highly desirable to woodturners.  Spalted Norfolk Island pine can have a very dramatic range of colors including red, orange, yellow, black and varying shades of brown.  When it’s turned thin enough and soaked in oil to the point of translucency, these colors produce a radiant glow while being illuminated by an overhead light.

 

PREPARATION FOR TURNING

Norfolk Island pine is a challenge to turn.  It is soft, porous, fibrous, and has very hard knots.  Because of this, it necessitates a few measures not required for most woods.  A catch will readily fracture a spigot held in a chuck so safety measures are very important.  In order to be turned safely, the wood should be attached to a faceplate, one that accepts #10 or #12 sheet metal screws.  Once attached to the faceplate it’s best to leave it on until the piece is completed and ready to be parted off the faceplate.  The hard knots mandate very sharp tools and repeated trips to the grinder.  If the piece is over 6” or so in height, use of a steady rest will minimize vibration of the thin walls.  Of course, face protection is mandatory.

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ROUGH TURNING

Rough turning Norfolk Island pine is very much like other types of wood.  The emphasis should be on the outer shape and making sure it is close to the final shape that you desire.  The placement of the knots is also important and they should be closest to the top of the vessel so they are most visible.  Rough turn the form so its thickness is about 10% of its width. 

     

INDUCED SPALTING

Since spalting can be so attractive in Norfolk Island pine, it’s worth spending some time to make sure your wood has the right degree of it.  This involves both luck and technique.  To inspect the degree of spalting before rough turning, peel away some of the bark to look for vertical streaks and splotches of blackened wood, which indicate the spalting.  If there isn’t any spalting the finished product will be very plain.  On the other hand, excessive spalting will result in a very darkened piece that will not develop the desired translucency. The easiest way to induce spalting is to place the piece of rough timber outside, bark intact, in contact with the ground, in a shaded area for a period of two or three months.   I speed up the process by rough turning the form first and then storing it in a cool place, enclosed in a plastic bag containing some damp shavings.  (It is much easier to monitor the progress and amount of spalting this way)  To be really creative and to speed up the process even more, wipe some yogurt on it.  I prefer blueberry yogurt since it won’t take an entire container and I get to consume what’s left over.  I used to use beer but my wife, who is a nutritionist, said it’s too fattening.  Naturally, you’ll want to wipe off the yogurt when finished and I can assure you that it is not edible at that time.

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Monday the 25th. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.