SOAKING IN DISHWASHING DETERGENT

One technique that makes Norfolk Island pine easier to turn is a 24 hour soak in a 50/50 mix of concentrated dishwashing detergent and water. Follow this with a 24 hour period of drip drying (see photo below).  This will lubricate the wood and make it turn like the greenest of wood with long curls flying off your gouge.  This soaking should be done after rough turning and spalting has occurred.  Since this wood has a high moisture content and is prone to dry out rather rapidly, such soaking helps stabilize the wood and prevents checking.  This technique was pioneered by the renowned Hawaiian woodturning artist, Ron Kent, and is described in detail on his outstanding website (http://www.ronkent.com/techniques.php).  Ron Kent’s work in Norfolk Island pine is breathtaking and I strongly recommend that anyone considering making a translucent Norfolk Island pine piece visit his website for inspiration. 

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FINAL TURNING

Turning Norfolk Island pine to a thickness (or thinness) of 1/16” to 1/8” is quite a challenge.  The wood is relatively soft and fibrous and the knots are very hard.  Turners have different approaches to it, and I’ll describe what works for me.  First, concentrate on the outside and get it as near perfect and as close to completion as possible even going as far as making what you feel are your final and finishing cuts.  I find it best to sand the outside, progressively through the finest grits, before directing my attention to the inside.     

For the inside, I’d suggest using a hollowing rig (I use a Lyle Jamieson rig) because it provides me more control of the cuts.  Since most of my pieces are 12” to 14” tall this is very important.  On any piece over 6” you will also need a steady rest.  Due to the relative softness of Norfolk Island pine, you can expect a lot of vibration so it’s best to move the steady rest from the top to the bottom of the piece as your work progresses.  By turning the inside from the top to the bottom you minimize vibration and lessen the chances of a broken piece.

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Ron Kent, despite being one of the world’s most accomplished turners, has a failure rate on thinly turned transparent Norfolk Island pine of near 50%.  Unless you live in one of the few places where Norfolk Island pine is indigenous, failure is not an inexpensive option.  (Apologies to Gene Krantz of Apollo 13)  

As the inside hollowing progresses and the vessel gets near ¼” thick, it’s best to use very light cuts and perhaps even scraping cuts.   Avoid the use of aggressive cutting tools like a carbide cutter because the slightest error can result in a destroyed piece.   The use of a bright light at a close angle to the piece will show shadows and help detect thicker areas.  A good way to identify and remove those high or thick areas is to use the side of a graphite pencil point to darken them and then to turn them off by using a scraping tool.   

When the piece is turned to your satisfaction, and hopefully to 1/8” or less, it’s time to start the final sanding.  Due to the relative softness of Norfolk Island pine, sanding should not be very aggressive.  In fact, I do all of the sanding by hand with the piece remaining on the unpowered lathe.  It should always be sanded from the top to the bottom, in line with the fibers, and of course go through all of the grits.  The use of a rubber sanding pad helps smooth out the curves on the piece and a hand on the opposite side of the vessel from the sandpaper gives support and helps prevent cracks.  Fibrous wood like Norfolk Island pine is very prone to cracking from top to bottom.

Parting off Norfolk Island pine requires a slight change of technique from most other woods.  To part through the small but soft central pith, it is essential to use a relatively high lathe speed and a very sharp parting tool.  Two extra helping hands from an understanding and supportive spouse (with a good face shield) can really help.  After parting the vessel, strengthen the pithy center on the exterior by carefully pressing into it some sawdust mixed with CA glue.  A few drops of CA glue applied to the pith on the inside will further reinforce the weak center, preventing shrinkage and lessening the chances of your piece becoming a funnel.  At this point the vessel will be dull, gray and have a bone dry look to it and not be the least bit attractive.  The repetitive oil soak over a period of months is what will bring out the dramatic colors and create the translucency to make your Norfolk Island pine piece a spectacular work of art.

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