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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.


 

 

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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OIL SOAK     

There are many techniques to achieve translucency of Norfolk Island pine and the chance to experiment is what makes it fun.  Once again, I strongly recommend Ron Kent’s website and his very generous section on techniques.  To keep it simple and as inexpensive as possible, obtain a five gallon bucket with a top at any of the big box hardware stores.  Into this bucket add an 80/20 mix of boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits.  The dunking or soaking should be done successively over a period of two to three months with 24 to 48 hours in the mix and 24 to 48 hours out to dry.   By propping the vessel on a couple of wooden battens (paint stirrers) across the top of the bucket, all excess oil will drain off and the piece will start to dry.   Paper towels will also help dry the piece and prevent the oil from building up on the surface.  Sanding with 400 grit wet/dry paper will also help. The wood will immediately show some of the dramatic colors you want but as it dries it will revert to the dull, gray color.  Only after five or six soakings will it begin to achieve the final look.  It’s difficult to tell just how many soakings a piece will require and a thinner vessel will certainly require less time.  After several weeks the vessel will no longer absorb the oil mixture and a sheen building up on the surface will indicate that it is saturated.  The drying process now is critical and although there are some comments on the web about using a two or three day drying time, I like to give it around four weeks.  During that time oil will continue to seep out of small areas of the vessel and dry or coagulate on the surface.  It is important that this be sanded off so the piece can continue to seep and dry before accepting a finish.  Oftentimes it pays to leave the piece in direct sunlight for short periods to accelerate the drying process.

 

FINISHING

The piece should be sanded to at least 400 grit and sometimes even up to 1200 grit.  Again, due to the softness and the fibrous nature of the wood, special handling during sanding is needed to avoid cracking.  To achieve the most translucency I use five or six coats of clear gloss wipe on polyurethane, waiting about 48 hours between coats.  The wipe on poly will leave a glass like finish and accentuate the vessels’ values, or the relationship between its light and dark colors.  A final buffing with Tripoli, white diamond and carnauba wax will complete your project. 

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Photographing translucent Norfolk Island pine is very easy.  I forego a photo tent and just place a black sheet of construction paper on my hydraulic table with a shop light directly overhead in a dark garage.   Experiment by taking several photos and changing the distance of the shop light from the piece on each and one of the photos will be perfect. 

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CONCLUSION

Translucent Norfolk Island pine requires a lot of time and effort but if you’re looking for a spectacular and unique look, it’s worth it.  The finished piece will look particularly dramatic when displayed in a dark colored bookcase or cabinet with a bright light directly over it.  It will glow with breathtaking beauty showing off magnificent and striking colors and patterns.  With just a little imagination, some of those patterns look strangely like animals with red eyes where the knots are.  Onlookers may suspect that it is not wood but Venetian glass.  It’s clearly one of the most impressive designs in woodturning and well worth the effort.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Bill Donahue

Bill Donahue is a financial advisor with over 30 years experience at Merrill Lynch.  He started woodturning in 2005 just a few weeks before losing his house and all of his woodturning equipment in Hurricane Katrina.  Bill, his wife Beverly, and their three school aged children had evacuated to Pensacola, Fl. and decided to stay.   After a two and a half year absence from woodturning he returned in 2008 by taking classes at John Campbell Folk School from Doug Barnes and from Stephen Hatcher

Bill has had two articles published in Woodturning Design magazine, “Pendants: A Family Project” and “Translucent Norfolk Island Pine”  He received a third place for one of his Norfolk Island pine vessels in the Pensacola Museum of Art’s annual juried show and received third place in the 2012 AAW challenge to design a Christmas tree ornament.

Bill is active in many civic organizations and is on the Boards of both the Pensacola Museum of Art and the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.  In addition to woodturning, his interests include long distance cycling, scuba diving, underwater photography and offshore fishing.

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