Drying for Carving Versus Turning

Several bowls in the shop, now dry, waiting for the final carving stage.

People, especially turners, are often surprised to hear that a bowl can be dry and ready for finish carving in as little as a couple weeks after carving it from green wood. I don’t know much about turning, but from what I read and hear, those turners that begin with green wood on an electric lathe typically take the bowl down to about 75%, leaving a significant amount of extra wood, then dry it very slowly in chips or whatever for several months or even over a year before returning it (a particularly appropriate term in this case) to/on the lathe for the final stage. Of course, some turners will turn green wood with no intention or possibility of putting it back on the lathe after drying. In such cases, the piece is taken right down to final size while green. But that’s another story.

For two-stage carving and turning, the difference in the amount of wood removed and drying time comes down to the fact that a (standard) lathe makes things round. The bowl, carved or turned, will move and change shape as it dries. Round bowls will dry to an oval (unless you carved it oval to begin with). In the case of turning, the concentric nature of the lathe means that it will not recognize and go along with the movement that has occurred during drying, therefore, more material needs to be left at the green stage so that, as the bowl is returned to truly-round on the lathe, there is enough extra material where needed.

Meanwhile, I typically remove just about all of the wood during the green carving stage, call it 95%. Like the bowls in the photo above, the final form is clearly established. The bowl will move and distort pretty predictably as it dries, and carving allows the freedom to go along with those changes. Additionally, the fact that most of the designs I carve are not round, but oblong, means the movement usually occurs symmetrically on either side of the longitudinal axis, so there are few aesthetic issues with the movement.

Removing so much green wood allows moisture to escape more easily and evenly during the drying process, making faster crack-free drying more possible than if only 75% of the wood had been removed. Of course, there are factors applying to individual situations with various pieces of wood and designs. I’ve got a general post about drying here.

There is still plenty, usually most, of the work to be done after drying, which is one of the reasons many carvers have lots of unfinished bowls lying around their shops. I’m going to be working my way through this stash. Meanwhile, I just finished a bowl by starting with a dry (9 years dry) block of walnut; that story coming up soon in my next post.

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9 Responses to Drying for Carving Versus Turning

  1. andrewsistrand says:

    Thanks for sharing, Dave

    Liked by 1 person

  2. francedozois says:

    informative, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eric Goodson says:

    That’s a really interesting observation, Dave. I have always marveled at how long many Turner’s blanks to dry. The funny thing is, what I really like about turning greenwood is that the round object moves and comes alive as it dries. That is what makes turning special


    • Dave Fisher says:

      I often eat from one of your turned bowls, Eric, so I experience that wonderful movement you’ve described. With the way bowls are mounted to a pole lathe, you really don’t have the option of returning it to the lathe after drying, correct? The benefits of limitations.
      I should also mention that I have carved some bowls green, and then not gone back for a dry carving stage, other than to flatten the bottom. Just another option.


  4. Marco says:

    Very interesting considerations, Dave. As the struggle to learn bowl turning on the pole lathe only worsen with time, this post is just what I needed to take a step back and give the adze some love.

    I remember reading somewhere that George Lailey used to turn his bowls in two stages. I wonder how he managed the problems associated with drying and re-mounting as you mention, and if there is anyone who has more information about it.

    I recently salvaged a huge slab of very old walnut so your next post will be particularly well timed.


    • Dave Fisher says:

      Robin Wood would be the one to ask regarding George Lailey. In Robin’s excellent book The Wooden Bowl, there is a section that includes Lailey, including a photo of him turning at his lathe. It looks like the typical pole lathe bowl-turning arrangement to me, with the mandrel attached to the core of the bowl. Once the core comes out, I don’t know how it would be possible to remount the bowl on the lathe after drying. This probably didn’t trouble them at all. But I am out of my element now. Robin, or Jarrod Dahl would know much more.


  5. Adam says:

    It has been a few years since I’ve visited your blog Dave, nearly four years I think…time slips away so quietly.
    It’s lovely to see that your carving work is as beautiful and inspiring as ever.

    Best wishes from England.



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