Two Days Last Summer

By Alan Lacer

Late last July at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking we conducted an experimental class: could 16 teams of parents/grandparents matched with their children or grandchildren (ages ran from 7 to 18) spend a weekend turning wood together? The guidelines were simple: safety, fun, and working together to successfully produce simple turning projects. And, by the way, virtually none of the participants had any turning experience. Can it be done? Absolutely.

Obviously safety is a major concern. Turning has significant advantages over other woodworking machines: we hold onto the cutter, we tend to push the cutter away from our bodies (unlike even with woodcarving), and we can take steps to reduce the power of the machine-driving with a cup center in the headstock rather than a spur. Of course full face shields were required-goggles are not enough in my estimation. Also, I stayed away from projects that required hollowing (like bowls, boxes, goblets, etc.) for such a short course. The AAW Safety Guidelines (in your Directory) were distributed and served as the basis for the discussion on safety.

With kids-and most adults-success must be experienced early or interest is lost. The game plan was to select projects that could be made with minimal tools and experience. The first project was an ice cream scoop; well, really the handle for an ice cream scoop. After purchasing a chrome plated scoop from a large chain store, breaking away the plastic handle to reveal a nice tang, handles were turned, sanded, finished, and glued in with epoxy. Next, we tried simple stick pens with predrilled holes, squared to 9/16" so could just be driven into the headstock hollow and supported with the live cone center on the tailstock side. We went on to make weed pots, eggs, several types of tops, and simple oil lamps. Drilling was substituted for hollowing with turning tools where necessary. The use of painting pens to add color to tops-and at times a little texture with a chatter tool-was also a real hit.

I reduced the tools down to a few: parting tool, roughing gouge, detail gouge, and yes, a skew chisel. Sharpening was done by myself or New Yorker Andy Barnum (who assisted me in this project). I was all prepared to hand out scrapers if they could not get the cutting tools. As regards tool use there were surprises: I watched a 7 year old struggling with the detailing gouge, gave her a scraper, left that team to keep working. A few minutes later her father asked me to come over, seemed his daughter wanted to show me something: she made the most beautiful coving cut with a detail gouge -seems she was insulted that I did not believe she could do it with the more "difficult tool." They all loved the roughing gouge (deep "U" variety, ground square across) for taking off the corners of squares and making cylinders. The skew had only limited use, such as making decorative grooves. Now nobody "mastered" these tools in two days, but I was astounded with the rate of success and relatively low levels of frustration in the room. If you don't tell them that a tool is difficult they will just do it as they have been shown! With the cup center in the headstock (sold as a "dead center") adjusted by the pressure of the tailstock handwheel-like a drag on a fishing reel-you take the kick out of catches and simply stop the piece of wood from spinning. . This is important for safety but also for reducing fear of the machine-and protecting self esteem regardless of your age.

How would you gauge the success of these experiments? What happens after the class are really the best indicators. Here are a couple that have been relayed to me:

After turning an egg in the class everything in life got better. The egg has become known as the "lucky egg" and has a prominent position in the house.

A parent who had a 17 year old in the class, went home and got his two 8 year old twins started at turning. On the drive home one of the children offered money from her own savings to be put towards buying a lathe Shortly after the class one of the kids went out into his neighborhood showing all the other kids the cool things he had made One parent caught his son teaching his little sister the basics of turning I was contacted by a number of parents regarding suggestions for purchasing a lathe and tools One of the kids has become a "machine" in regards to making tops Yes, there were complaints. Three different parents said that after about the first half day they got very little turning time-seems someone had taken over. I love these complaints!

Of all the classes I have taught in the last 20 years, this was the most personally satisfying to me. In an age of dominated by passive and spectator activities, watching the teams working together, creating finished projects in a short time, and folks just discovering the magic of a spinning piece of wood, well, this was a plus for all of us. I also learned to never underestimate kids or their parents when it comes to learning turning. We're doing this one again!