Oak burl bowl

Eight or ten years ago I was at a friend’s ranch to collect some wood from a fallen tree. While he was showing me around the property (about 300 acres), he asked me what those “big warts” were on his oak trees. I explained what burls are and how they form. He wanted to see what they looked like inside. We found a tree that was pretty clearly almost dead, and he went to work with his chainsaw. I ended up with two burls. I carved a bowl from the smaller one and gave it to Todd and his wife as a “Thank you.” I kept the larger one.

That piece of wood was about two feet long, 16 inches wide at its widest point, and five inches deep.

I drilled a bunch of holes in the top with the intention of letting the wood sit in the garage and dry for a while. Then I turned it over and removed the bark with the angle grinder. I also ground down a semi-flat spot for the base and finished it with the belt sander.

Then I got impatient. Why wait for the wood to dry? Why not rough carve it first, I thought, and then put it up in the rafters? A bowl with 1″ thick sides will dry a whole lot faster than a big ol’ oak burl.

So that’s what I did. It took me a couple hours of swinging that angle grinder to get the general shape of the bowl. I went over the whole thing with a 36 grit sanding disc, and then put it up in the rafters to dry for a while. That was June of 2016.

Four years later I was rearranging stuff up there in the rafters and I ran across the unfinished bowl. It was well dried by then. Happily, I had left the sides thick enough that it didn’t warp or twist horribly. I spent an hour or so touching it up with the big angle grinder and re-flattening the bottom (it warped a little bit), detailed it with the smaller (2″) Foredom angle grinder, and started hand sanding.

The hand sanding took several days. One thing I discovered is that when sanding oak burl or any other highly figured wood can be incredibly frustrating. It’s often very difficult to tell the difference between a tool mark and a natural feature of the wood. Up close, a whorl can look an awful lot like a tool mark. Or vice-versa. This becomes increasingly frustrating as sanding continues at the higher grits and the surface becomes smoother. I can’t remember how many times I was sanding at 600 grit, for example, and had to step back down to 60 or 100 to sand out a tool mark and then feather around it to smooth the depression. Fortunately, by the time I got to 800 grit I’d found and fixed all the tool marks.

I eventually sanded the entire bowl to 2000 grit, and the wood shone like nothing I’d ever made before. It was beautiful.

The slightly darker areas there are moisture. From 600 grit to 2000 grit, I sanded it wet. The dark spots are where the wood hadn’t yet shed the moisture. What astonished me about this was how smooth and shiny the wood was without any kind of finish on it.

I decided that I didn’t want to put any kind of polyurethane or varnish on the bowl, but I wanted something to preserve the wood and prevent it from drying out completely and crumbling. I’d had good luck with mineral oil in the past, so that’s what I used. It took two weeks and something more than a quart of mineral oil. I’d apply a coat of oil, let it soak in for a day, and apply another coat. I kept that up until the wood just wouldn’t absorb any more.

The bowl now sits on the living room coffee table (an oak stump that I shaped and finished). It is, I think, my personal favorite of all the things I’ve carved. I suspect I could be convinced, over time as I age, to part with most of my other carvings. But this bowl will likely be in my possession until the day I die.

Wedding bowls

Back in May I decided to make a couple of bowls for my niece’s wedding in late July. Finding wood to make bowls from is no problem: we lost an Arizona Ash tree in the Icepocalypse of 2021, and there’s plenty of that lying around. Originally I had intended to make just one bowl, but then decided on two.

Although I did turn a few bowls when I was a member of TechShop, I don’t have a lathe and have no real plans to get one. I carve my bowls with an angle grinder and Foredom power carver.

I started with an end grain bowl: just a piece from one of the larger limbs, about 9″ in diameter and about 4″ tall.

The bowl blank is mounted on my holding jig: a piece of galvanized pipe attached to floor flanges screwed to the bowl and to the work bench. I’ve tried many different ways of holding a piece when working on it, and this is the one I like best. It’d be different if I were doing a more detailed carving, but for carving bowls this is fantastic. It holds the piece securely and I can move around it. The pipe flange is attached to the top of the bowl.

I’ve seen some people hollow the bowl first, before shaping the outside. I don’t understand how they can do that. I always shape the outside first. Here it is after rough shaping.

One of the things I’ve struggled with is smoothing and sanding after the bowl is carved. Smoothing the outside of the bowl can be a very big pain once it’s in the shop. What I do is rough carve the outside, then smooth it with 36, 60, 80 and if I can, 120 grit flap wheels while it’s still on the holding jig. About half the time I can’t get to 120 grit because it burns the wood. It depends on the type of wood and the moisture content. Sometimes I’ll do the 120 grit sanding by hand while it’s still mounted.

Wood scorched with 120 grit flap wheel
Hand sanded to 120 grit

This bowl was a bit difficult because it was too small to hollow with the angle grinder. I had to resort to my Foredom power carver and a 1″ ball burr. Hollowing took a while. Sanding took even longer, and I had to fill a couple of voids with crushed Malachite. But it turned out really nice.

The second bowl is from the same limb, right next to the round bowl. This one is oblong, about 9 inches wide and perhaps 16 inches long. Depth is about 3 inches. Here it is, sitting on the holding jig before I started carving.

Sometime between when I carved the round-ish bowl and when I started on this one, I remembered that I had an Arbortech Mini-Turbo attachment for my angle grinder. That made hollowing this bowl a lot easier.

To hold the bowl in place, I flattened the bottom with an electric hand plane and then glued it to a piece of wood paneling I had left over from when we remodeled the house. I then clamped the paneling to the workbench. This works well, but separating the bowl from the paneling when done is a pain in the neck. I’ve since experimented with several other options, including using less glue (holds well, but still difficult to remove), double-sided tape (works very well and easy to remove), and gluing the bowl to a piece of stiff cardboard (holds well and easier to remove than paneling or plywood). My preferred method is the double-sided tape, but sometimes it doesn’t hold and I have to resort to the cardboard and glue.

One thing I haven’t tried yet is blue painter’s tape and superglue (put a piece of tape on the bench and on the bowl, and add a few drops of superglue to hold them together). I’ve seen that used to good effect in other woodworking situations. I expect it’ll hold well, and removal should be trivial.

I did initial smoothing with a 36 grit flap disc on the angle grinder, then hand sanded to 220 grit, starting at 60 and working my way up. I was pleasantly surprised at the figuring in the wood. I had to get it wet and snap a picture when I had finished the 60 grit pass. It’s just so dang pretty.

Sanded to 60 grit

There were a few small cracks in the bowl that I filled with crushed turquoise. The result is, I think, quite beautiful.

Finished bowl

Finish on both bowls is Half and Half, a product of the Real Milk Paint company. It’s a 50/50 mixture of pure tung oil and an orange solvent. People I trust say that it’s the best spoon finish, so I figured it should be great for bowls, too.