Alaskan Yellow Cedar Burl Bowls

A slab of rare yellow cedar burl yields a brace of bowls.

SHOP OWNER: Ellis Walentine
LOCATION: Springtown, PA

    While talking with one of my Woodfinder suppliers a while back, I learned that he had recently acquired a large, gorgeous, and relatively rare burl from an Alaskan yellow cedar tree. Always alert for a special piece of wood, I arranged for him to ship me a piece. It wasn't cheap, priced at CDN$25 per board foot.
A skid of burl slabs
    The first thing I noticed about my burl package was how relentlessly aromatic this wood was. The fragrance was almost overwhelming, even through the plastic wrapping. I had smelled yellow cedar before, but it was nothing like this. Those little nascent swirls and eyes are just dripping with resin, a suspicion that was confirmed when I started sanding the piece on the lathe.
    When I opened the package, I could tell right away that this was going to be one gorgeous piece of wood. I even considered resawing it and using it for bookmatched door panels, just to get the most mileage out of the stunning figure. Then I remembered that my only major machine these days is a Poolewood lathe. Bowls it was.
Smaller bowl, 7-in. dia.
    The first piece I turned was a small one, from the narrow end of the slab. I like to start small and learn my lessons about the material before tackling the main event. The cedar turned beautifully, with only the slightest tearout, which I was able to overcome by honing my tools for the final pass. It didn't really need sanding, but I sanded anyhow. I've never seen sandpaper clog so quickly.

Turning the bottom on a faceplate

    Suitably emboldened by my success with the first bowl, I bandsawed a much larger blank from my remaining cedar. I decided which surface was the top and which was the bottom and mounted the blank on a faceplate, with the screws going into the top surface. I turned the bottom of the bowl first, wrapping slightly around to the top edge. Then I sanded it lightly with 220 grit paper and removed it from the lathe.

Inspecting the grain

     At this point, I couldn't wait to view this wood in the daylight, so I removed the faceplate and took it out on the front porch of the shop for a closer look. The satiny, light-colored grain swirled around the birdseye clusters like an old Edward Weston photograph of tidal pools at Big Sur. I was thrilled.

Roughing out the center

    To finish the turning, I mounted the bowl in an early-model Grumbine vacuum chuck, using the large (10" dia.) cup. Not wanting to take any chances, I brought up the tailstock for the roughing-out phase, and then removed it to finish turning the center.
    As I write this, I'm still in the process of applying a finish to both bowls. I'm using Circa 1850's Antique Oil finish on the large one. It handles nicely and has a lovely smell that complements the cedar aroma without obscuring it too much. I'm using Velvit Oil on the smaller bowl. It doesn't build up on the surface the way heavier-bodied oil finishes do. We'll see which finish everyone likes best.

Light at the end of the tunnel.

    As a little sidebar, I figured I'd grab a shot of an adjustable lighting contraption I made for my lathe. The Poolewood has a swiveling headstock, which I find wonderful for hollowing, because I don't have to hang out over the lathe bed and hurt my back in order to reach in there with the tool. But, I needed to be able to get some light on (into?) the subject on those occasions. For the price of a cheapo 250-w halogen work lamp (less than $10 at Home Depot), two nuts and bolts and a couple scraps of wood, I now have a swiveling worklamp that adjusts quickly to whatever angle I happen to need for the best illumination. The final step will be to drill and tap the base of the lathe and screw the plywood end panel on.

. . . Ellis Walentine



This is the place to share views of your shop, woodworking tips and methods,
mug shots, special tools or machines, finished work--you name it!
    We prefer digital images via e-mail, but prints or transparencies will do. Include your name, address, phone number and a paragraph or two explaining the photo(s). Not every entry will be used, we reserve the right to edit for length and clarity, and we will not return photos.

P.O. Box 493
Springtown, PA 18081