Alaskan Yellow Cedar Burl Bowls

TURNING YELLOW
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


 
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