John English is a wood turner and if you aren’t sure what that is, read on! John is a delightful enthusiast who makes it look easy and turns out wooden objects that are so smooth and perfect, you doubt for a moment that they are wood, if it wasn’t for the wonderful grain.
Rochford Life: John, just what is wood turning?
John: Wood turning is the production of any round item from a section of timber. The timber can be in a log form, or you start off with a plank, which you cut to squares and put it on the lathe and make whatever you like.
RL: What sort of things do you end up making?
John: Anything from jewellery to furniture.
John: Oh yes, ear rings, necklaces which can all be made out of wood. Very small!
RL: Earrings are at one end of the scale; what’s at the opposite end of the scale?
John: The big end of the scale would be a pedestal table with a centre leg. I have made coffee tables. The biggest I have made is 21 inches diameter, with a height of about 18 inches. I make those in oak, cherry, mahogany.
RL: And the range in between?
John: Pens, bowls, platters, candle sticks, clocks, and lamps, anything that you might need that is of a round section.
RL: OK, so you put the wood on the lathe, the lathe turns it and you use chisels to shape the wood?
John: Yes, I use various tools. If you do spindle work, which is long thin work, you use what’s called a roughing gouge which is used to make the timber round, and then you use either a skew chisel or a spindle gouge for doing your shaping.
RL: Right. How long have you been doing wood turning?
John: It’s approximately ten years.
RL: How did you learn?
John: I did a minimal amount of wood turning when I was at school. After I left school I bought myself a Black and Decker drill, and a lathe bed, which the drill fitted into, and I used to turn bits and pieces on that, just using basic woodworking tools. Not ideal, but I didn’t know any different. It wasn’t until I came up into retirement that I wanted to get properly back into wood turning and my wife bought me a lathe for my birthday – with my guidance.
RL: How did you get on with that?
John: All right but I soon realised that it was at the cheap end of the market and had limitations. Being cheap there was slight movement so the wood didn’t remain central. I saved up and later bought a decent cast iron lathe which I kept for a few years, and I learnt a lot of wood turning on that. About that time I realised that the Rocheway College did wood turning courses, so I went down there and did two years there and got my NCFE in Wood Turning. Obviously with a bit more practise since then I hope I’ve improved a bit.
RL: You said you make a whole range of things now. You make these for people who ask you?
John: Yes, I take commissions and I do craft fairs as well. I do a lot of turning purely for my own personal interest, stretching the boundaries of what I can do. I also teach It
RL: So how, if someone wanted to take up wood turning, would they start?
John: Before you do anything at all, find someone who’s got a lathe and go and spend a few hours with them to find out if you like it. That way you’ll also find out how you get on with the lathe. There are many different lathes with the cheapest from £75 - £100 new, but I wouldn’t pay for those because they are the sort of lathe you’ll have for three months and then spend a few hundred on something more suitable, a decent lathe.
RL: And how many chisels does a beginner need to start with?
John: Four is a good start – a roughing gouge, a spindle gouge for basic shaping, a skew chisel for nice fine planning cuts, and perhaps a bowl gouge if you want to do bowl work, but those are the basic ones.
RL: You mentioned previously that you do teaching?
John: Yes, that’s right. This came about purely by accident. At Rocheway I happened to be doing a furniture restoration course and I got talking to a couple of the other students there who said they’d been on the wood turning course but because they didn’t have a lathe at home they weren’t able to practise. So there’s about 10 -15 students and, at that time, only four lathes, so they didn’t get a lot of lathe time and were getting put off by this, so I suggested they came round my workshop and we go through it together, which is what we did. I had two lathes at the time and so two people came round and they had two full hours on the lathe rather than just a few minutes at a time at the College and subsequent to that I’ve now got six students.
RL: All men?
John: No, I have two ladies in that group. In fact the two ladies were the first two.
RL: Is this a hobby or a business?
John: It’s a hobby, very much a hobby, but because I teach I make a little bit of money out of it, and from craft fairs as well, basically I’ve got a free hobby because if I want a new tool there is now the money there to buy it, or buy wood. I can just go out and buy it.
RL: Do you belong to any woodworking organisations?
John: Yes, I belong to the Guild of Essex Craftsmen. Any craftsmen in Essex who come up to a certain standard become a member and they run their own craft fairs and they get every person who wants to become a member to submit work – you have to submit so many pieces of your work and it is inspected by a fellow member of the Guild, usually a professional to make sure you come up to the standard. If you do that you can join the Guild. People thus know that if they buy something from you it is up to a standard.
RL: Are there wood turning organisations online?
John: The Association of Wood Turners of Great Britain. I am a member of that. We have branches all over the country; the local ones are in Billericay and Chelmsford. I’m the secretary of the Chelmsford one until January. We have professional demonstrators; we do ‘hands-on’ evenings, and have talks about wood turning. We have three lathes, one of which is a loan lathe which people can borrow for a month at a time, complete with a set of tools
RL: John, thank you very much. That’s been very interesting.
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- go here to see pictures of amazing pieces of work. For more photos go to some of the branch sites.