(Excerpted from a presentation to the North Florida Woodturners,
March 13, 1998, revised March 13, 2001)

I. Evaluation of Our Work

The 3 Questions We Should Ask Ourselves
We should look critically and objectively at everything that we do at the lathe, and then ask ourselves three (3) questions:

  1. What were we trying to do?
  2. How well did we do?
  3. What can I do better next time?
The following discussion will describe some of the ways that we can evaluate and improve the woodturning that we do.

Have A Goal
(What were we trying to do?)

    We should always have some idea of the mission before we start. I usually don't believe anyone that says that they didn't know what they were trying to do until the wood was in the lathe, the "I let the wood speak to me" approach. This doesn't mean that we can't change our mind once we have started. We may have several possibilities in mind, and a hidden flaw or defect can determine the option.
    Our skills at the lathe will determine the complexity of the goal. The goal of every turning session does not have to be an object. There is nothing wrong with just making chips to practice a turning technique and improve our skills. For the first time beginner, the goal may be spinning a piece of wood in the lathe, doing something with the tool that will make some chips, and doing this without throwing the piece across the room or personal injury. The session was successful if these goals were completed. Every woodturner, beginner or "expert", should occasionally pick up a piece of wood and turn it into chips. It can be a relaxing venture, and a good way to learn a new skill or improve an old one.

Published Projects
(How well did we do?)

    We do not all have the knowledge or resources available to evaluate our own work. There is nothing wrong with duplicating a published project from a magazine, book, or other source. Then we can measure our success by a comparison with the pictures in the article. The question of "How well?" is answered by the appearance and finish of the end product. All Wood Magazine projects used to include a template. These templates were a valuable addition to the article for many of their readers, and they should not have stopped including them.
    Unfortunately, many magazine articles are a disservice to the beginning and intermediate turner whom they are trying to reach. The article can have little resemblance to the techniques required to complete the project. Too often, someone wrote them other than the original craftsman, or many of the details were lost to the editors' cuttings. Videos are often no better because too many details have been left out for them to be of any value. As a club, maybe we should do more reviews of magazine articles, books, and videos for those members who use them for projects or techniques.

The Instant Gallery
(How well did we do? What can I do better next time?)

    The Instant Gallery at the monthly meeting is one of the benefits of our membership. We can all use these exhibits as a basis for evaluating our own work. The beginner should bring their work for display, and they are encouraged to ask the "experts" to evaluate their work and make suggestions for improvement.
     Conversely, we all have an obligation to "know of which we speak." As a novice, it is difficult to determine who is qualified to answer our questions. Don't try to "snow" the beginner with knowledge and experience that we don't have. If we are not an "expert", admit that we are not qualified to evaluate someone's work or answer their questions. Nobody benefits from bad advice.
     It is not easy to be an "expert." When making an evaluation, the "expert" should consider the "three questions" and also have an understanding of the skills, tools, and equipment that were available, or that the person is willing to acquire. Don't assume that everyone has all the "stuff" that you have accumulated over the years. It does no good to recommend a tool that they don't have or can't grind, or one that they may not care or afford to purchase.
     The "experts" should bring more of their works for display. We all benefit from having the opportunity to see excellence and skill. This may be the only comparison available to the beginners for judging their own work. It can also be an inspiration for all of us to improve our skills.

II. On Demonstrations and Presentations
    These are a regular feature of our monthly meetings. Those that already know how to turn wood are invited or coerced into making a presentation or demonstration. Tool handling skills and techniques are important, and they are relatively easy to present.
     However, we are neglecting to share our information, reasoning and knowledge (the academic side of woodturning) on subjects such as the design process, color, balance, wood, etc. These are also important to our becoming more proficient at the lathe. The sessions that are devoted to these subjects are always well received. We should encourage other members to share their opinions, prejudices, and experiences. We need more discussions like this one!!

III. On Useability

The "Useability" Rule:
"That which is made to be used, must be useable."

     I don't understand why this is not obvious. How often we forget this basic concept that should apply to everything that we make on the lathe with the intent that it will serve a useful purpose. Objects that could be labeled as "For Display Only" are exempt from the basic usability requirement, but they can be subjected to a similar "Visibility Rule." I will also share a few opinions and observations on "visibility."
     I learned the Usability Rule from my mother! Many years ago, I gave her a turned a bowl and a small jewelry box. Thirty years later I was moving my mother into a new house that was more suitable for an elderly lady confined to a wheelchair than the hundred year old family farmhouse. I found both bowl and box in the back of a cupboard, and neither had ever been used. The answer to the question, "Why?" is summarized in the leadoff statement. Neither of them was useable!
     From the craftsman's view, it was an excellent bowl, nice lines, small bottom, and very thin walled; but it was not useable. Think about how we use a salad bowl. We set it on the table, expecting it to stay in place while we fill it, and then stir and remove the contents with forks and tongs. For the user, my bowl was too light and tipped over too easily. It took three hands to use. It was not useable.
     The jewel box suffered a similar fate. The lid still had a nice suction fit after all of these years. The lid was a perfect from the view of the craftsman, but it was not friendly to the user. How does a lady use a jewel box? They lift the lid with one hand, search and remove the contents with the other, and then close the lid. It will never be used if it takes two hands to remove the lid.

IV. That "Vision" Thing

     There two rules that will apply to everything that we make. These rules are stated for the artistic object that is intended for display, but these rules also apply to the useable piece. Even though it is intended to be used, such as a salad bowl, the first time the potential customer sees our work is in a "display" setting.

Rule 1 -- Keep the user in mind.
     Remember how the potential user sees our turned object, whether they be a buyer or the recipient of a gift. We have a tendency to forget about them whenever we turn something on the lathe. We turn objects for ourselves, or to seek praise from other woodturners, when we should be keeping the user or customer needs in mind. While I am referring to a customer, this could also be the reviewer at a juried exhibition.

How will it be used?
     As woodturners, we see a bowl, vase, or anything else, as an object in itself. Our customer tries to see it in a "place", or with something in it, flowers, fruit, potpourri, etc. Show them how it can be used, and how it might look in their house. Of 35 weed pots that I had on display, 20 of them had a few blades of dead grass and a clover stem in them. They were the first ones to sell.

Rule 2 -- The first impression is the most important.
     Have you ever watched how people approach and look at our work? We need to know this, because that first impression will make the difference. After seeing the piece on our display table, the customers' first action can be described for several types of turnings. If you don't believe me - watch them, or take note of your own actions.

  • Lidded Vessel or Box - Without removing it from the table, they lift the lid with one hand, and look inside. Then they look at the underside of the lid. Only after it has passed these two tests, will they pick it up for a closer inspection of the exterior. If they have to pick it up to lift the lid, it is more likely to stay on the table than not.
  • Plate - They pick it up, turn it over, and look at the back. Then they give the face a closer inspection.
  • Bowl - Without removing it from the table, they will either lean over, or tilt the bowl, to look inside. If they then pick it up, they turn it over to look at the bottom. The last thing they do is - - hold it up to look at the outside.
  • Vase - They stand back, as if to visualize it being in a place, or with something in it. Only when it passes this test, do they ever pick it up for a closer examination.
  • Artistic Turning - These are first observed from the same distance as the vase, and for the same reasons. When it passes this test, they move in for a closer look.
    Did we notice that the first action is always to look inside? We should position the object so as to invite this look. What they see should then be an invitation for further inspection.

We can draw several conclusions from this discussion:

  • The inside of a vessel or bowl issues the invitation for a closer inspection. Give then something to see.
  • The bottom of the bowl is as important as the inside.
  • The lid of the vessel or box must be removable with one hand, but not a sloppy fit, and the underside of the lid must be hollowed and finished.
  • The bottom of a plate could be more important than its face.
  • The vase should be displayed for the customer's easy observation from a distance, and it should have something in it to complete the visual image.
  • It may not be the first thing they do, but the piece will always be picked up.
Why are we so obsessed with thin walls?
     I often question why we spend so much time working on the areas that nobody sees. Why are we so obsessed with paper-thin walls for a hollow or lidded vessel that will never see service as anything except an object of art? As a craftsman, I appreciate the skill that was required. But, most of the public looking at it couldn't care less that the walls are paper-thin and that it weighs only ounce, so long as the overall visual impression from the exterior is pleasing, and that its weight fairly meets their expectations. Thinness can be a negative factor if the piece is too light.
     Beginning and intermediate woodturners should be less concerned about wall thickness, and concentrate their efforts on tool and turning techniques, and recognizing good design features. Thinner walls will automatically follow as their skills as a woodturner improve.

V. Framing the Picture

     Many of our turnings, especially plates and decorative bowls, are used to display a natural wood picture. As such, this picture must be framed to focus our eyes and attention, the same reasons that we frame flat art. Without the frame, the image can be lost in the surrounding background that we see in our peripheral vision. The frame focuses our attention to the picture, removing the background. The framed picture has a sparkle that is missing from that left unframed.

The frame for the turned plate or bowl can take many forms:

  • Sharp edges on the rim.
  • Natural edge.
  • Shadow reveal.
  • Contrasting rim of either solid wood or segmented assembly.
  • Carved or otherwise decorated rim.
  • A square edge is an effective frame. It focuses our attention because the straight line doesn't occur in nature.
  • An unusual grain pattern or defect can so strongly focus our attention that framing isn't necessary.

    © 2002 - 2009 by Russ Fairfield. All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.