Design, Tools, & Lathe Work
My wife, Helen, is a grammar school teacher—third and fourth grades. For over twenty years, every weekday evening, as soon as dinner is finished, Helen carries a pile of papers to the dinner table and sets about grading each one, with diligence and care, because in the end—regardless of the ruling political party or that year’s favorite flavor of curriculum—Helen’s responsibility is to the children, her students.
Carpenters have a similar responsibility—though assuredly not one with such monumental impact.
Life for a carpenter today is not that much different than it was for carpenters a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago. We face the same challenges carpenters have always faced: we must shelter our families and put food on our tables. And today we have to send our children to college, too! All of which means we have to make a respectable living, sometimes in an environment where, at times, it may appear that our clients think otherwise. Which leads to a challenging conundrum: whether our clients are willing to pay for it or not, we must do good work, partly because—in order to garner more work—we must protect our reputation. But truthfully, no matter whether we are respected by our customers or our culture, we must still respect ourselves and the work. Which is why I always tell anyone who will listen: make things that will last a hundred or two hundred years, things your children, your grandchildren, and great grandchildren will be proud of. And good work always begins with good design.
I turned thousands and thousands of balusters—sometimes a couple hundred for a single job. Never once did I ‘make up’ a design from thin air; never have I relied on whimsy, the way a neophyte turner might make an odd-shaped bowl or pair of candlesticks.
No, I was taught to appreciate classical forms; to respect and emulate our rich architectural history. What a shame that more carpenters aren’t taught the same thing today. But that doesn’t forgive contemporary carpenters. We are all sufficient to stand on our own, to learn on our own. Education requires only effort and discipline. I used to tell carpenters: “If you want to learn about architecture, visit the library.” But today, it’s so much easier: Surf the web!
Good baluster design is based on classical models—forms that are important to us as human beings. The shapes and profiles in a traditional baluster reveal true forms of beauty. As Keats wrote in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And urns form an integral part of baluster design.
Every turner begins with a basic set of lathe tools—a bowl gouge, a spindle gouge, a rough-in gouge, maybe a skew, perhaps a scraper, and definitely a parting tool. Many of the tools for turning balusters that I use I made myself, especially small skews, which are a particular pleasure to use.
Every turner will tell you that their technique is the best approach. I won’t. I can only be certain that my technique—perfected from turning thousands of balusters—works very well for me. But regardless of the specific techniques, the basics are always the same: keep your tools sharp; rest the bevel on the work; cut downhill.