What is Industrial wood turning ?


The leg of the chair you are sitting at, the balusters in your staircase or the handle of your hammer might well have been produced by a member of the British Wood Turners Association. Although the bulk of work produced by BWTA members is produced for furniture and joinery manufacturers, there is a huge array of other industries that use the services of a Wood turner.

The vast majority of turning falls under the ‘between centres’ classification, eg the work piece is held in a lathe between two centres, one of which drives / rotates the work piece, a ‘tool’ then produces the shape. Quantity, quality and size will largely dictate how turnings are produced.

One offs, prototypes, very small batches, large components etc are usually turned by a skilled craftsman at a hand turning lathe using chisels, gouges, callipers and a keen eye. A skilled Wood turner can produce multiples of the same component that are identical to the naked eye. Hand turning, however skilled the turner, is inevitably slow, a large column might take several hours to produce.

The copy lathe offers the next step in output and competitiveness. These machines can produce a high output of very good quality / high definition components for a minimal outlay in patterns and setting. Sanding is usually carried out by hand between centres and so it is possible to achieve a standard of finish that is comparable to a hand turned component.

At the top end of the industry is the fully automatic lathe, which may use rotary tooling or profile tools to produce the shape. Although capable of very high output and a good quality finish these machines usually rely on machine sanding which will not always retain fine detail, so components need to be designed with this in mind. They require quite a large initial investment in tooling and setting.

The next classification of turning falls into ‘face plate’ work eg the work is attached on one side only to a face plate or drive to produce components like tops, bases, pattress that are largely disc like in profile and might require the face of the component to be worked (a wooden salad bowl for instance)

Again quantity, quality and size will dictate by which means face plate turnings are produced, ranging from hand to fully automatic means. There are also specialist machines for producing such items as furniture knobs, curtain rings etc.

Outside these two classifications there is a vast array of work that falls under the ‘turned’ banner.

Work can be turned on more than one centre or out of centre to produce interesting detail and effects, pad foot legs, back legs of chairs etc. Oval or multi sided turnings are used extensively in the tool handle industry. Square turning is a feature on early furniture. Asymmetrical turning produces such items as Queen Ann and cabriole legs for furniture, gunstocks or even prosthetic limbs before the development of modern lightweight materials.

Reeding and fluting is the addition of a moulded detail to the length of a turned component, this can be straight, tapered or can follow the profile of the component. Spiral work or twisting can be used to create impressive detail, ranging from a single start barley twist to a multi start rope type twist. Spirals can be right hand, left hand or a combination of both, straight, tapered or follow the profile of the turning. The detail can be machined on the surface or pierced to create open twists.

Furniture makers producing replicas of early furniture may require the inclusion of tool marks that would have been a hallmark of the crude machinery and tools used all those centuries ago. They may also want components turned in green wood so that they distort and split after turning.

Often turned components will require additional machining, which might include boring, routing, moulding, cutting or jointing. Woodfinishing is another service offered by many Wood turners.

These capabilities mean that the customer can receive a complete service from most BWTA members.

Although some timbers undoubtedly turn better than others and the majority of Wood turners will spend most of their time using the familiar Beech, Ash, Oak, Pine etc. there is a wide selection of lesser known timbers at the disposal of the Designer. Besides turning wood, the same principles can be applied to turn many other materials including Solid surface materials like Corian, plastics, alloys, MDF or a combination of materials.

Contact at an early stage with the BWTA can usually point the Designer or Buyer in the direction of the company most suitable for their particular project. BWTA members are always happy to offer advice and expertise in the early stages of development, which can often provide financial savings later on.

The BWTA has many thousands of years of combined experience and skill at its disposal and to ensure that this is passed on to future generations it is vital that we work closely with our customers to guarantee its continued prominence.


R. Pugh, former Secretary.