Making a small bowl

If you've made some spoons and wanted to try a bowl, these small ones are a good place to start.  They are possible with a more limited tool set and are not too demanding like a large bowl can be.  The end product is perfect for holding rings or keys, or for dip, sauce, etc. 

This is an overview of my process for my small side bowls.  It is not the only way to do this and is not meant to be comprehensive instructions.  In particular, if you're using this to guide your own project, please seek out, understand, and follow all needed safety practices.

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Stock prep and layout

These work best when your stock is large enough for 2-4 bowls; this allows for easier workholding.  I also prefer to plane the face flat, but that's definitely not necessary. 

For shape, I like the look of ellipses, plus they are easier to carve than circles.  There are many great guides for drawing ellipses with string, nails, and dividers.  French curves are also great.  I lay out an outer line, inner rim, and center mark.  I like the rim thickness to be greater on the ends than sides.  If you prefer a template, you can find it here.  

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Tools and work holding

Beyond basic spoon carving tools, a bent gouge or two is useful for this bowl and an adze is a bit overkill.  You could do a bowl this size with only a hook knife, but be patient.  I also use a large drill bit to get things started.

For my medium bowl, an adze will definitely get you going faster.  I first swing the adze, but then use it with a mallet, similar to a gouge.  

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Holding the work can be the most challenging part of bowl making.  The method I use most is a twin-screw vise through my workbench.  I also use a standard woodworking vise.  I've also seen straps and wedges on a chopping block with some sort of step in them.  Get creative and search around for something that suits you.  

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Depth

When I started, getting the right depth was always a chore for me.  I tended to have bottoms that were way too thick.  I started drilling a depth hole and that greatly improved things, plus it made starting the hollowing much easier.  At this stage, I aim to leave a heavy 1/2" of material under the hole.

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Hollowing

Using a gouge and mallet, work around the depth hole and progressing outward. 

 

The hand with the mallet is the engine; the hand on the gouge steers, aiming for a fair curve from rim to base. 

Stop when you're within 1/4" of the rim and you're about to erase the mark of the drill's spur on the bottom.

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Paring

Now, you can put down the mallet and use the gouge for paring.  If you have a gouge with a more shallow sweep, you can use that.  

Work right up to the line at this point, and erase the drill marks on the bottom.

Use your whole body to push the blade.  It's more about your shoulders, abs, and body weight than your hands, wrists, and biceps.  

 

You can also use a hook knife or twca cam at this point, if you like.

For final volume, the small bowl holds about 1/2 c (120 ml) and the medium about 1 c (240 ml).

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Saw & axe

Now, free the bowls!  Saw them apart with a pruning saw, turning saw, or bandsaw.

Bring your rim centerlines around to the bottom and layout a small, circular base.  

If you have a bandsaw, first follow the rim with the table at 90, then progressively tilt the table, checking wall thickness and be sure to stay away from your base layout.  You can alternatively leave the two together and axe the ends before separating them, for a little easier axe work. 

However you saw, follow up with axe work.  Be careful, this is a small bowl and there's no handle to hold onto.  Aim for a pleasing curve from base to rim more than wall thickness.  You can follow up one more time with the gouge on the inside to get to final thickness.

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Smooth & thickness

After the axe, smooth the outside with whatever tools you have & like.  I normally use a drawknife and then spokeshave.  A sloyd knife will work, as would a block plane.  

If you're happy with the wall thickness at this point, you're all set.  If things seem a little thick, go back to the inside and pare things down.  On a bowl this size, I aim for around 8mm thick sides and closer to 10mm on the ends. 

Check bottom thickness as well, but leave a little more meat than you'd think.  If the bowl warps in drying, you need some thickness to get back to flat and not have a wobbly bowl.

None of this has to be exact; I almost never measure.  I just pinch the bowl thickness between two fingers to judge things and find irregularities.  

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Dry, finish, decorate

Dry the bowl slow enough not to crack but fast enough not to grow mold.  I have the best luck in my shop burying the roughed bowls in a box of woodchips.  It's dry enough when it stops losing weight or when your moisture meter says so.​

Flatten the bottom, smooth the rim, and then go over the whole bowl with finishing cuts.  Use your tools of choice -  knives, gouges, or spokeshaves.   ​

I tend to decorate with texture, but paint, chip carving, kolrosing, or other methods are perfect as well.  The simple shape is really a blank canvass.

Have fun!

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Send me questions, comments, and pictures of your finished bowls via email or @mattpday on Instagram. 

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