Meet featured woodturning artist Tom King from Ireland. Learn about his passion for woodturning, inspirations, influences, and more. New woodturners, read to the bottom – Tom has some great advice for those just starting out!
Woodturner Tom King
Tell us about yourself:
This is where you can get personal if you wish. Where you live, about your home life, family, work experience etc… Tell us as much as you’d like! Now let me see. (Scratches my chin while I think!) Guess I could be best described as the “Fred Dibnah” of Bohérmeen! I’ve always had a fascination even at a very early age with everything mechanical and have a very healthy appreciation of old English metal & woodworking machinery that’s nowadays described as vintage, some of which are of the line shaft operated era. I was born and reared in the countryside, a small village called Bohérmeen with a farm upbringing where the call to tend to stock and farming chores was a daily duty. I remember days with my father where we trundled across fields on the little grey Fergie geared up with the big Homelite C52 chainsaw where the bitter cold on a frosty morning would soon turn to toasty fingers while processing firewood all be it by the swinging of a wood splitting axe. Those were the days where a stout heart was needed and a hardiness was developed that would stand later in life as I grew older.
I’m not afraid of work. I have been blessed with gifted hands. I could put my hand to almost anything and give a dam good account of it and feel good with the effort made. Back then, I was fascinated with woodcarving and wood-turning where upon leaving school, I found myself in a factory working my hands and learning the trade. Production woodcarver & turner where that experience was most valuable when upon my fathers passing, I set up shop at home and worked wood while keeping the farm ticking over.
I realized that technology was taking over the woodworking industry and the handcraft work has its limitations. So, I decided to go back studying engineering full time – agricultural engineering to be specific where that journey took 6 years. 3 years studying in Tralee, Co Kerry, and another 3 years at Harper Adams University in beautiful Shropshire. That effort was rewarded with an Honours Bachelors Degree and created a platform for a career in engineering.
That said, the woodworking is always very close to my heart where there is always a turning on a lathe and output is steady. 12 years ago I learned the hard way that steel & wood do not play well together where a workshop fire set me back where I literally had to start over again. Not a pleasant experience by any stretch but there’s no point in dwelling on it too much where the best remedy is to get it fixed and get back woodworking. The other side of the coin I very much enjoy metal working, blacksmithing and machine restoration work where ironically the burn down had nothing to do with the forge where the downfall was bad luck to a 9” angle grinder. I was most unlucky with a stray spark that entered an area of dried wood and the rest of course is history. 3 years ago I have started making again where it really is great to be back making.
There’s still work outstanding in the workshop but I have reached a point where I have output with turning & forge work where I just keep chipping away and keep adding to the finished projects collection. Married with a young family & a house build enters the equation where I’ve done most of the work myself on the house where the key here is a patient wife. Once Mrs King is happy everything falls into place. The kids are eager woodworkers with my eldest, Sarah; the 8-year-old has already a collection of eggcups to her name where she can call them her creations having undergone the careful tuition and guided hand from her Daddy.
Safety is paramount when it comes to the kids where everything is all worked with my guiding hands. It’s all encouragement at this stage when considering children & woodworking. You have to plant a seed even at this early age and get them thinking. Right now, focuses is on completing the house build and get the workshop sorted so I can explore new ideas with the turning & the blacksmith work. You have to keep shaking that tree and see what falls in the way of opportunity and see what doors open. Let the work do the talking.
What is your background and how/why did you get into woodturning?
My background; farm upbringing with a healthy appetite with old school mechanical. Design Engineer that works wood & steel where I have a fascination about wood turning that goes right back to a very early age. Its just a magical experience when you can see a finished turning in your mind before one even starts. One has to have a fruitful imagination where the outcome; in many instances, the turning turns out better than expected once finished!
What drives your passion for woodturning and who are your biggest influences?
I am a self-taught wood-turner. A passion for wood-turning began at the ripe young age of 9 where I remember back dismantling an old washing machine and salvaging the electric motor and breaking off the aluminium pulley with a hammer (guess I never knew of such thing as a pullers!), filling the shaft back with a hand file creating a very primitive but effective live drive and attaching the motor to a length of chipboard. The corresponding tailstock comprised of a nail that was hammered into the wood to be turned and plug in and away I turned! Creations of the day; simple spindle turnings using oak farm posts with the staples extracted as not to damage the one turning tool; an old English cabinet makers screw drive, again hand file creating a working edge! Humble beginnings and it was an honest start.
Progress was good and steady where that lathe was worked for many years where the next big milestone was to learn how to weld. Yes, a strange diversion but I had a strategy even back as a youngster where visions of a lovely lathe was paramount where the order of the day was to make one. I could never afford new. It made sense where a country workshop is heaving with goodies where a fruitful imagination and bit of effort, a lathe was made from odds and ends, lengths of steel that was lying around married together with an old gearbox from a Ferguson 20 tractor powered by a single phase 3hp motor, what a step up where this thing done a world of turning. The motor was fitted to the input shaft of the gearbox where the output to a stepped pulley arrangement. That meant for every gear of the gearbox including the reverse gear, the output was a multiple of the step pulley arrangement. That reverse gear was most useful when it came to sanding – Revolutionary!
Once again, that lathe served me very well for years where the world of work was complete. Having a mechanical mind is of huge help when it comes to lathe set up. I set a lathe up to suit me not the other way around. Turning wood is a magical experience where the magic is the testing of your ability and how you push the boundaries. When I view a wood, my mind evaluates on how and what shape best suits that particular slab or blank. I don’t make shavings for the fun of it. There’s no point in that. Simple shapes, smooth curve transitions and a good finished – that is paramount.
Influences; One man in particular struck a chord in my young career as a wood-turner where I still hold him in very high esteem although he has passed away many years ago, the great Peter Child senior [RIP] I purchased his book “The Craftsman Woodturner” and found that most helpful. I located a Myford ML8 lathe similar to what Peter used where I turned off projects for the best part of 20 years with no issue. A beautiful old lathe, mind you, my Myford received radical customization and is not exactly factory spec having spent many years modifying the set up the way I like it.
Do you have favorite species of wood, or favorite tools you like to work with?
Species of wood? Oh boy, that’s like asking do you have a favorite child! Ha! Well it’s very hard to say really. There are so many beautiful turning timbers where it is very hard to pick a favorite. So much variety with so much character where it depends on the size or the challenge you set yourself as a turner. I guess that’s how I’ll answer that.
Favorite tools? This is where I switch caps and can talk a little about the blacksmith work. I was handed some wood turning chisels as a gesture when I had the fire in the shop where I rarely use them. Some of my tooling is forged using old car coil springs and old lorry leaf springs. Spring steel can be forged into shape and ground, hardened and tempered to suite. A copper ferrule or polly adapter that once belonged to the plumbing section of a hardware store does quite nicely where handles take the shape of railway sleepers, turned, sanded & flame finished with a rub of beeswax.
A beautiful substantial turning tool can be made with little effort and for little money. There’s no comparison to a HSS verses high carbon steel heat-treated & tempered spring steel. It’s too easily to fall into the trap of buying the “must have” chisel.
Turning can become very expensive very quickly so one must work smartly. My favorite piece I must say is a well-sorted band-saw; my old Dominion, 1954 build that is set up for processing slabs or where edge prep is needed. Take the non-value added work away from the lathe and again work smarter. The lathe work should be a joy not a chore.
Is there one wood turned piece you’ve created for which you are particularly proud?
Yes, absolutely. I have completed a piece about two years ago, which consists of a number of elements, a combination of turning, carving & the blacksmith work. The piece denotes a ancient burial theme of the megalithic 5,000 year old burial sites of Loughcrew, Co Meath where the center piece is a 3,500 year old bog oak turning in the shape of a burial stone that was used to transport ashes of the cremated deceased into the next world.
A hand carved Irish Elm skull resembles a prehistoric individual is placed in the center and is a focal point as it were. A thought provoking piece some have described it and I would agree. Both these works stands on a turned Irish oak platter with murals taken from the burial cairn stones at Loughcrew, Carbáne East that adds a little character. Three murals are carved, the Sun, a calendar of sorts and lastly, a mural of 4 individuals placed in a sea going vessel, a carving that is believed to be one of the oldest murals with human depiction in the western world; how fascinating. All of this work stands on a plinth of twisted mild steel where a forged spherical ball denoting the sun is fixed mid section, a resemblance of the Equinox, a celebration of summer light, the ending of the long dark nights.
I very much enjoyed putting this together and I consider this my best work for sure. It certainly stimulates a very interesting conversation on how Ireland must have looked like 5,000 years ago. Its asks the question, and does so with abundance.
How did you develop your woodturning/woodworking career?
You have to shake the tree and see what falls. My priority is getting the studio & the workshop set up as best I can. One key aspect of turning is the set up. Get that right and a process stands half a chance of a reasonable to good output where there’s satisfaction with that at the very least. I turn when I can and just keep chipping away.
How do you seek out or find professional opportunities?
I don’t. Not yet anyway. I’ve too much on my place at present where focus is getting the studio, machinery and the workshop fixed up so I have a decent to good platform. All a little messy at the minute where set up & process is taking to long. I need to sort this.
How have you built your brand and cultivated a loyal customer base?
I’ve set up an Instagram account where I basically add finished turned work with a little description describing each piece. Nothing too fancy where my focus is just building a portfolio of work where I guess Instagram is a good platform. Customer Base; nice idea and that will happen over time, such things take time and you have to be patient. What’s for you, will not pass you. I am a believer in that saying.
What is the biggest challenge or biggest thing missing from your woodturning career?
Getting back on my feet after a workshop fire. No question, a test for my mental & physical strength where I recon I’ve come out the other side a better worker. Certainly puts things in perspective where no one was hurt, most important, and secondly; things can be fixed, where I have fixed them, even better than before. So, I’m back on the horse that bolted me. Looking up & looking forward where there’s so much to look forward on how wood-turning can & will reward effort!
What would you say to new woodturners?
Do you have any words of wisdom for those just getting into the craft? You have to creep before you walk. Don’t punch above your weight regarding wood-turning ability or you’ll get nabbed and wood-turning will bite. When it bites, its not a pleasant experience and it will upset your confidence and that’s a negative. It can take time to get confidence back so turn within your ability. It’s most important you get off on the right foot with good safe turning practice where it weeds out potential bad or dangerous habits at the outset but realize that what you can be shown by an experienced turner are only guidelines where what suites one wood turner may not necessarily suit another. You have to find that out for yourself what works for you by trying different techniques.
I am a firm believer in that being self-thought. What works for me, works for me, lathe height, ballast, custom tool rest, tooling, lighting etc. Set up is critical, good lighting, good posture and a reasonable to good tool suite.
Practice grinding but be very careful. Many wood turners demonstrate grinding exercise only feet away from a lathe where there’s a shaving build up and that’s a recipe for disaster. Never do that. Sharpen or grind in the morning, never ever in the evening. You have more of a chance keeping an eye on the grind area or station during the day rather than late evening. It just takes one rouge spark to settle and cause a fire so nip that in the bud at the very outset.
Wear correct PPE paying special attention to eye, ear & lung protection. Create an atmosphere into which you surround yourself and protect yourself where good PPE can add to the enjoyment where concentration is sustained and there is no battle with noise, flying wood-chip or dust contamination. Good PPE allows good wood-turning where concentration is not diluted and focus results in enjoyment and superb project work & finish. It does work. Above all, enjoy!
Wood-turning is a therapy! Use it as such. Switch on a lathe and enter a zone of unhindered pleasure, a self-content where upon the shavings fly, the turn of a chisel can generate simple to complex form that can be spell bounding and most satisfying. You will be rewarded! Good luck & thanks for reading!
Follow Tom on Instagram here: @TomKing001
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