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Wood Turning in the Backwoods at the End of the World

by Mark Stephens | January 18th, 2010

In this guest blog post, Jim King takes on a tour, so to speak, of his turning shop down in Peruvian Amazon.  I hope you enjoy his humor and enlightening pictures from a fairly primitive set up.

– Mark Stephens

Typical of the woods and turnings

Typical of the woods and turnings

My tools are made of car springs, old files, wrench handles, a broken off machete...

My tools are made of car springs, old files, wrench handles, a broken off machete ....

Wood turning is one of the oldest crafts in the world and has been done with very primitive but creative tools.   Most of the world does not have the big boys’ toy stores for woodworkers as in North America, but woodworking still goes on all over the world.

A typical Amazonian turning shop is a little rough around the edges.  The electricity comes and goes and materials and tools may or may not be found.   One thing is very noticeable, and that’s no one complains.

I will show how wood turning gets done with tools that would be banned in many parts of the world.  The carpenter shop shown and described here was mine in the Upper Amazon of Peru.  Coming from a woodworking background where I had a sander for each problem and tools of any and all types I had to reinvent myself in the Amazon.   When you are in desperate need of a tool or machine to do a job and have a good bottle of rum to make the mind move, solutions just appear.

Here is a photo of my lathe and some of the tools.  The lathe was made of some pipe and iron from an oil company and cost almost $300 complete.  It works well but the head stock and tail stock are about ¼ inch from being aligned.  Amazing but that creates very little problem.   I don’t know how many RPMs it turns; the plate on the motor was missing as it was probably stolen somewhere along the line.  I would guess it to be about a five horse and it does go fast.

Enjoy the pictures and commentary.

HAPPY TURNING FROM THE JUNGLE

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This entry was posted on Monday, January 18th, 2010 at 6:27 pm and is filed under Tips and Tricks, Woodworking Projects. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • juanjo

    hey gringo Jim sigues en esto hasta cuando podras seguir engañando a la gente paga todas las deudas que tienes con la gente que trabajo contigo en la desaparecida empresa de San Juan por favor ya no sigas mintiendo a la gente.

    Juanjo

  • UGG

    I found this article useful in a paper I am writing at university. Hopefully, I get an A+ now!

    Thanks

    Bernice Franklin

  • pa

    you showed the turned wood being boiled? in what? and is that just for a certain kind of wood or do you do that for all wood. I have spoted a lot of old trees with larg bumps on them( while hunting and backpacking ) and as a novice turner I would be interested in the process. I have seen bowels crack I’m assuming that this keeps this from happening?

    • Jim King

      pa:

      I do not like to go thru the time and process of rough turning a beautiful peice of wood and then loosing it to a warp or crack. I boil everything I wish to finish.

      As I said above it is very simple. I put them in a big pot of water and boil for three or four hours. Let them cool in the water until the next day or the rapid change of temperature when removing them hot will crack them. Once they have cooled remove them and air dry them a few weeks and then if you choose put them near a heat source if necessary for final drying.

      Remember that the wood took many years to get as beautiful as it is so a few weeks to do it right is worth the time. The burls you mention seeing in the forest can have the most beautiful figure of all and are highly prized by turners.

      Build up a stock of blanks , rough turned drying bowls and ready to finish peices and the patience is a lot more manageable.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Jim sent me this PDF chart about boiling results with some of these Peruvian woods:
    BOILED-BLANKS-DRYING-SEQUENCE.pdf

    Another boiler for bowl blanks:
    BOILING_WOOD1.jpg

    • Jim King

      Mark:

      We made this from three barrels welded together. It went out to the jungle for boiling blocks of wood before bringing them to town. It took a lot of wood to keep it boiling when full and finally the village used it for sugar cane liquer. Just another of those great ideas that did not work. I could do a book on good ideas gone bad.

      It is much better to rough turn peices and then boil a few at a time.

  • Jim King

    Iw

    Here’s info about why to boil the wood

    http://www.woodturners.org/tech_tips/misc-pages/boiling.pdf

  • Ken H

    YES – Please tell us about curing the wood – I have a terrible time with some of the wood I try to cure before tuening (cottonwood, alder, and similar soft hardwoods) in the dessert of Washington.

    • Jim King

      Ken:
      There is not much to add to what I have said above about boiling. It has been a savior for me. The link I attached on the above post is quite long but it is good.

      Boiling will solve your problem. I have also pushed the wood after boiling in front of fans and then in a regular lumber kiln when I needed samples quick and had very few problems.

      • lw

        what link?

  • Jim King

    Rick:
    I had a lot of problems with drying my turnings and having them crack or warp. I sent several bowls as gifts to friends in the States and as an airplane is a big very dry tube they all cracked.

    After advice from several people on the internet I started experimenting with all types of witchcraft and whatever. Some said soak the rough turned pieces in denatured alcohol. Some said soak in liquid soap and on and on. We don´t have denatured alcohol here so that was out. I tried sugarcane liqueur but that was a failure and a waste of good stuff. Some one mentioned boiling the blanks so I tried it and it worked great.

    I rough turn the pieces to an inch or less and put it into the pot and boil it for three or four hours. I have forgotten them and boiled longer with no ill effects. The boiled blanks must set in the water until it is cool as taking them out hot makes them crack.

    After removing from the pot I put them in a pile in the corner and forget them for a two or three months and then finish drying them in a box dryer as shown to under 15% moisture content. When you touch the blank to your cheek and it does not feel cool it is ready. No question the oils come out but the color is not affected whatsoever.

    The result is a very light weight turning that is permanently stable and no worrying about it. If you prefer a glossy finish the boiled blanks are far superior to standard drying for getting a brilliant shine.

    Patience is the key to dry beautiful turnings.
    Here is a very good link to drying blanks .

    http://www.woodturners.org/tech_tips/misc-pages/boiling.pdf

  • Rick

    What is the purpose of boiling? I would think it would remove all the wood oils.

  • Jim Holt

    Very interesting story, amazing really. Thanks!

  • Drew

    Those woods are just stunning. Well worth the challenges to have ready access to such amazing stuff. Can you identify some of the species ? How about the 4 in the ‘Typical of the woods & turnings’ photo.

    • Jim King

      Drew:

      I am assuming you mean the photo with a couple of red ones and two others. From top to bottom the top one is bloodwood crotchwood which has red , orange, cream, yellow and sometimes black colors . Next down is normal bloodwood . The biggest one is a sub species of bloodwood that is called rainbow wood for its coloring, it is a beautiful wood but grows several hours down river so I have never had much. The light colored bowl is also bloodwood that grew on sandy soil , the soil type can affect the color of a species.

      • Jim King

        I should have also said that the bowl on the lathe being worked on is wide band Orange Agate (Platymiscium sp.) . There is another version of this family that looks identical to Cocobolo but holds its color well and does not darken and change color as Cocobolo.
        Neither does not cause allergic reactions as Cocobolo.

        The covered bowl in the bootom right hand corner is Dalmation . (Swartzia arborescens)
        . That peice was 12 ” tall and 12″ in dia..

        It took us several years in some cases to identify the species in order to export legally and not have problems.

        When we found the wood in the bottom left corner with the heart wood that looks like a rose I got all excited thinking we found a new species. (Rinorea guianensis) . After publishing our findings and waiting for results a scientist notified us that this wood was discovered in 1796 on the Javari River by a German explorer , the Javari is a border river between Peru and Brazil. At that time three people in the world had this wood in their collection. Now it has been sent all over the world.

        One time I offered $1000 for the first person to bring a black wood. I got all types of dark browns and one guy even took a peice from over where his wife cooked that was smoked black. One day a another showed up with a very small peice of crooked drift wood that was black but hard to tell if it was stain, burnt or black.

        It at least looked promising so up the river we went. A couple of days later we had the black wood . It is a small tree with the black heartwood averaging only 3 to 4 inches but it is black and stone hard.

        The majority of the unique species we found were discoverd in slash and burn and firewood areas. Those areas are like walking thru a wood museum.

        The world of Tropical wood identification is not an exact science by any means. Twenty years ago all was in order and then came the exchange of information on the internet and all the publishing of data. Now any given species can have dozens of scientific names. Over the last decades and centuries when there was little or no information exchange there were people in all areas of the Amazon and other areas discovering and naming what to them were new species.

        They did not know that there were other groups doing the same thing. The problem of multiple names still exists today.

        If you go to the USDA wood ID site in the “common name” area and type in a known wood such as bloodwood or purpleheart without a filling in the scientific name you will get an idea of the existing mess.

        http://www2.fpl.fs.fed.us/

        To sum the whole thing up we dont know much.

        • Harold Dominy

          Wonderful piece of information.
          Spent time in Northern Peru during WWII and Ecuador. Never go to return, but always wished I had made that return trip.
          Nice to have such a Talent.

  • Paul W

    Great job Jim, the pix and information is great. Where do the products end up, are they exported or stay local?

    • Jim King

      Paul:

      I sold a couple of turnings . I have a constant flow of politicians , educaters and others coming thru my office and they all leave with turnings. It is kind of like giving them a business card. My wife has turnings stored everywhere also.

      The turnings and furniture that has been made over the years was for photos to show the new woods I was promoting and then it turned into a fun hobby. I did make a complete canopy bedroom set out of a pink wood for our grandaughter in Wisconsin plus some turnings went with it. By the time she ever gets settled in it will be for the great grandaughter.

  • David Polinsky

    I have been to Jim & Patty’s previous and current residence and numerous shops on many occasions. There is no way to count the turtles or any species of animal for that matter. They leave no animal homeless, be they wild or domesticated. The only logger I’ve known who is truly 100% responsible. If it is large enough to carve, it gets vacuum sealed and shipped out for knife handles or a number of other purposes. I learn something new every time I go there. Last trip, about a month or 2 ago, I realized he used a few pages out of a Better Homes & Garden magazine for the blue prints for his new house. Damned if it didn’t look identical to the magazine. The page or blue prints were nailed to a 1/4 piece of plywood. If it weren’t Peru I’d think he was crazy. You have to spend time there to understand.

    Does that explain it Jim? Next time I’m down we will get the license to move the animals to better homes in the states. A win win situation for all.

    Dave P.

    • Jim King

      Muchas gracias Sr. Dave

  • Jim King

    My wife collects the endangered turtles from the markets. I have no idea how many we have.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Jim is this a real turtle in the background?
    3-ROUGH-TURNED-BATCH-OF-BLANKS-READY-TO-BOIL.JPG