Article: Mike Lee Demonstration, April 2012

May 24, 2012 12:12, submitted by Tucker Garrison (author: Bob Gunther, photos by Tina Collison)

April 14, 2012 – Demonstration

Mike Lee


Mike Lee was Hawaii born and raised. He is an avid surfer and waterman. He draws much of the inspiration for his woodcarving from the ocean. He is an excellent and patient instructor and demonstrated and taught at some of the American premier schools and as far away as New Zealand. He last demonstrated at CMW in June, 2003.

Mike’s work is in the permanent collections of the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, the State Foundation of Culture and Arts, the Hawaii State Art Museum, Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Contemporary Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, Arkansas Arts Center, and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts as well as numerous private collections around the world. He has been a featured demonstrator at several national woodturning symposiums and has taught at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.

Morning Session:

Mike began his demo with a slide show depicting his work. His first exposure to woodturning was in high school. Unfortunately, in Hawaii there were no hobby classes or woodturning clubs so he was self-taught. He did a work studies tour at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts which greatly improved his woodturning knowledge and skill. He began his professional turning career in 1990 making traditional round bottom Calabash bowls. Most of Mike’s work is small. One can easily hold it in one’s hands.

Following Mike’s Arrowmont experience, he began to make sculptural pieces. Sea fossils inspired much of his work giving him ideas for both form and texture. When working on a particular design, he makes a series of pieces. This permits him to alter his design as the series progresses. Starfish, crabs, octopi and lava fields also provide inspiration for his designs. His wife and three children provide inspiration for his work. During the economic downturn he began working in a saw mill doing re-sawing, veneer cutting and other activities. He continues to work full time beside doing his creative work.

After Mike’s slide presentation he made a Calabash bowl. He placed a blank of 10” wide and 5” thick poplar between centers. He does not lock down the live center so he knows how much pressure it exerts on the piece. His bowl gouge is ground at 25 degrees. He began shaping the piece on the tailstock end and formed a tenon. Mike hones his gouge frequently.

Mike used a small 1/4 inch gouge to define the tenon shape. He removed the piece from between centers and placed it in a Stronghold chuck. The outside of the bowl was further shaped. For safety reasons, Mike brought up the tailstock. He flattened the top surface of the bowl and developed the outside Calabash shape. Mike turns uphill (small to larger diameter) to prevent tear-out.

He uses a shear cut to achieve the best surface possible before sanding. For the final surface off a tool, he uses a long swept back bowl gouge. This is his shear scraper and, when sharp, it produces a very nice surface. Again, he hones frequently during the process. When shear scraping, he slows the lathe speed.

He removed the tailstock and began hollowing. At home Mike cores out his bowls to better utilize his available wood. Mike used his 25 degree bowl gouge for hollowing. He did it in a step wise fashion from smaller to larger diameters. Mike continued the hollowing process using a bevel rubbing technique from the outside diameters toward the bottom of the piece. For finishing cuts he used the 1/4 inch gouge.

To turn the bottom of the inside he used a short, double bevel gouge with about a 40 degree bevel angle. The second bevel helps to get into the bottom because it removes some of the heel of the bevel. Mike left the wall approximately 1 inch thick. It would be stored for 6-8 months and then turned again. Mike uses Anchor Seal to treat both the inside and outside of the piece during the drying process. This completed the rough turned Calabash bowl and the morning session.

Afternoon Session:

Mike began the session showing his Foredom micromotor rotary carver and his flexible shaft Foredom tool. All the burrs he uses are from machine shops where their purpose is to cut steel. They are available from MSC and Carbide Connection. Treeline carries a wide selection of carving burrs.

Next Mike used a pre-turned piece of Koa wood and laid out a design using a Sharpie pen. Mike used a flexible shaft tool to remove areas surrounding the design areas or to raise them up. When using any of the aggressive burrs, one should use the thumb to support the tool. This will provide both accuracy and safety. Then he used a double cut burr to further define the shape and improve the surface. Then he used an inverted taper Aluma-Cut burr to produce detail. To further define the shape of the carving, Mike used a double cut inverted taper in the micromotor tool.

He did the stippling using a small ball cutter. He used a larger burr to stipple a larger, more pronounced pattern. Before doing any of the final surface finishing, completely carve and sand the piece. It is possible to remove any burned areas produced while texturing or carving during the sand and glass bead blasting. It is possible to use a double cut pointed tree burr when smoothing the surface, especially around the detailed area.

One can use curved carving knives (Kestrel Crooked Knives) to slow carve an area giving one plenty of time and control to plan one’s work and think about the process. Use rubber forms in various shapes (tadpoles) covered with sandpaper to sand areas after carving.

It is possible to produce a pimpled surface on a sanded area by using a spring loaded punch. This produces indentation in the wood. Mike learned this technique from Tucker Garrison. Then Mike finished the surface down to the bottom of the dents. The piece is then steamed for 3 minutes. Each dented area pops up producing the pimpled surface. Each species of wood reacts differently to this process. The very hard woods are more difficult to achieve this effect. It is also possible to produce a hammered surface by using an engraver in a random pattern.

Once Mike completed sanding the surface, he often uses sand, and glass bead blasting to produce the final surface. The bags used to contain the sand while blasting can be Shop Smith or Jet plastic dust collection bags. Mike uses red garnet sand for blasting and then finishes up with the glass beads.

Hollowing: Mike initially used a square edged cutter. It is quite aggressive. Then he uses a Stuart hook tool. The angle of the hook tool cutter needs to be adjusted depending on where on the interior wall one is cutting. To achieve the final surface one should switch to the broad curved portion of the cutter. This will give a shear scrape. To do the bottom of the vessel one should rotate the cutter so that it is straight with the shaft of the tool. Mike does most of his hollowing by feel and not by sight.

For finishing his Calabash bowls Mike uses a heavy coat of Liberon Oil immediately followed by a coat of wax. He allows this to sit overnight. Then apply a second coat – allow it to sit overnight- then apply a third coat and again allowed it to dry overnight. Mike then uses a Bealle type buffer wheel mounted on a mandrel. He uses Hut wax to charge the wheel which runs about 2000 rpm.

When finishing carved pieces, Mike uses no wax in the process. After the first coat, Mike blows off the oil with a compressor. Use the compressor after oiling a section of the piece – not the entire piece. This prevents the oil from getting too tacky to blow off.

This completed a very interesting and informative demo. A DVD will be available in the CMW Library in May 2012.

Bob Gunther