Article: Clay Foster Demonstration, May 2012

May 24, 2012 12:20, submitted by Tina Collison (author: Bob Gunther, photos by Tina Collison)

Clay Foster Demonstration, May 19, 2012


Clay Foster has been a woodworker almost all his life, beginning when he was big enough to hold a hammer. He has been a woodturner for the past 25 years. He is a founding member and past vice-president of the American Association of Woodturners and currently serves on the Board of Governors of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. He has work in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Yale University, and the Arkansas Art Center. He has demonstrated and taught at schools and conferences in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand. He last taught for CMW on September 19, 2009. He currently maintains Harmony Studio with his wife Jennifer Shirley in Indianapolis, Indiana. More information is available at Clay Foster's website.

Clay feels the focus of attention for much of contemporary woodturning is on precision, exactness, and perfection. He has chosen instead, in his more recent works, to celebrate irregularities, causal execution and spontaneous design. He feels that this style is more reflective of his own life than an orderly, controlled and methodical direction. Clay feels that life is not clean, direct, and predictable. It is messy, serpentines, and interrupted by cracks and voids. Sometimes the resolution of problems is a wonderful shift into a new pattern. Sometimes it is an abrupt change, with mismatched seams and obvious repairs. Sometimes there are problems that are impossible to be resolved, only endured. But through it all there is a rhythm, a cadence, a suspending and preserving of the beat. The pattern evolves, but the cycle continues, as we wind our way upward through life.


Clay Foster began his demo turning a multi-axis vessel. He placed a 5”x5”x8” green, black cherry piece between centers and roughed it into a cylinder. Clay formed a tenon on the tailstock end. The tenon was sized so that the jaws did not extend out past the chuck body when holding the piece. The tenon will be at the bottom of the vessel. The vessel was then shaped using a swept back bowl gouge that Clay grinds by hand and does not use a jig. With a jig he cannot get the flat swept back sides of the gouge that permits him to take significant cuts when roughing out the vessel shape and get a good final surface using the tool in the shear scrape mode.

Once shaped, he cleaned up the surface using a bevel rubbing cut. The control surface of the gouge is the bevel edge. Once shaped, he drew a line on the piece from the top to the bottom using the tool rest as a gauge. [see right photo] He drew a second line on the opposite side. The lines connected at the ends. This line permitted the second axis to be at the same relative location at each end of the piece. Clay placed the piece on a second axis at each end so that the piece remained balanced. He also adjusted it between centers so that the space between the wood and the tool rest was about the same as the piece rotated. This permits the entire surface to be turned. Then he formed a flat surface around the vessel in preparation for further surface enhancement.

He used a bead scraper to form the beads on the previously flattened area. The tool Clay used was a semicircular cutter (concave) [see left photo.] He presented the tool at less than 90 degrees to the wood and advanced it until he formed a complete bead profile. With this tool each bead is identical in size and shape. [See center photo] To sharpen the tool Clay used a band saw sharpening wheel he shaped to the concave shape of his bead cutter. A #2 Morse Taper mandrel held the wheel in the headstock. After forming the beads, Clay removed the piece from the off center axis and placed the tenon back in the chuck. [See right photo]

It is possible to sand the beads carefully by hand if necessary before taking the piece out of between the centers used in forming them. When placed back on the chuck one needs to be sure the piece is running true before doing further turning. The piece was then further shaped especially on the top end where the opening will be for the hollowing process. Clay used a cabinet scraper to clean up the outside surface of the piece (not where the beads are).

Clay began hollowing the vessel using a 3/16 inch round nose scraper held in the end of a boring bar. The angle of the cutter is adjustable. Clay set the tool rest so that the cutting edge of the cutter was on the center line. Clay did some hollowing but did not want to bore us all using the boring bar for any extended time. Clay shoots for a º inch wall thickness. One must be careful to not make the wall so thin that when one gets to the beads one goes through the wall. One also has to consider that the wall thickness changes because of the 2nd axis turning. Thus, one needs to check wall thickness all the way around the vessel and not in just one area. It will definitely change from one area to another. Double ended calipers will let one measure at any point.

Now, pretending it was all hollowed, Clay removed the piece from the chuck and held a piece of scrap wood against the chuck with the tailstock. Clay turned a tenon to fit the chuck jaws. He placed the tenon in the jaws and turned another tenon to fit the top of the vessel as a jam chuck. The tenon fit so that it entered the opening of the top. It had a slight taper. After bringing up the tailstock, Clay shaped and cleaned up the base of the vessel. He formed a flat area on the bottom. Then he used a smaller gouge to reduce the size of the nub in the center. He turned it as small as possible and then broke it off. Normally, Clay leaves the center on the bottom so that, after drying, he can place the piece back between centers and do final sanding on the non-beaded areas.

Clay noted that if you are using more than two centers or axes you should devise some method of keeping track of what you did and where you did it on the piece so that it can be duplicated if needed. This completed the off-center hollow form and the morning session. [See left photo below]


Clay Foster began the afternoon session with a slideshow depicting the sources of inspiration for much of his work. One of these is ancient architecture. He also showed examples of his work using the above inspirations. He sees something interesting in an object or scene and tries to incorporate it into his pieces. He favors objects that appear old, used and repaired.

He continued the afternoon session showing various surface treatments. [See right photo above] The first was using egg shells. The inner membrane on an egg shell needs to be removed. The use of vinegar can aid in its removal. The wood on which to glue the eggshell pieces needs to be dry. It is possible to use Titebond glue for this step. Organically produced eggs have thicker shells and are easier to use. Do not overlap the shell pieces when gluing them to the wood. Vary the spaces between the shell pieces. Clay set aside the piece he worked on in the demo to allow it to dry.

While the glue was drying on the egg shell piece, Clay began a decorative process using fine, carved lines. He used a board. He drew a design on the surface and used a V-shape reciprocating carving tool to cut in the previously drawn lines. [See left photo below]

Then the entire piece was painted with a background color (white.) Clay used milk paint. After the paint dried, Clay sanded off the brush strokes. Then using Speedball printers ink a roller was charged, and it was rolled across covering everything except the carved design. [See center photo above] The ink is the final surface or finish. He also showed a sample of various designs created using this technique. [See right photo above].

By now the glued egg shell pieces were dry. The surface was sanded with 220 grit paper. He did this by hand and not on the lathe. Then he filled the surface with acrylic molding paste (pink) [See left photo below] Liquitex Brand or Golden Brand. The paste is white and can be tinted with any color. He spread this over the shell pieces, then wiped it off and let it dry. He will continue working on this later in the demo.

Clay then turned to using mud. He starts with dry dirt, strains it to get all the larger particles out and then mixes it with water so that the mix is like cake icing. It should not be thin enough to run. Clay placed the slurry in a squeeze bottle, such as a mustard bottle, and the desired pattern was squeezed out onto the wood surface. [See center photo above] Then the entire area was burned with a butane torch. The more one burns the surface the more raised the mud covered details become. Then Clay cleaned the surface with a wire brush revealing the pattern or design where the mud was. [See right photo above] After the piece cooled a sealer was sprayed on.

Another surface treatment was to the burn the wood, wire brush the soot off and sand it smooth. A flat sealer (Velspar) was then sprayed on so that any residual soot would not rub off. He used molding paste with a retardant (Liquitex) to keep it from drying too fast. This was rubbed on the burned surface to highlight the surface texture.

Other techniques to create surface treatments include using an engraver, a reciprocating carver, or a wood burner. These all create a pattern. The wood can then be dyed, and molding paste rubbed into the carved pattern.

The previously glued egg shell pieces were again sanded with 220 grit. It is possible to apply the paste filler again to fill in any low spots and thus give a smooth finish. Allow this to dry and then sand again. Apply a hard paste wax as the final finish.

The previously burned mud pattern then had a dark brown shoe polish applied and was hand buffed.

Next Clay showed samples of his decoupage techniques. [See left photo above] Clay crumpled up a thin piece of paper, unfolded and re-crumpled it, and unfolded it again. He thinned some yellow glue with water. He applied the glue to the paper and placed the paper on the wood surface. He pressed it on and let it dry. [See right photo above] To get color all the way through the decoupage surface one can color the glue before applying it to the wood and paper. Apply any type of finish over the paper when the glue dries. Do not use oil based finishes.

When doing any of the above techniques it is best to leave the tenon on the piece until the last possible moment so that it is possible to do lathe work at any time.

This completed an enjoyable and interesting demonstration.

A DVD will be available in the club library in July 2012.

Written by Bob Gunther.


Examples of Clay Foster’s techniques on Sample Turned Forms:

Multi-axis hollow beaded sample vessel by Clay Foster [Left photo]

Carved, painted, inked sample vessel by Clay Foster [Center photo]

Eggshells applied and filled technique on sample vessel by Clay Foster [Right photo]

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