Article: Mark Sfirri Demonstrates For Carolina Mountain Woodturners, October 15, 2016

October 18, 2016 15:34, submitted by Tina Collison (author: Ross Lynch, photos by Tina Collison)

Mark Sfirri demonstrates for Carolina Mountain Woodturners, October 15, 2016

Mark Sfirri comes to us from Newtown, PA. He is an artist and has been a teacher for 36 years at Buck County Community College. He is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He is an artist with an interest in wood architecture-generally, not just furniture making. He is not into round symmetrical objects and his signature work is “Rejects from the Bat Factory” (one display in the Minneapolis Institute of Art and another owned by the Smithsonian Institute). This work was inspired by his son asking for a hollowed end baseball bat. His first demonstration for CMW was in 2004.

Mark has kindly provided several handouts on his turning tool profiles, instructions on how to turn his type of candlestick and turning the pad foot. Links to these handout are on the right side of this page.

Attached is a copy of the first article about Mark's wood art in the AAW Journal from June 1993:

The first part of the morning demonstration was a slide display of his work and evolution. This was recorded on his demonstration DVD available in the CMW Library. He does straight turning and curves and multi-axial. An example is the “inch worm bat”. Part of the process is to draw a straight bat then cut and reassemble to figure where it needs to be flat. He makes figurines, pieces from 8 to 10 inches up to 6 feet. He showed a short video of a large piece spinning on the lathe to emphasize the importance of being sure wood is very secure on the lathe. Another example was a work called Madonna and Child. These were multi-axial “bowling pin” shapes turned on 3 different axes. He frequently will make a form for the sake of a form and then figure out what to do with it. He makes some furniture occasionally and has applied the multi-axial candle stick concept for table legs. He will frequently make a construct out of clay first so he will know how it will turn out. He used this concept in his “French bread” pieces while in France. Occasionally he will make miniatures first and often will use cheap wood to try a new project before using special wood. His works also include whimsical hunting trophies and columns with spheres and carving for functional items like coat racks.

After this review Mark started to turn wood. First he showed us a split turning on a piece of 3x3x8 inch wood which was made by having glued together, with paper in between, two 3x1-1/2x8 inch pieces. (Any paper other than wax paper will do for the paper interface). He pointed out that the grind on all his tools for spindle work are ground at 32 degrees. He stands with his feet shoulder width apart so that he can easily shift his weight. To be good you have to know how to sharpen tools and turn blind--meaning to watch the profile not the tool. There are 3 types of spindle gouges: standard (with a fairly deep flute), detail and the shallow detail (see Handout links, upper right.) He prefers the detail gouge at 32-degree grind. He also tapers a small radius and explained his shape and profile (see Handout links, upper right.) He also uses a bowl gouge-5/8 inch shaped like his spindle gouge. His roughing gouge is a 1.25 inch also with a 32-degree grind.

Mark emphasized the need to get good at doing coves, beads, and straight lines. He also explained shape as two dimensional and form as three. He used the detail gouge for half beads and the roughing gouge to shape the cove. To deepen the cove, he changes to the detail gouge. He explained how to keep the cutting part of the roughing gouge perpendicular to the wood for smooth even non-catching cuts. While discussing all this he had used a spring punch to mark the center point of this glued block of wood and placed it between centers. He turned coves towards each end and a bead in the center. He then took the piece off the lathe and split it in half thru the paper interface. He remounted the piece between centers again at the midpoint of the diameter. He marked in dark ink where he wanted to cut making the thick areas thin and leaving the thin areas now thick.

Another technical point is that he used a contrasting color(cloth) on the ways and a panel behind the lathe to contrast with the wood so he can see the shape. Black for most wood, white for dark woods. He will also put gaffer black matte tape on the banjo. You must learn to touch not rub the bevel for this “interrupted cut” (air-cut). This takes very light cuts. After turning this on two center he had a pleasing form with a flat back-can be used as trim. If you do the same process with four (4) pieces of wood instead of two (2) you will get pieces with two flat sides instead of one.

The next project was to show us how to make a reject bat. Mark demonstrated the ball passing through the bat. He first took the rectangle of wood (he suggest start small-ie: 2x2x12) and showed us on the ends how to mark your centers. This is multi-axial with parallel center so the off-set is enough to leave a bump to create the passed thru ball. Be sure the entire cup center is in the wood. Mount between center in the non-centered axis and make a partial cylinder, leaving the high point for the ball. You can mark the end of the piece to give you a guide how far is safe to go without messing up the project. As the piece becomes balanced you can turn up the speed which makes the interrupted cuts easier.

Mark where you want the ball and with the bat sort of round make a SOFT bead while roughing in the shape of the bat. Now go to axis #2 which is the center (of original piece of wood) and cut the cove. You are at the bulge so you can be close to the wood. Make a symmetrical cove. He starts with a bowel gouge because it is less “grabby”. Do very light cut always downhill with the grain. The cove needs to be center at center of the bead and also a little wider than the bead.

Now go back to axis one and use the detail gouge to round the ball bump. Go to the ends of the bat and cut hard beads. Leave 3/8 inch of wood on each end. For beads you bring the handle of the tool from 6 to 3 and 6 to 9 positions. For the hard bead you need to straddle the leg of the lathe and continue the handle further around. To continue to shape the bat use a metal rule to be sure the handle side of the ball is approx. 1/8 inch narrower than the end side of the ball. He did show at this point techniques to steady the tool and the wood to decrease vibration. For sanding he suggested paper backed floor sanding paper starting at 100 grit up to 220. It holds it shape and will keep you from rounding the cuts. If the cuts were not clean enough he talked of using rasp. He suggested Auriou French rasp or rasp. The French are best but more expensive. After sanding narrow the “tenons” on the end and remove from the lathe. Use a Veritas Japanese pull cut saw to remove the stems. Safe handling of chisel or carving tool for finishing the ends was discussed. Basically a small amount of the end of the chisel is held by the finger and a pivot cut is used. do not have the holding hand above the cut level!


After lunch Mark showed how to make a series of spheres on a 2x2x6 inch piece of wood. He showed two methods of making templates. one a round piece sized by a compass. You make as many as you need for the size wood and then use thin sign plastic and rub it on a made sphere. It will melt and create a template so you can be sized and shaped symmetrically. A tip was to start slightly football shaped. Then you can bring them into final form.

Next Mark made the Squiggle. He uses a rectangle 1-7/8x1-3/8. He then drew a centerline and two more at 1/3 of the diameter. The lines are drawn on the parallel. The cup centers need to be completely on the wood. Mark one end with an H for headstock. From diameter end to end number the axis as 1-3-2. Now put between centers at axis 1-1 and begin rounding. Mark the end so you don’t turn away too much and lose your cup center points. Use very straight grain wood for this. Burls will break.

Now remount on 2-2 axis. Once turned it will be football shaped. Mark the wood cut and a cove -bead-cove. Remember if you get a catch the first move is to drop the handle. Now re-mount the piece back on axis 2-2. It is counter-intuitive but at this point, turn bead-cove-bead to make the thick part thin and the thin parts thick. Now re-mount again on “true” center 3-3 axis. Cut where the cove is going up and the bead is going down at ends to finish the form. If making a figurine shape a head at one end and a stand on the other.

The next project that Mark demonstrated was an offset angled rolling pin. Start by drawing a rolling pin on a piece of paper. Draw a center line from handle to handle. Cut off the handles and then cut the body in half. Tape the body pieces back together. Match up to look bent or to look offset move center line. Tape the handles back on in the center lines. We now have 3 sets of axis. 1-1 is half the rolling pin. 2-2 is the other half. 3-3 is the handles. Now you can cut the blank into a rough template. Mount between centers and turn 1-1 axis for half the rolling pin. On the part that is sticking out proud place a “flag” of tape to help you keep your hands and arms out of the way.

Sand each axis as it is turned. Now do axis 2-2, the 2nd half of the rolling pin. Use calipers to be sure both sides are equal diameter. If they are new calipers, file the points round so they won’t catch. They are for comparison not measuring. Now mount on axis 3-3. To turn the handles cut down into the wood at the bottom of the handle with a detail gouge and finish with the roughing gouge. Take off the end stems as you did on the other projects.

The final project of the day was Mark’s famous candle sticks (see handout link on right side of the page.) A good size is a 3-3/8x 3-3/8x12 inch piece of wood. On the end place a center line across the square. Leave enough room for the cup center and then 3/8” over you need to drill a 7/8’ x1” hole. The hole needs to be perpendicular to the axis. To drill the hole, clamp the blank to a piece of 3x6 and angle until lined up. Then drill the hole on the drill press. You will need to make a plug that is relatively tight that will bottom out in the hole. You will need this later and will need the center point of this plug, otherwise the candle hole may be too thin or thick on one side. You want a large bottom and a center disc.

Submitted by Ross D. Lynch

Thank you Mark for your entertaining and masterful demonstration for the club. ED.

Link to Mark Sifirri's demonstration in 2004: