Woodturning is known to have been practiced for literally thousands of years. Pictures of woodturners have been found on the walls of the pyramids of Egypt, turning wood in much the same manner as we do today. One would thing that with such a long history might be little that has changed in the field in recent years. However, there have been at least three major changes in the last half century in the wood turning world of art and craft.
The first thing to change the way in which we turn wood has been the advances in metallurgy and the effect this has had on the woodturner’s tools. Turning tools have progressed not so much in shape as in the material from which they are made. For centuries they have been produced by the village smithy and later in large factories from high carbon tool steel. This is famous for getting and keeping a sharp edge for tools such as plane blades and chisels but does not work so well for most wood turning tools.
A tool edge at the lathe is likely to take far more use and abuse in a few minutes than many other edged tools take in hours of work. High speed steel is now used for most tools at the wood lathe. It retains an edge much longer and is quick to sharpen at the grinder. It may not be as sharp as high carbon steel but it gets sharp enough to do the job and holds an edge long enough to allow concentration for the work at hand.
Second was a move away from strictly utilitarian turning into the art work of today. This meant the development of new tools and new techniques as well as the recovery of some lost ones. Much has been made of the similarity between modern wood lathe forms and those of potters through the years. This has been couple with the advent of new and stronger adhesives as well as sophisticated cutting tools to bring about segmented turning. In this form of work various types of woods with varied colors and grains are glued together to form beautiful multifaceted works.
Third has been the invention of the four jaw chuck to hold wood to the lathe.
While there have been many ways of holding wood on the lathe, the four jaw, self centering chuck has enabled even novice woodturners to easily mount work that would have been complicated to deal with a few years ago.
It needs to be emphasized that even with these developments, it really has been innovation and imagination that have powered the change in wood turning to bring it to where it is today. When these have been coupled with the vision of many suppliers to produce tools and additions for the growing world of home turners it has resulted in a new world of woodturning.