If you do a lot of work with plain lumber, ie. pine 2×4’s, etc. you know that when you cut pieces on the saw you can get a faint odor of pine. However, in the woodturning world you seem to get a much wider variety of smells and since we’re often working in green wood, that sensation is sometimes very strong.
What triggered this blog post is that last week I turned lignum vitae for the first time and I was really struck by the very sweet, almost perfume-like odor that pervaded my shop for days. The turning was only a small ornament finial
This was a new smell for me, but certainly not the first wood species that has dominated the shop. Northeast Florida has such a wide variety of great hardwoods for turning and one of my favorites is camphor. Camphor was commonly used as a moth repellent and it almost becomes a woodturner repellent as well. While not an unpleasant smell it is so strong when turned green that my eyes nearly water. Whenever I turn camphor, the scent will hang around for weeks. It’s a great wood though, since it often has wonderful grain patterns, as evidenced in this platter.
Of course, everyone is familiar with cedar and there’s lots of aromatic cedar in this part of the country. While not as powerful or long-lasting as camphor, cedar kind of gives you a nice homey feeling, reminiscent of that old cedar chest. Cedar is a little tricky to turn and finish however. It likes to crack, right when you’re doing your final sanding and the oils that give the nice smell can often interfere with finishing. This bowl was particularly hard to finish for that reason and I ended up finishing, stripping and refinishing a number of times before I got it to work. One key is that polyurethane finish does not like the oils in cedar. Adding a seal coat of shellac really helped this.
- © 2010 Ed Malesky
I also turn a lot of cherry. When I use dry cherry for making furniture and the like, there is very little smell. However, when turning green the shop will fill with a real cherry, mixed with green vegetation smell. It’s not overpowering, nor long-lasting, but makes it very pleasant afternoon of turning. This is especially true of hollowforms where you use special hollowing tools to remove the inside rather than regular gouges, which generates more dust than shavings and makes the smell more intense.
Of course, not everything we turn is so pleasant. Some woods really try your olfactory senses, or worse yet give you some respiratory problems. Exotics like Black Stinkwood, that my friend at Zambezi Exotics provides, lives up to their name.
Some woods, while they don’t have an exceedingly strong smell, such as cocobolo, can often cause people to have problems when the dust is inhaled. Cocobolo is listed as a potent irritant and sensitizer, that can cause nausea, asthma, conjunctivitis. That’s why many woodturners use special facemasks that filter all the air they breath, as well as using dust collectors in the shop. I’ve been pretty lucky until now, just using a large fan to keep the dust away from my face, but all my friends are pushing toward the need for a dust collection system.
It’s pretty funny that one of the most potent sense memories I have of the wood I use is not just the color, or figure, or the smoothness of the finished piece, but also how it smelled when I was turning it.