Wood Lathe Faceplate Turning – a users guide.
For 25 years I have been playing with wood lathes; from an early ELU to the machines I now have sitting in the workshop. During the early years I attempted things that now make my skin crawl when I think about them and I am sure I am not alone with these kinds of memories. This article is directed at anyone who uses wood lathe faceplates or is venturing into this method of wood turning and the article is primarily based around safety. This subject is very relevant to myself because of the projects and sizes I now find myself drawn to, as you will see.
What is a faceplate? and why or when would you use one.
Are they better than chucks?
What holds the wood on?
How big do you need?
How big do they get?
Are they safe?
How fast can I turn with a faceplate?
What is a faceplate?
A wood lathe faceplate is a disk of metal that is designed to hold a wooden blank that is then attached to a lathe most often by a large female thread that matches the male thread of a lathes headstock main shaft. Some faceplates use keyhole systems and matched metal bosses to take extreme loads and the image below shows this method. This mounting type is more industrial than the typical home workshop varieties and is extremely strong and reliable.
Faceplates come in many different sizes and can be alloy in the small versions and steel in larger versions. It is best to avoid alloy in larger faceplates as the metal can fatigue over time and create dangerous situations before the danger is noted.
When and Why you use a faceplate.
There is often the temptation to take a shortcut when turning. The experienced turner will know the appropriate method to mount a blank whereas the beginner can often jump in before understanding the dangers and use what is close and handy, or try to turn blanks that are to wild for the tools available.
You use a faceplate when the blank is unbalanced and difficult to hold with a traditional chucking method or drive spurs/dogs.
Spurs are seldom used when larger pieces of wood are mounted on the lathe due to the torque involved in starting the lathe and holding the wood safely; they can introduce a lot of risk if used improperly.
It’s not uncommon to have a drive center just spin if the wood is too big for that method of holding and spinning it. An out of shape and out of balance block is best held firmly with a faceplate and it is recommended to use tailstock support until some level of stability is achieved.
Some wood lathes don’t have a tailstock so the turner has to rely on other means to play safely. The centrifugal forces that come into play with out-of-balance wood are difficult to grasp until you have turned a blank that has come off the lathe. All turners will experience this and most learn and move to faceplates when required, even if it is only to create a tenon or pocket that can be used with a chucking system. Consider faceplates as a early step in the process of turning a project. You may start with a faceplate but then move to other methods of holding the work piece once the faceplate has eliminated the out-of-balance stage at the beginning. They are a great item to have, but they are only a small but important part of the turning world.
Are Woodlathe Faceplates better than chucks?
It depends on the project.
Chucks and faceplates all have a purpose in the tool kit, and neither is better or worse than the other.
The self-centering chucks that are available today are fantastic when it comes to gripping pieces that are usually already balanced to a degree but cannot replace a faceplate when that blank is ugly. Chucks are good for bowls after the tailstock has been pulled out of the way.
Spindle work most often requires drive and live centers. Faceplates are for the really rough jobs and help get the work piece into shape so the chuck can do its thing safely.
Having said that, some turners only use faceplates and once the turned piece is completed as far as can be practical, the finishing touches are done off the lathe and on a bench or similar, something that would be done where carving or similar is planned to finish the project. Once the blank is balanced to some degree, the piece can be transferred onto a chuck if that fits the game plan better. Modern chucks can hold surprisingly large sized pieces and weights but they all have limits. If it looks dangerous and feels unsafe… don’t move forward until the concerning details are eliminated.
What holds the wood on?
Screws; and as many screws as you can get into that blank.
Faceplates come in all sorts of sizes, and all have a series of holes through the face where a screws thread passes through from the back and winds into the wood. The screw size should be the largest gauge that you can fit to that hole with the least amount of play. This practice ensures maximum holding power from the screws.
Smaller faceplates usually have 4 holes where the larger faceplates can have multiples and it is best practice to use every hole available as long as the thread of the screw in securely embedded in solid wood.
Screws wound into bark or sapwood should be avoided and the length of screw should be as long as possible. If you have some idea of the design of the item you are aiming at you should have an idea where a screw won’t interfere with the finished design.
In other words, place the longest screws possible into wood that is intended to be waste and eventually turned away.
Never take faceplate-turning safety for granted because if you get the connection of the faceplate to wood wrong, the results can be downright scary. If that lump of wood comes off, there is nothing between it and you and the only thing you can hope for is it heads off in the opposite direction to where you are standing.
When I turn with the big lathe, a VB36, I want as many solid connections into that wood as I can possibly get. It just stands for good practice to fit 16 screws if that is what the faceplace has available and the wood is still outside the diameter of the faceplate. Use every hole that is available.
I have a vital note on safety here.
If I could only share just one tip to help you, it would be this one.
Not all screws are made with the best metals and when a screw is wound into wood the screws can get hot; hot enough to not be able to grab them if you pull it out for whatever reason. They suffer from what is called metal fatigue, and depending on the situation and the stresses the screws are exposed to while turning, I consider the screws as a consumable item and have used them just the one time.
With the heat from being wound in added to the spinning stresses and the physical sizes of some of the blanks I have turned are all added in, the decision to replace the screws after a single use seems a very small insurance fee compared to the worse case scenario of a massive blank separating from the faceplate and doing untold damage to myself and/or equipment and machinery that is nearby. So with that said, I do recommend you discard and replace the screws often, depending on your own personal turning circumstances.
How big a faceplate do you need?
There are several opinions around this subject and while valid arguments can be stated, I err on the safe side. I try to use faceplates that are 1/3 to 1/2 the diameter of the blank. If the blank is 6inches across I use a 3 inch faceplate.
If the blank is a 3ft fork of a tree, I use the maximum plate I have and that is just over 1ft. The question of how big is needed often gets overcome by the thought of what have I got available; and that is where things can get sticky.
As turners, we have to address each and every situation sensibly, and minimize the risks where we can to try to avoid going beyond the limits of the lathes capacity, the wood lathe faceplates size-to-blank question, and the turner’s experience and comfort level.
Just don’t try to turn a large blank using a small faceplate. What can happen is that the blank ends up being torn off the faceplate by the screws either snapping off or them pulling out. In hardwoods, snapping off is the most likely.
Use the biggest faceplate you have available, one where the screws still have good purchase, and you will be ok.
How big do faceplates get?
I don’t know how big they can get, but the largest woodturning faceplate I have is 320mm diameter and 20mm thick. This is just over 12inches diam x ¾ thick.
I have safely held 80kg tree fork blanks on it, but the speed has to be monitored closely until the blank is balanced.
Speaking from experience, things get interesting when large blanks are involved and everything is accentuated to the extreme and caution is demanded.
Faceplates should be matched to the size of the lathe plus the motors power rating. These should be respected, however there is a tendency for the wood-turner to push the limits of a lathes capacity when some experience has been gained over time and a larger than average blank is offered.
If the lathe you have or are considering buying has the ability to turn outboard, there is a note of caution for you here. The extra swing capacity you have or want does not equate to the lathes ability to service your ideas.
The larger the diameter of the blank the bigger the stall potential you have when you start working away with roughing gouges and the like and the further out from the center the more pronounced it becomes.
The torque of the motor really has to be considered in any large capacity turning and when it comes to jumbo turning projects you better have a few horses ready to go.
So the wash-up of this section is learn and respect your lathes limits and abide by them. If you want to turn bigger, get a larger capacity machine.
Are Faceplates Safe?
Yes, if used correctly and all safety measures have been addressed.
Wood lathe faceplate turning is a very old technique that has served a valuable purpose to many wood-turners over many decades. In fact, turning wood with a faceplate is one of my favorite methods to create artistic pieces and I have held some pretty big things on just the faceplate.
If you take precautions, and you know your limits, then there is no reason why any wood-turner should not have a variety of sizes and use them when the application calls for them to be used.
It can be said that faceplates are just a safe or dangerous as a chuck and it is the learning of the different applications where the danger creeps in.
How fast can I turn with a faceplate?
This depends on a few things including
- The physical size of the blank.
- The size and power of the lathe.
- The mass of the lathe.
- The confidence and experience of the turner.
The blank size has a few things that need consideration and that starts with how balanced the wood is on the lathe. Lets assume you have your faceplate safely and firmly mounted onto the blank.
You have carefully leveled off the side of the wood where the faceplate fits so it is sitting snugly against the timber all the way around. There should be no gaps to speak of. You now mount the blank onto the lathe and make certain the faceplate is tight on the tread.
It is a good idea to use a thin washer between the faceplate and the headstock thread shoulder so the faceplate can be easier to remove when required. If you don’t use one you will eventually find yourself with a faceplate that refuses to budge, as vibrations and rotating will seat them together firmly.
Just look up faceplate washers to get one.
You now have the blank mounted on the lathe, and before you hit any start button or switch, rotate the blank by hand and feel for where the mass is concentrated. It will accelerate away from the top balance point.
Take a pencil or crayon and mark this area. Now take a power plane or handsaw and remove the wood in the area that is the problem and repeat.
Continue until the blank can rotate freely without any noticeable issues. Just a quick note here…this is more applicable and important the larger the blanks get.
I have never needed to do this but some of the more artistic turners with years of experience actually fix counter-weights to the blank or faceplate so they can keep the wild look that the blank may offer.
Of course you can disregard the above steps and start turning but be aware that the more out-of-balance the wood, the harder it is to get to a speed where you can actually take away wood with a cutting tool as the lathes have a tendency to walk across the floor if they are not bolted down.
If they are bolted down, the forces that cause the lathe to walk are transferred to the frame and bed of the lathe and can cause fatigue in some joints of some lathes leading to failure in the worst-case scenarios. Balance that blank.
Start turning slowly and increase the revs until the lathe shows signs of wanting to shake then back off a little till a smooth rpm is found.
This will be different for every single lump of wood you turn and only the smallest diameters can effectively be spun quickly at an early stage of the process. The bigger the blank the slower the speed.
There is a term I use when discussing turning with others and that is MIW or miles in wood and I use this to help explain the distance a cutting tool travels as it cuts; this factor helps to balance the case for and against carbide inserts vs HSS tooling and is relevant here.
The outer extremities of that blank you mounted on the example above when spinning at a set speed actually travels an incredible distance when related to MPH.
If the blank is 12inches or 300mm in diameter and is spinning at 100 rpm, a speed not uncommon for the initial rough turning of out-of-balance wood blanks, then the hypothetical distance the blank will travel is 94 meters a minute or 5.6 Kph/3.5MPH. That is at just 100 RPM.
Once the blank is balanced the speed can be raised using the same methodology. Turn it up until movement is felt in the lathe and back off a little.
This will keep you in a safer zone than just hitting the full on speed and hanging on as that will not end well; but it happens. It’s a rough way to turn but beginners do beginner things.
So in closing, faceplate turning is a great way to set up artistic pieces before mounting on chucks, and should be included in every serious turners tool kit. Match the faceplate sizes and thread to your specific lathe, and play safe.
A note of caution before we part.
Many of the newer lathes have variable speeds via FVD’s or similar and often the come with the ability to turn the lathe to reverse.
When doing so with faceplates, (chucks also but to a far less degree), be aware there is potential for the faceplate to unscrew from the thread of the headstock as the electronic braking of the VFD can slow quicker than the rotating mass of wood.
To counter this, some faceplates now come with a grub screw that will help lock the faceplate to the main headstock shaft but caution is needed to not damage the thread with the screw. Just be aware of the dangers of the blank coming loose if using reverse.
Article written by Tim Blanch as part owner of Pickers Ridge Hardwood Designs. He is a qualified Carpenter/Joiner and has been turning for over 25 years.