PROJECT: Turning a Hawaiian Calabash Bowl

PROJECT: Turning a Hawaiian Calabash Bowl

Calabash bowls are part of the cultures of Hawaii. They have been made for centuries, and many Hawaiians have examples that have been handed down for generations. Historically, wood calabash bowls were intended for royalty while common people used ones made from calabash gourds. Because of their royal connection, Hawaiian wood bowls have always exhibited superb craftsmanship and were made from tropical woods (deemed sacred) that exhibit stunning figure, grain pattern and color. After 1819, they could be owned by anybody, so wooden calabash bowls have prevailed.

Emiliano Achaval turned bowl
This stunning calabash bowl by Emiliano Achaval is made of koa wood. Butterfly patches were often put into weak spots in the wood, and Hawaiians revered bowls with repairs like these. My bowl example for this article (lead photo) is made of cherry with sapwood areas.

Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Hawaiians did not have lathes, so their bowls were made by using stone and coral to shape and then pumice and shark skin to bring them to a very high polish. The calabash shape is not flat on the bottom but rounded with the sides tapering slightly inwards. The height varies from shallow to very deep, and there is usually sap wood at each edge. Many extant Hawaiian bowls are quite curved on the bottom; the lack of a flat bottom may seem off-putting, but it works out fine on tables and counters as well as on the ground. That Hawaiian craftsmen could bring a piece of wood to look like it had been turned but without the use of a lathe is truly amazing, but craftsmanship in woodworking offers much to amaze us.

Thoughts Before Turning

Securing calabash bowl blank in band saw
Start with a suitable blank that has been chainsawn or bandsawn from a green log. If possible, choose a log that exhibits contrasting sapwood for a more authentic calabash effect.

With all of this in mind, we should try to incorporate the following thoughts into our rendition of the Hawaiian calabash motif so as to best honor the people and culture of our fiftieth state.

• Use a close-grained wood with some sapwood at each edge. Choose wood that will exhibit beautiful grain and color as it ages. Cherry and hickory are good, widely available North American woods, but tropical woods are fair game as well.

Mounting calabash bowl blank in lathe
Mount the blank to a faceplate or a worm screw held in a four-jaw scroll chuck. Here the author is using a Stronghold chuck with a large worm screw.

• Be faithful to the shape. A round bottom to the bowl is part of the fun and will be a good topic of conversation with guests.

• Sand and finish a calabash bowl to a very high sheen, both inside and out.

Bottom of partially turned calabash bowl
Turn the outside shape of the bowl, leaving a bit extra in the base area for either a short tenon or a shallow recess that the chuck jaws can clamp onto or expand into. Sand the outside, exclusive of the base area, to a very smooth but not a final sheen. Depending on your gouge skill and the wood you are turning, start with between 40- or 80-grit and finish at 120-grit. If starting at 40, continue with 80 and then 120. In sanding, never skip more than one grit.

• The size of a calabash bowl can be anywhere from 6″ in diameter to very large, with depth generally going down as the diameter increases. Small bowls can be spindle-turned, allowing them to be much taller.

Turning Process

Scraping interior of calabash bowl turning
Reverse the bowl from the faceplate or screw center and remount it with a compression or expansion hold, employing appropriate size chuck jaws. Then hollow out the bowl’s interior, working from the center outward and down. It is best to leave extra at the bottom area so that the bowl can be reversed to turn the convex shape of the bottom. This is especially so if you use an expansion hold. Bring the walls to a uniform thickness ranging between 1/4″ and 1/2″ thick.

Most modern turners of this art form start with green wood, which makes the shaping and hollowing much faster. Because of the round bottom, if you turn your calabash bowl all the way to completion, expect that the rim will become slightly warped as the wood continues to dry.

Shaping interior of calabash bowl turning
Do not be afraid to switch from your bowl gouge to a large roundnose scraper to fair the surface and to help remove any tearout in the end grain areas. Hold the handle high so the scraper’s burr can cut effectively, and use a light touch.

But that’s just part of the fun. The wall should be in the 1/4″- to 1/2″-thick range, becoming thicker as the overall bowl size increases.

Sanding interior of calabash bowls
Sand the inside to a final finish, starting with 40- to 80-grit and working to 220, skipping no more than two grits as you go; 40, 80, 120, 180 and 220 would be a good grit sequence.

If you’re familiar with basic bowl-turning procedures, the photo series in this article should be familiar territory
to you already. Start the turning process with your green bowl blank mounted to either a faceplate or a worm screw held in a four-jaw chuck.

Rubbing Waterlox finish on bowl interior
Apply the first coat of finish to the inside. The author is using Waterlox Original Sealer Finish, but mineral oil, walnut oil or various “salad bowl” finishes would be other good choices, too.

Turn the bowl’s outer profile as well as a short tenon or a shallow recess for re-chucking. Sand the bowl’s outer surface extremely smooth, to 180-grit. Remove all evidence of tearout during the sanding process — remember, one of the signature features of calabash bowls is that they are sanded to a high polish.

Turning base of calabash bowl
Reverse the bowl onto either a jam chuck or a vacuum chuck. Turn the bottom to a very uniform, convex shape, and bring the wall of the bowl to a constant thickness from the rim to the center of the base.

When you’re satisfied with the exterior, remount the bowl in a four-jaw chuck so you can hollow the bowl’s interior with a gouge and scraper. Leave extra material at the bottom in order to complete this area in the next step by reversing it again on the lathe. Sand the interior up to 220-grit.

Sanding bottom of calabash bowl
Sand the bottom and outside to 220-grit as was done on the inside, being careful to remove all traces of tearout. Power-sanding with a random-orbit sander is a fast method, but hand-sanding will also yield good results.

Apply finish to the interior before remounting the bowl on either a jam or vacuum chuck. Turn the bottom to a uniform, convex shape, and bring the wall of the bowl to a uniform thickness from the rim to the center of the base. Then, while the bowl is mounted on the lathe, sand the bottom and outside up to 220-grit and apply finish to the exterior to complete it.

Finishing sanded area of calabash turning
It will take three or more coats of finish to bring the sheen to a level that Hawaiian culture demands. Subsequent coats can be done off the lathe or on the lathe if you have a vacuum chuck.

Once your bowl is finished, go on a picnic and think of the warm sands of a Hawaiian beach as you eat lunch out of your calabash. It will sit nicely on the ground and be a thing of beauty at the center of the tablecloth.

I want to thank Emiliano Achaval, an expert Hawaiian bowl turner, for all his help and sound advice with this article. You can watch an interview between the two of us as a “More on the Web” extra. Be sure to visit his website too.

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