Learning how to turn wood in Dorset

Teacher: Peter Vivian

From: Dorset (Poole)

Day job: Professional woodworker and part-time workshop technician at Bournemouth University

Lesson: The basics of woodturning

Want to try it? Book a lesson with Peter here

Calling every newsdesk in the South of England to announce the start of this project paid off when Peter Vivian got in touch to say that he’d be able to teach us how to turn wood. He’d seen our story in the Bournemouth Echo and kindly volunteered to be our first teacher, and representative for Dorset.

At 6ft 8, Peter the friendly giant welcomed us into his (high-ceilinged) workshop with a huge smile. He joked that the best two teachers he’d ever had “were called ‘trial’ and ‘error’” and introduced us to his lathe.

Peter Vivian shows the Teach Us team the correct method of approaching a bowl on a lathe during their woodturning lesson

Nick of the Teach Us team has a go turning a bowl on the lathe

It’s hard to imagine anything more therapeutic than watching a chisel gradually shape a piece of turning wood. It’s pretty satisfying too, and we were able to create two bowls within a reasonably short space of time. Afterwards, we sat with Peter to ask him a little more about why he likes to work with wood, how he learned his craft and what else he’d learn if he could find the time.

Peter Vivian, who taught the Teach us team to use a lathe in Dorset

When and why did you learn to turn wood?

I bought my first lathe 24 years ago and taught myself, like with most of the things I get involved with. I had the opportunity to learn to turn at school and never took it up so I was a bit regretful and thought I’d have a go.

How useful has woodturning been throughout your life?

I often get asked to turn wood by the students I work with at the university. I also occasionally get asked to turn commercially through my woodworking business, Creative Woodwork. There aren’t that many people around who still do this, so I get some interesting commissions. Perhaps the most interesting thing was exhibition dummies of the explosive devices they put in steering wheels for airbags. A company approached me to turn about 25 of them, and it ended up being quite lucrative.  

Is working at the university your only experience of teaching?

No. I taught adults about cartoon art a long time ago at Southampton College.

Peter Vivian teaches Alice of the Teach Us team to turn wood

Would you consider teaching what we’ve learnt professionally?

I’ve thought about it and have been asked two or three times to set up a wood turning course, but it’s very difficult to get started and I could only really do it one-to-one or with very small groups. I haven’t got the space or capacity and I’ve only got one lathe. This said, if I was approached to do it on a semi-regular basis then perhaps I’d consider it.

How long would it take beginners like us to become proficient?

I think it’d be possible to learn basics in a day and move onto fairly advanced stuff in a week if the student stuck at it, and had a bit of a natural aptitude as well.

What do you like most about wood turning?

Turning is satisfying and therapeutic, but it’s only one part of what I get involved with. If I’ve got some cabinet building to do I will use the lathe to turn the individual, non-sawn features on it, incorporating it into a larger design, rather than turning wood for the sake of it. I must admit, after the first 12 bowls I turned I got a bit fed up and start looking for something a bit different.

Peter Vivian shows the Teach Us team how to use a lathe

What is it about wood that makes it such a great material to work with?

I’ve liked working with wood since I was about nine. It tends to do what I ask it to do. It’s nice and tactile, and apart from the odd exception such as Iroko, which is like pepper and makes you cough and sneeze whenever you do anything to it, it smells nice. Taking a sharp-edged tool to wood is therapeutic and relaxing.

What is the piece you’ve made that you’re most proud of?

Probably the kitchen dresser that I still own. I made it out of 50 year old oak fence posts, which I hand-sawed, hand-planed and edged-jointed. It’s a welsh style dresser with a sideboard with stained glass, which I put in too. I’m also proud of some of the rocking horses I’ve made over the years, and the car I built twenty years ago, which I’m rebuilding an ash frame for now. That’s always been a labour of love.  

Is there another skill you wish you had?

I’m not at all musical. I make solid body electric guitars and I enjoy making them, but I can’t play a note and it really bothers me. I have a friend who’s a luthier, he’s quite well known because he makes archtop ukuleles rather than flat top, and he can’t play a note either so we have that in common.

How would you rate us as students?

I’d rate you as excellent. I’d give you all 10 out of 10 today because you picked up the basics very very quickly and produced two nice bowls, so well done!

Nick and Alice with Peter Vivian (centre) after their woodturning lesson in Dorset

Alice from the Teach Us team is taught by Peter Vivian how to use the lathe

Alice Albery of the Teach Us team uses a lathe during a woodturning lesson

What we learned

  • Secure the wood onto the base plate securely, using strong wood glue
  • Don’t present the tool to the wood before it touches the spacing block
  • Sand with the lathe running, but turn it off to sand the opposite way (clockwise) afterwards because the tiny fibres all fold one way resulting in a rough finish if smoothed from the clockwise direction
  • Working with wood is therapeutic and relaxing
  • We made two bowls in two hours, so with the right instruction, results come fast!