Learn to Love the Skew
Synopsis: When you get the hang of it, your skew will leave a surface so nice and slick that 600-grit sandpaper would mess it up.
When I started making chairs I did the turning with a dull gouge, scraping and jerking wood fibers with the lathe running at mind-boggling speed. Then I broke out the sandpaper, working my way through the grits. The process was loud, nerve-wracking, dusty, and expensive. It was like making war. Then I had a chance to watch Vermont chairmaker Dave Sawyer at the lathe. His skew glided over the surface of the wood, leaving a glass finish—no sanding needed. His fillets were sharp enough to cut you, his beads were beautifully formed, and his V-cuts were crisp and clean right to the bottom. He did all this with the lathe running at a moderate speed. And it looked like fun. He explained that the skew takes time to master, but no other tool leaves such a flawless surface. In the months that followed, there were times I sulked into the house dejected; my good wife would patch me up and point me toward the shop. At other times I would hit the sweet spot, and that kept me inspired. In hindsight I see the time I put in learning the skew as a small sacrifice that pays off now every time I switch on the lathe.
Get it sharp You can get away with just one skew, but I use two 1⁄2-in. skew chisels. One is ground in a straight line, and the other to a slight convex arc, which makes the center of the cutting edge more prominent and tucks the heel and toe back a bit. With the arced skew you have more control and less risk of catches while making planing…