What Is Ornamental Turning?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 16 January 2020
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Ornamental turning is a woodworking method used to produce lathed designs of high complexity and detail. Woodworkers can obtain the best finished products with the use of specialized lathes and attachments, but it is also possible to use standard equipment for some projects. This craft appears to have its origins in the early Renaissance period, and can be applied to metal as well as wood. Examples of ornamental turning can be seen in museums in some regions, and also in displays curated by organizations that focus on woodworking and traditional crafts.

With conventional woodworking on a lathe, objects are turned at high speed to cut in precise lines and other patterns. In ornamental turning, objects are often fixed in place while the crafter rotates a tool around them, or objects are periodically adjusted while the woodworker creates a pattern. This allows for asymmetry and other design variations. In addition, the woodworker can create pieces that are not necessarily made on a cylindrical or rounded base.

A wide variety of complex designs can be cut into finished products with the use of ornamental turning, including roses, diamonds, and so forth. Historically, this required the woodworker to operate by hand, precisely controlling tools to achieve the desired effects. Computer controlled systems can automate the process to varying extents, ranging from storing basic patterns in electronic woodworking equipment to completing whole pieces on an assembly line with full automation.


As the name implies, the end products are designed to be ornamental, and can include bowls, light fixtures, carvings for beds and other furnishings, sculptures, and other objects. Practitioners of ornamental turning can produce custom designs by request from clients, including replicas of historic pieces. Some use historic methods as well for additional authenticity, to produce pieces in a way that might have been familiar to earlier generations of woodworkers. Such pieces are sometimes used in film and television productions as well as historical reenactments where creators want a sense of authenticity in the objects that people may interact with.

People can learn ornamental turning through a number of resources. One option is study or apprenticeship with a crafter skilled in this technique, who can provide education and mentoring. In the case of people with an established record as artists and woodworkers, this can also create a generational legacy as students take the distinctive techniques of their mentors to other regions. It is also possible to take woodworking classes that offer instruction in ornamental turning.


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