I was asked a while back on Instagram about my “photo setup.” So, I thought I’d run through the equipment and the process.
Here is the basic setup: phototent on foldable table, with three lights, one on top, one directly (adjusted as needed) shining on piece from front right, and one on left side to fill.
The phototent is from Amazon. 30 inches. 32″ would have been better as that is the size of my backdrop, which I had to trim to fit. I could also use a 48 or 60 inch one for bigger pieces. They are pretty cheap – $25.
The lights are Excelvan 2000W Photography Studio LED Lighting Kit 20×25″ Auto Pop-up Soft Box with 80″ Light Stand and 135W LED Lamp, SHOX-012 $90. It seems these are no longer available but there are many similar ones on Amazon.
I generally shoot during the morning in a bedroom with south-facing windows. As you can see, the drapes allow some natural light.
I’ve used several gradated backdrops: black to grey, darker grey to light grey etc. They tend to get scratched up if you are shooting pieces that have more natural edges and rougher bottoms, as some of mine do. So, I no longer use the expensive ones ($75-90) made in the US (or at least sold by photography stores in the US) but get cheaper ones from China whenever I am there. The quality is not as good and the colors are not as nice, particularly the gradient shift from dark to light but it is a lot cheaper. This is one of the cheaper ones. Of course, you could use a scratched one and then deal with the problem in Photoshop. But it’s a lot easier to just use a clean backdrop without any blemishes.
The camera is a Nikon D3300 which is now only $320 – you can get a whole bundle for $399 that includes tripod, additional lenses, remote, memory cards, backup battery, etc.
I suppose the reason all of this is so cheap is that nowadays you can use your phone and get similar if not better results. The latest Huawei phone even uses AI to adjust long distance night shots so you can take pictures of the moon and stars!
Using a phone definitely has advantages. You can shoot in square mode (if you are going to post to Instagram), easily edit the pics on the phone (including many of the same features you would have in Lightroom or Photoshop), and then directly upload to your Etsy site or Instagram. Since most people will be viewing the photos on their computers or their phones, that is usually more than adequate. I generally take all outside photos of my pieces with my phone.
That said, I still like to shoot with a camera and then use Lightroom to remove blemishes etc., which you can’t do yet on your phone. I also think the camera handles different lighting settings much better than the phone. The photos are more vibrant.
There are many YouTube videos and online articles that cover product photography. I don’t do anything fancy. It’s just a matter of experimenting, playing with the lights, and trying different angles until you are happy with the results. Basically, shoot in RAW, ISO 100, camera set to aperature priority, white balance set to auto (this works during morning shoots), and use a remote timer.
As far as after-shot processing goes, I use Lightroom, and again, don’t do anything fancy. I’d rather just take a better picture than spend lots of time on Photoshop since the goal is to capture the piece as it is. I start by cropping (trying to use 1×1 if possible, which it usually isn’t for the large hollow forms with tall finials), and then remove chromatic aberration, enable profile corrections, and dehaze. If needed I will play with the contrast, highlights, shadows, etc. I don’t usually adjust exposure until the end unless it is really off and I can’t just go back, adjust the lights and take a new picture.
On my phone, I use the photo editing features that come preloaded, no special apps. When I upload to Instagram, I will sometimes also use the editing features available there, most often the vignette function.
In the end, whether to use a camera or a phone really depends, at least for me, on how often you need to shoot photos and how many photos you need to have. Etsy requires 7-10 photos of the piece from every angle, as well in natural settings, with objects that will show size, etc. It was taking well over an hour to shoot a piece, edit the photos, upload, fill out all of the Etsy info (description, size, weight, price, shipping, keywords, etc.). Using the phone makes it somewhat faster.
The pictures you see here are all done with an iPhone7. The two pictures below are straight from the phone, no editing or effects other than cropping. In the second one, you can see a spot that I would have tried to clean up if I photoshopped it.
Personally I find it fun and more interesting to take some pictures with various objects. On a practical level, they allow the viewer to understand the size of the piece. I’ve often been surprised when I’ve seen some pieces in real life that I have seen in magazines or books and they turn out to be much smaller than I thought. But more importantly, I think using some “props” just opens up new creative possibilities and allows people to imagine what the piece might look like in their home. If you post a lot of pieces on Instagram, Pinterest or wherever, it also adds variety if someone goes to your page and scrolls through. Wood is beautiful, but there can be too much of a good thing so it’s nice to soften things up with some flowers or introduce some porcelain, glass or other materials to the images.
Hope this helps. No doubt many people will know much more than I do about photography. I basically just picked up what I know as I went along, largely a process of trial and error.
Here are two new platters where I did the turning and then my daughter Rayne did the pyrography. She seems to be able to come up with these complex patterns at will. The woodburning part is tricky because you basically have one go at it.
Big leaf maple works well for these pieces. The color is light enough to provide a good contrast with the pyrography. There is often just enough figure in the wood to make it more interesting, and it finishes well.
This is one of my favorite recent platters. I like the natural edge, bark inclusion and cracks – the marks of nature – and the figure of the Big Leaf Maple, and the shape, meaning and colors of the character. Wu means nothingness or non-being, the source of all being. Daoists and Zen Buddhists also believe that creativity comes from emptying the mind.
This piece is available at my Etsy store ZenWoodArtCreations – https://www.etsy.com/shop/ZenWoodArtCreations?ref=seller-platform-mcnav.
Here are two more recent platters. In the first, the main character is Wu – Enlightenment (Satori in Japanese). The inscription is a line from a poem that means roughly: Ha – great splendor falls to ruin; the silver moon shines down, washing all away. A reminder that at the end of the day, what is important is family, friends and good times.
I like the way this piece turned out. The figure in the wood is really beautiful. I usually use cooler colors for the inlay but I like the reddish and gold here. I also like the way the woodburned calligraphy turned out. You basically have to get it right in one pass. The style is very abstract and free-flowing (caoshu), which does give you a bit more freedom. The point isn’t to recreate typeface-like characters. Often even native speakers can’t make out the characters in paintings written in this style. The emphasis in more on the aesthetics.
After talking with Steve Hatcher and looking at some of his platters, I decided to finish this with more layers of lacquer than usual. That does make the color and figure pop more. On the other hand, sometimes I prefer to retain more of the feeling of the wood and a somewhat less glossy appearance, particularly when the pieces has bark inclusions or other “marks of nature.”
The characters in this second piece are Chanyi – A Sense of Zen. Here, I used cooler green/blue colors that really stand out against the paler tones of the Big Leaf Maple. The black border also provides contrast and makes the inlaid characters pop. This one is also finished with multiple layers of lacquer.
In general, I like large, dramatic characters. And as these are both large platters (13.5 -15 inches), large characters work well. In this piece, the second character, carved and inlaid with the same colors, worked well given the grain patterns. In the first piece, the grain pattern required a series of smaller characters, burned rather than carved and inlaid, to provide contrast and balance.
I took these pictures outside with an iPhone instead of using my camera and a photo tent, as I usually do. I was a bit pressed for time because my friend Martin wanted to take them back with him to Sydney, and I wanted to spend time showing him beautiful San Diego rather than taking pictures. But it is pretty amazing what kind of pictures you can take just using phones these days.
Several months ago I started blogging about making platters – selecting and sourcing wood, turning, design, carving, inlay, airbrushing and finishing. I had just come back from Olympia, WA with lots of nice round blanks of big leaf maple, and promised to post pics of new pieces “soon.” Not sure if 8 months counts as soon, but here they are! Actually, the pieces were done a while ago. I still have some that I haven’t taken pics of yet and some more pieces that I have roughed out and need to let dry, but for the most part I just got sidetracked…..
Anyway, here are two of them. I’ll post more over the next few days/weeks…
This first one is called Fo (Buddha or Buddhism). I liked the pattern in the piece at the top and the hole on the left side. I added a touch of airbrushed highlights to complement the inlay and add shading to bring out the texture of the piece, which was left rougher than usual. The character is done in a bold abstract style that is quite unusual. I often do variants of this style/character because it is so dramatic and free-flowing.
This next piece is Chandao ziwu – The Way of Zen: Self-Enlightenment, which basically is the idea that the way forward is through meditation or figuring it out on your own rather than through the teachings of others. The natural contrast between the darker and lighter areas made for an interesting canvas. The calligraphy is done in an unusual classical style.
As you can see from the back, the wood itself is beautiful. I suppose it would make a lovely platter if just left natural. But I like calligraphy! And carving and inlaying is fun.
It’s also fun to find ways to display the pictures in a way that is both functional, giving the viewer a sense of the size, and complements the pieces aesthetically and thematically. (Etsy requires, or highly recommends at least, that you include pictures of the piece in their natural settings).
The first piece has sold already but the second piece is still available at my Etsy store ZenWoodArtCreations https://www.etsy.com/shop/ZenWoodArtCreations.
Have a great day – and keep turning!
Once you have your turned platter sanded to 60 to 180 grit (depends how messy you are with inlay and gluing), and you have designed the piece and drawn the design with a pencil onto the wood, you can use a diamond parting tool or thinner parting tool to prepare the border for inlay, if there is going to be one. If there isn’t going to be a border, then you can go straight to carving. (If you are at all unhappy with the design once you see it on the platter, sand the outline away and start over. If you are unsure, try filling it in with pencil or colored pencils/markers to give you a better sense of how it will look in the end. In my experience, if the design is even a little bit off – crooked, too big or small – you won’t be any happier once you are done so just bite the bullet and start over.)
I use a Dremel 4000 and 4300 with a Flex shaft attachment. I’m on my third or fourth one and have had to replace the chord in the shaft attachment a few times but generally find them to be reliable. The cheaper knock-off versions aren’t worth the bother. Having two available so one doesn’t overheat is a good idea.
I use a variety of bits sourced online. Over the years, what has been available has changed so now I tend to order a lot of the ones I like. Most recently, those are Drillpro bits (0.8 – 3 mm, 10 piece set), Jiuwu 1.00 End Mill Engraving Bits, 10 piece set; HQ Master 10 pc 1/8th” 17mm carbide flat nose end mill router bits double flute upcut spiral; and Metalworking Tools, 1/8th inch carbide CNC 4 flute spiral bit end mill cutter – all available on Amazon.
I usually just sit in this chair, hold the piece of wood on my lap (often it is still in the chuck), and go at it, blowing the smoke and shavings away manually or with the Dremel. But sitting next to a fan is a better and healthier approach.
There are a variety of Dremel attachments to help you carve circles, control depth etc. but I generally just freehand it. The depth depends on how thick the wood is and also how you want the final piece to look. I’m not worried about having an exactly uniform depth when inlaying with metallic powder. For larger pieces, I usually carve a bit deeper. If you are inlaying stones or abalone shells, a more consistent depth of about 3/16 – 1/4 inch is good.
The inlay process can be messy! At least, it often is for me. But no need to worry. I find it better not to worry about being too neat for the initial inlay – which is why I usually don’t sand to such a high initial grit – that way I can quickly sand off any excess glue.
You can inlay with whatever you want. Here I am using various metallic powders to create a raku-like effect. For this, I use Super Thin CA glue from Starbond.
I have used malachite, turquoise, lapis and other minerals; abalone shells; little silver, gold or black flakes; pebbles and various other materials. For this type of inlay, I used to use different thickness CA glue but now would opt for epoxy.
In general, I prefer metallic powders because I like having more control over the colors. I also like the raku-effect and not having to use so much glue or deal with the little air bubbles. Plus, I like the depth and three dimensionality you get from the metallic powder rather than the flatter surface of other types of inlay.
Usually you need to add the metallic powder in layers, hitting it with the accelerator between layers and giving it a blast with your air-compressor to make sure all spots are covered. You can always go back and touch up as needed.
Woodturners often complain about sanding. I’m not sure why. To me, it’s just another part of the process. Put some headphones on, hit your favorite playlist, and off you go. That said, sanding is a lot more pleasant since I got this new KJR sanding system from Craft Supplies. Much sturdier than the ones I used previously.
For sanding sealer, I use shellac and denatured alcohol, which you should spray on your piece before doing the inlay gluing as it will prevent the glue from staining the wood. I sand up to 1200 grit, then use the Abranet pads 2000 and 4000 grit before finishing with lacquer. But often I will airbrush or woodburn some highlights/accents before finishing.
I use Dru Blair’s Createx airbrush paints. A few years ago Dru offered a weeklong airbrushing course specifically for woodturners. It was a lot of fun. He is truly a master- very much into realism – to the point where his paintings are often chosen as the real thing over photographs! Definitely worth checking out his workshops if you have the chance.
In some cases, I will use dyes for accent or highlight, applied either by brush, airbrush or with a paper towel. In that case, I use TransTint dyes. TransTint dyes and alcohol can also be used to add color to minerals such as dolomite.
Dyes will sink into the wood so cannot be sanded off as easily but specific areas can be adjusted/corrected easier. Paints can be sanded away easily but if you layer paints, as I usually do, and you try to correct a spot, you will usually end up having to sand the whole piece back and start over.
In either case, tread lightly. The final result always appears darker and it is easy to overdo it. Also, if you are working in a really bright area with lots of natural sunlight, like I usually am, you need to remember that the piece will appear darker when displayed in most homes unless there is an accent light directly on it. This piece, for example, was perhaps a bit on the darker side when I finished it in the bright morning light but appears a little darker than I would like when displayed in a dark wood cabinet without an accent light.
Once I’ve completed the airbrushing or the woodburning of highlights, I usually add my chops (stamps). I have a variety of stamps in different sizes and styles. The chops, which are typical in Chinese art, are very much part of the design.
At that point, I’m ready to finish the front of the piece. I usually use multiple layers of Deft transparent spray lacquer (satin, semi-gloss or gloss depending on the effect I want), rubbing the piece with the 4000 grit Abranet every 6 coats or so.
The front of the piece is now ready (unless I later decide to wax it). The next step – which will be the subject of the next blog – is to turn, sand, sign and finish the back of the platter. Since I haven’t done that yet for this round of platters, it may be a while so check back in from time to time to see if it’s posted.
Once you have turned a platter and you are sure the wood won’t warp, or won’t warp more than you want it to, you can do the design, carving and inlay. Personally I find this the most enjoyable part of the process.
Design is largely subjective. I like to use Chinese characters rendered in a more spontaneous, free-flowing style (caoshu). In my view, it is more in keeping with the Zen spirit, and is more adaptable, which is important because I need to work with and around the natural figure, cracks, wormholes, etc. Plus, I have just always been attracted to that style. Even when I visited museums in Asia, with their many incredible calligraphy scrolls in countless different styles, I found myself most drawn to caoshu, and in particular to scrolls with one or two big free-flowing characters, often fairly idealized or abstract. But each to their own. There are many beautiful calligraphy styles to play with.
I don’t usually do realistic objects – people, trees, etc. Occasionally I will do an image of what I take to be a drunken Daoist sage barking at the moon with a lifted cup of spirits, or an idealized version of someone meditating. But the only real image I do with any regularity is a butterfly, and even then I prefer highly abstract butterflies. Again, each to their own, You should try to do what you like – trees, leaves, volcanoes, stars, boats, Tibetan thangkas, whatever. Actually, I’ve been thinking I might try fractal images at some point, or maybe staircases, and have been collecting some images on Pinterest – a great source for inspiration and new ideas that you can incorporate into your pieces.
In any event, I’m just not a huge fan of realism. Even in our house, 90% of our paintings are abstract or idealized images, though we also have a number of absolutely gorgeous San Diego sunset pictures that my wife took.
The design, particularly for irregular shaped sculptural pieces, can take some time. I will often let a piece sit there for quite a while while I try to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes I end up flipping a piece around and using a different surface, or have to reshape the piece by cutting here and there. I will often try a few different designs before settling on the final one.
When using exotic woods, I usually just add minimal embellishment so as not to detract from the beauty of the wood itself: a few grooves, a bead, a slightly raised border, maybe a gem stone as an accent point in the middle.
Borders, Grooves and Accent Lines
In most platters, I add a border, which may consist of a single area, or one larger area with other thinner lines. This is the first platter I ever did while taking a workshop with Steve Hatcher. If you look closely, there are little lines or grooves made with Cindy Drozda’s vortex tool (http://cindydrozda.com/html/Tool_Info.html) for accent.
While in the piece above, the accent grooves were left natural, I usually either add inlay or blacken them with a marker pen or a brush. In the piece below, the two accent grooves were inlayed with black mica powder. If you are going to use a marker or a paint brush for the accent grooves, you should wait to do the accent grooves until the end, after you have finished the main inlaid border area and completed the sanding.
I’ve found that for the larger pieces, I often prefer just a single inlaid border, which can be black, the same basic color scheme as the characters, or a complementary or contrasting color scheme.
For some pieces, particularly where the edge is not perfectly round or if there is a crack that runs from the edge into the piece, it is usually better to forgo a border, although sometimes I will airbrush or woodburn the edges.
When designing the piece, you will need to take into consideration the figure and other natural features of the wood. Sometimes it takes a bit of experimentation flipping a piece around to find the best orientation. In the two pieces above, I turned them when still a bit wet, hoping that they would warp a bit as they dried, which they did.
In the next blog, I will talk about carving, inlaying and airbrushing.
Once you have sourced the wood, the next step is to rough turn a round platter. How thick the blank should be before turning depends on the wood, how wet it is, how large the platter will be and whether you want to end up with a fairly thin flat piece or a more concave shape. As you can see from my last blog, I started with some round big leaf maple blanks that were 4 or more inches thick. The wood was either dry or fairly dry. Since I am doing carving and inlay, I want the surface to be flat or just slightly concave. If too concave, the image of the characters would be distorted. So, the initial blank need not be more than 2 inches, and even 1.5 is often enough. This 10-inch platter ended up 3/8 inches thick.
On other platters made from exotic wood, I will generally have a border and a more concave shape. Those types of platters require 2+ inches to start with. Here the central area is turned shallower than the outer border. There is also the raised bead within the black lines. It ended up 16 inches by just over 1 inch.
So, if you are going for a thinner platter, and the wood is dry, you might want to try splitting your thicker blanks into thinner blanks. If they are square, this can be done fairly easily on bandsaw, although most bandsaws can only handle 8-10 inch pieces. My bandsaw has a large cutting capacity – up to 15 inches. Once you have it cut to the thickness you want, you need to cut it roughly round. I use a bandsaw with a 3/8th inch blade as it is thin enough to cut curves easily.
If your blank is round, then using the bandsaw to cut it into thinner blanks is not a good idea. Cutting round blanks on the bandsaw requires jigs or clamps and even then is inherently dangerous. I would highly recommend against it. I tried in the past and have had nothing but trouble, although fortunately no injuries. The last time, I ruined another new blade and also burned out the capacitors in my bandsaw (long story but I got the bandsaw in China and it was 3-phase, 360 volt; to use it here in the US, it had to be converted to 220 v and 2-phase, which required capacitors and reduced the HP from 3 to 2, which was one of the reasons it got stuck while making the cut and burnt out).
I have successfully put some thick round blanks between centers, turned the piece in from both sides as far as I could go, and then used a bedan or similar tool to part it down as far as I could safely reach. I then used a reciprocating saw to cut the rest of the way through. Prepare a few blanks like that in a row and you walk around vibrating the rest of the day!
Once you have the roundish blanks, you can put them between centers, true up the edge and then turn a tendon to fit your chuck.
If the wood is green or wet, you will need to leave the rough blank thicker and then dry it in a kiln, using denatured alcohol or just leaving it air out for several months. You can then remount it, true up the tendon, chuck it and true up the rest of the piece before sanding.
I generally sand both sides up to 120 or 180 grit to prepare them for the carving and inlay- which will be the subject of the next blog. However, if you are going to do woodburning without any border inlay, as below, then you need to sand all the way through the last grit (I do 1200, and then finish with a higher grit as I apply the lacquer). If you will be adding inlaid border, then you need to first do the inlay and all the sanding, and then do the woodburning.
In my previous blog post, I talked about some of the woods I liked to use for platters. Once you have decided what type of woods you want to use, the next question is where do you get it? That will depend on what type of wood you want to use, and whether you want wood that is already cut and dried or whether you will use “green”- freshly cut wet – wood that you will need to rough turn and dry first. As noted, I like exotic woods, which must be sourced through an importer, usually online. When I was in Beijing, there was a huge outdoor exotic wood market that I would visit from time to time. I also spent some time in Australia every year and would pick up a few pieces of their incredible burl woods and haul them back. In the US, I often order ebony for finials and other exotic woods for platters or vessels from Cook Woods (https://www.cookwoods.com).
Now that I am back in the US, I like to use big leaf maple, which is common in the northwest. This summer I was going to Oregon for a wedding so I decided to spend a few days with my friend Steve Hatcher, who lives in Olympia. One of the great things about woodturning is you meet a lot of interesting characters. Steve is certainly one of them. This trip he introduced me to another – Don Avery – The Old Man from the Mountain. Don lives in Rochester, Washington and sells high quality round wood blanks, primarily big leaf maple. He has a huge selection but no longer sells online or ships, so you have to go see the man himself.
One of the problems with buying wood is you always buy way more than you should! It’s just too tempting. I ended up getting 15-20 round blanks in various sizes from 10-16 inch. While the initial cost wasn’t huge given the quality of the wood, the shipping (which Steve handled for me – thanks mate) ended up more or less doubling the cost.
Here’s a pic of some of the blanks I picked up.
As you can see, they vary in thickness, and all are considerably thicker than the piece that is being turned on the lathe.
In the next blog, I will talk about the process of preparing the blanks for carving and inlaying.
You can view finished platters at https://www.etsy.com/shop/zenWoodArtCreations.
I often get asked the question how long does it take to make one of my pieces? I’m always tempted to give Picasso’s response to how long it took him to draw a quick sketch of someone on a napkin – 40 years. Except I’m not Picasso, and I haven’t been at this for 40 years.
Still, the question is hard to answer because the making of any given piece involves multiple steps or stages from sourcing the wood to designing to turning, carving, sanding, woodburning, airbrushing and finishing. Some of the steps – like drying a piece after roughturning – can take 6 months or more. Others, like finishing, require application of multiple layers or lacquer. Each layer can be applied quickly but then you need to wait for it to cure before sanding it or applying the next layers, a process that can take days.
So, I will describe the general process for making a platter in the next few blog posts. I will include pictures to illustrate the steps and to give some sense of the equipment and supplies that I use. There are many online woodturning tutorials to make platters or pretty much any other thing you might want to make on the lathe. These posts are not meant to be a tutorial. I won’t go into detail for all the steps. Rather, my focus will be more on the decisionmaking at each stage. Every stage involves choices that play into the final outcome.
The first step is to decide what type of wood you are going to use. I generally prefer dark red, highly figured exotic woods, which require little embellishing; or lighter colored big leaf maple, which is very good for carving and inlaying Chinese characters, woodburning and airbrushing or dying.
But I have also used other woods such as eucalyptus, olive, walnut etc.
As you can see, eucalyptus is a tricky wood to use for platters because it tends to warp a lot. In this case, I thought I could use the warping to give the butterfly a sense of motion. Not quite the result I hoped but I learned the next time to dry it out a bit more first so it wouldn’t warp quite as much.
The olive is a lovely piece of wood with a lot of character, including bark inclusions, cracks, rough edges and nice color variation. The quick iPhone pic here doesn’t really do the piece justice but is good enough to illustrate the general point that different woods have different traits which need to be considered in the design process.
You can check out more platters at https://www.etsy.com/shop/zenWoodArtCreations.
Next blog – sourcing wood – now that you have decided what kind of wood you want to use, where do you get it?