Ornamental Turning

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Coburg ivory at the Getty

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles features an ornamental turned ivory object created by the German scupltor Marcus Heiden in the early 17th century. Heiden's fragile and intricate ivory objects were plundered as spoils of war in Coburg in 1632, and were placed in the Florentine treasure house of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, today called the Museo degli Argenti (Museum of Silver Objects). It appears at least one of them has been spirited off to the United States as part of the Getty Museum collection in Los Angeles, California.

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Ornamental Turning Craft

What is ornamental turning?

The term ornamental turning (often referred to as "OT") is used both as a verb and noun – the act of creating and the objects it produces. Ornamental turning describes several different kinds of lathe work, combined with various tools and techniques unique to the craft, that create a decorated surface.

Historically, ornamental turning lathes utilize a variety of specialized attachments and cutting tools that create complex forms such as elliptical, eccentric, rectilinear, swash, "rose" patterns, as well as other kinds of geometric shapes and designs. Some of the same results can be achieved by simpler means: a dividing plate of some sort, a slide rest to control the cutting tool, and a rotary cutter of any type. And recently, computer controlled lathes and machines are being programmed to produce "OT" work.

To create an ornamental turning, the work is usually fixed in place (or sometimes turned very slowly) while a fly-cutter or drill is used to make a cut. A series of cuts are made across the surface of the work by either repositioning the cutter or the item being cut. This is generally referred to as “indexed" work. This is quite a different approach from general woodturning – in which the work spins rapidly on a lathe between two centers while a handheld tool is used to make a cut – and it produces strikingly different results.

Objects with ornamental turning often display a variety of finely cut lines that create beautiful reflective patterns, although sometimes simpler, broadly carved shapes are the result. The finished pieces are sometimes functional and other times purely decorative. Although a variety of materials may be used, including horn, plastic, and (historically) ivory, the main ones used today are wood and metal.

Ornamental turning in metal is called "engine turning" or guilloché. This is a type of engraving that produces repetitive patterns of parallel or intersecting lines – circular, oval or straight – on the surface of various objects, such as fancy pocket watches, cigarette cases, and pens. Guilloché patterns were also printed on bank notes and currency to protect against forged copies. Guilloché can be produced on other materials that hold finely cut edges besides metal, such as plastics, bone, stone, and some wood. When done in silver, it is also sometimes combined with enamel to produce a dramatic and beautiful pairing, such as the pieces by the world renowned Fabergé, whose products included boxes, cigarette cases, compacts, picture and mirror frames, vases, knives, letter openers and, of course, the famous, extraordinary Easter eggs.

Engine turning is typically produced on either a straightline engine or a rose engine. In rose engine turning, a hinged headstock pivots back and forth and follows a cam-like disk (called a rosette) as it rotates. Straightline engines use a pattern bar which has bumps, similar to those on a rosette, but on a flat piece of metal. Engine turning machines can also be used to produce other kinds of ornamental turning. Depending on the tool used to make a cut – a fixed tool set to a precise depth for guilloché patterns in metal, a rotary cutter to create broad cuts in exotic wood, or a large formed cutter fixed in place to shape detailed forms – each will produce significantly different results.

Today, ornamental turning is often a combination of turned work on a standard lathe with additional decoration using OT tools and techniques applied to a piece of work.

Articles and websites that further detail the craft of ornamental turning