Go Big: How Scott Boley Wrangles a Gigantic Burl

I recently spent an afternoon with Scott Boley, the 90-year-old embodiment of an amateur woodturner. By training, he’s a pediatric surgeon who has written more than 250 books, book chapters and medical papers. When he’s not at the hospital, he can usually be found in his workshop in the basement of his New York City apartment building, methodically turning enormous bowls, vases and hollow forms.

If you’ve never heard of Scott, that’s understandable. He works strictly for his own pleasure. Throughout more than 30 years, this highly skilled artisan has never sold a single one of his works, and he has had only one public showing of the pieces he has made.

Big Machines

(Fig. 1) Scott Boley’s custom-made lathe features a bed made of sliding tubes to enlarge its turning capacity. (Photo by David Heim)

Scott works big. Very big. For the past 25 years, he has used a custom-made lathe. The bed consists of three square, thick-walled tubes stacked one atop the other; the top and bottom tubes slide to change the lathe’s capacity. The headstock has a 1-1/2” spindle, held in a pair of beefy pillow blocks. With the bed tubes fully extended, “I can turn pieces seven feet long and four feet wide,” Scott said. When he turns, he stands on a set of risers to bring him up to lathe height. (Fig. 1).

For hollowing large pieces, Scott uses a custom-made captive-bar system that is larger than anything else on the market. He needs something that substantial—the bar is 1-1/2” square—to minimize tool chatter when the cutting edge is a good two feet away from the tool rest. He also has a smaller (but not exactly small) boring bar. You can see him using it in the opening photo. Otherwise, Scott uses perfectly ordinary tools, including standard Robert Sorby gouges and scrapers.

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