Choosing a Supported Spinning Bowl

This post covers everything you need to know about choosing a supported spindle bowl. Especially if you are new to supported spinning, the options for bowls can seem as dizzying as the spindles themselves! (Need advice on choosing a supported spindle? Check out my podcast episode here).

The Peahen's collection of supported spindle bowls

The primary function of a spinning bowl is to reduce the friction on the tip of the spindle during its rotation. Most articles focus on how to pick a support spindle, but only mention the bowl in passing. While I did discuss choosing bowls in my own podcast on choosing a supported spindle, I thought it would be helpful for folks if we delve into my own bowl collection and look at some examples. 

First off, let’s establish that you don’t technically need a bowl. Plenty of traditional societies just rest the tip of the spindle directly on the ground as they spin. You could also rest the tip of your spindle directly on your leg, a table top, or any other surface to support it. But a good bowl will reduce the friction for the spindle tip, allowing the spindle itself to spin faster and longer. Personally, I would have given up supported spinning a long time ago if somehow spindle bowls hadn’t been invented!

There are several different factors in choosing a bowl, and I cannot say anyone of them in more important than the other. Just like weight and length are both important (though very different) considerations when selecting the spindle, the material, shape, and height of the bowl all make a huge difference in your spinning experience. All these aspects should be considered when choosing a bowl. Over time you may find you have several different bowls, with different characteristics, for specific reasons.

When starting out, you may want to choose spindle bowls in person, so you can test your intended spindle with them to get a feel for what you like or dislike in a bowl. When you do a test flick, always check the spindle in the bowl without fiber, especially if you are still learning to spin supported.

One more point before we jump into the main part of this post. Plenty of artists and makers engineer bowls specifically for supported spinning. But even regular household objects can be used for this purpose. There is no need to limit yourself to a bowl labeled as a supported spindle bowl… or even to a bowl at all! For instance, when I travel, I like to buy bowls as functional souvenirs. We’ll see a few examples below. I also have one literal bowl. Hey, it works!

Materials

The most common material for bowls – at least, for bowls intended for use as spinning bowls – are ceramic and wood. Some people like the warmth of wood and some prefer the cool slick surface of ceramic.

The advantages of wood bowls include durability and style. If you have a wooden support spindle, you can find a wooden bowl that matches or coordinates with the spindle. (This is no sillier than matching your fiber with your spindle – trust me, it’s a Thing!) Different finishes for the wood will impact the momentum and speed of your spindle; often the best finishes (for spinning anyway) will appear glossy or shiny in direct light. One disadvantage to using wood may be if your spindles have a metal tip, which might scratch the inside of a wood bowl over time.

A selection of wooden supported spindle bowls
A selection of wooden supported spindle bowls

Yes, that is an egg cup made of olivewood in the back right! (It has some challenges for spinning – more about that in the discussion of shapes below.) The bowl in the center was a souvenir from the World Showcase at Epcot, Disneyworld.

Speaking of wood bowls…I read a discussion online recently about whether waxing a wooden bowl would improve the spin at all. I was skeptical about this – wood is wood – but I had Wood Food laying around for polishing and reconditioning my spindles, so I decided to give it a try. It actually worked! I rubbed the Wood Food into the inner surface of the bowl, then polished it up with a soft cloth. My testing ninja really did seem to spinner faster after the wax was applied. WARNING: Do not apply Wood Food to any spinning product unless you have a whole day free. Once you see the luster and shine returned to your item (particularly well loved spindles), you will proceed to polish everything in your collection. Depending on the size of your collection, a second day may be required!

Ceramic bowls offer a very low friction surface as long as the bowl is perfectly smooth on the inside. No bumps in the center! A lot of potential ceramic bowls have small or pronounced humps in the center of the bowl, which greatly reduces the surface area in the bowl available for spinning. Also check with your finger to make sure there are no rough spots due to the cracks or bubbles in the glaze while firing. These will increase friction, rather than decreasing it like you want.

One disadvantage to ceramic – as I recently learned to my dismay – is they really, really don’t like abrupt encounters with asphalt or other hard surfaces. If you have the “dropsies” (or stand up without securing your bowl in your lap first), consider using a different bowl or spinning over soft surfaces!

Poor broken ceramic spindle bowl
Poor broken ceramic spindle bowl

Ceramic can also wear down the wooden tip of a spindle faster than a wood bowl does. This is particularly the case if you – like me – lift the spindle slightly off the bowl as you flick, meaning it lands on the bowl once the flick is finished. 

I have have two glass bowls as well. One is a necklace that was designed to be a travel bowl (see the picture of the ultra low-profile bowls below). The other is a salt cellar! Yes, really! I found it at an antique store in on vacation one year, and it had the perfectly smooth interior I look for in a bowl. Glass spins similar to ceramic, in terms of being fast and smooth. Again, look for an interior that is blemish-free. I also own a stone bowl, although more for the novelty (and to prove it actually works!) than production spinning. This green bowl is special because it was a souvenir from a gem and mineral show a few years ago. 

A variety of ceramic, glass, and stone supported spindle bowls
A variety of ceramic, glass, and stone supported spindle bowls

Questions to consider: How smooth is the interior of the bowl surface if you run your finger over it? Are there any bumps or rough spots which might cause friction against your spindle’s tip? Does the warmth or coolness of the bowl material appeal to you?

Shape

The shape of the bowl relates to where and how you plan to use the bowl, and how the bowl interacts with your spindles.

Where does your bowl rest as you spin? If it sits in your lap while you perch in a chair, you may prefer a bowl with a curved surface to rest on your legs. Another option would be a bowl on a stand, a lap bowl, which allows you secure the bowl between your thighs for a more stable platform while spinning. Some people prefer to spin at a table or with the bowl resting on some other very flat surface, and a bowl with a flat base works better in these scenarios. You can also find bowls that are mostly curved, with a small flat foot at the bottom, which allows them to be used on either flat or in a lap.

Some bowls work best on flat surfaces (left), whereas others can be used on flat or curved surfaces (like a lap, right)
Some bowls work best on flat surfaces (left), whereas others can be used on flat or curved surfaces (like a lap, right)

If you find yourself cross-legged, a “lap yoke” may be a better solution, as a small curved bowl would fall right through your legs. Although then you could just set the bowl on the ground, I suppose. I don’t own a lap yoke, but here is a very nice write up about it if you want to learn more. Since I usually spin on my couch or in the passenger seat of a car, I haven’t had the need for one. I should probably get one anyway though… you know, for science. Another solution would be to keep a pillow or piece of fabric or leather in your lap, to give the bowl somewhere to rest. Some bowls are even sold with a lap cushion or pillow attached to them (although I personally haven’t tried these either). 

Another important shape consideration is whether the sides of the bowl interfere with the movement of the spindle. This is more of an issue with support spindles with larger whorls such as a pu yok. I have also seen some Russian spindles with very large bottoms, which would need a wider bowl to allow for free movement.  For example, the wooden egg cup pictured above has very high sides compared to its narrow bowl, and as a result only works with a few of my supported spindles.

The shape of the bowl also translates into stability. Whether a bowl moves or shifts or tips while you spin can greatly detract from your enjoyment of the process. Some bowls include stems that can be held between the legs for added stability. Table top bowls with a very wide base are also less likely to tip or rock. The aforementioned (and as yet untried) bowls affixed to a lap pillow also look very secure for spinning.

One other factor to think about with a bowl’s shape – at least, as far as wood bowls go – is whether or not there is a dimple in the center of the bowl. The dimple helps hold your spindle tip in place while you spin. Otherwise it walks around the interior of the bowl, losing momentum and slowing rotation. However, not everyone likes the dimple because they feel it reduces the useful surface area of that bowl to just the small spot in the center. Definitely experiment with both options if you get the opportunity.

Some wood bowls have a dimple in the center (left) - and some don't (right) - so experiment to see which you prefer
Some wood bowls have a dimple in the center (left) – and some don’t (right) – so experiment to see which you prefer

Finally, an often overlooked impact of the bowl’s shape is its portability. My favorite bowl has a diameter that allows it to fit perfectly at the bottom of the round cardboard wine gift box (available at most craft stores). When choosing a bowl, definitely consider whether you will want it to travel to events, meetings or fiber shows with you, and if the shape overall lends itself to that kind of portability. You could always have one bowl for “home” use, and a smaller bowl for travel.

Questions to consider: Where do you spin (or plan to spin) most often, and where will the tip of the spindle rest when you do? How does the shape of the spindle work with the shape of the bowl – are they compatible, or will the spindle hit the sides of the bowl as it rotates? Will you travel with your spinning never, occasionally, regularly or frequently?

Height

The height of the bowl changes the height of the spindle – and as a result, your arms and shoulders – when you are spinning. For folks with a longer torso, a taller spindle may work well. If they are using a shorter spindle and struggling, a bowl with additional height (such as a stemmed lap bowl) may help raise the spindle to a comfortable position. By the same token, a person with a shorter torso may prefer a shorter spindle, and a lower-profile bowl.

The height of the bowl adds on to the length of your supported spindle
The height of the bowl adds on to the length of your supported spindle

Some bowls have an ultra-low profile, and these contribute the minimum amount possible to the overall height of bowl + spindle.

Ultra low-profile supported spindle bowls add very little height to your spindle
Ultra low-profile supported spindle bowls add very little height to your spindle

Over time you will probably “dial in” a height that works particularly well for you, but don’t be afraid to try a variety of bowls until then! Also using a taller bowl (like a stemmed lap bowl) might help raise a smaller spindle (like a pocket Tibetan) to a more comfortable height for your shoulders; or a lower-profile bowl might be needed for a spindle that is longer than you normally use.

Questions to consider: Where is a comfortable height for your arms and shoulders while you spin? Do you have any mobility issues (like rotator cuff problems) which impact that comfort level? Again, where will the spindle tip rest as you are spinning – in your lap, on a table or the ground? Do you have a long torso? How long is the spindle you intend to use the bowl?

Last But Not Least

I should also mention the supported spinning spoon question. Spinning spoons are a portable spindle bowl on a lateral stick that is tucked into a belt, allowing you to spin supported while walking. No, I do not have a spinning spoon personally. No, the Spanish Peacock has not settled on a design for one he likes, so it will be a while until we see one from him. (He is busy prepping for Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival at this point, so hopefully after then…) I included a few pictures of spinning spoons in this previous post and I am continuing to research and investigate design options. If we (he) should develop a working prototype, you all will be the first to know!

One Final Point

I should also mention that sometimes a spindle and a bowl just don’t like each other. I know it sounds hokey and superstitious but I have seen this in action. With one bowl, the spindle spins beautifully; with another bowl – that looks almost identical to the first – the spindle wobbles around all over the place. I only recently realized this, by seeing it in action myself. So make sure to try different options, both different spindles and different bowls, if things seem more challenging than they should be. 

The Peahen’s Perspective

What do I personally use when I am spinning? I have three “go to” bowls. And I have a confession to make. Until recently, only one of them was Spanish Peacock-made.

The Peahen's three go-to supported spinning bowls
The Peahen’s three go-to supported spinning bowls

I personally prefer low-profile ceramic bowls that can sit either in my lap (which is their usual home) or on a table because they have a little foot at the base. These barely add any height to my spindles. As I have mentioned previously, slightly over 11″ is my favorite length for spindles. (You can see my favorite team of beads and ninjas in this post.) I have two because I may have different spinning projects and each lives with its project until it is done.

Well, I had two. Unfortunately, my favorite bowl met an untimely end with an asphalt surface (remember the broken ceramic bowl earlier?). Luckily, Mike was able to create an almost-exact replica out of wood, so now I have two Spanish Peacock bowls.

Mike - the Spanish Peacock - created a wooden reproduction of my broken ceramic bowl
Mike – the Spanish Peacock – created a wooden reproduction of my broken ceramic bowl

The other Spanish Peacock bowl is a lap bowl on a stem, designed to gripped by the thighs. I use it when sitting on a sloped or uneven surface, where a bowl perched on my lap might slide off.  Which is obviously what I should’ve been using the day I broke my ceramic bowl!

Hopefully this article answered any questions you had about choosing a supported spindle bowl. If I missed anything, please let me know in the comments below. I’d also love to know – what is the most important factor for you when choosing a spindle bowl?

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