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Making wooden boxes

Making wooden boxes is an interesting project. These are a little different, being square on the outside. This is how I made them.

Burr oak box with weathered top

Burr oak box

I’ve had some slightly weathered burr oak hanging around for a long time. Weathered oak is a very attractive silvery grey and I liked the look of these pieces. I wanted to retain some of the patina in the finished boxes.

Cutting the squares

I began by sawing the oak into squares on the bandsaw. The squares had to be  accurate enough to grip reasonably securely in the chuck, but precision wasn’t necessary at this stage. This gave me some rough-sawn blanks about 6.5 cm across with the patina on top and bottom. I could then hold them in the outside-gripping step jaws of my old four-jaw self-centering engineering chuck, best side out, to turn and sand the hollow, which I made about 5.5 cm across, with straight sides and a curved bottom. I used a small bowl gouge followed by a little shear scraping with a round nose scraper.

The advantage of the old chuck for making wooden boxes like these is that the jaws have a flat gripping surface, very good for holding square or round stuff without marking excessively. The disadvantage is that they don’t always grip wood very securely. Care is necessary, but these small blocks were safe enough. A modern woodturning chuck with dovetail jaws would work, but you either have to deal with damage to the timber caused by the corners of the jaws, or pre-turn a small spigot for gripping, losing depth.

That completed the turning. When making wooden boxes like these, they have to be squared up, with good clean sides, for which I used my homemade disc sander. The tops and bottoms were not very flat, so I could not leave the bottom surface unfinished. I had already chosen the best, flattest side to be the top, so used this as the reference for sanding.


Starting with the box upside down on the sanding table, I squared off one of the sides. Then, with this side flipped down, I could make the bottom of the box flat and parallel to the top. With the box on its one sanded side, I trued each remaining side in turn. This is a job that shows up any error in the angle of the sanding table, but they came out alright. I sanded up to 400 grit as the coarser scratches showed badly on the flat surfaces. I learned that I needed to check them with a lens before they were finished. The disc sander put small chamfers on the edges.

The lids

I wanted another contrast in the inset lids, so I made them from cherry. As well as the colour difference, the smooth cherry contrasts with the fissures and cracks of the burr oak. I put a piece between centres and roughed out a cylinder to hold in the chuck (my small Vicmarc this time, the other one would not hold a long blank safely). I used a parting tool to make the diameter at the end fit the first of the boxes, then a spindle gouge to make a shallow hollow in the end. Next, a deeper cut with the parting tool to make clearance for the spindle gouge to shape most of the top of the lid, leaving a small shoulder to support it in the box. After sanding, I parted the lid off with a skew, ready to make the next from the same blank.

The next job was to finish off the points at the top of the lids. I took a bit of scrap and made a jam fit wooden chuck to hold each lid in turn. A light cut cleaned up the top surface ready for final sanding.

I then applied finishing oil to all the boxes and lids and buffed them when dry. The oil darkened the grey weathering a little.

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Another use for my homemade chuck

I have been making a batch of finials using my homemade chuck. They are to be screwed onto some 12 mm threaded steel rod, and for this they need a blind axial hole.

The chuck insert for this job is just a short length of the threaded rod. Ideally, to make sure it runs true in the chuck, the insert would be made by cutting the thread on  a bit of plain rod, leaving one end unthreaded to go in the chuck. The studding works well enough, though with a little run-out.

Threaded insert in the chuck

I start by preparing the blanks, each with a hole drilled in one end, of a diameter that will screw onto the rod fairly easily.

The running lathe draws the blanks onto the chuck. I wax the thread between items and the blanks align themselves as they go on. The variable speed is turned down and I hold the blank tightly to stop it turning. When it nears full depth on the thread I let go. It only takes a second or two. I move the toolrest out of the way to avoid getting my fingers trapped. Then I bring up the tailstock and toolrest. I have been roughing this batch down using my Alan Lacer skew chisel flat on the rest with its handle low to give a sliding and peeling cut. The middle of the curved edge takes off the waste quickly.

Roughing to cylinder with Alan Lacer skew chisel

The next job is to rough down the narrow part of the finial. I could do this with the skew too (I would have to use the smaller size because there is not enough room for the large), but I normally use a 10 mm scraper. 3 1/2 adjacent cuts give me the right width. I judge the diameter by eye using the chuck body as a reference. Dimensions are not critical.

sizing the lower part with scraper

I then plane the remaining wider part with the skew. This makes sure the widest part of the finial has a good surface without tear out from the roughing stage.

I use the skew to shape the upper part of the finial, which is like a pointed egg in shape. This can be done either with the long point or the edge. I used both on this batch – it all makes practice. Then the skew planes the lower part of the narrow section – one parallel cut to the left then one to the right to make a short taper.

Rounding over the end

Then I use a small spindle gouge to make a cove beneath the egg section, and a very small homemade gouge to make a tiny cove separating the two planed bits.

Cutting the cove with a spindle gouge

Making a tiny cove with homemade spindle gouge

Then I use my favourite 10 mm skew chisel to scrape an undercut at the bottom of the finial. This will let it fit closely to a curved surface when finished. I do this very carefully as I want the undercut to finish as close as possible to the metal thread in the chuck. I usually stop short by about half a millimeter and remove the last little bit by hand later. Occasionally I misjudge it and the point of the skew touches the thread. No harm done with a scraping cut, but that means it’s time to resharpen. I also use the edge close to the short point to plane the little fillet next to the cove beneath the egg.

Scraping the undercut

Then I move the tailstock back and use either of the skews to trim off the centre mark. The small one seems to work best. A light cut stops the finial screwing further onto the chuck, which can throw it out of true.

Trimming off the tail centre mark

A quick sand, then I grip the finial with a friction mat and switch the lathe on in reverse to let it wind off the finished job, which will be ebonised.

The completed finial



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Making a batch of satinwood cord pulls – Woodturning by Terry Vaughan

Today I have been making a batch of satinwood cord pulls. Satinwood is a tropical timber, and I rarely buy such wood now, normally relying on old stock or reclaimed wood. This piece came from Axminster Tools. They told me that it is from India and to the best of their belief is sustainably harvested. It is quite hard, and smells of coconut. It has a golden-yellow colour and reflects the light like satin.

Making the blanks

I started by sawing the blanks, about 30 mm square and 60 mm long. I drilled the hole for the cord knot next, using a 6 mm drill and going about 45 mm deep. Then I changed to a 3 mm drill and completed the hole right through the blank. A normal 3 mm drill is not long enough for this, so I used a special long one. Long, thin drills like this tend to go off centre, which is why I drilled the larger hole most of the way through. Drilling deeper holes this size often makes the hole go too far to one side, and sometimes the drill bit even comes out of the side of the blank instead of the end.

Then I put the drilled blank in the lathe with the small hole at the headstock end, and quickly rough the square blank down to a cylinder, using a shallow roughing gouge. I normally rough down the whole batch before going to the next stage.

Shaping the satinwood cord pulls

Now I swap the drive centre (I use a Stebcentre) for an ordinary cone dead centre that drives the blank by friction only. This time, the larger hole is at the headstock end.

I can then rough out the shape using a small spindle gouge, and refine it with a small skew chisel. I like to use a 10 mm beading and parting tool ground into a skew.

Shaping the cord pull
Shaping the cord pull using small spindle gouge
Refining shape of cord pull
Refining the shape with small skew chisel

Then I use a very small spindle gouge that I made from carbon steel to cut the two tiny coves near the top of the cord pull. A gouge this size cuts very easily and doesn’t seem to need the complicated movements that a normal gouge requires to cut a cove without digging in.

Cutting coves
Cutting two tiny coves with very small homemade spindle gouge
using skew chisel on cord pull
Further refining the shape with skew chisel

The turning is done, including cleaning up the ends with the point of the skew. They are ready for sanding and finishing with Danish oil.

I used a different method for the next lot of satinwood cord pulls. Instead of using the small spindle gouge and skew as before, I switched to an 18 mm skew chisel. This did a nice job. I like to use different tools so I get the practice. But I had to take it slowly with the wider tool because the cord pulls tended to slip on the friction drive centre.

Here they are after polishing.

satinwood cord pulls
A batch of satinwood cord pulls


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Making wooden mice for my sales page.

Today I was making wooden mice, a new batch of church mice. I call them church mice because they are made from pine reclaimed from old church pews. I don’t often use pine for turning, but this stuff is excellent quality hard pine, with its narrow annual rings showing it was from old, slow grown trees. I don’t know how old the timber is. It’s hard to find modern pine of this quality.

The process of making wooden mice starts with cutting up the wood into small blocks. I drill a small hole in one end. This serves as a location for the lathe centre and later the tail will be glued in this hole.

Blocks cut for making wooden mice
Blocks cut for making wooden mice


Drilling holes for tails
Drilling holes for the tails

Turning the mouse

The block goes on the lathe and I turn it to a cylinder with a spindle roughing gouge. I prefer a shallow flute roughing gouge.

Block ready for turning
In the lathe ready for turning


Roughing the block to a cylinder
Roughing to a cylinder

Then I cut in with a parting tool to make a clearance for the spindle gouge to work. This is not an essential step – many turners would go straight to the spindle gouge – but I find it helpful.

Cutting in with parting tool
Cutting in with parting tool

Below is the result of the parting cuts. I make a small chamfer on the sharp edge of the small disc that remains on the left. If I don’t do this, sometimes it catches the back of my thumb like a little spinning sawblade when I do the sanding!

blank ready for shaping
Ready for shaping

I can then round over the tail end and form the body and head with a small spindle gouge.

turning to shape with spindle gouge
Shaping with a spindle gouge

After sanding and parting off at the mouse’s nose with a skew chisel, the lathe work is complete. It doesn’t take long to make a roughed-out mouse. The mouse is far from finished however.


The next stage is to sand a flat for it to stand on, which I do with a bench-top belt sander. Then I apply finish, which needs time to harden properly. Then I buff the mice to a shine. When buffing, I hold the mouse against a cloth wheel that spins very fast, and if I’m not careful the wheel grabs them and hurls them to the floor.

I made a little tool to prevent this – a short steel rod, set in a handle (actually an old golf ball, they make good handles for things like this), with the end turned down to fit the hole for the mouse’s tail. I insert the rod into the unfortunate mouse, then I have something to grip it by. Next, I drill holes for the ears, glue in the ears, which I punch from thin leather. Then I fit the tail. The last stage in making wooden mice is to mark the eyes. The church mouse is ready for my wooden mouse page and then, if you buy it, a new home.