Turning a sphere freehand will test your skill, particularly if you need two the same size. If you want more than one or two and don’t want to do them freehand, you can use a simple homemade or commercial ball cutting jig. I make lots of balls in a range of sizes, and for me a jig that lets me produce them quickly and accurately is essential.
The most basic ball cutting jig is simply a clamp to hold a cutting tool, with a pivot to allow the tool to swing through a quarter circle or more, all fixed to the lathe bed. The cutting tool is sometimes adjusted in the clamp, or there could be a sliding adjustment so the clamp itself moves. But every commercial ball cutting jig I have seen is a bit flimsy or lacks easy adjustments. The cutter is usually advanced just by pushing it forward by hand. Sometimes there is no adjustable stop to control the finished ball size.
I made a heavy-duty ball cutting jig. It does a very good job cutting balls and can also make hemispherical hollows. It was easy to make, but would not have been so easy if it was not based on scrap parts. The key component is a machine slide such as top slide from a metal turning lathe. These can be obtained from dealers in old tools, or from Ebay. Mine has a rack and pinion lever feed. This is ideal because it is fast to use, but screw feed would be fine. I made the rest of the ball cutting jig from bits of scrap steel. The construction details depend on what lathe and machine slide you have so I can’t give more than guidance. Assembly would probably only involve drilling, tapping and bolting together.
If you would like to make a ball cutting jig like this but have never done any work with mild steel before, don’t worry. Think of the steel as like very hard wood. You can cut it with a hacksaw, or if it is thick, drill a line of holes close together and saw through them. Drill the holes with a twist bit in a drill press because it is difficult to drill freehand, even with a power drill. You can cut screw threads in steel with a tap by screwing it into the correct size hole.
The ball cutting jig (see cross-section plan below) consists of the following components, starting at the bottom and working up:
- A clamping plate that will hold the jig to the lathe bed, allowing it to slide and lock
- A locating block (not shown on plan) that fits the lathe bed so the jig can slide along parallel to the bed without sideways movement. This makes locating the pivot point with reference to the ball centre much easier as you can just slide the jig along to the right place. You have to make sure the centre of rotation of the jig passes directly and accurately under the turning axis of the lathe. The short bed on my Graduate lathe has a slot that is offset a little, so I offset the jig to match. The locating block is not load bearing, it just positions the jig before locking down, so wood would do.
- Next is a pivot plate sitting on the lathe bed. Make it thin, but rigid. The thinner it is, the more clearance space you have and the larger the ball you can make. A steel disc about 10 mm thick and 100 mm across would be ideal. Mine is much thicker, because that is the scrap that I had at the time.
- A rigid slide support platform sits on the pivot block. The mating surfaces of the pivot block and the slide support platform are the pivoting plane. The ideal for the support platform would be a strip of steel of width to suit the slide, and 12 mm thick. If the strip is too short it limits the ball size unnecessarily. I rounded the end of the support platform to clear the headstock.
- The clamping plate, guide block, pivot plate and slide platform are all locked together with the pivot pin. This could be a 12 mm or larger steel rod, threaded where necessary. Firmly anchor it in the pivot block. You could screw it into a tapped hole in the pivot block and secure it with thread lock compound. This provides two separate clamping actions – one from below to lock the jig to the lathe bed and another from above to adjust the swivel tension.
- The pin passes down through clearance holes in the guide block and clamping block. This allows a nut and washer to pull the pivot plate down on the lathe bed, positioned by the guide block and held by the clamping block. Above the pivot block, the pin passes through a snug-fitting clearance hole in the slide platform.
- Above that are a washer and two nuts that lock against each other to set the pivot tension. The pin should preferably be unthreaded where it passes through the slide platform. This is a bearing surface for the pivoting movement. But even a screw thread should give adequate guidance, assuming the hole is a snug fit. The top of the pin needs to have its centre marked to set it exactly beneath the centre of the ball when in use. I turned a point on mine. If the ball turning jig is not lined up properly, the ball it makes will not be perfectly round.
- Bolt the machine slide to the slide support.
- The moving slide carries the tool holder. The tool holder on mine came from another old machine, but you could make a similar one by bolting three bits of steel together. It stands on a raising block to bring the tool to the lathe centre height. Having it a little low allows you to use different cutters, with shims. If the cutter is not on centre height, the ball will not be spherical.
- You need an adjustable stop for the slide movement. How you do this will depend entirely on what slide and other parts you have. I used a bit of threaded rod with two adjustable lock nuts, passing through a clearance hole in a bit of metal attached to the slide. The cut stops when the metal contacts the adjusting nuts. By counting movement of the nut flats, I can adjust the cutting depth and size of the ball very accurately.
The largest size of ball you can make depends on the clearance above the top of the swivel point and the travel of the slide. If you make a ball from a cylindrical blank, the clearance needed is more than the radius of the ball. Even more so if you use a square blank, And you have to allow for projection of the cutter.
To use the ball turning jig, position the swivel axis directly beneath what will be the centre of the ball. I normally make hemispheres with the blank held on a screw chuck, so position the swivel pin beneath the face of the chuck. I glue the hemispheres together to make perfect spheres. Advance the cutting bit, an ordinary round-nosed scraper. Pull the slide round to make a cut, then advance the tool for the next cut. When set up, I can very quickly make lots of identical half balls.
A ball cutting jig of this kind cannot make a whole ball in one pass. You must hold the blank in the lathe, so the cutter cannot reach all the surface. It could make most of the ball for finishing off by hand. Or you could move the ball in a chuck so the cutter reaches the uncut parts. If you hold the blank in a chuck the cutter could do 75% or more of the circumference in one pass. It would leave just a single chucking spigot. If you hold the blank between centres, it leaves two smaller spigots.
A traditional way of hand turning spheres is to put the roughed out ball between two female cone centres. The spigots project sideways for turning off. Using this same method, you could finish the ball with the jig. It should leave a perfect ball if set up correctly.
Cross-section of ball cutting jig