Introduction: Making Beer Tankards on the Lathe
Welcome to the reason I bought a lathe in the first place!
For a good while I've been thinking and trying to make wooden beer mugs, and only recently I acquired the means of making them the way I envisioned. I have only about one and a half year of experience with a lathe, but even my first project turned out (pun intended) very nice.
These mugs are very fun to use, giving a tavern feel of centuries past to your beer drinking experience. They also make exceptional gifts, especially if you make them in pairs for any lovely couple.
Although it is possible to make some designs without a lathe, certain shapes and details are not very feasible by other means. Nonetheless, you can still make a finely crafted piece if you give it enough attention (as with anything one crafts).
Safety: use eye protection and dust mask whenever cutting, sanding or applying finish. Do not rely solely on engaging your safety squints on time
The essential machines for this project can be as little as two:
- Table saw or Band saw - I prefer the table saw because it gives me a cleaner cut
- Lathe (pretty much any size will do)
Machines that are helpful:
- Bansaw - to cut the rough shape of the handles
- Belt sander - to flatten the bottom of the mug square to the side before turning it on the lathe
- Router table - for rounding over the bottom of the mug and the edges of the handle
- Rotary tool (like a Dremel) - to help shape the handle
Tools and other materials
- Hose clamps (these make the glue up way easier)
- Sandpaper - 80, 150, 220, 320 are more than enough
- Glue - 5min epoxy, wood glue, CA glue
- Chisels - to carve the attachment points of the handle
Step 1: Choosing Your Wood
Basically any wood will do, but combining different materials and choosing what will best fit your design will add complexity and elegance.
More often than not I ask my wife to engrave our projects, and that means there will be a theme depicted on it. It's nice to choose your wood accordingly. Here are some examples:
We took a great trip to Redwood National Park and decided to create a mug fitting the experience. For that, we bought a chunk of redwood from a wood carving store nearby - That makes your project even more personal!
Once I made a mug with a ship design, and chose quarter-sawn oak for being the wood used in rum barrels.
I like to go to hardwood stores and look on the discount bins, because you don't need a lot of wood per mug and you get high quality lumber for cheaper.
Recycled wood is nice but then you use what you have and not necessarily what you want.
If you want to go cheap and use pine: it can be very interesting, but the growth rings will very likely become prominent as the softer part of the wood shrinks. That is not necessarily bad but should be kept in mind if you want a smooth round shape.
Step 2: Designs and Dimensions
Here is where you can go wild or keep it simple. Google is your friend as always, find what pleases you the most and use it as a reference to make it yours.
Size - For me a very important aspect is to not make them too big as I find it to be a bit pointless and out of proportion. I like them to hold the contents of a 12oz bottle plus the foam. Part of the beauty of using these mugs is to top them off, and unless you drink bucket loads of beer, it'll only get about half full and that's kinda depressing. And it'll get warm before you finish it (unless you chug it).
If you have any design software, it is really useful to illustrate your ideas because it enables you to make slight changes in the shapes and curves while you keep the previous layouts for comparison.
More details added to the shape means more attention in sanding tool marks and wiping off the excess finish.
I usually buy the wood first and figure out the measurements later, but I have failed once or twice.
The structure I use is that of a staved cylinder, in which a set number of pieces has an angle cut on the sides and are then bundled into an hexagon, octagon or however many pieces you decide to use.
I'll explain mainly a construction using 6 sides. I like how it looks and more sides will mean more cuts and more sides to sand off the tool marks. Also, if using contrasting woods, more pieces will mean less space for an engraving in one particular stave.
To calculate how wide each of the 6 staves needs to be:
Roughly define your desired outside diameter and divide it by 1.73204 (this coefficient means the largest circle inside the hexagon has its diameter divided by the width of the stave).
The inside diameter will depend on the thickness of your wood. You can calculate the minimum inner diameter as (Outer diameter - 2 x Thickness) x 1.155. The difference between the outer diameter and the minimum inner diameter will define how narrow you design can be.
The angle to be cut on the table saw is 30°. 360°/6sides is 60°, which divided by 2 makes 30°. When two 30° sides are put together they make a 60° angle and will close into a hexagon.
The length of the stave (i.e. how tall is your mug) will of course depend on your design!
Step 3: Cutting the Staves
After cutting the pieces to the proper width, it's time to tilt the blade (or the table).
It's good to set the fence to cut just slightly shorter than your top edge. That way you ensure your piece won't loose width.
The last picture of this step shows a segmented piece. This design had a difference between the base diameter and the top diameter that was too big for the thickness of my wood. To amend that, I cut the top portion slightly narrower, making a smaller hexagon and allowing my to fulfill my design.
Step 4: Gluing Up in Two Parts (or One If Your Angles Are Perfect)
I find it very difficult to cut the angles dead perfect on my table saw, but there's a foolproof way of fixing that.
First, sand the cuts to remove any saw marks. Then use wood glue to join the staves into two sets of three, with a dowel separating them. This will allow the two halves to pivot and neutralize any difference in the angles. Tighten hose clamps around your pieces an let it dry. If your piece is short, 2 hose clamps will do. If it's the length of two mugs, place another one in the center to prevent the wood from flexing at that point
Hose clamps will pull all the pieces towards the center with equal force, causing the pieces to self-align. If they slide up and down a bit under the clamp tension, they're only going to a spot with better surface contact, which will create a tighter joint.
After the glue cures, all you have to do is sand flat the two exposed angled cuts of each half.
A very important word is to glue your sandpaper (80 grit is ideal) to a rigid and flat surface (like a flat board). If you allow the sandpaper to flex it'll eat away the edges of your staves instead of flattening them.
Step 5: Attaching Your Piece to the Lathe and Shaping It
This is where you'll only learn with hands on experience. There are tons of good videos showing essential wood turning methods. Videos are the best way of understanding how to assimilate this craft, and the important thing is to pay attention on how to position each type of chisel relative to the wood. That also differs between end grain and side grain. You really want to avoid catches (meaning the wood grabbing and digging the chisel in a very violent way).
The purpose of the chisel is to remove wood effectively and cleanly. For that, the most important thing is to keep them sharp. I had very frustrating moments because I though my chisel edges were "good enough".
Even though the sharper, the better, I only have a belt sander with 80 grit and a Dremel with fine sanding disk to polish the edge. With a bit of work I get them reasonably sharp, but I'm still on the path of properly sharpening my tools.
When shaping your mug, it's nice to take advantage of the waste material and experiment by adding unplanned details, if you don't like it, you can still get to your original design.
I believe that there are people with way more experience that made very instructive videos, so I'll make my own when I achieve a higher level. Looking into Wood Turning avoiding catches you'll learn to do it right by learning how to not do it wrong (if that makes any sense).
Forstner bits help with hollowing, but the slowest speed of my lathe is still too fast for them. On top of that, my tailstock is slightly misaligned, so it tends to seize on deeper cuts. On a side note, I did buy the cheapest Harbor Freight lathe on a Black Friday.
I like to hollow enough to hold the 12oz of beer, but not so hollow that the walls are thin towards the bottom. That way the mug keeps a good dry weight and a low center of gravity (avoids tipping over).
Step 6: Creating and Attaching the Handle
I take a lot of time making sure that the handle design matches the mug. I tend to get influenced by other mug designs and end up using much of their shape. But I tend to dislike the majority of handles out there, and they are a good portion of looks on the final piece.
Don't settle with all the effort you made on the mug and then skimp on the handle. It WILL look ugly.
Also, this is where the hand will grab, so it's important to make sure it's comfortable to hold and that the person that's getting it can put the knuckles around it. Taping a paper template of your design on the mug gives you a good notion on how big the opening must be.
When shaping the handle, a router table is very handy to give a consistent and symmetrical rounding of the sharp edges. If working a more tapered/curved design, it's a lot more work to make it equal on both sides by hand.
I use 5 min epoxy to glue the handle because after cured, even the parts with poor wood-to-wood contact will be reinforced by the hardened resin. The epoxy doesn't need a lot of clamping power, which is good on a curved surface with the handle prone to sliding out of place. Here are some ways to attach your handle:
When surface mounting: Drilling tiny holes on both mug and handle creates a strong anchoring effect. This type of mounting can be a lot of work when sanding the profile of the mug on the handle and leave no gap.
Carve a recess on the mug: This makes the handle more secured and it's easier to make it look good, with no gaps and properly aligned. It doesn't need to be a very deep recess. Drilling anchoring holes is still a good idea.
Invent a different way: If you come up with a practical and neat way of mounting the handle, odds are it'll have a very innovative design.
Step 7: Decorating - Woodburning and More
Adding details will dramatically increase the look and reaction to the mug.
You can engrave it with a carving bit on the rotary tool, add metal accents like studs, wrap a string around a slot, paint or draw with a fine tip pen.
Transferring a pattern with graphite paper goes a long way on ensuring you get a decent result regardless of your skills.
I like the effect of woodburning, specially because my wife is pretty good at it. If you want to know more about it, here is the link to her instructable on Pyrography:
Step 8: Adding the Finish and Sealing the Inside
I like to finish the mugs on the oustide with one coat of Danish Oil and at least two coats of Polyurethane.
I have used Danish oil on the inside before, but I want to give the inside the more natural treatment possible.
The search for food safe finishes is quite annoying since they go by compliance of regulations of direct and indirect food contact, but it gets me confused on whether using it to hold a drink makes it more than direct food contact.
I am aware that the most practical product is a type of food grade epoxy resin that cures transparent and hardens to a plastic. There are a few out there and they tend to be a bit pricey.
For now, I am satisfied with applying a coat of molten beeswax and buffing it with some cloth wrapped around a screwdriver handle on a drill. It works pretty well, but I had the mug flying out of my hand and hitting the wall after bouncing on the floor. Yes, it did break but I fixed it.
The trick I use to do this safely is to sit down and hold the mug between my legs. That way, your body will absorb the vibrations and prevent the mug from flying while having both hands free to hold the drill firmly.
Also, warming up the inside of the mug with a heat gun helps buffing the beeswax.
You could use a drill press (it could still fly from your hands), but I prefer the speed control of the hand drill and I can also see what I'm doing from the top
Step 9: Enjoy It With a Decent Beer and How to Clean It
Alright, when your finish has cured it's time to give it a coat of finely crafted beer finish. Comes on ale or lager sheen.
Must be applied cold and emptied with moderation (or not)
Number of coats depends on how lit you want ''it'' to be.
Please, these coats are on the inside only.
When done for the day, give it a rinse of warm water and let it drain, it's just beer after all. Soap would potentially leave taste.
It's for BEER, don't put soda, milk, or anything hot (it will melt the beesxax)
After a few uses, wipe a little bit of food grade mineral oil. After a lot of uses, maybe some more beeswax. I have used my first one for over a year pretty much every day and only buffed beeswax once because I felt like having it shiny on the inside again.
I hope you make one and enjoy it, thanks for coming!
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Use food safe glue when glueing the wood together and use a food safe finish. Otherwise you have a chance of being poisoned the the finish or glue residue. Although this is a small chance, still better safe than sorry.