Turned wood ornaments can be a fun project that provide a decorative accent during the holidays or any time of the year. The techniques used to turn these little gems can be challenging to the beginner but also help build a variety of skills with very small pieces of wood. The ornament is basically a hollow wood sphere capped on either end by contrasting finials. Because they are made of wood, it is best to keep them small and thin walled to ensure they are light and easy to hang in a variety of ways. The choice of wood for the sphere and the finials is dependent upon your own tastes, but tiny finials can be a challenge with some open grain wood species. It may take some experimentation to arrive at the perfect choice for you.
I have made many different styles of ornaments over the years for sale and for family gifts. For this instructable, I will make a relatively simple ornament made of Maple with black walnut finials. The project typically requires about an hour for an experienced turner and up to a few hours for those just starting out. On a scale of difficulty from 1 to 10 where 10 is an advanced artistic hollow form, this project is a 5.
Step 1: Project Materials:
As I mentioned in the intro, most any species of wood can be used for the ornament. For this demonstration, I will use Maple as it is readily available and makes a good hollow form. The ornament sphere requires a piece of stock that is 3”W x 3”D x 3”L. Of course, each ornament can be created to a size of the maker’s liking. The finials require a piece of stock that is 1 ½” x 1 ½” x 8”.
Accessories: The ornament will require a small brass or stainless eyelet for hanging. The eyelets can be found at many hobby and craft stores.
1/2" Drill bit
Small Spindle Gouge
Spindle Roughing Gouge
Small Hollowing Tool (see handmade hollowing tool in following step)
4 Jaw Chuck for holding the blank
Drill Chuck for drilling center hole in Ornament
Sanding paper (100, 240, 320, 400)
Finish of choice
Step 2: Project Setup:
Setup the lathe for spindle turning. Remove the drive center from the
headstock and set aside. Remove any drive chucks, if installed. Inspect the tool rest for deep nicks or other problems that would cause the tools to hang during use. Inspect live center (tail stock end) to ensure it spins freely. Cut blanks as noted above (finial grain must run along the long dimension of the blank). Mark the center on each end of the blanks. Mount the blank between centers. Bring the tool rest to within 1/8" of the work piece. Position the tool rest 1/4" below center for the first operation. Spin the work piece to ensure it turns freely and does not contact anything. We are now ready to begin turning the ornament.
Step 3: Safety:
Before launching into the project, I want to remind everyone of a few quick safety considerations: Always wear safety glasses/goggles and a face shield. Make sure that no clothing, jewelry, or hair is dangling in or around the turning parts. A lathe will pull things into it at speeds faster than human reaction time. Make sure all lathe switches and locking devices are serviceable. Make sure that the tool rest stays close to the work surface when turning. Be sure to make and maintain contact with the tool rest before making contact with the work piece. Never turn your back or walk away from a turning lathe!
Step 4: Turning the Ornament:
We will begin by roughing or removing the rough edges from the piece. Using the Spindle roughing gouge, slowly begin introducing the tool at a slight upward angle to the wood. The tool will cut away the wood and remove the square edges. Continue roughing until the wood is in the form of a cylinder. Ideally, you should have a 3" cylinder remaining. Once done with the roughing, we’ll begin shaping the ornament. I usually use a squatty oval orb for my ornaments but you could use a completely round sphere for the ornament body. First, we’ll layout the dimensions on our blank to accurately determine the limits of our orb. Measure across the surface from end to end and find the center of the blank. Make a pencil mark at the center. Next mark 1 ¼” from the center in both directions. This is the outer limits of the ornament. Now mark the mid-point between the center and the outer edge. We’ll use this mark as a reference as we shape the rounded edges of the ornament.
Using the parting tool, we will remove wood on either side of the outer lines. Part a surface for the four jaw chuck on the left end of the blank. This is called a tenon. The circumference must be measured to match the jaws center closure setting. This is different for each jaw manufacturer and jaw set chosen. The tenon surface should be slightly tapered toward the center of the blank. This ensures a solid dovetail grip surface. Stop the lathe and remove the drive center. Mount the four jaw chuck. Remount the blank on the four jaw chuck. Now we can turn away the wood to the right of the outer mark and begin creating the spherical shape. Use the guide lines to assist with the shaping.
Once the shape is close to the final dimensions, we will drill a hole through the center. The center opening will allow for hollowing and placement of the finial and top cap. Mount the drill chuck in the tail stock of the lathe. Secure the ½ drill bit in the drill chuck. Set the lathe to a lower speed for the drilling operation. I suggest 300 rpms max. Drill the ½ hole through the ornament body and into the waste area beyond. We are now ready for the hollowing process.
Step 5: Hollowing
Hollowing is done using a series of internal scraping cuts with a curved hollowing tool. Hollowing tools can be found at any online woodworking or woodturning supplier, but we can make a usable hollowing scraper using a hex wrench. The curved end of the hex wrench can be ground and sharpened to provide an edge similar to the commercial hollowing tools. This is accomplished by grinding a flat edge over the first 1/8” of the tool. On the underside of the tool, grind a rounded profile that relieves the edge and reduces drag on the wood (See drawing). The wrench can be inserted in a wood handle made from a short piece of turned wood with a center hole. An expedient handle can be made by wrapping the long end of the wrench with duct tape.
With the hollowing tool, scrape the interior of the drilled hole carefully removing small cuttings on each pass without enlarging the drilled hole in the exterior of the ornament. After a series of hollowing cuts along the interior of the drilled hole, remove the shavings in side the hollow. It is key to keep the tool presented to the wood slightly above center line. This will prevent catches inside the hollow. Continue to hollow and empty shavings until the wall thickness is less than 1/8" The easiest way of measuring wall thickness is by using a small length of hard wire, such as hanger wire. Cut a 5" length and bend into the shape of an uppercase D with the open end at about 1/8" from the end of the straight section on the curve. Bend the opening to 1/4" and slip inside the hollowed ornament. Touch the inside edge to the inside wall. When the opening on the outside is measured at 1/8" you have a wall thickness of 1/8".
When you have achieved the desired wall thickness throughout the ornament, we will part the ornament from the remaining stock. This is achieved by making a series of parting cuts with the parting tool and cleaning up the shape of the orb as you go. once you have only a thin wall left around the underlying drilled hole, use a skew to cut a narrow V-groove until the ornament is cut free.
With the remaining stock in the chuck, cut a short spindle that will accept the finished side of the ornament. The fit must be tight to keep the ornament in place as you make finishing cuts on the other end.
Sand the ornament in place using a low speed. Make sure you remove any of the lower sanding grit marks before progressing to each subsequent sanding grit. Continue until the ornament is sanded at 400 to 600 grit.
Step 6: Turning the Spindles
Each ornament will require a spindle and a cap. Before turning the spindle and cap we remove the chuck and set up the lathe for spindle turning. The wood must be wide enough for the the parts to cover the opening in the ornament and provide a nice decorative covering.
Mount the spindle between centers and rough the wood using the spindle roughing gouge until you have a clean round spindle.
Part the end of the long spindle piece that will cover the bottom ornament hole. This part must be the exact same size as the ornament hole. Measure with calipers for accuracy. After creating this part, begin shaping the spindle to your desired design. The thinner and more delicate the better! On the remaining section of the stock, turn a short cap for the top opening of the ornament. Complete each piece to the extent possible without completely parting the sections off. Sand the sections to 600 grit. Now, part the end of the spindle off. Cut the other part off as necessary.
Step 7: Finishing the Ornament
After sanding all the pieces, it's time to assemble. Using a small amount of CA glue (Superglue), attach the top and bottom to the ornament. Use the finish of choice to complete the ornament. Add an eyelet to the top cap and hang. Enjoy!
I made it at TechShop on the Powermatic 4424 Lathe: http://www.techshop.ws