Wood lathes are typically used to turn things such as spindles, bowls, pepper mills, pens and bottle stoppers. This makes it the perfect tool for turning something like a tap handle.
Unlike most woodworking tools, the lathe is not based on precise measurements or straight cuts. It’s the artists’ favorite tool in the wood shop – which is why I love it. It is about working the wood and not fighting it, creating something that flows with the shape of the wood.
That being said, there is definitely some technique to learn. You’ll have to learn how to make the basic cuts on a lathe, such as beads and coves, and you’ll need to learn how to use a few tools – a spindle gouge, a roughing gouge, and a skew are all good ones for using on a tap handle. Obviously, there are others, but those are the basics.
You can learn the basics in a couple hours at a class, or from some YouTube videos, then it’s just taking the time to practice. I made it at TechShop, which is a great place to get started, especially if you don't have a wood lathe readily available.
Step 1: Select Your Wood
As far as the size of the wood, I have found that anywhere from 1.25" to 2" thick can make for a good tap handle, it just depends on how large you want the finished product to be.
The length can be variable. I often purchase a long piece of wood and make several handles out of the same wood. However, I would not recommend trying to turn a tap handle much smaller than about 4 inches, or much larger than 12 inches. Obviously it can be done, but the best tap handles that I have made are all within that range. Longer pieces just increase the cost per handle.
Some woods that I have used to make great handles are tamboti, cumaru and timborana (all were on sale at Woodcraft at the time I wrote this instructable), but your options are endless.
Step 2: Decide on Your Design
The best tap handles have gentle curves, instead of straight lines, and most handles have a bead or two at the bottom near where it connects to the faucet, and a rounded top. From there, be creative! What do you like most in your favorite commercial tap handles? Try to replicate it and/or give it your own flair.
Step 3: Step 3: Find the Center and Start Turning
For smaller pieces, you can rough the wood to round at around 800 RPM. I prefer a roughing gouge, though I've seen others use a skew for this.
Once it's round, mark your lines for where you want to cut and execute your beads and coves. Crank up the speed to about 1600 RPM for finishing work. I do enjoy using the skew for the long gentle curves on a tap handle, wile sticking to the spindle gouge for the tighter beads and coves.
Step 4: Step 4: Finishing (sanding and Polishing)
I typically sand up from 180 grit paper to 600 (180, 240, 320, 400, 600). Stop the lathe between each grit and sand long-ways to avoid lines forming around the tap handle.
Once the piece is nice and smooth and you are happy with how it looks, it's time to finish it. I have really enjoyed using the Mylands high build friction polish. It lends a slight shine and really brings out the colors and lines in the wood.
Once you're happy with everything, go ahead and cut off the remaining wood and remove it from the lathe.
Step 5: Step 5: Inserting the Threaded Insert
The center of your wood is already marked, so line up your drill (I love the drill press at the techshop) and drill a hole large enough to thread in a 1/2" threaded insert.
I have done this by drilling a 1/2" hole, but it's a pain in the ass to thread that thing in, especially in harder woods. So I would recommend drilling a hole just slightly larger than 1/2" but still tight enough for the threads to engage. A 9/16" hole is about perfect.
Once the hole is drilled, just twist in the insert and you're ready to attach it to your faucet!