Introduction: Make an Impossible Keychain (or Two!)

About: Vietnam era veteran (USAF), former air traffic controller, former entrepreneur, former clergy, former chauffeur. Currently retired and busier than ever. Devoted husband to an extremely talented wife and fathe…

I think this is the perfect gift project for a couple close to your heart (of course, if it's a couple you really should make two of them). I made two for our son Dietrich and his wife Courtney. While I made them as keychains, the concept could easily be scaled larger for something like a Christmas tree ornament - or even larger for something such as a desk accessory or paperweight.

My specialty seems to be making things for the people I love that would cause me to go broke if I ever tried to profit from my work. These projects are usually one-of-a-kind, labor intensive and often very personal. If I were wanting to make them and sell them I would have to charge way, way too much for them because of the amount of time I have to devote to crafting them. These keychains are a good example. If you're looking for something you can make a buck producing this is not for you. But if you want to make a unique gift for someone who will wonder, "How in the world did he do that?" then you're my kind of person and this keychain will be right up your alley. Oh - it also helps if you're more than a little bit on the OCD side.

The keychain features two names cut into a small column of wood. One name is on one face, the second name is on an adjoining face. The names are cut very deeply...but not all the way through, as the face opposite each name is completely blank. How in the world do you do that? There is no hint of a glue seam or any other joinery - it appears to be a solid block of wood. Hmmm...

Warning #1: This project is not for the faint of heart - but if you're possessed of a keen eye, a steady hand, a good saw and scroll saw - and lots of patience - this is for you!

Warning #2: This project requires working close up with a table saw. Safety! Safety! Safety! Use a push bar when working this close to a table saw. Keep your fingers at a safe distance if you want to keep your fingers.

Here's what you need:

a 3/4" x 3/4" piece of wood long enough for the names you want to carve. The full effect is best achieved using a dark wood such as walnut. The wood should also have a very straight grain and even coloration.

A scroll saw and some very fine blades. I used #2/0 blades for this project.

A table saw with a thin kerf, fine cutting blade. A four inch model maker's table saw is ideal.

[Instructable Dictionary: Kerf - the thickness of the blade used to cut a piece of wood. If the width of the blade is 1/16 of an inch, you will lose 1/16 of an inch from the wood when you use that blade to cut it.] Yes, I made up the Instructable Dictionary thingee. But reading other peoples' Instructables - especially the techie stuff - sometimes I could sure use one!


Carpenter's glue.


This keychain is indeed made with a scroll saw. But the process conceals this fact. Before starting the scroll saw work, I use a table saw to cut a 1/16" thick slice off the face of one side of the column of wood. I mark this side so I know which face it came from and how it is oriented. I then cut a 1/16" slice off of an adjoining face and mark it as well. Then I cut the names into the wood column with the scroll saw, cutting the names into the two faces of the column from which I did not cut a slice of wood. Once the cutting is finished, I glue the slices back onto the faces they were cut from and carefully sand a 1/16" 45 degree bevel onto all the edges of the wood column. This bevel comes right to the line of every glue joint and thus completely conceals them. Since I put the slice back on to the faces from which they were cut, the grain of the wood lines up perfectly. True, there is a kerf-width difference, but as long as your grain is straight and your wood color is even, the beveled edges make it undetectable.

Step 1: Preparing the Wood

You'll need a 3/4" square piece of stock - smooth on all sides - long enough for the names you're going to carve. If you had the foresight to name your kids Tom and Joy it won't take much. No such luck here. Our son Dietrich and his wife Courtney both have eight letter names so this is going to take a while. With the lettering scaled properly as described below, the names measured 2 1/2 inches long. I needed a bit at the bottom of the keychain and a larger bit at the top since I'm going to put an eye screw there for the chain, so my blank turned out to be 3 1/2 inches long. Cut your blank longer than you need it until after you've done the two side cuts outlined next.

You will also need a very clean-cutting saw with as narrow of a kerf as possible. I'm fortunate to have a 4" mini table saw with a blade with a 1/16" kerf.

Set your fence to cut a 1/16" slice off one side of your blank. When you make the cut, be sure to note which side of both the blank and the slice you just cut was nearest the blade. Mark both of these surfaces A (Figure 1)

Turn your blank 90 degrees and cut another slice off the face of the blank now lined up with the saw. As above, label the faces that were nearest the blade B (Figure 2). This is very important because both of these pieces will be rejoined with their counterparts after the scroll saw work is done. Put your slices back against the faces they were cut from and cut your blank to its final length, being very careful toward the end of the cut so that you don't tear out any chips from the blank or the slices. Once you've cut to size, lay the two slices aside.

Mark the vertical centerline of the two faces not labeled A or B. Since you will be reattaching the slices you just cut from the blank toward the end of the project, the actual finished width of the faces of your piece will be 3/4 of an inch minus the kerf width of your saw. My saw has a 1/16" kerf, so my finished piece will be 11/16" wide, which means the vertical centerline will be at 11/32 inch. But you need to remember to mark your center measuring from the side that was not cut. This will result in a centerline that looks like it isn't centered, but lay the slice in place and you'll see that it is in fact centered. All through the process it will look like your work isn't centered - until you reattach the slices toward the end.

Step 2: Making and Applying the Stencils

First you need a good stencil font that will have all the interior spaces of the letters connected to the exterior. I did an online image search to find a stencil lettering I liked, brought it into Photo Impact and assembled the letters for the names. I ran the letters vertically because that will give the maximum size for the letters. I shrank the letters down to where the widest letters were 5/16 of an inch wide. Centered properly, this will give me a 3/16 inch space on either side of the widest letters.

Print the names out. I do a lot of scroll saw work, so I have a supply of paper I can use that has an adhesive backing. It is not much more work to print on regular paper and apply the stencils to the blank with rubber cement. After you've done the cutting, the stencil can easily be removed with a little mineral spirits.

Mark a vertical centerline on each name, cut the name out, align the centerline with the centerline you marked on the blank and apply the stencils (Figure 3).

TIP #1: Using a solid black stencil lettering for your pattern can prove to be a problem. It makes it very hard to see where your blade is when cutting. It's much easier to use an outline lettering for your pattern - even better if you print the pattern out in a color other than black - red, for instance. This will help the lines stand out from the shadow of the blade as you cut, making it much, much easier to tell where your blade is and improve both speed and accuracy.

Step 3: Cutting the Letters

Each area of each letter to be cut needs a small pilot hole to insert the scroll saw blade. Doing as much miniature work as I do, I happen to have a tiny drill press for just such a task (Figure 4). You will need to find some way to drill a hole in each space to be removed that is as close to 90 degrees to the face of the blank as you can get. The bit you use needs to be small enough so that the holes will fit within the bounds of every space - and some of them will be awfully small. I think a 1/32 inch bit should do, but I used one even smaller than that. Carefully drill a hole all the way through the blank in each area that you will be cutting out (Figure 5).

TIP #2: The size of things we're working with here is pretty ridiculous. I'm using Flying Dutchman reverse tooth 2/0 blades, which have a thickness of .01 inches - that's right, one one-hundredth of an inch! If you want to see what you're doing you need lots of light on your work. I use an LED work light that puts out 200 lumens that I rigged on a stand. That's a lot of light when it's only a few inches from your work - but a lot of light is exactly what you need. At least the LED light doesn't crank out heat.

Note: The beauty of a miniature project is partly in its precision...but this is also the main challenge. If you're working with 3 inch tall letters and you're off somewhere by 1/32 of an inch it's likely that nobody will ever notice. But if you're working with letters 5/16 of an inch wide EVERYBODY will notice a glitch of even less than 1/64 of an inch. Still, it doesn't take any sort of an expert to do this work; it primarily takes patience. I'm an ol' geezer whose 20/20 eyesight is a few decades gone, along with anything resembling rock steadiness of hand. And while I am not known to be a particularly patient person, I found long ago that patience is a requisite doing work like this - even if your faculties are still razor sharp. In short, if I can do it, so can you...with patience!

Clean your scroll saw before you begin. After you're done cutting you'll want to collect some of the sawdust you'll be creating in case you need it in the finishing stages. Cut all the lettering areas out of one of the names, turn the blank 90 degrees and cut the letters of the other name (Figure 6). Boy, that sure sounded easy, didn't it? It isn't. Even if you've had experience working this small with a scroll saw, this will just plain take time. If you know what you're doing, you can expect to spend at the very least five minutes or more cutting each letter - usually more. As mentioned in an earlier tip, an outline font rather than a solid font and a strong light on your work will make this process much, much easier.

Tip #3: Scroll saw techniques: You've probably heard this before, but let the saw do the work. Especially doing work this small, trying to push your work will cause the blade to flex making it impossible to maintain an accurate line. Use high tension on the blade - I know this will increase the chances of breaking a blade, but they're cheap. I went through four blades cutting this project. If you followed my advice and used an outline font, you'll know you're cutting in the right place if you can't see the blade - that is, the blade will be in the line of the lettering edge. It will be easy to see and correct if you begin going out of the line. I tend to use sort of a squeezing motion to work through the piece, gently squeezing the work into the blade a bit then relaxing. You always want to cut just a wee bit at a time and then back off to be sure you're going where you want to go. When you have to back out of an area to begin cutting from a different direction, be sure to keep the back of your blade against the piece while you're turning it to move to a new area - this will keep you from accidentally cutting where you don't want to cut as you reposition the bade. If there are any rough or uneven areas left after I cut out a section I use a very gentle, very careful sweeping motion, running the blade sideways back and forth over the area I want to correct - using it pretty much like sandpaper - to straighten things out.

When you've finished all the cutting collect some of the sawdust you created into a little container and set it aside. If you used rubber cement to apply your stencils to the blank, peel off the stencil and rub the blank with a rag dipped in mineral spirits to remove the rubber cement. You now have one name fully cut in one face of the blank and the second name cut on an adjoining face. The other two faces are the ones you marked A and B and they have the names cut in them as well, except they're backwards - and probably look awful. Don't worry - no one is ever going to see them.

If the edges of the lettering on the back side are rough at all, use a bit of fine sandpaper to smooth them out - but don't sand to the edges of the blank itself - you don't want to take anything off the edges of the blank at this point.

Step 4: Gluing

Locate the slices you removed from the blank at the beginning of the project. We're going to glue the one marked B first (Figure 7). Using carpenter's glue, dab a little glue over the face of the blank marked B. Don't get carried away - you're not working with 2 x 4s here. Just dab enough so that there will be glue everywhere the face will contact the slice. Lay the slice on the glued face with the marked side toward the glue. This slice will exactly match the face of the blank in size. Line it up so that all edges are flush and clamp it (Figure 8). Wipe off any squeezed out glue along the edges with your finger and check again to make sure all the edges are flush. Take a break while the glue dries.

Now it's time to glue the slice marked A to the face of the blank marked A. If there is any dried glue that squeezed out of the first gluing onto face A, lightly sand it off, trying to avoid sanding any wood off the very edge of the piece. Apply glue to face A as you did to face B earlier and apply slice A to the blank. You'll notice that slice A is a kerf width wider than your blank - this is as it should be. Align slice A so that the front edge is flush with the front of the blank (the face with a name on it) and the extra width extends to the back of the piece (the face to which you have glued slice B). Once you have everything lined up, clamp the piece, wipe off any glue that squeezes out and set it aside to dry.

Step 5: Finishing

Sand away the extra strip of wood that extends off the back of the piece where slice A and slice B meet. If you've done everything right so far, the seams in your piece will be very difficult to see. You may notice a tiny place here or there where a sliver has chipped out or there is a flaw in the grain that reveals where the seam is. If you have any areas like this it's time to employ the sawdust you saved.

Make a small pile of sawdust and, with a toothpick or sliver of scrap wood, stir a hole in the middle so it looks sort of like a tiny volcano. Put a couple of drops of glue in this hole and stir the sawdust into the glue until you have a mixture that is about half glue and half sawdust (Figure 9). Wipe this mixture into any flaws you find along the seam edges and let it dry. Once it has dried, sand it all lightly until you've removed any of the mixture that isn't filling a flaw. These repaired areas will be a bit darker than the surrounding wood but that's alright - the wood will turn darker when you apply the finish.

Use a pencil and a straight edge to draw a light line across the top of the piece from one corner to the opposite corner. Do the same for the other two corners to form an X on the top of the piece. Drill a small pilot hole at the center of the X. This is where you'll attach the screw eye when everything else is done. Lightly sand the penciled X from the top of the piece.

Every edge of the piece now needs to be sanded to a 45 degree bevel that is 1/16 of an inch deep. In other words, the bevel will take the wood down to precisely the place where the glued seams are - which will make them completely disappear. Pretty sneaky, huh? I made a little jig for my disc sander that holds the blank at a 45 degree angle as I move it into the disc for this task, but you can just slowly and carefully hand sand with a piece of sandpaper stretched over a flat surface until you get the bevel to just the right pace. Sand a bevel into all the top and bottom edges as well as the side edges (Figure 10).

How to make the jig for sanding the edges: I located a scrap piece of 2 x 4 that was clean and straight. With the scrap piece standing on one of the two inch faces, I used a miter saw set at 45 degrees to cut the 2 x 4 into two pieces. Lay the pieces on their four inch faces and turn one upside down so that the freshly cut faces are facing each other. This will give you a V-shaped area between the two pieces that is 90 degrees and sits at 45 degrees relative to the bottom of the pieces. Cut a 7/16" wide strip off the bottom length of one of these wedges and a 5/8" strip off the bottom of the other. This will give you two 3 1/2" long triangular strips (Figure 11). Cut a piece of 1/8" hardboard or plywood into a 4 inch by 6 inch rectangle. Glue the 7/16" triangular strip flush to the left 4" side of the hardboard leaving the extra 1/2" length of the hardboard at the top. Set the 5/8" triangular strip against the 7/16" strip to form the V between them and glue it in place (Figure 12). This will produce the jig shown in Figure 13 that you can use on a disc sander to make your bevels. While the measurements provided should give you the 1/16" bevel you need when the jig is pushed flush with the sanding disc, DO NOT take this for granted - measure as you sand your bevels!

Wipe the entire piece with Danish Oil. Use a Q-Tip to get the oil into each of the cut-outs. You don't have to try to go all the way in - just apply it far enough so that all the wood that can be seen gets oiled. This will darken the wood and - if everything has gone well - all the seams will now be completely undetectable. Let the oil dry and buff the piece.

Screw the screw eye into the hole you drilled in the top and attach whatever you want to the screw eye - a chain, a linking ring, etc. Your keychain is finished! Figure 14 shows the keychains from several angles. Can you detect any seams? Didn't think so!

A Final Note: This is my fifteenth Instructable. I've won a few prizes (no grand prize yet, though *sigh*) and had lots of people leaving very nice comments and such...but not a single person has yet said that they actually made one of my projects - and many of them are much less precise than this one. C'mon people, you can do this stuff! It would really make my day if someone let me know that reading one of my Instructables inspired them to make something of their very own. But whether you do or not, I truly appreciate your taking the time to look my Instructable over. Thanks for your kind attention, and


Radical Geezer

Homemade Gifts Contest 2016

Participated in the
Homemade Gifts Contest 2016