Introduction: Metal-Embedded Wood Jewelry

About: In which I turn the thoughts from my head into objects in my hands

My woodturning teacher's birthday is coming up so I wanted to make something special for her. I've been wanting to add things to the wood I turn to make it more interesting, and decided to try embedding metal wire into the wood for an interesting mixed media look. Even better, I was able to use scrap wood from pen making. The wood was too small (<0.75" square) or short (<2") so it was a great way of using up all the odd ends I've been collecting.

Supplies

  • woodturning lathe
  • lathe chuck
    • You'll need a chuck with small enough jaws that will hold the wood in your lathe without needing tailstock support. I used spigot jaws with grooves on the inside and outside. Alternatively you can glue the wood to a larger block of scrap wood that fits in jaws that you have.
  • lathe gouges
    • I personally used a roughing gouge, spindle gouge, and scraper
  • sharpening grinding wheels for your gouges
    • Metal can be harder on your gouges (mainly steel wire, and somewhat for copper) so you'll want to sharpen often if you ding your cutting edge.
  • wire
    • You want to use the softer metals since it'll be hard on your tools, so copper, aluminum, and brass are best. More details in next step.
  • wire cutters
  • drill bits
    • You'll need to drill holes that are a few thousandths of an inch bigger than the wire you're using. Ideally, just 3-5 thousandths would be good. The gap between the hole and wire will be filled with super glue.
    • For 20 gauge wire (Ø0.032") I used a #60 drill bit (Ø0.04") because it was the smallest I had, and close enough. The tolerance isn't as tight as I would've wanted, but it worked out thankfully. Ideally for 20 gauge wire, use a #64 drill bit (Ø0.036").
  • drill press
  • wood scraps (see next step)
  • super glue
    • You'll want a gel type of super glue, since thin glue would need a very tight fit between the hole and wire.
  • sandpaper (I sanded from 240 - 600 grit)
  • oil and wax for finishing
  • jewelry findings
    • I made the eyelets that I put into each wooden bead but you'll need to purchase chains, clasps, earring hooks, etc. You can make your own earring hooks with simple craft wire, but I like leverback earring hooks since they stay in place better.
  • (optional) buffing wheels + associated compounds (HUT wax, white diamond, carnauba wax)

Step 1: Picking Your Wood and Wire

I tried three different woods: ebony, padauk, and purpleheart. Since they were odd ends from pen making, for the most part they were 1.75" long and 0.75" square. The long and thin ebony earrings were made from 0.5" square and 3" long blanks. Ebony looked the best with the metal because of the high contrast between the bright metal and dark wood. Also, when sanding , the metal dust tended to fill up the pores of the padauk wood so it had grey streaks that didn't look that good. For those reasons, I'd recommend picking dark colored wood with tight/small pores so metal dust from sanding doesn't stand out.

For the wire or rods, you'll want soft metals so it won't be very hard on your tools. Aluminum is best, followed by copper and brass. Ordinary craft wire that you can get for ~$3 at most craft stores (Joann's, Michaels) are anodized aluminum or copper wire. The copper core wires will have a pinkish cross section, and aluminum will have a bright silver cross section. For further reference if you buy from Joann like I do (use their many coupons!), Darice craft wire is copper whereas hildie and jo wire is either copper or aluminum (it'll be labeled with what type of metal, plus aluminum colors tend to be more matte compared to glossy finishes for copper). If you use wire from hardware stores, that's usually galvanized or annealed steel, which is much harder than copper or aluminum. You can use steel wire, but it'll be trickier and more likely to chip your tools as you turn. You should also be able to find thin brass rods at hardware stores.

In terms of wire diameter, you should keep in mind what drill bits you have or that you'd need to buy. See next step for tolerancing holes vs wire. It looks nice if you have a few different wire types and diameters for a variety, so I used 12 gauge aluminum wire and 20 gauge steel and copper wire.

Step 2: Drilling Holes

Before starting to turn, drill holes into your wood. If you drill after you turn, it'll be hard to hold the wood as you drill radially into the design.

The holes should be just a few thousandths of an inch larger than your wire. Use calipers to check this. For 20 gauge wire (Ø0.032") I used a #60 drill bit (Ø0.04") because it was the smallest I had, and close enough. The tolerance isn't as tight as I would've wanted, but it worked out. Ideally though for 20 gauge wire, use a #64 drill bit (Ø0.036"). I also had 12 gauge aluminum wire (Ø0.0808"), and for that I used a #46 drill bit (Ø 0.0810). It was a tight fit but was fine. I have a machine shop at work so had easy access to borrowing drill bits, but otherwise you should be able to pick up the drill bits at a hardware store or online from amazon, ebay, McMaster Carr, etc.

Because the wood has square cross sections, I decided to drill through holes on two faces, and then I would insert the wire all the way through the holes. You could alternatively drill partially through on all four sides and insert the wire only part way. That would get you a more asymmetric, controllable design but would be more work, and I don't think it makes too much of a noticeable difference (you'll probably be the only one to notice).

In terms of where to drill, you want to make sure that your drill holes don't intersect each other, since the wire can't go through each other. This means that holes can't be in the same plane if you do through holes like I did. A way to make this work is to drill part way through on each face, and insert four separate lengths of wire into each hole. One thing to keep in mind is that you want the holes close to centered rather than at the edges. This is because we'll be removing material from the edges as we turn them on the lathe, so you can't have the wire too close to the edges.

Since I planned these as earrings, I drilled into two matching wood blanks in the same locations so that even the hole pattern would be matching. It was simple just to hold the two blocks next to each other so I could eyeball where the holes go in each.

Step 3: Shaping the Wood

You'll want to shape the wood before gluing in the wire and turning it down. It's a waste of wire and bad for your tools to glue in the wire first, as I found out in my first few attempts.

To hold onto your wood, you'll need a chuck with small enough jaws that will hold the wood in your lathe without needing tailstock support. I used spigot jaws with grooves on the inside and outside. Alternatively you can glue the wood to a larger block of scrap wood that fits in jaws that you have.

I wanted to attach jewelry findings to the wood using eyelets, so I used a #54 drill bit (Ø0.055) to make an axial hole at the top. The hole diameter was determined through trial and error with a scrap piece of wood and the eyelets I planned on using (see step 6 for how I made my own); I just needed a hole that had a tight fit for the eyelet. Clean up the top face of the wood first so that it is perfectly flat, and then mount a Jacob's chuck in your tailstock with the drill bit. Turn the wood at around 1500RPM while advancing the tailstock to drill the hole perfectly in the center of the wood, as deep as your eyelet needs (around 1/4" for me). You could alternatively do this hole in the drill press, but this method makes sure that the hole is centered.

For shaping, I used a roughing gouge for the initial material removal, then scraper to further refine the shape with less material removal, and spindle gouge to make a nice curve at the bottom. I went with simple teardrop shapes so the shape wouldn't be too distracting. Don't shape and taper down the bottom yet; you want the wood to be sturdy still when you turn with the metal embedded. Just get very close to the final shape; after embedding the metal, you'll only be making light passes to even up the surface.

Step 4: Embedding Metal

Dab super glue onto your wire before inserting it into your holes. Remember, use gel type super glue so that it can fill up the space between your holes and wire. As a sanity check, I recommend pushing the wire through the hole to test that it goes in smoothly first; that way you won't be panicking when the glue is starting to set. I recommend pushing the wire through with extra to spare on and then cutting the wire flush to the surface with your wire cutters. That way you can ensure a nice round cross section at the ends of the wire: you get a nicer finish when cutting off a longer tail of wire (~2mm) as opposed to a shorter tail. See third picture above for what I mean. Do make sure you cut the wire as close to the surface as possible; you'll have less metal to turn, which is easier on your tools.

Be sure to give your glue time to dry before turning again. In my case, I spent ten minutes watching random youtube videos before getting back to it.

Step 5: Finishing the Shape and Sanding

Now that your metal is embedded, take very light passes with your scraper or spindle gouge to avoid getting catches and chipping your gouges. If you do chip your gouge, make sure you sharpen afterwards. You're most likely to chip with steel: I had a hard time with using steel wire. For soft wood like padauk, the steel wire would catch and tear the hole bigger. Anyway, the goal now is just to make sure the metal and wood are flush at the surface so you have shiny circles where the wire is. Your gouges will likely cut the wood around the metal much faster, so you should linger a little at the metal locations. Don't worry too much about it though; sanding will help with making sure the surface is smooth.

When you're happy with the shape, sand the wood. You'll want to sand up to 600 grit or higher, since the metal shows scratches more clearly than wood. Once that's done, you can part it off the lathe and sand the end. I mounted a sanding pad to the lathe so I could slowly sand the bottom (third image above).

Then just rinse and repeat the previous steps to make a matching one if you want to make an earring set. Compare the shapes by eye and with calipers to make sure they are the same length and diameters.

Step 6: Finishing

To finish these, I wiped on boiled linseed oil before pulling out my buffing pads to buff the wood. This gives the wood a glossy finish to match the metal. I used HUT wax, then white diamond, then carnauba wax; just the standard buffing combination. It's definitely not necessary though; you can settle for just wiping oil, or using Yorkshire grit, etc.

Step 7: Adding Jewelry Findings

I made my own eyelets out of the 20 gauge wire I had. I used round nose pliers to make a small loop in a ~3/4" length of wire, before twisting the ends together to make "screw threads". Afterwards, I put some super glue on the "threads" before inserting it into the top hole I made in the wood. From there, you can add earring hooks or jump rings and a chain for a necklace. All done!

Some variations I'd like to do in the future:

  • I'd like to make patterns with the wire instead of the random polka dot effect I have right now. It would be cool to have the circles form a spiral that snake their way up a pendant.
  • Instead of embedding just metal wire, I'd like to try cutting the wood and gluing sheets of metal between the pieces.

The next steps are extras: just pictures of what I learned not to do from my first attempts at trying this.

Step 8: Attempt #1: Adding Metal Before Turning

I originally added all the wire before turning the wood. This wasn't a good idea because a) I was using steel wire and it chipped my gouges very often and b) you end up need to take off a lot of wire, which is slower to cut compared to wood. Instead, just turn the wood to close to its final shape before adding the wire.

Step 9: Attempt #2: Extra Caution When Adding Wire

I also tried gradually adding the wire. I would glue in one length of wire, wait for it to dry, then turning it in the lathe to make the surface smooth before adding the next length of wire. This worked fine, but it took SO much time since I was waiting for the glue to dry between each time I did a light pass on the surface. Plus, I ended up taking off more material than I wanted since I did light passes with each new addition of wire. The excessive caution wasn't necessary; you can just glue in all the wire at once and do one finishing pass. I just did this since I was noticing from the previous attempt (see previous step) that I dulling my gouges really quickly and thought it might be because I was cutting too much metal at once. That was more due to me trying to remove so much metal material.

Anyways, that's the end for this tutorial. Feel free to leave comments, questions, and suggestions. Hope you enjoyed this!

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