Introduction: Tiny Wooden Pots

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

I enjoy woodturning pens, and that means I've amassed quite the pile of cutoffs from pen blanks. I usually buy pen blanks that come in 5-6" lengths, but after cutting enough for a pen kit I'll have some odd lengths leftover. The little box of cutoffs I've collected has been bugging me, so I decided to make something from them.

Hence the tiny pots. I guess I'm now a pothead?

Jokes aside, they were good practice for detailed spindle skills. Plus they're convenient little gifts to decorate desks and shelves. Smallest one was 3/8" diameter, 3/4" height. Relaxing to make, with all the craziness going on around the world.


  • woodturning lathe
  • lathe tools
    • Jacob's chuck (optionally, if you don't have one, just a drill press for drilling holes is fine)
    • gouges (I used roughing gouge, scraper, parting tool, and spindle gouge)
    • pen drilling jaws or similar chuck
      • Any chuck that can hold onto small blanks of wood will suffice. Alternatively, I tried a method that uses just a regular bowl chuck - see step 9.
  • wood blanks (because I started from pen blanks, they were 3/4" squares and ranged from 2"-3" long)
  • finishing supplies
    • sandpaper (I go up to 600 grit)
    • oils and wax (my preferred finish is any oil with HUT wax, then Feed n Wax for a final wipe)

Step 1: Chucking Up the Blank

To hold onto the small bit of wood, I opted to use pen drilling jaws. This isn't the safest thing to use because the chuck's jaws protrude in a way that makes it very easy to injure your fingers if they get to close. I was extra careful when doing this. You can alternatively use a Jacob's chuck, or any other chuck that can hold onto small blanks, but the reason I still chose the pen drilling jaws is because I can't crank down to tighten the Jacob's chuck as well as I can for the jaws. TMI but I have smaller hands and thus don't have the best grasp around the bulk of the Jacob's chuck for tightening without a chuck key...

Because my wood (purpleheart pictured above) was already so short, I couldn't put much in the jaws. Even so, you want the jaws to hold as much wood as possible for stability. My recommended minimum jaw engagement is 3/8" (and that's honestly pushing it). When you put the wood in, be sure to crank down the jaws so that you have a firm grip; you don't want a catch in the wood to compromise and shift your center.

Alternatively, check step 9 for other chucking options.

Step 2: Turning

Now to actually start shaping! The first thing to do is round the square into a circle. For this I just used my roughing gouge. Since it's a small size, I set speed to around 2000-2500 RPM.

After that, use your parting tool to delineate the bottom of your pot and give you space for shaping the bottom later. For this I got as close to the jaws as I could. Be careful not to get the shaft of your parting tool hit by the chuck.

Because you don't want your pot to wobble, you want the bottom to be a low spot so it won't protrude and cause the pot to tilt on flat surfaces. To do this, slightly angle your parting tool away from the chuck as you push it in.

Step 3: Drilling

To drill the center hole of the pot, I used a Jacob's chuck mounted to the tailstock. For this, I set speed low (~1000 RPM) because advancing the tailstock and thus drilling into the wood is slow. Alternatively, you can pre-drill the wood on a drill press if you don't have a Jacob's chuck for this option. Diameter of my bit was ~2mm (#44 drill bit), but really up to you and how small you want it. Too small and it doesn't look practical (or as practical as a tiny pot can look?), but too big and you're limited in your shape's minimum diameter. I also just switched up my bits so that the pots had different sized holes.

If your tailstock and headstock are slightly misaligned, the drill bit might enter the wood off center. To prevent this, you can make a centering groove on the drilling face so that the drill bit self-centers (see third picture above).

If you don't have a Jacob's chuck for tailstock drilling, you can easily just pre-drill the hole in your wood. The caveat is that the hole might not be as centered, but I purposely drilled a hole off-centered and liked the look of the pot too. You just have to be more careful with the minimum diameter your shape has: because the hole is off-centered, you can't get to as small a dimension without possible going through to the hole.

Step 4: Shaping

The main parts to shape are the sides (radial) and the top face (axial). Finish your side profile before working on the top face, so you'll know the final size you have to work with on that face.

I used a combination of scraper and spindle tool for shaping the sides. Primarily the point of my spindle tool was used for the axial face because the surface is already so small that my scraper wouldn't be able do much (locally, that small of a surface with the curvature of my scraper would just look flat). On that face, I just rounded the edges of the hole so that it looked more smooth and natural.

For making thin accent lines, I used the tip of my spindle gouge. See picture 4 above for how to hold the gouge to make the thin lines. I like this method more than using burn lines because I like to be able to fully control depth and width of the grooves.

Step 5: Finishing

For sanding, I just used small pieces of sandpaper with grits up to 600. 400 grit would probably be fine for most woods, and the 600 is primarily for the ebony; it's really dark so scratches show up very clearly. Sand at a lower speed, which is usually ~500 RPM for me.

Follow up with your favorite method of finishing. It's not a bowl or anything that's handled frequently so I settled for a simple oil and wax finish: just wiped with boiled linseed oil and a friction finish with HUT wax to give it a nice shine.

This is purpleheart wood that you see above, and it's known for it's purple hue from oxidation. The purple tones of the wood intensify if you leave it in the sun, but quick tip: if you're disappointed by the shade and don't want to wait for a sunny day, hit it with a hair dryer or heat gun (not enough to catch on fire though!).

The caveat is that the color dulls overtime. By ~5 years, it becomes a regular brown. If you want to protect the purple tone, you'll need to use a UV protective finish (not just sunscreen, unfortunately). To prevent oxidation, there are exterior-grade varnishes with UV inhibitors available. I've honestly never used any UV protective finishes so am not well-versed on the options, but the online woodworking community has plenty of suggestions.

Step 6: Finishing: Another View

Here's a view of sanding with ebony, as opposed to the purpleheart previously.

Scratches on ebony stand out significantly. That's why 600+ grit is necessary for nice looking finishes. Another tip: with the lathe off, do light strokes of the sandpaper axially to get rid of these clear radial marks you see. Do this at the end, after you finished the highest grit.

You can also see in the last picture that I sanded the axial face by pressing a corner of sandpaper into the valley. It's important to sand all visible surfaces! You can also do the bottom if you'd like, but I find that the parting tool leaves a decent finish. In this case, it's too close to the spinning jaws for me to risk it.

Now, for finishing I just did the same sanding and friction finish with HUT wax, and that worked reasonable well. I will note that ebony is an "oily" wood, which means certain finishes are not recommended for it. Different woods use different finishes! See this forum response for a great overview (more related to furniture, but good information). The main issue is that the natural oils in the wood interfere with oil finishes so they stay tacky for a longer time. The simple wax rub that I did works fine for a low luster, and small amount of oil wipe on such a small piece isn't significant.

Step 7: Parting

When you're finished sanding and sealing, use your parting tool to gently remove the pot from the lathe. Be sure to keep your hand on the pot before it completely parts off; otherwise it'll fly and get lost or broken!

For the bottom, you can do light hand sanding to even it out. Because the parting tool already had a decent finish (decent enough for a bottom that isn't visible anyway), I just opted to cut off the leftover nubbin with a sharp knife and wipe with oil.

Step 8: Lidded Pot

I decided to try making a tiny lid for one of the pots. For this, I chucked up another piece of wood once the pot was finished and turned it round. Then I used my parting tool to make a cylindrical protrusion that would fit snugly into the drilled hole in the pot. This protrusion should at least be as long as it is wide so that it has enough engagement in the hole. Check the fit continuously with calipers or just keep testing with the pot. Once I was happy with the fit, I finished the rest of the lid design, sanded and sealed, and parted it off the lathe.

Another way would to make it like a classic woodturned box: leave the pot on the lid as you shape the lid (keep pressure on the bottom using the tailstock) so that you can have a seamless connection between both. I decided not to because it's very easy for the hole to be ever so slightly off centered, so the lid and bottom won't match up perfectly as you rotate one with respect to the other. It'll match up perfectly in the orientation you sanded in, but if you rotate the lid a little you'll see a small dislocation from the two not matching up. Since the pot is so small, even small mismatches would be pretty visible.

Step 9: Alternative: No Small Chuck? Step 1

If you don't have a chuck small enough for holding onto the wood, you can use a bigger chuck quite easily.

Use a spur chuck and live center for your tailstock to turn the block round between centers. Don't forget to mark the centers of the axial faces of the block with a center finder beforehand! Because the block was smaller than the flanges in my spur chuck, I couldn't reach in and turn the headstock side round. I turned one end round before flipping and turning the former headstock side round too. Then I turned the shape that I wanted, making sure I left a portion in the back for chucking up later (~0.5" cylinder). Make that portion as cylindrical as possible.

Once you're happy with the shape, part the top off the lathe. Alternatively you can just remove the pot from the lathe and use a rotary sander to remove the top protrusion. You'll still get a chance to finish it up with gouges! Removing the bulk of the material now just makes it easier later.

Take a scrap piece of wood that's large enough to chuck up in your bigger chuck. For me, this was a 2x2" square block of maple. Turn it round between centers like done previously for the pot, and make a tenon that can be held in your chuck on one end of the wood. When the tenon's ready, mount the wood into your chuck and fasten it on your headstock.

Note: another way is to just start with gluing the smaller wood to a larger block of wood that you turn between centers for mounting into your larger chuck. I didn't do that because I didn't want to wait for glue to dry.. yes, I can be quite impatient sometimes. You'd also have to redo the big scrap block of wood each time you glue another block of wood onto it.

Step 10: Alternative: No Small Chuck? Step 2

With the larger block of wood mounted to the headstock, you want to make a negative of the cylindrical protrusion you left on the bottom of your pot. Basically, a pocket that it can fit into snugly. Best if it is deep to hold onto more of the wood, but you can also just add a bit of glue to hold the wood in place. Use calipers or just continually check the fit until you get it right. If your hole gets a bit too large, just flatten the face and start again (if you have enough wood remaining; otherwise start over).

Once that pocket is right, you can pop your pot in and turn from there! You'll probably want to refine the shape one more time with light passes since your center has probably shifted a little.

Step 11: Optional: Flowers

Optional: time to make weeds for the pots.

I've previously made a tutorial for the wire flowers I've put in these pots, which you can find here. In the flowers pictured, I've used a mixture of different colored wires from a regular craft store (Joann) and different gauges as well (20, 24, and 26 gauge). Ta da, flowers that will last forever!

Another option would be to go outside and bring in some real, tiny flowers to put in them. Downside of course is that they'll wilt after a while...

And that's it for this tutorial! If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in comments below. I still have plenty to learn about woodturning so suggestions and advice would also be welcomed.

Tiny Speed Challenge

Second Prize in the
Tiny Speed Challenge