Introduction: Turn Your Food on a Lathe! (Made From a Drill Press)

Are you ever frustrated by the lack of rotational symmetry in some of your vegetables? No? Hmmm . . . Have you ever dreamed of eating a more exciting carrot stick? Still no? Do you have a hankering to eat the salad dip bowl? Not the dip, but the bowl? No, huh?

They say the first step in an effective pitch is forging a mutual understanding with your audience. Three strikes so far.

(Think, think, think . . .)

Aha! Do you yearn for more refinement in your cuisine? Yes? Would you like to ride the front of the wave of the next big foodie craze? Absolutely yes? Would you like to, in your own garage and kitchen, do what the fanciest and most costly chefs will be doing in the very near future? Yes! Yes! Yes!

In this Instructable, we will build a small lathe from a bench top drill press and use it to turn (as in turn/carve/spin on a lathe) various food items into . . . modified and fancier food items. There will be four broad sections in the instructable. First we will build the lathe by creating a simple live and dead center. Then, we will use the lathe to create three different recipes.

Ready? Let's get some materials together.

Step 1: You Will Need This Stuff.

Supplies to build the lathe:

  • 1 - 3/8" diameter, 12-inch long threaded rod (all thread)
  • 1 - 1/4" diameter, 12-inch long threaded rod (all thread)
  • Several large 3/8" ID washers (I used two)
  • Several 3/8" nuts (I used three)
  • 3/8" T-nuts (I used one)
  • 1/4" T-nuts (I used one)
  • 1/4" nuts (I used one)

If you aren't in the mood for buying some threaded rod just for this project, a couple bolts of proper diameter with nuts and T-nuts would work just fine. The bolt should probably be at least 2-3" long.

The picture shows some wing nuts as well. I bought these to experiment with different live centers. I was satisfied with the T-nut, though, so I didn't even try the wing nuts.

Oh, and of course, you will need a drill press to make the lathe.

Tools for building the lathe:

  • Hacksaw (not pictured)
  • Metal files
  • Wrenches of appropriate size for the threaded rod/nuts you have selected

Tools for turning stuff on the lathe:

  • Chisels - While there are proper "wood turning" chisels, I am a real cheap-o and I used plain old Harbor Freight chisels. These worked just fine on the soft vegetables turned in this project.
  • Various kitchen knives
  • Sandpaper (not pictured) - I used 220 grit sandpaper

Things to turn on the lathe:

Head over to your local produce supplier and browse for hard, firm (maybe even brittle?) vegetables. If you think of vegetables that are roots that is a good start. If you think of tomatoes, you are not off to such a good start. I bought the following items.

  • Jicama
  • Potatoes (big bakers and little russets)
  • Carrots
  • Parsnip
  • Cucumber
  • Zucchini

Other good options would be parsnips, rutebagas, or apples.

I didn't try out the cucumber and zucchini. After working with the other vegetables, I was pretty sure I would just crush the soft innards of the cucumber and zucchini while squeezing them in the lathe.

Step 2: Build the Headstock and Tailstock

. . . or more accurately, building the live and dead centers to go into the headstock and tailstock.

Real lathes have fancy chucks and various attachments to hold different workpieces in place. We are going to use some simple hardware that will mount in the existing drill press chuck and on the drill press work table. Total hardware cost (including some experimental parts, like wingnuts, and including too much threaded rod) was around $10.

First, a couple inches of threaded rod is cut using a hacksaw. I wasn't careful to measure this, but I wanted the piece to be long enough to seat full in the chuck and protrude 1 to 1.5" out of the chuck. After the rod is cut, the tip of the rod is filed roughly to a point. This will be jabbed into the vegetable a bit later, so the point will make splitting a bit less likely. The point will also help us center the vegetable workpiece. After roughly filing the point into the threaded rod, the rod is mounted into the drill press chuck, the drill press is turned on, and the file is used to bring the threaded rod to a point. Right now, the threaded rod is the workpiece, and the drill press is a vertical lathe, of sorts. This is breaking tons of shop class safety rules, so I can't recommend it, except to say that it worked. Proceed at your own risk here.

Repeat the process twice (cut the rod, file to rough point, turn to precise point) for the 3/8" rod, and once for the 1/4" rod. On one piece of 3/8" rod, mount a standard nut and a T-nut near the pointed end of the rod, and tighten the two nuts against each other, locking them in place. You have just made a live center that will be mounted in the chuck of the drill press. Repeat for the 1/4" rod. You now have two different sizes of live centers. (The small one will work well for carrots. The large one will work well for jicama and big potatoes.)

The remaining 3/8" rod is mounted through the center hold of the drill press table using a nut and washer on each side of the table. This will support the "bottom" end of the vegetable as we work on it.

Step 3: More "lathe" Assembly and General Operation

A few more simple steps to create your nifty lathe.

  • Tip the drill press on its side. I was most comfortable with the "headstock" at my left, and the "tailstock" at my right. Some of the pictures are backwards; they were taken from the opposite side of the workbench.
  • Prop up the drill press as necessary with wood blocks to stabilize the lathe.
  • Create a "steady rest" by stacking a couple of wood scraps in front of the lathe. These will be used to stabilize and support your hands and tools (chisels and knives) while turning your vegetable.
  • Lay down lots of plastic sheeting. Lay it down under the lathe (before you tip it over) and on top of the drill press head, post/pipe, etc. I didn't lay down enough. Maybe lay down a baking sheet or other drip pan under the lathe. I wish I had thought of this before. (See last picture of the mess at the end.)
  • Find something to protect your eyes from flying vegetable scraps. Don't bother with protecting the rest of yourself. Unless you wear a raincoat and galoshes, you're going to be messy. An apron won't cut it.

In general, an "operator" of our lathe will prepare the "workpiece" (a vegetable) by pre-drilling a hole on each end of the workpiece. This can be done with a paring knife. The purpose of these holes is to center the workpiece on the centers, and to prevent the vegetable from splitting apart when it is mounted in the lathe. The workpiece is mounted in the lathe by pressing the vegetable against the live center in the headstock until the teeth of the T-nut are embedded in the vegetable. This will provide the "grip" necessary to spin the workpiece against the chisel. The tailstock is brought into place by sliding/cranking the drill press table "up" until the vegetable is securely gripped between centers.

The drill press/lathe is then turned on and the chisel is used, lightly at first, to bring the workpiece into round. (Potatoes are big offenders here. Carrots are generally pretty round to start with.) After the workpiece is round, the chisel/knife is used to shape the workpiece.

Step 4: Carrot - Example and Experiment

My first turning attempt was a carrot. These are pretty easy to do without breaking while turning. The biggest risk for breaking seemed to come in mounting the carrot in the lathe.

The pictures show the process on the carrot from start to finish. The carrot is pre-drilled to define the center axis of the workpiece, then mounted in the lathe. Rough shaping to bring the carrot to round is completed first, then various details are created using the chisel and a paring knife. The final design is sanded (using normal 220 grit sandpaper) to smooth out the roughness created by the chisel. The piece is rinsed clean with water and we are left with a really fancy carrot stick!

We will move on, assuming the basics are understood, and describe three projects in general detail without addressing all the specifics of technique.

Step 5: French Fry Platter

We are going to take some good ol' spuds and turn them into a fancy fry platter. The serving bowl for the ketchup will be made from, of course, a big potato! (The idea for creating the ketchup dish and platter came from this YouTube video.)

Half of a large russet potato (a "baking potato") is mounted in the lathe and brought to round. The outside of the cup is shaped first. It is a good idea to cut a flat "bottom" of the cup while spinning on the lathe, and to even make the bottom surface a little concave. The lathe will be able to make a more uniform cut than you will be capable of with a knife. The top rim of the cup is also shaped on the lathe. The real spacious part of the interior is cut off of the lathe with a spade bit. It was possible to turn the bit by hand, as the potato is really quite soft.

Some fancy french fries were made by turning smaller potatoes into wavy patterns. The final product from the lathe is cut into quarters.

I was really curious to try a "captive ring" on at least one vegetable. The potatoes proved to be very easy to turn, so it was a good candidate. A captive ring is a ring formed around a narrow spindle with large "blocks" on each end. (Look for some YouTube videos of "captive rings" to see how they are made.) I didn't use a "captive ring tool" I created the two blocks and most of the narrow spindle, leaving the ring material, with a chisel. I then cut off, or "freed" the captive ring with a paring knife. I think it turned out pretty spiffy, and if nothing else, it is a french fry that all of the kids at the summer barbeque will fight over.

The various potato slices, serving cup, and captive ring were brushed with olive oil and placed in the oven. Baking at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes then broiling for a couple minutes creates a nice fry without the deep-fat frying. If you like frying, though, that would work too.

Step 6: Stuffed Parsnip?

Who would make a stuffed parsnip? Why, someone who planned on making a stuffed zucchini, but decided it would never survive the lathe, of course!

This turned out to be the least impressive-looking of the three "recipes." The top 3-4 inches of the parsnip is turned with some waves on the side, removed from the lathe, and drilled out using the spade bit. The stuffing was made with a chicken broth/flour gravy, chopped spinach, parsley, green onion, shredded mozarella cheese, and (because I didn't want to cook sausage) some little pieces of chopped-up pepperoni.

I was a little disappointed because after the parsnip was baked, the whole think was "flat white" and it wasn't very obvious that the effort of lathe turning had even taken place. The flavor was alright, considering the odd mix of ingredients, but the flavor could be achieved with sliced parsnips (much easier) with a sauce on top. The lack of visual "zing" makes the ridiculous effort of turning food on a lathe a bit overdone in this case.

Step 7: Vegetable Platter

Here is the grand finale.

Several carrot sticks were turned to look like the stair banisters in the home of my youth. (Ah, but I wax nostalgic . . . ) The sticks were left whole, though they could have been cut into quarters like the french fries.

A serving dish for the vegetable dip was created using a large, round, jicama ______. (Does anyone know what goes in the blank, if anything? Is it just "a jicama," like a carrot is just "a carrot?" Or is it a "jicama root," or a "piece of jicama?") This was the toughest turning because of its large diameter. In retrospect, it would have been good to create a large diameter live center for the headstock. The small diameter headstock from the 3/8" rod assembly tore loose several times, requiring the jicama to be cut flat and pressed fresh into the live center of the headstock. Now that I've done it once, removing the skin with a vegetable peeler before mounting the jicama in the lathe would have probably saved the piece from tearing out so much. The skin is much tougher than the flesh.

The jicama was brought to round, and the outside of the bowl was formed. The flat bottom surface was cut concave. The inside of the bowl is made by carefully inserting the chisel at an angle, being careful not to cut out the portion of the workpiece that is supported by the live center. The workpiece is removed from the lathe and the remaining center portion is removed manually with a chisel.

Step 8: Final Thoughts

Thank you for reading. I hope to see you all at the next "Concentric Veggie Connoisseur's Convention!"

I leave you with some musings on various subjects . . .

  • This was really messy. If I did it again (which I probably won't, as I like eating food more than mauling it with chisels) I would put a cake pan or something similar under the lathe. My lack of foresight, and faith in a plastic sheet alone, has left me with a potato-colored stain on my workbench.
  • Speaking of potatoes, there is more water in them than you would probably expect. You will get splashed in the face. Jicama is really wet, too, but that was more expected for me.
  • Use the drill press on the lowest speed.
  • Sliced potatoes (or lathe-turned potatoes) go brown after they are cut. After I (unintentionally) let mine go brown over night in the fridge, I learned from several smart people on various cooking forums that submerging the potato in a pot of water while in the fridge, or sprinkling a bit of lemon juice on the potato, will slow down/prevent the browning. Because it was too late for me and my brown potatoes, I also learned that 220 grit sandpaper will remove the browning.
  • I wouldn't use this lathe for turning wood between centers. I think the dead center on the tailstock would cause too much friction. If you had a live center on some sort of bearing in the tailstock, it might be doable. I wouldn't want to do it with a drill press that I owned, though, for fear of wearing out the bearings in the headstock/chuck assembly. With any sizable piece of wood (meaning bigger than turning a pen), I suspect the motor would start to stall.
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