Introduction: Wood Turned Bird Call

About: I've been designing and building things out of wood since high school -- many moons ago! I currently spend most of my woodworking time on the lathe turning bowls, platters, vases, pens, bottle stoppers. That…


A friend of mine is a hunter and he asked me if I could turn him some calls for a crow hunting competition that is coming up next month. Of course I said yes! He provided me with a thick board of walnut to make them out of.

I decided to document the process I used to make these bird calls and share it here so that others can learn how I have decided to make them. It is a fairly easy process, just slightly harder to make than a pen (the simplest wood turning project). I'm going to assume that you already have some experience in wood turning with these instructions, however, if you don't or have questions add a comment at the end and I'll be happy to answer them.

Each of these took 40-50 minutes to make. The cost for me was minimal since the wood was provided, however, this project (including the wood) would be $5 - $15 depending on the quality of the purchased "call" (the plastic insert in the wood) and if you add a lanyard. In the pictured above, the wooden call laying down is completed. It has the lanyard attached and the plastic "call" inserted in it.

Tools Used:

Spindle Roughing Gouge

Carbide round tip scraper

Spindle Gouge

Skew Drilling

Chuck Jacobs Chuck

Drill bit


Wood 1.5" x 1.5" x 5"

Sand paper Friction Polish


A Purchased call and reed

About Me:
I'm an advanced woodworker, and about 70% of my work is done on the lathe these days. I've enjoyed woodworking and building things since I was in Junior high in the mid 70's. In 1999 my uncle let me know that he had purchased a lathe, and the next time I visited him he would teach me to use it. I had never touched a lathe, and the only lathe work I had seen done was by Norm Abrams who turned some table legs. I was not very excited, however, while on vacation I made some pens and a bowl and really enjoyed it! Within a month I had purchased a lathe and the rest is history! I find working on the lathe very relaxing. I can complete most of my wood-turning projects within a couple hours rather than the weeks or months it takes to complete with "flat work" (working with lumber)! In 2007 I was hired by a local woodworking school to teach an introductory woodturning class. In 2010 a second woodworking school hired me to provide intermediate woodturning instruction.

Step 1: Preparing the Wood for Turning

Blank Prep:

The first thing we have to do is cut the blank into square pieces 5" long. I used my bandsaw to cut the blanks, as you can see the fence is set 1.5 inches from the blade. Run the wood thru the bandsaw on two edges and you will have a square blank. The picture above shows the second cut and the blank on the left side of the blade is square.

I purchased a Drilling Chuck at the woodworking show this past winter and decided this was a good time to use it (See 2nd picture). If you don't have a Drilling Chuck you can mount the blank between centers, cut a tenon, then mount it in a four jaw chuck. This was the method I had used in the past. That being said, having the blank being square saved me a good amount of some time because it meant that I only had to clamp the wood in the chuck and drill it and use the same set up to turn the wood and hold it while sanding.

In the second picture above, you can see that the Drilling Chuck only has 2 sets of jaws each of which has a V cut into them. Clamping the wood between these two jaws aligns the wood perfectly (I marked the center of the wood on a couple of blanks to check this out and was surprised at the accuracy). In the third picture you can see that I have mounted a drill bit (1/2" for this specific type of call -- but check your instructions for the size of the required hole) in my Jacobs chuck and mounted that in the tail stock. Run the lathe at a low speed 300 rpm or so and turn the quill on the lathe to push the bit into the wood. The slow speed will ensure that the bit does not become too hot, burning or cracking the wood, nor damaging the bit. Remember to regularly pull the bit out of the wood to clear the chips.

The fourth picture shows the completed hole. I have pulled the wood most of the way out of the drilling chuck giving me complete access to 4.5 inches of the wood for cutting. This provides very limited grip on the wood, so to increase the safety of cutting, I replaced the jacobs chuck with a cone center in the tailstock. This is a live center, meaning that is has bearings in it that will turn when the lathe is on. Tighten the cone chuck so it puts pressure between the wood and the chuck. Having it held this way will limit the chances that the wood will come off the lathe.

Now that the wood is safely mounted, we are ready to turn!

Step 2: Turning the Call

Turning The Blank:

The first thing to do before turning the lathe on is to make sure the tool rest is properly adjusted. Raise the tool rest so that the cutting edge of your turning tool is about in the center of the spindle (height wise). Give the wood a spin to ensure that it wont hit the tool rest when the lathe is powered on.

Now power the lathe on. I ran my lathe at about 2500 rpm, but you should select a speed that you are comfortable with keeping in mind that the faster it spins the smoother cuts will be. I took a picture of my roughing spindle gouge while the lathe was on (see the first picture). I used this tool to round the blank into a cylinder. After getting the right end of the blank rounded, I temporarily removed the tailstock so that I could widen the end of the drilled hole.

I purchased a carbide scraper this past winter. I typically don't use this tool, however, it was perfect for opening the hole up. It is a scraper so it did not leave a great surface, but was easy to slide down inside the hole. The third picture above shows the tool in the end of the wood where the 1/2 inch hole was widened. I left about 1/8 of an inch of wall at the opening when I hollowed this out. The interior hole tapers from the mouth back along the lenght to the drilled diameter in about an inch and a half like the end of a horn or one of those recorders we played as a kid.

I then used my wide spindle gouge to clean up the surface of the cylinder. This is shown in the fourth picture above. I then switched over to the skew to shape the end of the call. I like the wider spindle gouge because it wont dig in as much as a smaller gouge if you were to get a catch.

The skew is a difficult tool to master, so if you don't feel comfortable with this tool you can use the spindle gouge or scraper. I used the skew because it leaves a very clean surface on the wood and reduces my sanding time -- my least favorite thing to do while turning. The fifth picture is not in focus - sorry, but the lathe was and 90% of my attention was on holding the tool and not getting a catch - but is of me using the skew. The heel of the skew is doing the cutting.

Step 3: Shaping, Sanding and Applying Finish


Now the fun part of turning anything is cutting the design. I typically have shape in mind before starting. The nice thing about a customer that has not given any designs is that you can experiment, which is what I did. The only design feature that was a requirement was a groove for a lanyard. These hunters want to wear the call around their necks and not have to fish it out of their pockets. I used a parting tool to cut these groves. First I use the toe of a skew to cut the two sides of the area that will be removed. This prevents the parting tool from tearing out the wood fibers next to the grove. I push the toe of the skew about one 32nd into the wood, and then switch to the parting tool to remove the wood about an eighth of an inch. The result can be seen in the first picture, it is the groove on the left side of the call.


Now before parting the call from the excess wood in the chuck jaws, we must sand it. Up until this point the tail stock has been in place, however, that prevents me from sanding inside the end of the call where I have widened the drilled hole. Pulling the tail stock back gives me access to sand inside this area. BE CAREFUL -- DO NOT WRAP SANDPAPER AROUND YOUR FINGER! If you do and the paper catches, SNAP, your finger could easily break! I sand this area by putting the paper along the length of my finger and siding it in the hole. I've also wrapped some sanding paper around a dowel or pencil and sanded that way.

I sanded the hole and end of the call starting with 150 grit, then changed to 240 grit and finally 320 grit. Once the inside has been completed, bring the cone center back up to stabilize the wood and sand the outside of the call going thru the same progression of sandpaper.

Applying The Finish:

Now that it is completely sanded, I stop the lathe blow the dust off of the wood and applied a friction finish. To apply the friction finish I wipe it on with the lathe off (see the second picture) so I can get a nice even coat of finish on and in the call. I start with the tailstock removed and do the inside and the end of the call. After a coating has been applied I turn the lathe back on at about 1200 rpm and carefully buff the finish with a fresh paper towel. The heat generated between the wood and the paper towel cures the finish and it will quickly shine. I put three coats of finish on the inside and on the end where it will be difficult to reach due to the tailstock.

Once the inside and end are completed, I put the tailstock back into the end of the call and apply the finish to the outside the same way I did the inside (three coats). When that was completed, I applied a coat of past wax to the entire piece and buffed it off with the lathe running. See picture three above.

Now that the finish is on the call it is time to separate the call from the scrap wood in the chuck. I'm using a home made parting tool. This parting tool is very thin, and in a previous life it was a steak knife. I ground the tip of the knife into a parting tool, and ground the serrated edge flat so I would not cut myself when I used it.

With my right hand I loosely hold the work piece I present the parting tool to the end of the call and cut through the remaining wood. When the call has been separated from the scrap wood I catch the finished work with my right hand before it bounces across my shop. (see pictures 4, 5, 6).

Bit More Final Sanding:

The inside of the call is still kind of rough were I just parted it off. So I wrapped a bit of 120 grit sandpaper around a pencil and use that to remove any rough edges/fibers on the inside of the call. After removing any loose fibers and rough edges I rub a bit of finish and wax on the freshly cut area so that it matches the rest of the call.

Step 4: Final Thoughts

Installing The Call:

Follow the instructions on the call that you purchased, for mine there were two plastic black pieces that fit together sandwiching a clear plastic reed. I just pushed that into the call and it was done.

Time Saving Tips:

If you are going to make a bunch of these, here are a couple time saving tips that I learned as I was going along.

1) Cut all of the blanks at once

2) Drill all of the blanks at once, and then turn them one at a time - this prevented me from having to install and remove the jacobs chuck time after time (thought about this after the fourth one...DUH).

3) Rather than using a friction finish, I decided to spray them with lacquer from a shake can.

Alternate finishes:

I actually tried several different finishes on these, the friction polish, sanding sealer and spray lacquer -- the spray was much quicker and put a nice finish on them.

I hope you learned something from these instructions, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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