Introduction: Woodturning With a Drill Press

About: I am a physicist working in research, Making things and sharing the experience with others, helps me in many ways.
  • Using very few materials and common hand  tools you can turn your drill press  into a small lathe for wood and plastic.

  • Three examples of increasing difficulty are described here in some detail, a bottle stopper, a tool handle and  a cylindrical piece. These examples serve to illustrate different  methods of work , useful to anybody willing to try this modification.. .

  • I also show several other  things I made in the past  that  may give you ideas for your own projects.

Step 1: The Set Up

The idea of turning a drill press into a small lathe is not new. The setups that you may find in the internet  include

  • The work of the instructables contributor Tool Using Animal (
  •  A few youtube videos. 
  • A commercial product under the name of Vertilathe
These setups are similar in principle. Specifically the commercial product gave me the idea to go ahead and make a simple setup out of wood as a first try, more than 5 years ago. It turned out that it works well and I did not have to modify it for the simple projects I am doing. This is what I am presenting here. It consists of a unique block that contains the two basic components of the lathe, the tool rest and the live centre.

The tool rest

This is a vertical block of wood 12 cm x 5cm x 1.5cm firmly screwed and glued on the basis. It serves to slide the tool up and down along the edge of the working piece. Furthermore it protects your hand from getting to close to the turning piece. The length depends upon the available space you have in the drill press. In retrospect I should have made this a few centimeters longer.

The live centre

This allows the working piece to rotate around a stable axis. It consists of a short axis with a conical shape usually mounted on a ball-bearing. I made mine in the simplest possible way and it proved enough. It is made out of a screw free to rotate in its hole, supported by double nuts and washers.

Step 2: Methods to Hold a Piece

There are several ways to hold the piece on the drill. In the examples to follow I'll describe the use of three of them.

  • A home made spur centre. This is the more stable of all. The central screw keeps the work in line and the three pins keep the piece from turning loose. It is used by drilling a hole for the central axis and hammering the pins in the wood.

  • A screw shaped as a double edge. This works best with medium and hard woods. It is preferable when you need to work with pieces of small diameter.

  • A common screw with a bolt. This serves when you do not want to use the live centre.

  • Some people use a Forster bit (the last in the photo) but I was not successful with it.

Step 3: Tools

  • Since we are dealing here with small pieces, a set of wood curving tools is more than enough. From a set of six I only use the basic knife and the larger gouge. I also made another tool  from an old knife for marking and  fine details.  The handle was made with this lathe.

  • I think that two more tools would also be useful, a flat chisel and a chisel with a round edge for the concave parts..

Step 4: SAFETY

  • A drill press can be dangerous as it is for someone without experience. It may become even more dangerous when you are using a chisel with it!

  • Always wear gloves and safety glasses.

  • Keep your hands behind the tool rest.

  • Do not press the tool too much on the piece.

  • Stop when you hear unusual sounds when the piece turns. Something may be loose and become dangerous. And finally:

              Your hands and eyes are worth much more than a bottle stopper!

Step 5: First Demonstration: a Simple Bottle Stopper

This is a simple project which will forgive a lot of mistakes.
  • Cut a wood piece of your preference about 6-8 cm. The cuts should be as parallel as possible.
  • Drill a central hole for the spur centre on one side and another one on the live centre on the other side..
  • Hammer in the spur centre.
  • Mount everything on the drill and align by small displacements of the table.
  • Turn for a short time to check if it is aligned.
  • If it is right tighten the screws of the base on the table.
  • Start wood turning. First make a cylinder and mark the size of the object.
  • Continue with the conical surface.
  • Work slowly and stop frequently to check how it goes.

Step 6: Finishing

  • This stopper is meant to work with a rubber o-ring. So,  make two marks for different diameters.
  • While the piece is still on the drill , sand it. I use at least three numbers of sand papers, 80,100,120.
  • Remove the piece from the drill and mount it on a vice. Use a saw to cut off the upper and lower parts of the piece.
  • Mount the o-ring and test it on a bottle.

Step 7: Second Demonstration : a Tool Handle

  • The working piece is a part of an olive branch dry seasoned for more than a year. We are going to make a tool handle out of it, but this time we need good alignment with the axis of the tool.

  • The  piece will be supported from a shaped rod ending in two pins (the second piece holder in step 2).

  • First you support the branch from a vice and drill  a 6mm hole on the one side deep a few centimetres and a more shallow hole to the other side for the live centre.

  • Then you hammer in the supporting rod to the upper side and mount it on the drill.

  • The turning steps are shown in the photos.

Step 8: Mounting the Tool and Finishing

  • I used the hole on the piece as a guide to form the hole for the tool to put in.

  • This was made by mounting the handle again on the vice (protected by two pieces of plywood) and drilling a deep 3mm hole and a more shallow 4.5 mm.

  • The tool was forced in by hammering with a wooden mallet.

  • Thin varnish was applied to the handle.

Step 9: Third Demonstration: a Cylinder

  • We are going to make a rather large diameter cylinder. The main problem here is the alignment of the internal to the external surface.

  • Making a cylinder first and then trying to drill a hole  is a process more apt to failure. In this example we are going to work inside-> out  by first drilling the hole and  then trying to align the external diameter to it by mounting it on a suitable support.

  • The hole was done with a 35mm Forster bit and the hight was 55mm. The wood was very soft and this caused some problems.

Step 10: Building a Support

  • The support is needed to align the hole to the drill axis. I used an 8mm threaded rod. I also made two 35mm wooden disks to fit the inside and two larger 40mm disks for the outside.

  • Since  a tight contact to the hole was needed, I used pieces of tape on the inner disks.

Step 11: Turning the Cylinder

  • Then the piece is mounted on the chuck and turned. The support was strong enough and turning was easy.

  • However I am not satisfied with the final result. There was a misalignment of 0.5mm between the internal and external surfaces that I think I can improve the next time by doing the following:
  1. The piece should be completely  immobilized on the drill table for making the hole. I did not do this and the result is a shift in the drilling since the wood was too soft.
  2. A harder wood should be used.
  3. I should also use double nuts to hold the supporting disks on the axis.
  4. A good idea is to add a piece of wood to connect the axis to the live centre. This would improve alignment.
  • Overall the method works, however it needs more careful praparation.

Step 12: More Bottle Stoppers

  • This is the first applicaton i worked a lot with. I made a couple of douzens and gave them as small gifts.

  • I tend to prefer the o-ring version. The cork  needs replacement after extended use.

Step 13: More Tool Handles

  • I have made several handles for small tools, the most of them for  blades.

  • The first three shown in the photo have a place in a small portable toolbox in the house. They are a  1.5mm drill, a saw and an awl. The have saved a lot of situations where delicate work is needed..

Step 14: Wooden Wedges

  • Wooden wedges  can be made by mounting a cylindrical dowel directly on the drill chuck. The live centre will be needed only if the piece is too long.

  • These are usefull for repairs.  Two years ago I restored a badly damaged classical guitar.  I used a wooden wedge across and special glue for  instruments to repair the broken key part.  The complete restoration lasted 2-3 months and it is a story of its own. Some information is in the photos below.

Step 15: A Wooden Mallet

  • The same spur centre was used for a simple wood mallet. i also have made a few of these for gifts.

Step 16: Pencil Holders

  • I like using these pencil holders for small pencil bits.

  • A similar project is to make wooden pens using commercial pen sets. I think that this is doable with this drill press setup.

Step 17: Spinning Tops

  • Spinning tops is another project worth trying. I have made several as small gifts.

Step 18: A Final Word

  • Of course you cannot turn salad bowls or furniture pieces with this small tool.
  • One thing to remember is that the drill press is designed to operate vertically and by using the chisel on the work piece you apply horizontal forces on the axis that will tend to destabilize the system. So do not overdo it or you may see the chuck flying around the room (it happened to me).
  • Currently, after exploring its possibilities,  I use this modification only as a side tool to make parts for other projects (like wooden wedges or cylinders) or to fit sizes in wooden or PVC pieces.
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