Months ago I made an early wood turning project for my girlfriend: a handmade wine bottle stopper. We both enjoy a good bottle (or two...) now and then and over the years she's acquired a small collection of wine bottle stoppers as gifts or souvenirs from her travels. While she loved the one that I had made for her, it relegated some of her other stoppers to a kitchen drawer for storage, and before I knew it I was digging through a pile of bottle stoppers every time I needed a pen or pair of scissors. Something had to be done.
I follow several fantastic woodworkers on youtube, and one of these is Frank Howarth. He is a tremendous designer and is known for his ability to take real-life objects and create a wooden version of them, often using his lathe and CNC (he's made a wooden 8-ball, a football, the Death Star, etc). While kicking around design ideas for bottle stopper storage in my head for a few days, I was watching some of his videos and got inspired to see if I could create a wine bottle out of wood and find a way to mount bottle stoppers on it. Follow me through this Instructable and see how this was done.
Step 1: Selecting and Milling Lumber
My intention was to try and remake a bottle of Josh, my girlfriend's favorite wine brand, and was hoping to do so with some scrap woods hanging around the shop. To match colors, I decided to go with walnut for the darkness of the bottle, maple for the lightness of the label, and purpleheart for the boldness of the foil on the top. Since I didn't have thick enough boards, I needed to laminate pieces of all three woods together to get enough thickness.
I ran them all across the jointer to flatten the sides that I would be glueing together, and then trimmed them down to size on the miter and table saws. With the blanks ready to go, I glued all of the individual wood species together to build them up to thickness. Once dry, I took them to the disc sander to flatten up all of the ends that would then be glued together.
One great component of wood turning is that - unlike traditional woodworking and furniture making - since much of the outside of the wood blanks will be turned away in a shower of wood shavings, having to run through the typical jointer/planer/table saw process to mill all of the sides perfectly parallel with 90° corners isn't a concern. Since the walnut blank will need to be cut in approximately half (to represent the bottle above and below the label), I squared one corner and cut it down to size.
Step 2: Assembling the Bottle Blank
With all of the pieces cut down to an approximate size, I need to figure out how to attach all of them together. Since the edges that will be joined together are end grain, a simple glue joint wont be strong enough to inspire much of my confidence when I'll be turning it at thousands of RPMs on the lathe. Now, I'm lucky enough to have a Festool Domino and I use it at nearly every opportunity (to rationalize how much money I spent on the damn thing!), but in this case the process for aligning the mortise locations on pieces that are not the same size simply isn't worth it.
So I decided to go with dowels to inject some additional strength into the piece. The easiest way to do this is to create a simple one-use doweling jig to ensure that all of the dowel holes are perfectly spaced on all of the pieces. I cut a piece of plywood to a similar size to the blanks and ensured that one corner was at a perfect 90° angle. I put 'X' marks on each edge of this corner on both the top and bottom of the jig, and labeled the two faces 'T' and 'B' for top and bottom. The idea here is that when I'm drilling into the end grain of the blanks, if the face that I'm drilling into is on the top of that particular blank, I orient it so that the 'T' is facing up (or the 'B' is facing up if it's the bottom side of the blank). This ensures that the holes on two joining faces will be perfectly aligned.
I drilled three holes an inch apart in a triangle pattern that were just ever so slightly undersized relative to the diameter of the dowel plugs that I'm using. The exact placement of these holes is inconsequential, as long as they will not be so far apart that I might end up turning the bottle down too far on the lathe and exposing the dowels within. After figuring out how I wanted the blanks aligned to give me the best grain pattern, I marked the edges with 'X' marks to line up with the dowel jig that I just made. Using the same drill bit, I figured out the depth that I needed to drill (the thickness of the jig plus slightly more than half of the dowel length) and marked that with blue tape on the drill bit. I then drilled the dowel mortises on each face of the blanks, being sure to have the jig properly aligned each time.
I test-fitted all of the dowel plugs without pushing the blanks all of the way together, as my slightly undersized dowel holes will produce a serious pressure fit that will be hard to take off. Now for the glue up. When doing end grain gluing, I prefer to use long-set epoxy. This penetrates the end grain better and gives a longer working time than traditional wood glue. Here's my process for end grain glue ups: 1) Wet the end grain with water to open the pores of the grain. 2) Spread on a healthy layer of epoxy and allow it to soak into the end grain - this needs to be done several times until the epoxy is no longer being absorbed. You can see in the pictures above how much of this will get absorbed into the pores. 3) When reapplications of the epoxy stop soaking into the end grain, it's ready to be joined together.
I inserted the dowels into their mortises with epoxy on them, and hammered them together. I do each joint one at a time to prevent having epoxy all over my workbench and clamps. Using epoxy here instead of wood glue allows for so much more working time. Once all of the blanks are assembled, I use parallel and F-style clamps to apply as much pressure as possible for at least a full day while the epoxy cures. It was a bit of a Frankenstein clamping job.
Step 3: Lathe Prep
Once fully cured, it's time to get the blank ready to be mounted on the lathe. First, while all of the corners are intact, I want to mark the center points on each end. I'll start with the bottom end of the bottle blank, drawing lines between opposing corners - the intersection of these lines is the center point. I did the same process for the top piece of purpleheart, but since this piece may be ever-so-slightly offset from the center of the body of the blank, it's important to ensure that the center point on top is in the exact same plane as the one on the bottom. From the centerpoint on the bottom of the blank, I traced two lines on opposing faces all of the way up the sides of the piece until they intersected again at the very top. This point indicates the exact centerpoint of the top of the blank relative to the bottom.
Since this blank isn't one uniform dimension (as I didn't have enough purpleheart to match the size of the walnut and maple), I want to trim off some of the excess waste wood on the bandsaw to make it a little more balanced on the lathe. This process also allows me to knock back the square corners of the blank, which will save me time and tear-out when I'm roughing the blank into round. To accomplish this, I removed the fence and angled the table of the bandsaw to 45°, cutting these out by hand.
Step 4: Turn Into Round
As this blank is really just a large (mostly) cylindrical object, I chose to turn this project between centers. The base of the blank is now a strange octagonal shape, so mounting it in the chuck would not be stable, and using a woodworm screw on the base would require me to drill a hole in the bottom which wasn't preferable. So I seated my spur chuck on the bottom end of the blank by hammering it into the centerpoint with a deadblow mallet. After lining up the centerpoint on the top of the blank with the live center, I'm ready to turn.
Admittedly, I could have saved myself a little headache by first taking the blank to the drum sander and removing a little more of the outer material to get this blank slightly more round. But I honestly was too interested to see how this was going to turn out that I just mounted it on the lathe and went for it. I'm using carbide insert cutting tools to turn this, as they're incredibly easy to use and require very little of the technique that gouges do, so for instructional purposes I felt it was a good choice. Whenever starting a large new turning with carbide insert tools, I try to ensure that I rotate the inserts to give me a fresh new cutting edge to get the best results possible.
Turning this blank was slow going at first, as I invested a lot of time in gingerly bringing the blank into round at a slow speed. Since the blank wasn't symmetrical along its width, the balance of the spinning lathe isn't ideal. A great tip for turning an unbalanced piece into round is to start your lathe on a slower speed (around 300-400 RPMs), gradually ramping up the speed until the lathe begins to vibrate and shake slightly, and then dial the speed back just a bit. It takes the guesswork out of deciding on a speed for roughing the blank, and once the piece gets closer to round, you can ramp the speed up a little more.
I elected to rough this out as if the blank were two separate pieces: the body and the neck. When using carbide inserts to rough a blank into round, it helps to work on small 1" sections at a time rather than trying to sweep across the length of the piece right at the start. When trying to determine how close to round a blank is, lightly resting the arm of the cutting tool on the top of the blank while it's spinning will indicate where you're at. A round blank will allow the tool to ride along the top smoothly, while one that still has a ways to go will produce a lot of chatter.
Step 5: Final Turning and Sanding
Once the blank is fully round, it's time to define the shape. The three most important details to transfer from the actual wine bottle to the blank are the taper of the bottle, the curve of the neck transition, and the length and nub of the very top. Having the glass wine bottle on hand to use as a comparison while turning helps tremendously.
While the taper of the bottom end of the bottle is fairly subtle and easy enough to quickly translate on the blank, the neck transition is a bit trickier. The curve at the top of the body begins earlier than you might think, and the neck shape swoops up before the walnut meets the purpleheart. I switched back and forth between my square radius carbide cutter and round nosed tool, as the former is best for quickly removing material and the latter is ideal for smoothing inside and outside curves. I checked my progress regularly by comparing the glass bottle, and stepped back from the lathe a few times to see how the shape looked from a glance.
Once I was happy with the neck profile, I needed to determine where the top end of the bottle will be, and used a parting tool and the round nosed carbide cutter to shape this profile. With the shape of the bottle complete, I pulled out my 100 grit cutting tool (aka sandpaper) and began to sand the entire piece thoroughly. Since I will be doing a good amount of work to the bottle before this project is finished, I only sanded through 100/150/180 grits and will finish the sanding later by hand.
With the blank removed from the lathe, the last two main shaping details to consider are removing the small tenon from the bottom of the bottle and cutting off the excess waste wood from the very top. I took the bottle to the bandsaw and carefully cut away the unwanted top of the neck where I marked with my parting tool. The drum sander was perfect for quickly hogging off the small tenon on the bottom of the bottle where I had it mounted on the lathe.
Step 6: Drilling Stopper Holes
So that actually looks pretty cool! It's definitely a wooden wine bottle at this stage, and I shuddered to think about the next step in this build, which is to drill a dozen holes across the face of the bottle. It was a little tempting just to put finish on the damn thing and place it in the kitchen as an art project, but since necessity is the mother of invention I reconciled myself to press on and drill out the holes to mount the bottle stoppers in...
This is one of those points in a project where you tend to step back and say, "umm, how the hell am I going to do this?" I need to 1) drill a dozen holes into a cylindrical object, and 2) those holes have to be drilled at an arbitrarily offset angle relative to the face of the object, and 3) they have to securely hold small delicate objects whose body is a cone shape. I really set myself up for success on this one...
Breaking down those processes individually allowed me to see the best way to proceed. For the first consideration, I need to determine hole placement. For aesthetic purposes, I decided to have four bottle stoppers along each side of the bottle, three stoppers in the middle, and one sitting in the top (as bottle stoppers are prone to doing). Using a combination square, I marked out where the three columns of holes will be and struck lines along the length of the piece. Then I determined the individual placement of these holes - they'll be about 2.5" apart vertically, and the middle column will be offset so that the holes fall in between the hole placement of the outside columns.
With the hole positions in place, it's on to problem number two. I experimented with the idea of using the drill press to drill these angled holes, which would require building a jig to hold the bottle at the correct angle. But after thinking it through, the extreme angle of these holes (about 30° relative to the bottle) meant that the chuck of the drill press would get in the way when drilling holes further down the body, so that idea is out. Then I considered building a jig that I could mount to the workbench that would hold the bottle down horizontally and would have a pre-drilled guide hole at the correct angle. But securely holding down a cylindrical object required more engineering than I was interested in doing that particular afternoon, and I was worried that precise repeatably over twelve holes would be a concern. So, I scrapped all of these ideas and decided to drill out the holes by hand. The angles of these don't need to be spot on exact from hole to hole (31° in one hole and 28° in the next wouldn't be a huge deal), and I wont have to worry about a jig failing halfway through the project and being stuck with another dilemma. All I would need to do is mount the blank in the leg vise of the workbench, and drill away.
Lastly, how do I drill holes to securely hold a cone shaped object? For the hole in the top of the bottle, this is no issue - as long as the diameter of the hole is narrower than the top of the cone of the bottle stopper, the stopper will sit perfectly. But at a 30° angle, a simple hole would allow the bottom tip of the stopper to rotate inward and the stopper would end up sitting at 45° or more, which would not only look weird but would not hold them securely. After some experimentation on a scrap piece of wood, I decided that each mounting hole would actually contain two holes: one would be large enough that the majority of the bottle stopper base would slide into it, and the other would be small enough that it would hold the bottom tip of the stopper securely in place at the correct angle. I got the best results when using a 3/8" forstner bit for the primary hole, and finishing off the hole with a 1/4" forstner for the tip holder.
With all of the hurdles now overcome, it was time to drill. I found the best way to drill these was to start drilling perpendicularly to the bottle, slowly pivoting the bit as it gained a grip inside the hole, and leveling out when I hit around that 30° that I was shooting for. This results in a tapered-looking hole, and the process was fairly straightforward and thankfully I didn't hit any snags.
Step 7: Final Design Considerations and Finish
The holes that I just drilled needed some cleanup and TLC to look pretty, so I went at them with a file and some low grit sandpaper. It was important not to change the actual shape of these holes during the cleanup process - rounding over edges or removing material on the inside of the holes will throw off the geometry and the stoppers wont sit properly. These holes don't have to be perfect, but for the ones that will be temporarily empty (until my girlfriend's bottle stopper collection catches up with this project), I want them to at least appear nice at a glance.
My plan for this bottle stopper display is to mount it on the wall, so I need to flatten the back face of the piece to allow for that. I decided how much of the back I wanted to remove and used the fence on the bandsaw to line up the blade at the correct spot. After cutting away this wastewood, I hand planed this newly cut face to make it perfectly smooth and flat.
There are a number mounting options I considered, but in the end I opted to go with keyhole hangers. These can be easily recessed into the back of the piece, and wont leave much chance for me to mess up the progress I've made so far. The first step here is to strike a line perfectly parallel to the body of the piece and centered on the back face that I flattened. Then, after tracing the outside keyhole hardware, I used a trim router with a plunge base to recess these holes by hand. After determining that the hardware sat flush in these recesses, I needed to remove enough material for a screw head to sit in.
Lastly, for the finish. I sanded the entire outside of the piece both with a random orbit sander and by hand, through grits 180/220/320. I want the finished piece to look glossy and almost like glass, so I opted to go with the glossy version of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal. This varnish is super easy to apply, and leaves a perfectly shiny finished surface. I applied three coats, sanding lightly with 600 grit in between each.
Step 8: BONUS: How to Turn a Wine Bottle Stopper
While impatiently waiting for the finish to dry on the display piece, I thought it might be worth making a few more stoppers to illustrate how easy it is to churn out a wine bottle stopper. I processed all of these blanks at the same time, and it took me maybe 90 minutes from grabbing some blanks off the shelf to putting finish on the turned pieces.
The first step is to select your blanks and cut them to size. The ideal dimensions for a small project like this is about 2" x 2" x 4". It's important for the blanks to be square to make it easier and quicker to turn them into round, and you need at least 3-4" of length to be able to safely mount it on the lathe and have enough material to work with.
Once rouged out to dimension, it's time to drill holes to accommodate the stopper hardware. These are available at any of the woodworking specialty stores online for a few dollars, but I picked up a bag of 10 of them a little while ago and can grab one whenever I need an instant gratification project. Since these will be turned between centers, we need to find the center point on each end of the blanks. This is easily accomplished by drawing lines between opposing corners of the end of the blanks - the intersection of these lines is the center point. After finding the correct drill bit that matches the diameter of the mounting hardware, I can square up the blanks in a vise on the drill press and drill a hole on one end that is deep enough to accommodate the tenon or bolt on the end of the stopper hardware.
To mount on the lathe, put the hole that was just drilled into the end of the live center, and line up the point on the spur center at the center point of the other end of the blank, tightening down the tail stock. Since these blanks are fairly small and well balanced, cranking up the speed can make turning these a breeze.
I used carbide insert turning tools on these blanks, and once the corners have been turned down and the piece is round, it's really just the creative process of finding the shape within the blank. First, use calipers to find the diameter of the outer piece of the stopper hardware that will meet up with the wooden handle. The end of the blank that is in the tailstock will be the part of this handle that meets the hardware, so it needs to be turned down to this same diameter. While roughing out a shape to the handle, turn down the waste wood above the top of the handle to a small tenon - this will make it easier to remove the waste wood after the handle is turned.
When you're happy with the shape of the piece, it's time to thoroughly sand. I typically start at around 150 grit and sand up to at least 320. Then the blank can be removed from the lathe, and using a bandsaw or handsaw, the tenon can be cut away to remove the waste wood. Any remaining material on the top of the piece can be easily sanded away, and the top can be sanded smooth up to the same grit as the rest of the handle. Before finishing, wipe the pieces down with mineral spirits to clean up any remaining sanding dust.
For finish, it's easy to apply a few coats of lacquer and call it a day. For small pieces like this, use a long necked screwdriver to hold the piece upright while spraying on the lacquer. Some small spring clamps can be used to hold these screwdrivers upright on a work surface while they dry.
One the finishing process is complete, use epoxy or CA glue to attach the handles to the stopper hardware. Some hardware kits have a threaded mounting bolt which removes the need for any adhesives. That's it! This is a super quick and fun process and produces a finished piece in no time that can serve as a great handmade gift.
Step 9: Final Thoughts
In the end, what I can definitively say is that this ended up being a challenging build and a rewarding exercise in design, and produced a very unique piece which serves its intended function. I'm still not totally sure if I really like it... but I suppose that's the risk in embarking on any art project. I think this will be one of those projects that takes some time to sink in before I decide whether I like it and determine what could be done better, then try remaking it somewhere down the line. For now, I'll have to settle for a more organized kitchen drawer, and the joy of seeing friends' faces when they enter our kitchen and wonder what that thing is hanging on the wall.
I appreciate you making it through this build, and would love to hear any feedback/opinions/questions that you might have in the comments section below. And I would be grateful for your vote in theOrganization Contest! If you'd like to see more of our work, give us a follow on IG @Resourced_Woodworking - thanks for reading!