Tips for better spindle turning
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Tips for better spindle turning

Even if you use the lathe only occasionally, you can quickly and easily learn to turn out shapely spindles -- anything turned between centers -- with these essential guidelines to lead you.

Things to know before turning on the lathe

Things to know before turning on the lathe

  • No matter how complex it might look, every turned spindle consists of four basic shapes, shown below -- bead, cove, vee, and straight -- used alone or in various combinations. In this article, you'll learn to make each shape individually; then you can begin blending them to create more complex profiles.
  • After roughing a blank round, define each shape's width with top and bottom limits (side-to-side when mounted on the lathe) by making pencil marks on the turned cylinder.
  • When shaping a profile, always work from the greater diameter to the smaller. So divide each shape in half, and cut each segment with a "downhill" motion to prevent catches and tear-out.
  • Regardless of the tool, you use one or more of four tool motions, shown right, for making shapes. Lifting the tool handle makes the tool cut deeper, reducing the spindle diameter; swinging the tool handle side-to-side creates curved profiles; rolling the tool in a circular motion optimizes the cutting edge to the task and fine-tunes shapes; and sliding the tool on the tool rest cuts shapes laterally.
  • And remember, practicing on scrap stock helps hone your skills, saves your good wood, and proves just as much fun as turning the final project.


Starting from square one: Turning a pommel
2 photos showing notches
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Blue shirt at lathe,1
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1. With the skew's toe pointed
down, touch the cutting edge
lightly to the wood 1/2" or so to
the right of the bottom mark, and
cut about 1/16" deep.
Blue shirt at lathe,1
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2. Make a series of gradually
deeper cuts, repositioning the
skew about 1/16" closer to the
pommel's bottom mark each time.
Blue shirt at lathe,1
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3. When you reach the bottom
mark, begin rolling the tool slightly
as you cut, using a clockwise rotation,
and ending with the tool at 90°.
Blue shirt at lathe,1
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4. Make light shaving cuts until
you've cut a bead that begins at
the upper mark and ends in a
complete circle at the bottom mark.

Starting from square one: Turning a pommel

Most spindles start out as square blanks. To make the blank round, mount it on the lathe between the headstock and tailstock, and use the roughing gouge to reduce it to a cylinder.

If the finished spindle will retain a square segment, you'll need to first turn a pommel, the transition from square to round. Typically, pommels have either a beaded or lamb's-tongue (cove-and-bead combination) profile, shown at right. You can turn either profile with a spindle gouge, but we prefer a 1 3/8" skew chisel for beaded pommels because, when used correctly, it cuts cleanly with no tear-out.

Cutting pommels first gives you a safety net: Should you have a catch that damages the square portion, you can stop and flip the spindle end for end and start fresh. The torn-out miscue will disappear when you later turn that end into a cylinder. Begin by marking the top and bottom of the pommel with a pencil and square on all four faces. With your lathe running at about 1,350 rpm for a 3"-square blank, cut the pommel (ours is a bead) as shown right.

With the pommel finished, use the roughing gouge to turn the remaining spindle to the largest profile diameter.


Now set critical diameters with a parting tool
Story stick
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With the spindle turning and the
story stick lying on the tool rest
and hooked around the tailstock
end, transfer the profile lines to the
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Rest calipers set to the desired
diameter in a straight segment
as you turn it down. When the
calipers slip over the center, stop
Cove top
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Establish the diameters of each
shape, such as the top and bottom
of a nonsymmetrical cove you'll cut
later, with a parting tool.

Now set critical diameters with a parting tool

Make a story stick with a hook at the bottom end, with dividing lines indicating the locations for different shapes. Transfer the lines to the spindle, as shown below right. Then use a parting tool and calipers to turn each diameter.


Turn vees with a skew
Lift, swing #1
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With the toe pointed down, swing
the handle while orienting the
bevel with the vee angle. Then
touch the toe to the workpiece
and lift the handle.
Lift #2
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Take a similar light cut from the
opposite side of the vee, chasing
the shaved-away waste material
toward the bottom.
Lift #3
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Make the vee deeper and wider
by alternating cuts on both sides
until you've reached the "bottom"
diameter you want.

Turn vees with a skew

You create vees much like a beaded pommel, but without rolling the tool. Because the vee comes to a point, you cannot use a parting tool to establish the bottom diameter. Instead, alternate cutting each side of the vee with the skew, shown right.


Make beads with a spindle gouge
Roll, swing lift #1
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With the tool's bevel riding against
the spindle and the flute at 12 o'clock,
start "pushing" a shallow cut away from
the center mark, rolling a quarter-turn.
Roll, swing lift #2
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Continue making light cuts until
you've rolled a continuous curve
from the pencil line to the bottom
diameter or connection to the next

Make beads with a spindle gouge

Spindle gouges have rounded tips and shallow flutes (by comparison, bowl gouges have deep flutes), and work perfectly to make the rounded cuts that form beads. Begin by marking a dividing line in the center of the bead (defined in the earlier step with the story stick). Then, as you round off each side, start each pass closer to the pencil line and cut away from it, as shown at right. Ultimately, you should cut right up to the pencil mark on each side but not remove the line until the sanding stage. Reverse the tool actions for left and right halves.


Shape coves similarly to forming beads
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Start with the gouge's flute at about
the 2 o'clock position. Lightly touch
the tip into the spindle by lifting the
tool's handle.
Lift, roll, swing #2
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Push the cut toward the bottom of
the cove by lifting the handle, pivoting,
and rolling it counterclockwise
Lift, roll, swing #3
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Continue cutting until you reach the
center of the bottom. Do not cut past
that point or you'll get tear-out or an
uneven cove.

Shape coves similarly to forming beads

Use the same techniques to make coves as you did with beads. You roll the tool counterclockwise for left-side cuts while swinging the tool handle to the left. Do the opposite to shape the right side of a cove profile.


It's all over but the sanding
Blue shirt, sanding
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To avoid rounding over the crisp
corners and edges of the pommel,
sand its turned profile by hand with
the lathe NOT running.
Blue shirt gray sanding piece
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Sand round profiles with
paper-backed abrasive: It folds
tighter to reach into crevices and
tears easily if caught, protecting
your fingers.
2 photos together
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Sanding round profiles with the
lathe spinning proves quicker
than doing it by hand, but leaves
radial scratches [Photo 3]. With
the lathe off, sand by hand in the
grain direction to remove these
scratches [Photo 4], following the
same 120-, 150-, 180-, 220-grit

It's all over but the sanding

Once you've shaped the spindle's profile with your tools, sand away the tool marks. Start with 120 grit and follow with 150, 180, and 220 if needed.


More Resources

More Resources

  • Watch these spindle-turning techniques in action in a video, free for a limited time, at
  • Buy more downloadable turning videos at From the left-hand menu select "wood-working videos" and then "turning" for a full listing.



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