Tips for better spindle turning
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- Watch these spindle-turning techniques in action in a video, free for a limited time, at woodmagazine.com/spindlevid.
- Buy more downloadable turning videos at woodstore.net. From the left-hand menu select "wood-working videos" and then "turning" for a full listing.