Tips for better spindle turning

Chart
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

  • 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.

2 photos showing notches

Blue shirt at lathe,1
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
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
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
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.

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.

Story stick
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 spindle.

calipers
Rest calipers set to the desired diameter in a straight segment as you turn it down. When the calipers slip over the center, stop cutting.

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.

Lift, swing #1
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
Take a similar light cut from the opposite side of the vee, chasing the shaved-away waste material toward the bottom.

Lift #3
Make the vee deeper and wider by alternating cuts on both sides until you've reached the "bottom" diameter you want.

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.

Roll, swing lift #1
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
Continue making light cuts until you've rolled a continuous curve from the pencil line to the bottom diameter or connection to the next shape.

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.

Lift
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
Push the cut toward the bottom of the cove by lifting the handle, pivoting, and rolling it counterclockwise simultaneously.

Lift, roll, swing #3
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.

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.

Blue shirt, sanding
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
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

More Resources

  • 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.

Leg on leg using gray sanding paper

Triangle on photo

Chart

Tip of the Day

Clamps Squeeze Sanding Drums Down to Size

I learned the hard way that you should release the tension on a drum sander when you're finished... read more

Talk in Wood Turning