Develop a delicate touch by creating graceful shapes.
As an alternative to mass-produced items, Christmas ornaments rank high on the list. They easily become treasured keepsakes and the delicate spindle work and hollow turning involved will certainly test your skills.
Each ornament contains three parts. I suggest making the long “icicle” spindle first, then the top cap and last, the hollow bulb. This approach allows careful fitting of the icicle and cap to the bulb as well as working out the proportions to enhance the overall look.
Part of designing wooden ornaments is selecting and mixing materials. For the spindle work, almost anything goes, but dense woods such as hard maple, cherry, cocobolo and goncalo alves are well suited for turning the thin diameters and fine details that characterize the best ornaments. The hollow bulb-shaped body can be turned from virtually any interesting-looking wood or other material, including spalted wood, dyed, bleached or colored wood, plywood, plastic—even Banksia pods.
To hollow the bulb, you’ll need a small straight scraper and at least one offset or bent scraper. The rest of the turning can be done with basic spindle-turning tools: a roughing gouge, a detail gouge, a thin kerf parting tool and skew chisel.
Turn the Icicle
Install a 3/4″ to 1″ square blank in a scroll chuck, using the small jaws (Photo 1). This blank can be as long as you want, but 4″ is a good length to start with. Use the tailstock to center the blank in the chuck: Loosely mount the blank in the chuck, after marking the center of its tailstock end. Bring up the tailstock and engage its live center in the blank’s center mark. Then tighten the chuck).
Round the blank with your roughing gouge, being careful to not get too close to the jaws of the chuck.
Pull away the tailstock and start working that end of the blank (Photo 2). Move one step toward the headstock after finishing each detail. It’s quite difficult to go back, due to the small diameters (Photo 3).
As you near the chuck jaws, leave room for three elements: a flared shoulder, a tenon and sufficient waste material for parting off (Photo 4).
The tenon is based on the size of the bulb, so a diameter just over 1/2″ is a good starter for the ornaments shown here (Photo 5).
Undercut the inside of the shoulder with the long point of the skew or a thin kerf parting tool (Photo 6). This is tricky, because you’re working so close to the chuck jaws, so go at it carefully. The goal is to create a concave area that the bulb will nest into in order to create a clean-looking joint.
Complete the icicle by blending the shoulder into the detailed part of the turning. Finish-sand and then part off the icicle from the chuck.
Turn the Cap
You can make the cap from wood left in the chuck from turning the icicle, a contrasting wood, or material of a larger diameter than the icicle. Whichever you choose, mount the blank in the scroll chuck.
Establish and turn the tenon for mounting the cap to the bulb (Photo 7). If you intend to turn a cap with long and delicate shaping, it’s best to turn the tenon on the headstock end, as I did while turning the icicle. Otherwise, the tenon can go on either end of the blank. I normally turn this tenon to the same diameter that I used for the icicle’s tenon.
Turn tiny details and a concave shoulder, as you did on the icicle (Photo 8). Again, the concave shoulder will create a clean, flush fit when you attach the cap to the bulb.
Decide how the ornament will hang, either from a hole drilled through the cap or from a metal eyelet threaded into top of the cap. For an eyelet, just provide a small flat area for mounting. For a through hole, turn a 1/4″ to 3/8″ diameter round or elliptical shape at the top of the cap. Finish sand and part off the cap from the chuck.
If you decided on through-hole hanging, flatten the shape you turned at the top of the cap by sanding both sides. One easy way to do this is to mount a small sanding disc in the headstock, using a Jacob’s style chuck. Finish up by drilling a 1/8″ hole through the flattened area. If you’re going to thread in an eyelet, simply drill a small pilot hole on the top of the cap.
Turn the Bulb
Decide on the bulb’s shape and dimensions. Shaping options include a ball, an ellipse and an egg, to name a few. The bulb’s size can be quite varied, but I suggest starting with something around 1-1/2″ to 1-3/4″ in diameter and about 2″ in length. Allow extra length for mounting the blank in the chuck as well as the additional material that you’ll need for turning the bulb from both ends.
Start the square blank between centers to create a tenon for the small jaws or install the regular jaws and directly mount the blank. (Photo 9).
Create the bulb’s basic shape, but do not reduce the diameter completely at the headstock end (Photo 10).
Using a Jacob’s style chuck mounted in the tailstock, drill a 1/2″ hole about three-quarters through the bulb (Photo 11).
Fit the icicle to the bulb. You may need to slightly enlarge the hole to fit the tenon. You may also need to lightly shape the end of the bulb, so it fits into the icicle’s concave shoulder. When the icicle fits perfectly, finish-sand the outside of the bulb.
Hollowing through a small opening is a form of blind turning. Using the small straight scraper, open up the inside of the body. Stop to clear chips often and be careful to work the shape to roughly match the outside. Keep the walls at least 1/4″ thick at this time.
To create a lightweight bulb, you’ll need to further reduce the wall thickness, a process that requires making careful measurements of the wall. Sometimes it’s possible to use small double-ended calipers for measuring, but I use nothing more than a section of stiff, but springy wire. Bend the wire into the shape shown in Photo 13, closed down to about 1/4″ at its opening. With the lathe off, insert the tool and simply move it from the rim along the wall. When the wall thickness is 1/4″ the tool will just pass through. Thinner areas will show as a gap above the outside; thicker areas push the wire open.
You’ll need a bent-shaped scraper to reach the inside areas from the bulb’s midpoint to just below the rim (Photo 12). Strive for a finished wall thickness between 1/8” to 3/16”. Start from the rim, measure often, and follow the bulb’s outside shape until you reach the end of the drilled hole.
The other end will be completed in a later step, when you’ll remount the bulb, turned end-for-end, a technique called “reverse chucking” (Photo 13).
Part off the bulb from the chuck, a tiny bit longer than its finished length (Photo 14).
Turn a tenon and shoulder to mount the finished portion of the bulb. This is a tricky step: The tenon has to be tight enough to hold the bulb firmly enough to drill and lightly turn the unfinished end, but loose enough for you to pull the bulb off when it’s finished. If the tenon ends up slightly undersize, to shim it with tissue paper so you can complete the bulb.
Mount the bulb on the tenon. Then drill all the way through, using the Jacobs chuck, as before. Then lightly turn the inside walls to blend into the areas previously turned from the opposite direction (Photo 15).
Fit the cap to the bulb the same way you fit the icicle. This involves fitting the tenon and lightly shaping the area around the opening to create a clean fit. Finish-sand the entire outside of the bulb.
Glue the cap and icicle to the bulb. You can use just about any glue; I use quick-set epoxy. Hang your ornament with fishing line or thread.
I usually apply finish while the pieces are still on the lathe. You have numerous choices, including shellac, wiping varnish or oil finish.
Wax is also an option, to adjust the sheen. If you wait until the ornament is assembled, you could suspend it before applying the finish—then you could even use a spray-on finish.