For many woodturning operations, a chuck performs the essential job of holding the work securely and safely. These operations often present unique requirements, so a dizzying array of manufactured and shop-made chucks have evolved to grasp, expand, screw, compress, trap, pull, jam, stick—and even to move the work through an eccentric pattern. Knowing which chuck to use can be confusing, especially because most are designed for specific applications, so they all have strengths and weaknesses. Learning about chucks will expand your capabilities and make your turning safer, to boot.
Always keep three rules in mind whenever you use a chuck.
Safety: Turning’s prime directive is to keep the work on the lathe. Using the wrong chuck or improperly mounting a blank can lead to disaster. Countless pieces have been damaged or destroyed and many turners seriously injured—some even fatally—by a chucking failure. Above all, remember that no chuck is 100% reliable. Therefore, when using a chuck, it’s imperative to wear a full face shield that’s rated with an ANSI Z87+. Also, pay special attention to the speed of the lathe—excessive speed is the most common denominator in lathe accidents.
Craftsmanship: A completed turning should show no trace of being affixed to the lathe. Screw holes and other mounting marks left by a chuck are evidence of mediocre work. Filling them or covering them with felt patches doesn’t cut it. And never let the chuck determine key dimensions of your piece. (When I first started turning, the bases on all my bowls were 3″ in diameter, because I always turned the outsides down to the 3″ faceplate that I had.) Even a footed bowl on which the dimensions of the foot are based on the chuck that held it is an example of pedestrian design.
Accuracy: Failing to accurately center a piece in or on a chuck can cause problems that may be impossible to correct. Using a chuck that doesn’t run true will produce similar frustrating results. Make it a practice to avoid worn or poorly-made chucks.
Types of Chucks
As your turning skills increase and your projects become more adventurous, you’ll keep encountering different chucks and chucking methods, most of which were devised by pioneering turners. Every chuck type has variations. And there’s a turner-made version of (or that pre-dates) virtually every commercial chuck. The chucks that follow are just the tip of the iceberg.
Chucks that Grasp
Four-jaw scrolling chucks are probably the biggest advancements in chuck technology (Photo 1). The better scroll chucks currently on the market have largely solved problems associated with the early versions, including issues with accuracy, wear of critical metal surfaces and a nasty tendency to loosen while turning. However, modern scroll chucks still have some quirks that are important to know about.
- Grain direction matters (see Lacer’s First Law of Chucking). Short-grain weakness is a critical factor when a scroll chuck is used for face-grain turning, because a catch at the wrong point can cause the wood to fracture—especially wood that’s dry or brittle or wood that naturally splits easily, such as oak.
- Maximize the chuck’s grip (Photo 2). Always use a suitably sized chuck and suitably sized jaws. (As the size and weight of the blank increases, the contact area between the wood and the chuck must also increase.) Shape the mounting point so the chuck’s jaws grip as much surface area (diameter and length) as possible. Create a shoulder that rests on top of the jaws as a bearing surface. And use serrated jaws.
- Safely house the jaws. To avoid contacting the scrolling mechanisms’ sharp spinning corners, keep the mechanisms scrolled inside the body of the chuck. This also keeps the jaws from being extended too far, so they don’t fly out of the chuck.
Chucks that Expand
Often the same scroll chuck that closes on work is also designed to expand into a recess. This is most helpful when a shallow recess is the only available mount (as when turning a plate or a platter) or when chucking into a drilled or turned opening (as when turning a pepper mill). These chucks work reasonably well, as long as the outward pressure exerted while mounting doesn’t split the wood. However, excessive force exerted by a catch or dig-in while turning can split the wood and break the work away from the chuck.
Chucks that Screw
No other chuck offers as wide a range of holding power as a faceplate with screws (Photo 3). Combined with the plate’s bearing surface, screws provide remarkable chucking strength—even a chuck with a single screw in the center can offer surprising holding power. However, these chucks are only suitable for face-grain turning, when the screws mount in the blank’s face grain (such as face-grain bowls, platters, stool seats and the like). Faceplates with screws should not be used if the screws will mount in the blank’s end grain (including end-grain bowls, boxes, goblets, for example).
Always make sure the faceplate is flat. The mounting point on the wood must also be flat or very slightly concave—never convex or uneven, or with high spots. Here are some other key issues concerning faceplates:
Don’t skimp. Buy a high-quality solid steel or hefty cast iron faceplate. The most practical sizes are 3″ and 4″ dia.—choose one made of one piece steel or even stainless steel with at least four holes. Faceplates 6″ in diameter and larger are usually made of cast iron. Choose one that’s at least 1/2″ thick. In any faceplate, the more holes the better—my favorite 3″ faceplate has 6 holes; sometimes I fill every hole on my 8″ faceplate with long #14 screws!
Use the right screws. The best choices I have found are sheet metal screws with square-drive heads, Tapcon® screws (hex head, 3/16″ dia. and 1/4″ dia.) and SPAX® Philips or square drive construction or multiple-materials screws. Do not use wood screws, drywall screws or deck screws—they’re often brittle and have too little holding power due to shallow threads and smaller diameters.
Use #10 #12 or #14 screws for most situations—always start by drilling pilot holes. Hex-head lag screws may be the best choice if the work is large and heavy and the faceplate is 10″ or larger. Buy a variety of screw lengths: long for roughing (especially when screwing into what will be the opening of a bowl); shorter for finish turning or small, light work—but always err on the long side. Even for small work, every screw must penetrate at least 1/2″ into the wood (full threads; the lead point doesn’t count). Deeper penetration and more screws are always safer paths—especially when working heavy, large diameters or work that’s out of balance.
Eliminate the screw holes. Simply filling or covering them looks amateurish. Instead, learn one or more “reverse chucking” methods. Reverse chucking involves removing the work after completing most of the turning and mounting it in reverse, in order to finish off the base.
Once the work has been reverse-chucked, the easiest way to remove the holes is to turn down the base. Consider the height you loose as part of the process and of your design. On the other hand, if the blank is just too thin or the wood is so precious that you don’t want to loose any, you have several options to choose from (Photo 4): Create a recess where the holes resided, reduce the diameter of the base inside the “screw orbit” (the ring that describes the circle of screws) or glue on a waste block to house the screws and remove it after the turning is completed.
Scraps of hardwoods such as poplar, soft maple, ash, walnut and cherry are suitable waste-block material. Don’t use weak woods such as pine, cedar and spruce, or plywood, which can separate. Use yellow or white glue to glue on a waste block. Clamp the joint for at least 12 hours and allow at least 24 hours drying time before turning. Do not glue a piece of paper between the waste block and blank. This creates a weak joint that can separate. For wet woods, use a dry-wood waste block and medium-viscosity CA glue. Lightly clamp the joint and allow at least two hours drying time.
Chucks that Compress
A block of wood with an anti-slip pad mounted on its face (1/8″ router mat works well) is the heart of a simple reverse chucking set-up (Photo 5). This type of chuck is especially useful for bowls and vessels with natural edges, thin bowls with delicate edges, and for reshaping the mounting surface of a “twice-turned” bowl for remounting into a scroll chuck. (A “twice-turned” bowl is roughed out of a green blank, allowed to dry and then remounted for final turning.)
Mount the block with the anti-slip material on a faceplate or in a scroll chuck. Center a nearly completed bowl or vessel on the block. Then use the tailstock center to firmly press the base of the work against the block, so that compression—and friction—holds the work while its base is shaped. Make sure to accurately center the work (Photo 6). This setup allows working the underside of the base, except near the tailstock center (this area must be worked after the piece comes off the lathe). This setup also allows working the sides, but only about one-quarter of the way up from the bottom.
Chucks that Trap
The most common method for mounting turning blanks with through holes—pen blanks, for example—is to trap them on a mandrel (Photo 7). Pepper mills, game calls, bracelets and toy wheels are frequently mounted this way.
An unusual trapping chuck for reverse chucking leaves little chance for the work to fly off the lathe (Photo 8). An excellent option when full access to the bottom of the work is desired, this system is especially good for full detailing of the base.
Chucks that Pull
Using vacuum pressure to hold work on the lathe is a relatively new option for reverse chucking (Photo 9). This system is great for production work or if full access to the bottom of the piece is desired, but it’s not suitable for pieces that are fragile or very deep, pieces that contain voids and woods with open pores. There are solutions for some of these issues, but choosing other chucking methods is arguably the best one.
Chucks that Jam
Jam chucks are often turned for one-time use or where metal jaws might cause damage. Basically there are two approaches: Either you jam a hollowed piece over a tenon turned on a waste block (Photo 10) or you jam a tenon into a recess turned into a waste block (Photo 11).
If you only have a faceplate, you can use a jam chuck in lieu of a scroll chuck for end grain hollowing (to hollow the box base shown in Photo 14, for example). Mount a face-grain block on a faceplate and turn a mortise in it. Then turn a tenon on the end of the base blank to snugly fit this mortise (as shown in Photo 5, but with a mortised face-grain block on a faceplate instead of the scroll chuck). Jam-fit the tenon into the mortise or glue it. A jam-fit can be tightened by adding a layer of tissue paper around the tenon or by wetting the tenon to slightly swell the wood. The tenon’s shoulder provides additional stability by bearing against the block on the faceplate.
Chucks that Stick
Using high-strength double-face tape—not carpet tape or the stuff from the local hardware store—is a great way to mount thin, face-grain, non-oily, dry-wood blanks for turning into small bowls, plates or platters. Note: This method isn’t foolproof, so it’s only for experienced turners: A catch may pull the piece off the lathe.
Cover a clean faceplate (sanded and sashed with alcohol or lacquer thinner) with the tape—don’t allow the seams to overlap. Flatten one face of the blank and then clamp it against the taped faceplate for several hours. (The bond strength increases with clamp time.) For added safety, I bring up the tailstock and keep it in position while I’m turning, until the final cuts at the center. Freeing the completed work from the faceplate takes a slow, continuous pull until the tape starts to release.
Some chucks can move the work through preordained eccentric patterns. Such chucks have been around for centuries, but new versions can easily change the center of the work or move it through elliptical or wobble patterns.
Sidebar: Lacer’s Laws of Chucking
Alan Lacer is a turner, writer and instructor living near River Falls, WI. To learn more about Alan visit alanlacer.com.
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