This article was published in the Fall 2006 edition of Woodturning Design.
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In the spring of 2005 my wife and I met Uncle Charlie and a
couple of his friends, Bill and Liz, in
A few months later I tried making a few. They’re cute. And posable. Not to mention very easy to make. I even thought up a couple of semi-functional variations. I don’t imagine they’ll get you into the Del Mano Gallery, but if you want to have some fun with them then here’s how.
Making the Pattern
First pick out your wood. Ants in nature pretty much come in black and red, so Cherry and Walnut are obvious choices. Not that you have to be obvious. The next step is to look at an ant. My ants are stylized, not anatomically correct, but I wanted to avoid glaring errors. Live ants don’t like to pose, so I did a Google search of images.
Ants have three body sections: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. The head is the second largest in diameter and is a rounded triangle. The antennas are up front—they’re not antlers. The thorax is the smallest in diameter. It’s largest up front, narrows a bit where the legs attach, and then has an even smaller knob at the back. The abdomen is the largest section. It resembles a pointed egg.
To make the pattern start with some thin cardboard. I habitually use the cardboard liner for X-Ray film that I bring home from my real job. The hospital is going digital, no film after July, so pretty soon I’ll have to recycle cereal boxes.
I like 1-1/4” to 1-1/2” wood for ants, but you can use any size wood, as ants scale well. Plop your turning square down on the cardboard and trace the sides. Then sketch in the three ant body sections. While it’s easier to judge if the sections go with each other if they’re in ant order, it’s not the best way to turn them. So trace your turning square again, and cut apart the drawn sections. Now arrange them so that the thorax is left most, the head next with the nose facing left, and the abdomen last with the tail end facing left. This order will let you take advantage of a collet chuck to clean up the visible ends and turn the middle section which can have tailstock support throughout while the turning stock is longest and most vibration prone. To clean up the visible ends of the Abdomen and Head (the front of the Head and the tail of the Abdomen) you'll have to retract the tailstock. With only one end supported, in the collet chuck, the piece will tend to vibrate. Vibration is less of a problem when the workpiece is shorter. Hence it makes sense to do the Thorax first and shorten the workpiece. It certainly will work if you turn the pieces in anatomical order (I did the first few that way), but this way is better. Copy the sketched pieces, measure and note the major diameters, and draw marks at the extents of each piece, then cut out the pattern and you’re done.
A collet chuck is a great way to hold the stock for turning ants, as it lets you back away the tail stock and clean up the visible ends. If you don’t have a collet chuck you can use a four jaw chuck, just be careful of your fingers. If you don’t have any kind of chuck you can either use a faceplate (add enough stock length so you don’t hit the screws) or glue a tenon into a waste block. You can also turn the pieces between centers and clean up the ends off the lathe.
First measure your ant pattern and add an inch or so for waste and mounting. Then mount the stock between centers (I use a bolt modified into a safety drive that fits in my collet chuck so I can leave it mounted), and rough the stock to round. Using calipers and a parting tool, size a tenon to fit the collet chuck, then use your roughing gouge or skew to turn the tenon.
Now mount the stock in the collet chuck (or whatever you’re using) and true it up with your roughing gouge. Using the pattern, mark the end of the thorax, plus the width of your parting tool. Use the parting tool and calipers to cut to the major diameter of the thorax. Then use your roughing gouge to reduce the entire thorax section to this diameter, then extend the parting tool cut deeper to mark the length. Now shape the thorax, using a skew, spindle gouge, or whatever tool you prefer. Clean up the end at the tailstock as best you can but you don’t have to retract the tailstock, as it’s dimple will mark where you have to drill the end of the thorax for joining wire. Leave a small diameter at the other end, then sand with progressively finer grits and apply the friction polish of your choice. Now part off the thorax.
Use the point of your skew to make a small dimple at the center of the stock to guide reengagement of the tailstock. Use your pattern to mark the end of the head plus two parting tool widths, one to part off and one to get rid of the tailstock dimple. Turn down to the major diameter of the head at the mark with calipers and parting tool. Use the roughing gouge to reduce the entire section to that diameter, then extend the parting tool cut to mark the end of the head. Now shape the head using whatever tool you’re comfortable with. Once the head is largely to shape, reduce the diameter of the stud connecting the head to the rest of the stock, then retract the tailstock and clean up the end of the nose. Sand with progressively finer grits and apply friction polish. Last, part off the head.
Make a dimple and reengage the tailstock. Using your pattern measure the length of the abdomen plus two parting tool widths and make a cut with your parting tool to mark the extent. Assuming you made the pattern to fully use the width of your stock you don’t need to measure. Turn the abdomen to shape, then retract the tailstock and the tail end to a point. Sand and polish as before and then part off the abdomen.
At this point you can clean up the parted off ends off the lathe with a drum sander or the like. I’ve got a thing about that, it seem you can always tell. Here’s how you can do it on the lathe. First you have to drill the holes for the joining wire. Measure the diameter of the wire you’re going to use and pick a drill just barely bigger. Drill a test hole in some scrap and test the fit of the wire. You should be able to insert the wire without forcing it, but the fit should be snug. Now mount the drill bit in a pin chuck so that about 3/8” protrudes and mount the pin chuck in a drill. The pin chuck will support the small drill and measure the drilling depth at the same time. While it doesn’t matter how deep the hole is, it does make it easier to cut the joining wires to the proper length. This pin chuck is a cheap import, so I have to tighten it with pliers to keep it from slipping. Masking tape or a dowel center drilled and cut to length will also work.
Now use the drill to drill mounting holes in the back of the head, the front of the abdomen, and both ends of the thorax. You may find it easier if you use a skew or other pointed tool to start a hole for the drill.
Now you need to mount the parts using the tailstock to engage the drilled end without marking the other end. I’ve got a Urethane spring for this. It’s a 7/8” piece of Urethane with a ¼” central hole. I turned a cone in one end. I turned a scrap piece to fit my collet chuck on one end and the central hole of the spring on the other. With the Urethane spring mounted in the collet chuck, I can use the tailstock to hold the turned piece via the drilled hole.
If you don’t have and don’t want to buy a Urethane Spring, mount a scrap piece of wood in the collet chuck and turn a conical cavity in the free end. Spray some contact adhesive in the cone and on a small piece of foam. Use your tailstock to press the foam into the cavity. Give the adhesive a few minutes to set, then use the tailstock to compress the piece to be cleaned up against the foam.
Use your skew or other tool to clean up the parted off area, being careful not to cut into your tailstock. Sand and apply polish, blending into the already finished area. Do all three pieces this way.
You can use a variety of wire for the antennas and legs. 10 gauge copper wire looks about the right size for a 1-1/4” based ant. You could also try brass wire, bare aluminum or black steel wire. Anodized aluminum wire lets you add some color. I also did a couple ants using pewter wire, but their bellies tended to sag after a while.
To start the assembly drill wire holes for the antennas near the nose end of the head. You can drill shallow holes to indicate the eyes. Instead I used a leather punch left over from a previous life. A nail set would be similar. If you choose to use a punch, set the head down on a piece of foam to prevent denting the other side. Turned ebony eyes would be nice for a deluxe version?
Next drill holes in the thorax for the legs. Drill three holes on each side of the middle section of the thorax. Keep the angle between the sets of holes less than 180° so you don’t inadvertently use up all the hole depth for one side when inserting legs in the other.
You can determine the required wire length to join the body sections by doubling the drill depth you used plus 1/8” or so. Just hold a section of wire up against the section to determine the length of wire for the antennas and legs. Once you’re happy with the wire lengths, record them on the back of your pattern to save time next time. To cut the wire to length I put the tip at the pattern mark and slide my fingers up to the edge of the pattern. Then I put the pattern down and slide my diagonal cutters up to my fingers and cut the wire.
Cut all the pieces of wire. I have a pair of diagonal cutters that I’ve ground flat on the underside so that they cut straight across without that sharp peak. As you likely don’t have one, grind, sand, or file the ends that will be exposed to prevent cutting fingers or scratching furniture.
To finish assembly, put some masking tape on your workbench and squeeze out some thick CA glue onto the tape. Starting with the body joining pieces, dip the wire end into the glue and insert it into the appropriate hole. Be careful to keep the head and thorax properly aligned. Then do the same for the antennas and legs. Let the glue cure for a while, then bend the legs and antennas to shape. Avoid twisting the wire, as this my break the glue joint.
Minor changes yield an Ant that is at least semi-functional. Change both antennas to a paperclip like shape and you’ll have a Photo-Ant.
Change one antenna to a paperclip shape and drill a hole in the top of the abdomen and you’ll have a Desk-Ant. You can stick a memo in the clip antenna, and hang real paper clips on the standard antenna. The hole will hold a pencil or pen. An easy way to size the hole is to take bits out of your drill index and try the fit of the pen in the index. Use a larger size turning stock and you can fit in more than one pen.
My wife added a couple of Ants to our Christmas tree last year. Obviously you wouldn’t want to do this if you agree with Dali that ants symbolize evil.
Materials and Sources
Turning Square, Cherry or Walnut, 1-1/4” x 1-1/4” x 7” or choice.
MSC (www.mscdirect.com, 1-800-645-7270) has Pin Vise Sets (#03749512 $16.25) and Urethane Springs (#32000143, $4.48).
McMaster-Carr (www.mcmaster.com) has black oxide steel wire (.08”, #8870K29, $1.95), aluminum wire (.08”, #8904K74, $9.54 or 1/8”, #8904K75, $8.91), and brass wire (.102”, #8864K47, $15,80)
Metalliferous (www.metalliferous.com, 1-888-944-0909) has 10 gauge anodized aluminum wire in black (#AA1524, $8.95) and red (#AA1515, $8.95)
The author lives and turns in