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This article was published in the Winter 2009 edition of  Woodturning Design.

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Recess Ornament


A few weeks after last Christmas I got an idea for an ornament. That may seem to be backwards timing as before Christmas would have advantages. But Christmas is when I think about ornaments and after Christmas is when I have time. Given the lead time for a magazine article it works out for me anyway. Back to the idea—after a couple of tries I managed to work out a neat jig that enabled me to turn it…only trouble was it didn’t look like much when I got it done—and it was the only practical ornament idea I had this year. Luckily for me I keep a notebook so I browsed back through my notebook and found sketch of this ornament which I had not pursued at the time.


The recess ornament uses a well known scroll saw trick to create a recess in an ornament blank. The inner piece is sawn out at a moderate bevel creating a taper so that when the blank is re­-assembled the inner piece will drop in a set amount. While the inner piece is still separate a pattern is turned on its face using a Backup Plate technique. Then the inset is glued in and the blank turned into the final ornament.


With grain running straight from front to back and a little camouflage the illusion of a laboriously carved out relief is created.


Making the Recess

Start by finding or creating some ½” thick stock. For the best illusion of relief carving, truly quartersawn oak, with porous rings running straight from front to back, would be ideal. All I had was some sort-of-quartersawn oak, but it still worked pretty well. Copy or print out Drawing1 to use as a pattern. I’ll post a drawing in pdf format with multiple patterns per page on my web site for more efficient paper use if you want to make multiple ornaments.


Drawing1    The Recess Ornament pattern.

Cut out the pattern and use some sort of temporary adhesive to stick the pattern to the ½” stock as in Fig01. My can of spray adhesive had a clogged nozzle so I used a stick of 3M repositional glue instead (3M used to call it Post-it Note glue). Roughly cut the outside of the ornament blank to size on a convenient saw. Flip the blank over and draw some orientation marks as in Fig02, so that there won’t be any doubt which way it goes when the time comes to glue it back in. If you make four ornaments at once for efficiency, make a different number of orientation marks on each blank.


Fig01          After fastening the pattern to the ornament stock with temporary adhesive. The square should be placed diagonally with respect to the grain for a more consistent surface off the saw blade.


Fig02          The ornament back after roughly cutting out the blank. Note the pencil marks to aid in gluing the recess back in the orientation it came from.

The bevel angle you set your scroll saw at determines the depth the inner piece will drop. To estimate the angle required, make a sample cut and measure the kerf. Draw a line that is ten times the recess depth you want (10x 0.125 for a 1/8” drop). Draw a line at a right angle to the first line that is ten times the kerf (10 x .022 for a #12 blade). Draw a line connecting the vertices to create a triangle. Then measure the angle as in Drawing2.


Drawing2    You can estimate the saw angle required by drawing a right triangle. The base is ten times the intended recess depth (before turning). The height is 10 times the measured saw kerf. Measure the angle.

Set your scroll saw to the estimated angle and make a test cut using the same thickness of stock that you’ll use to make the ornament blank. It doesn’t need to be a pierced cut—you can cut in from one side and then cut in an approximate circle. Remove the sample from the saw and test to see how far the circle drops before fitting in place, as in Fig03. If you want it to drop more, make the bevel angle slightly less. If you want it to drop less, make the angle slightly more. Save the sample with the bevel angle you like to help set up the drill press for drilling.


Fig03          To confirm the calculated angle will work, do a test cut on some ornament blank scrap of the same thickness.

The ornament blank does require a pierced cut. Measure the width of the blade you’ll use and select the drill that will make the smallest hole that you can thread the blade through (I used a #54). Mount the drill bit in your drill press. Set the angle of your drill press table to the saw bevel angle. You can use the sample piece as in Fig04 to make sure the angle is correct. Drill through the blank at one of the corners of the recess as in Fig05.


Fig04          Using the test piece to set the drill press table to the same angle as the scroll saw.


Fig05          Drilling a starter hole for the scroll saw blade at a corner of the recess.

Thread the saw blade through the resulting hole. Orient the blank so that the recess will be smaller on the bottom as in Fig06. Carefully saw out the recess following the lines of the pattern.


Fig06          Ready to saw. Be sure you set up the direction of cut so that the recess will be smaller on the bottom.


Fig07          Sawing the recess.

Other Ways

What should you do if you don’t have a scroll saw?  For starters you could buy one. It’s a very nice tool for small, curved, or thin work. I’ve owned one for nearly thirty years and I have yet to be overcome by the desire to make cut out wooden geese or even one of those baroque pierced clocks—so it’s not necessarily a schlock gateway tool along the lines of Reefer Madness.


You could also cut the recess by hand with a fret or coping saw. I tried it just to see. It worked out okay, although concentrating on the angle makes it a little harder to stay on line. To help with the angle I tilted my birdsmouth (stock support) to the angle I wanted and kept the saw straight up and down as usual.


You could also invert the design elements and do it all on your lathe. Temporarily stick a square to a Backup Plate, and make a round parting tool from a 3/32” drill blank. You’ll have to use a much larger angle, on the order of 45 degrees. Cut out an inner circle and sand the interior circular edge of the square while the blank is still attached to the Backup Plate. Remove the square blank and mount the circular recess off-center on the Backup Plate and turn a design. Glue the recess in, and use the Backup Plate to turn the face and back of the square.

Turning the Recess

Backup Plate

Whether you want to turn one or four recesses at a time a 6” Backup Plate will suffice.  Layout a 6” circle and center point on 2x8 construction pine as in Fig08. Cut it roughly to a circle outside the line. Mount #3 jaws on your chuck (if you have them) and pin the Backup Plate blank against the jaws using your tailstock center at the center point of the blank. Take a surfacing cut with a bowl gouge and then use your parting tool to make a 7/16” deep, (less than ½” anyway), ½” wide, 4” inner diameter ring for the jaws to grip as in Fig09. Reverse the Backup Plate and grip it in the jaws. Turn the rim and the face true with your bowl gouge as in Fig10.


Fig08          The Backup Plate roughly laid out on a piece of construction 2x8.


Fig09          After pinning the Backup Plate to the 4 jaw chuck with the tailstock and cutting a ring for the jaws with a parting tool.


Fig10          The Backup Plate has been reversed and held in the jaws of the chuck. The rim and face have been turned true.


 Remove the Backup Plate from the chuck. Optionally cover the face of the Backup Plate and the back (smaller) face of the recess with blue masking tape—that way you won’t have to peel away hot-melt glue. Burnish the tape down so it holds well. Trace the larger side of the recess on to the Backup Plate as in Fig11 so you can quickly put it where you want it after applying glue. Warm up your hot-melt glue gun and have extra glue sticks handy. Glue the recess, small face down, on the Backup Plate as in Fig12.


Fig11          The face of the Backup Plate and the bottom (smaller face) of the recess have been covered in blue masking tape for ease of hot-melt glue removal. The position of the recess is traced on the tape.


Fig12          After gluing the recess in position with hot-melt glue.


Place a right angle corner of your filler wood against a corner of the recess and trace the Backup Plate rim onto the filler piece as in Fig13. Resist the temptation to extend past the corner to cover as much area as possible with the first piece as this will make the last piece much harder to fit. Cut on the traced line with your bandsaw and then glue it in place with hot-melt glue. Trace and glue 3 more pieces so that the entire Backup Plate is covered as in Fig14.


Fig13          Tracing the first filler piece. The filler edge is butted against a recess side with corners matching.


Fig14          After completing the filler. Obviously it would be more efficient to do four recesses at once. But start with one.


Mount the Backup Plate back in the chuck. Use a bowl gouge to take a light cut to even out the face. Use pencil to layout your design as in Fig15. I laid out a small circle and two beads. Use a Shear Spear (see my web site or WTD #23) to make V-cuts outside the pencil lines as in Fig16. You could also use a parting tool to delineate the beads but cut further outside the lines to allow for tearout.


Fig15          After laying out the major design elements with pencil.


Fig16          The major elements have been delineated with v-cuts done with the Shear Spear.

Flatten the background in between the circle and beads with a bowl gouge and/or shear scraper as in Fig17. Round over the beads with the Shear Spear or pyramid point tool. I also undercut the beads with the Shear Spear as in Fig18 to make the shadow visually defining the beads more dramatic. Also because I could (new tool syndrome).


Fig17          After flattening the background between the major design elements.


Fig18          Undercutting a bead with the Shear Spear to more dramatically set it apart from the background.


Fig19          The beads have been completed.

Use a mini-cove tool to add some coves in between the beads as in Fig20. Sand as in Fig21 using progressively finer abrasives. Remove the recess using as a putty knife as in Fig22 and remove the masking tape. The completed recess is shown in Fig23.


Fig20          After adding two sizes of mini-coves.


Fig21          After sanding the recess.


Fig22          Removing the recess with a putty knife.


Fig23          The completed recess.


Use a brush or small spatula (I have a small flexible piece of plastic mounted in a handle) to apply glue to the lower third of the square cut out of the background as in Fig24. Don’t apply glue to the recess piece as it will smear where you don’t want it when you insert the recess. Apply glue sparingly—it’s not a high stress joint and squeeze out would be hard to get rid of. Insert the recess firmly and set aside to cure on its side as in Fig25.


Fig24          Spreading glue on the ornament blank. Keep glue to the bottom third.


Fig25          The ornament set on it’s side while the glue cures.

Final Turning

Turning Rim

To insure the recess is centered in the ornament, use corner to corner diagonal lines to find the center of the back of the recess as in Fig26. A gentle center punch will make hitting it with the tail stock center easier. Pin the ornament with your tail stock center up against a flat surface mounted on the headstock as in Fig27. I used the Backup Plate, but something just smaller than the ornament would have made turning the rim easier. Turn the rim true and then sand it with progressively finer abrasives. Then remove the Backup Plate and ornament from the lathe.


Fig26          After drawing corner to corner diagonal lines to find the center of the ornament.


Fig27          The ornament is pinned with the tailstock to a flat drive so that the rim can be turned true and centered on the recess.


Fig28          After turning and sanding the rim. This would have been easier if I’d used something smaller than the Backup Plate as a flat drive.


The ornament will be held by the rim while turning the front and back. To avoid marking the already sanded rim, make a PVC jig that fits in your chuck. Cut a piece of 4” diameter schedule 40 PVC pipe a little less than 2 inches long. Try to make right angle cuts. Mount the pipe in your chuck as in Fig29. Turn on the lathe at a moderate speed and use your bowl gouge to turn the end true. Layout a line 7/16” (well, less than ½”, the usual depth of #3 jaws) as in Fig30.


Fig29          A piece of 4” PVC pipe mounted in the chuck.


Fig30          The face of the PVC has been turned true and the depth of the tenon laid out on the side.

Using your bowl gouge or a scraper, turn a small tenon up to the line as in Fig31. It needs to be deep enough to register on the tops of the #3 jaws, but don’t sacrifice more thickness than necessary. Now use a parting tool (1/16” thin if you have it) to cut off the PVC about 1/16” past the tenon. Remove the unturned PVC from your chuck and reverse the cut-off portion and mount it in the chuck as in Fig32. Be sure that the shoulder of the tenon registers on the tops of the jaws. Clean up the parting tool cut with your bowl gouge. Then create a mortise on the inside of the rim with a scraper or other tool as in Fig33. The mortise should be small, about 1/8” deep and 1/16” wide. Deeper would limit access to the rim if it needs retouching, and wider would weaken the PVC unnecessarily.


Fig31          After turning the tenon that will be held in the chuck in use.


Fig32          The jig inserted into the chuck after being cut to length.


Fig33          After turning the mortise to hold the ornament.

Remove the PVC jig from the chuck. Take the jig and your ornament blank over to the bandsaw. Radially cut through the rim of the jig at one place with your bandsaw. Place the ornament blank in the jig and make a guess (erring on the side of not removing enough) how much rim to cut off. Cut off a section of rim and compare it to the blank again. Repeat this until the PVC jig will wrap around the blank with a gap of ¼” to ½”. Mount the PVC jig in your lathe chuck and tighten it around the ornament blank as in Fig34. Optionally remove the ornament blank at this point, leaving the jig compressed in the chuck and gently heat the PVC jig with a heat gun. If you do it right the PVC jig will set itself to this size, making it easier to mount. If you overheat the jig, however, you risk turning it into limp spaghetti and starting over again.


 Fig34          Checking to make sure the PVC ring has been reduced to the right size.

Other Ways

There are other ways to turn the ornament if you don’t have #3 jaws or detest PVC. You could make a set of wooden jaws for your 4 jaw chuck—there’s a short article about wooden jaws on my web site Wood won’t mar the already turned rim and there aren’t centering problems.


You could use a vacuum chuck. There can be centering problems.


You could use a jam chuck—if you’ve got the patience to refit it each time…


You could use tape and hot-melt glue on the backup plate, although again there can be centering problems.


Mount the ornament blank in the PVC jig/chuck and flatten the back with a bowl gouge as in Fig35. Optionally, to make the recess trick harder to see, you can texturize the area of the sawn lines to disguise them. Begin by marking the zone to be textured with pencil as in Fig36. Cut a shallow recess for the zone to be textured as in Fig37. Sand the ornament blank with progressively finer grits as in Fig38. Apply texture to the recess with a Sorby Texturizing Tool as in Fig39 or some other method.


Fig35          After flattening the back of the ornament.


Fig36          Pencil lines indicate the area to texturize to camouflage the recess saw lines.


Fig37          After cutting a shallow area to texturize.


Fig38          After sanding the back of the ornament. Do this before texturizing as you don’t want to sand the texture away.


Fig39          After texturizing.


Reverse the ornament so you can turn the face. I turned it slightly concave as in Fig41 with a bowl gouge and a shear scraper. Be careful not to dip into the recess. Sand the face of the ornament with progressively finer grits and remove the ornament from the chuck.


Fig40          The ornament has been reversed in the PVC jig to turn the face.


Fig41          After turning the face slightly concave.


Fig42          After sanding the face.


I don’t like closed loop ornament hangers, as they’re sometimes hard to put on the tree where you want them. I also don’t like hook style hangers that come off and get lost. You can make a hanger yourself that solves both of these problems. Cut two pieces of 22 gauge brass wire, one of them about 2” long, the other about 4” long. Bend both of them in half. Now find a couple of different sizes of steel wire (I used some galvanized wire, about 0.06” and 0.15”) and cut a piece of each about 2” long. Bend both into sort of a cursive L shape as in Fig43. Chuck up the larger L into an electric drill. Clamp the two ends of the shorter brass wire in a vise the like and insert the end of the L into the loop of wire. Turn on the drill at a slow speed until it winds the wire into a spiral, as in Fig44, then remove the wire from the vise and off the L. The result will be a spiraled wire with a nice loop on one end—an eyelet. Thread the longer brass wire through the loop of the eyelet and clamp the free ends in the vise. Chuck the smaller L into your drill and hook it through the longer brass loop. Keep the eyelet back against the L. Again, turn on the drill to wind the wire into a spiral as in Fig45. Trim the ends and bend the longer spiral into a hook and the hanger is done as in Fig46.


Fig43          Hanger making tools and materials: A variable speed drill, two sizes of L shaped wire, and two lengths of brass wire.


Fig44          Twisting the shorter loop of brass wire with the larger L into an eyelet


Fig45          Twisting the longer loop of brass wire into the hook with the smaller L. Be sure to thread it through the eyelet before you start.


Fig46          The completed hanger.

Measure the diameter of the eyelet spiral and select a drill bit of that diameter. Drill a hole into the rim of the ornament where you want the top to be. Dip the eyelet end into CA glue and insert the eyelet into the drilled hole. Set aside until the glue sets, apply some spray finish, and the ornament is done. The finished ornament is shown in Fig47 and Fig48.


Fig47          The completed ornament.


Fig48          The back of the ornament.


There are lots of things you could do to vary the ornament design, beyond changing the design applied to the recess. Here are a few examples:


You could also try making your own ornament stock. Fig49 shows an ornament made from laminated common pine and walnut veneer. I dodged the knots to cut out 5 4”x12” pieces of pine and laminated them with walnut veneer in between using polyurethane glue. Then I ripped it into ½” thick ornament stock.


Fig49          A recess ornament made of laminated pine and walnut veneer.

Fig50, which I unimaginatively call a Drop Ornament, was made from the same stock as the ornament in the prior photo. It would perhaps have been more successful if I’d have ripped the pine in half first so as to have more stripes, or it I’d have used hardwood so the finials could have more detail. I do like the shape. The recess is done in the same way as the Recess Ornament, but the outer shape is turned two at a time between centers. I covered the backs of the two ornaments with blue masking tape, sanded the back of the tape lightly, then made a paper joint with Titebond II and Kraft paper. Once the ornaments are split apart the tape peels off easily. A Warning—skew confidence is required as in pine, at least, turning the profile requires turning a lot of air with the skew to get a really good surface off the tool. Sanding quickly dubs over the leading edges.


Fig50          A drop shaped recess ornament. The outer shape is turned between centers.

Fig51 is lathe only. I used a 3/32” drill blank (round hardened High Speed Steel) sharpened like a parting tool and held in a drill chuck to cut out the round recess on the lathe. The square was temporarily held to a Backup Plate with the tail stock—hot melt glue would have been better because then I could have sanded the side walls of the outer frame. The recess was turned in the same way except the secondary wood to fill the Backup Plate was cut on the bandsaw from one piece. The face was turned off center on a Backup Plate and mini-coves added. The mini-coves seem to add only distractions.


Fig51          A “lathe only” recess ornament. The walls of the recess are much shallower because lathe tools are much thicker than a scroll saw kerf.


½” thick ornament stock

6” diameter construction lumber for Backup Plate.

Blue masking tape

½” thick secondary wood for filler

Short length 4” PVC schedule 40 pipe

22 gauge brass wire

Two sizes of steel wire

CA glue


Drill press

Drill bit to fit scroll saw blade

Scroll saw

Four jaw chuck with #3 jaws

Bowl gouge

Parting tool

Hot-melt glue gun with extra glue sticks

Shear Spear

Mini-cove tools

Flat or shear scraper

Putty knife

Small glue spreader

Texturizing tool

Electric drill



David Reed Smith is a Basement Woodturner who also tinkers and writes at his home in Hampstead, Maryland. He welcomes photos, complaints, comments, and suggestions via email at A version of this article with a few more pictures is available on his web site at