This article was published in the Winter 2005 edition of Woodturning Design.
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I've posted a few hints that I've developed since writing this article at Tube Ornament Addendum
I make Christmas Ornaments to give to friends and relatives every year. Last year I made clones of Robert Rosand’s icicle ornament. They did look nice, but all that hollowing was a noisy pain. So I thought for this year I’d start with something that was already hollow: Mailing Tubes. Well, of course there is no free lunch. After piecing together veneer to cover the tube, and turning five parts instead of three, I probably didn’t save much time. But the ornament I’ll describe, using veneer and pre-made banding to resemble tedious polychrome assembly, is way less work than it looks. It doesn’t require thick stock and is a really inexpensive way to include burls and exotic woods.
I’ll also describe a way to make your own decorative hanger for the ornament, and a finial with a decorative spiral wire inlay. The inlay is also much easier than it looks, as no lay-out is required and it takes under a minute to cut the groove.
The best tubes I’ve found are 2” mailing tubes. They’re a good size, and are thick enough to be sturdy without being too heavy. You can pick some up at well stocked office supply stores. You could use empty tubes from toilet paper or paper towel rolls, but if you do you’ll have to change the process somewhat. They’re so thin you’ll have to turn a close fitting solid, rather than two-piece, mandrel to support the tube when gluing up and sanding them smooth.
Gil Fell wrote that he used a sanding drum as a mandrel to back up toilet paper tubes. As they will adjust somewhat and lock the tube in place this is a really terrific idea.]
The first step is to cut the tube to length. I just set my bandsaw fence to 1-3/4” and cut it while holding firmly to prevent the tube from rotating into the blade. Next you have to determine how long a piece of veneer you need to cover the tube. I suggest measuring actual veneer rather than math. Cut an oversize piece. It bends much easier if the grain runs up and down the tube. Bend it around the tube. You may wish to temporarily tape it in place near one end. Pencil a line where it overlaps, cut to length (I use scissors for most veneer cuts) and then wrap it around the tube again to confirm the measurement.
You can use one piece of veneer to cover the tube. It’s a nice inexpensive way to use exotic woods and burls. There is, of course, the unavoidable problem of the seam. One solution to this is to turn the seam in towards the tree when you hang it. The other is to make a virtue of necessity by going polychrome and making seams part of the design. In this article I’ll use the second approach, using pre-made banding alternating with veneer.
To aid in getting things sized right I first drew a rectangle, the size required to cover my tube, on some thin cardboard. Mine was 1-3/4” by 6-5/8”, but please measure your own. Then I cut six pieces of banding 1-3/4” long, lined them up on the left side of the rectangle, and marked where they stopped. To determine how wide the six pieces of veneer needed to be I used a math-less method commonly used to space dovetails in flat-woodworking: I extended the right side of the rectangle down. Then I placed a ruler so that zero was where I marked the end of the banding and six was on the extended line. I traced the line, made a mark at the 1” point, and extended this point back up to the rectangle.
I cut five pieces of veneer (grain running up and down the tube) this length, and one piece about a ¼” wider to allow some wiggle room. Next I started to assemble the pieces. To keep everything together when gluing and keep the veneer from cracking I used tape as cauls. Masking tape works, but electrical tape stretches easier when wrapping around the tube. I placed a piece of banding and then a piece of veneer right on my drawn rectangle to help me keep them lined up, and spot-taped them together with a piece of electrical tape. Then I alternated placing and taping banding and veneer, saving the wider piece of veneer for last. Once they were all assembled and alignment and length confirmed, I covered the whole assembly with electrical tape.
Then I covered the wide veneer end with masking tape so I could mark on it, and dry wrapped the assembly around the tube. I traced the overlap, cut it to length, and wrapped it around the tube again to confirm the fit. Now you can turn the assembly over and confirm the width of the sixth piece of veneer is about the width of the others. If it isn’t, you can turn it in towards the tree, make adjustments in the width of the veneer pieces and try again, or alternate thin and thick pieces in the first place to make it less visible. To glue the assembly on I spread a coat of ordinary yellow wood glue on to the assembly with a piece of thin cardboard (those pretend credit cards junk mailers send you work nicely for this too). Then I wrapped the assembly around the tube. I taped it to the tube near one end, then taped the seam tightly. Last I wrapped rubber bands around the whole glue-up to clamp it and left it to dry overnight.
After the glue had cured I removed the rubber bands, and carefully pulled off all the tape. Now is the time to check for any loose pieces or corners. If there are any, use a toothpick or slim cardboard piece to spread some glue underneath, re-tape it down, then let cure again.
Next I made a mandrel to hold the tube for sanding and finishing. I mounted a short (about 2” long) piece of wood on my lathe and turned it to a cylinder slightly greater in diameter than the tube (about 2-1/4”). Then I turned a recess in the middle that was the inner diameter of the tube, and cut the cylinder in half. To use the mandrel, I mounted one mandrel half in my Stronghold Chuck, slid the tube on the end, then inserted the other mandrel half in the tube and held it in place with the tailstock. Since my banding and veneer were different thicknesses I started sanding with 120 grit sandpaper. Don’t be too aggressive, you don’t want to sand through. Once the banding and veneer were leveled I used progressively finer grits and then polished the assembly with a friction polish.
You can, of course, buy pre-made ornament hangers or use hardware store cup hooks, or even clip the eyes off of fish-hooks. But I like to make as much of my projects as I can, including hardware. In this case of my ornament hangers it’s not just being cheap; I like the results as they add a decorative effect, plus the hook is captive and can’t fall off down into the bottom of your ornament box fated to be replaced forever by an “emergency” paperclip substitution. Previous wire bending attempts of mine have been betrayed by amateur appearing kinks. Using a simple bending form for one part and twisting a double strand into a spiral for the other part overcomes this.
You can use any kind of wire you like, such as anodized aluminum, brass, or even sterling silver if your budget permits. I used brass. To make the hook I first bent a piece of steel wire into a hook and chucked it in my electric drill. I cut a piece of 22 gauge brass wire about 6” long and bent it in half. I clamped the ends together in a vise, hooked the drill mounted hook in the loop, and ran the drill until I had a nice spiral. I took the spiraled wire off the steel hook and bent it into a hook shape by first wrapping one end around a round object, then just using my fingers. The spiral is much more forgiving to bend than untreated wire. I don’t know if it’s less prone to kink or if it hides kinks better, but I certainly get more pleasing results.
I made the bending form by mounting three nails in a block of scrap wood. I drilled pilot holes to avoid splitting the block, then cut off the nails so that they stuck up about ¼”. To make the hanger I cut a piece of 20 gauge brass wire about 5” long. Leaving a 1” or so “tail” in the middle I wound the wire clockwise around each nail in turn, starting with the nail on the right, then the middle, and last the left. I threaded the eye of the spiral hanger on the wire before winding it around the center nail. I twisted the two wire tails into a spiral with a pair of pliers, then removed the hanger from the bending form. The last step is to flatten the hanger by clamping it in between the wooden padded jaws of a vise.
To make the end caps I started by cutting two 2-1/2” (or a little bigger than the tube you’re using) diameter disks from 1” stock on the bandsaw. I selected maple which wouldn’t compete with the banding for attention. Then I chucked one of the disks in my Four Jaw Chuck and trued the face with a small bowl gouge. I marked the outer diameter of the tube on the face of the disk, and hollowed it slightly with the bowl gouge just to remove excess weight. Then I used a parting tool to cut a slightly undersized rebate for the tube, tested the fit and cut again until I had a nice fit. Next I used a ¼” drill in a tailstock mounted drill chuck to drill a hole in the center of the disk. This hole serves to center the disk for the next operation and to mount the finials. I repeated all these steps with the other disk.
To prepare for turning the other sides of the disks I first turned a drive disk that’s held in the Four Jaw Chuck. I turned a tenon on the drive disk that loosely fits the rebate of the Cap Disks. I mounted a Cap Disk on the drive disk and held it in place with my tailstock. Then I used a combination of a small bowl gouge, a pyramid point tool and a shear scraper to shape the cap. For the cap destined to be on top I cut a small bead and fillet at the base of the cap, a larger bead at the top, then gently arched it in between. I sanded with progressively finer grits of sandpaper, then applied a friction polish. I repeated these steps for the bottom cap, except that I turned an ogee shape instead of a bead and dome.
To make the finials I started by mounting a 7” long, nominally 1” square piece of cherry between centers to turn a ½” tenon so that I could mount it in my collet chuck. Using the collet chuck helps reduce vibration and lets me finish and drill the ends on the lathe. You could also mount smaller jaws on your four jaw chuck, or even turn the finials directly between centers.
After roughing the cherry to round I started at the tailstock end and reduced the diameter of the last couple of inches or so to about ½”. I allowed ¼” for waste at the end, and marked off another 5/8” for a teardrop shaped bead. I used a parting tool to reduce the diameter to 3/8” on the left side of the mark. Then I turned the teardrop to shape with a skew except that I left stock at the end for the tailstock.
Then I marked 4-1/4” up from the teardrop, and used the parting tool to cut the shaft to 3/8” diameter. I used my roughing gouge to reduce the diameter between parting tool cuts to 3/8” and then smoothed the surface with a skew.
I marked the stock another 5/8” from the top of the shaft, cut to ¼” with the parting tool. I reduced the diameter of this section to a little under ¾” and used a skew to turn a bead. Then I used a mini-coving tool (see my article in the Summer 2005 WTD) to turn a small cove in the middle of the bead.
Ordinarily laying out any kind of spiral is the longest and fussiest part of the job. However if you’re willing to give up having the start and stop points match exactly you can skip that part and let the saw do all the work. I started by cutting shallow V-grooves with my skew about 3/16” from the beads at the top and bottom of the shaft. Then I turned the lathe off. To cut the spiral groove I used a mini-hacksaw with the blade mounted to cut on the pull cut. I usually use a homemade tool, visible in Figure 26, made from a length of 1/8”x3/4”x8” aluminum and a notched mini-hacksaw blade, because it makes the depth automatic. David Springette, from whose lace bobbin book I learned this technique from, considers this cheating. I don’t.
Starting from the left groove, I started cutting the spiral groove at angle from the turned groove. As the groove is cut I turned my hand wheel in reverse. This moves the saw down the shaft in a spiral. As long as you keep the angle of the saw constant the spiral will be even.
After cutting the spiral I drilled holes a little larger than the wire I planned to use at the intersection of the spiral and the turned grooves. You can use any drill, I’m using the little push drill in Figure 29 because that way I can just leave the drill bit mounted all the time. Next I sanded the finial with progressively finer grits. If you are unsure of how well you can secure the spiral wire, apply finish at this point. There is a slight possibility the wire will come loose and cut your hand.
I selected some 22 gauge brass wire and bent it at a right angle ¼” from the end. Making sure I had needle nose pliers and diagonal cutters within reach, I hooked the end in the left hand hole in the shaft, and started winding the wire on. You must maintain tension the whole time. After taking one turn around the turned groove I started down the spiral until I got near the end. At this point I cut the wire, allowing a couple of inches to finish. I used my left hand to keep the spiral from unwinding while loosely winding it around the turned groove and threading the end through the right hand hole. Then I used a pair of needle nose pliers to pull it tight and a pair of diagonal cutters to clip the end as close to the wood as possible.
After winding on the spiral I turned the lathe back on to apply a friction polish. Then I extended the ¼” tenon at the headstock end a bit, and finished cutting the tear drop at the tailstock end. I sanded and applied finish to the end of the teardrop, and cut off the finial with a mini-parting tool.
There was enough stock left mounted on the collet chuck to turn a small final for the top of the ornament. I reduced the diameter to about ½”, used a parting tool to cut down ¼” about 5/8” from the end. I used a skew to cut a tear drop shaped bead. Then I measured the diameter of the spiral tail of my homemade hanger, and using a drill a few thousandths of an inch larger (a #51, but measure your hanger), drilled a mounting hole in the end. I extended the tenon a bit, then sanded the finial with progressively finer grits and applied finish. Last I used a mini-parting tool to cut off the finial.
To assemble the ornament, I spread glue on the top and bottom of the tube and pushed on the caps. After test fitting the finials, I spread glue in the mounting holes and pushed in the finials. Wipe away any glue squeeze out, as it shouldn’t stick or smear on the finished parts. After letting the glue set a bit I put a drop of superglue on a piece of masking tape, dipped the tail of the brass hanger in the glue, and inserted it in the mounting hole of the top finial.
The variations for this kind of ornament are endless. You can use veneers of exotic woods and burls. If you feel comfortable with a scroll saw or fret saw you can combine veneers in a marquetry design as simple or as complicated as you like. For a quite different look you can use spray adhesive to glue thin sheet metal such as aluminum flashing or brass shim stock to the tube. You can leave the metal plain, or decorate it with stamping or piercings. You could use different finial styles, from by now traditional Rosand style icicles to any shape you can dream up. Have fun and a Merry Christmas.
Tools and Supplies
Tools: Bowl Gouge, Pyramid Point Tool, Parting Tool, thin Parting Tool, Roughing Gouge, Skew or Spindle Gouge.
Supplies: 2” Mailing Tube, Veneer, Pre-made Banding, Brass Wire, 1” thick wood, Electrical or Masking Tape, wood glue, CA glue.
David Reed Smith lives in
I've posted a few hints that I've developed since
writing this article at Tube Ornament Addendum
I've posted a few hints that I've developed since writing this article at Tube Ornament Addendum