Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Turning a Bundle of Spindles
By Temple Blackwood

The most typical questions asked by my woodturning students and demonstration bystanders regard turning multiple copies of the same design. "Do you get bored?" "How do you sustain your attention?" "Are they really the same?" "What is the challenge?"

Learning to accurately and efficiently turn a group of spindles for chair and table legs, stairway balusters and newel posts, and – to the heart of the woodworking community – chisel handles, is an art/skill-form of its own and offers the woodworker a great opportunity to refine tool and design skills while interacting with wood in an extremely rewarding dance of body and tools.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I received an email from an accomplished furniture maker in the Midwest asking if I would turn fifty-four 1-3/4" x 30" red oak balusters to complete a new stairway in her home. She explained that she had originally planned to learn to turn them herself, but after four years of working on other furniture commissions and finding herself falling behind on new design/build commissions she realized that she wanted to get them turned sooner than she would be able to do so herself so she could install them.

With the looming isolation of COVID-19 last March, I was happy to take this on for her, and she sent the sample she wanted copied while I acquired the wood and prepared the red oak blanks.

Although the sample she sent was a short piece, she asked for the new ones to be a full 30" long so she could dovetail them into the staircase. This meant that the blanks all needed to be milled to the 1-3/4" x 30" dimensions, and the pommel marks needed to consistently be centered. Below is the process I went through to turn the 54 balusters.

First, create a story-stick from the original sample, which makes it easy and efficient to transfer the critical dimensions to the new blank.

Establishing the transition between square pommel top and bottom at the first step ensures that the rounding process will not split out the sharp edges of the pommel.

The best way to approach this is with the long point of the skew chisel which will sheer-cut the grain. Using the tool rest as a fulcrum and lifting the skew handle to introduce the point to cut the wood, begin by cutting close to the line. Next, replicate that cut to widen the opening using the point and plane of the bevel to line up the 90-degree edge.

Finish with a straight 90 degree cut directly on the marked line. For this sample, the transition is a sharp 90 degrees; other designs would seek an angled approach easily accomplished by changing the angle of the tool.

Replicate this on the other end. Depending on the wood used, some turners wrap the corners of the blank with clear packing tape and cut through the tape. The danger of this is that when it is removed, the adhesive of the tape will itself damage the edge-corner of the pommel.

Once the "ends" of the turned portion are defined, the blank can be rounded.

Using the story-stick, the critical points can quickly be marked. Small notches to guide the pencil point in the stick ensure regular markings. Another option is for the story-stick to host small brads with their heads cut off at each critical point to make all of the marks while the blank is turning, but this can be dangerous and inefficient when the blank has a square pommel on each end. Pencil marks are efficient and easily managed, corrected, and erased by the process of turning, or with sandpaper.

Working on the right (tailstock) to turn each of the important details at the larger diameters first is important.

Setting multiple calipers for each of the major diameters but checking them with the source regularly (they occasionally seem to change the setting by themselves just at the wrong time) is a smart practice.

Keeping track of which caliper sets which diameter using tape or different colored or sizes of calipers helps speed the process efficiently. One of the benefits of doing many production multiples turning jobs is to recognize and refine the process.

Having the original sample visually supporting the background behind the lathe keeps it readily available and helps sustain the concentration on order of cuts, turned details at different points, and similarities for tapers, bead-roundedness, and cove depths.

The critical details are now marked and turned in place.

Start on the right side and begin to define and finish each detail, steadily moving toward the headstock.

Define each detail.

Establish each taper.

This will ensure a consistent look.

Although no one will actually be measuring it when looking at it, even an untrained eye will be aware that something is wrong if the variance is too great from this spindle's siblings in a visual line.

As always, careful smoothing and sanding to finish the project reveals the pride and skill of the craftsman.

The final test is to visually evaluate the success of the copy by lining this one up with its siblings to be sure it and all the others have the appearance of sameness...

Typically, when turning a series of the same design as this sample, the first one or two might take nearly an hour. During this time, the order of cuts, order of tool use and measuring devices, and efficiencies of process are evaluated and organized. By the fourth or fifth one, the basic turning pattern is established, and each spindle takes about fifteen to twenty minutes. From then on, the turner monitors the process, the consistency, and the efficiencies involved with each new blank.

My answer to those who ask if turning 10 or 100 of the same spindle is "boring," is that each new spindle blank is like a new dawn, a uniquely promising blank-slate opportunity to interact as skillfully as I can with an amazing piece of wood.

My other response might be more telling: I would much rather replicate a design with 100 fresh and clean different blanks of wood than try to think up 100 interesting and creatively pleasing different designs.

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

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