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Turning a Singing Top
By John Wolf
Athens, OH

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Spinning tops are often the first project I teach new turners, particularly if they are 12 or younger. Some of us are still fascinated by tops even though that 12 year old mark was passed many decades ago. I recently started making singing tops. These are tops that make a resonate note as they spin. I looked at several plans and made several variations before learning how to make my tops consistently sing well. The process I use is as follows:

Start with a piece of fairly fine grained hard wood. Cherry, maple, poplar and similar woods work well. The piece should be 2 to 3 times longer than its diameter. The example for this is cherry that is about 2-1⁄2" square by about 6-1⁄2" long. Mount this between centers and turn it round or nearly so. Put a tenon that is properly sized to fit your chuck on each end.

Cut the blank into two roughly equal pieces. You can do this on the lathe or with a saw.

Mount one piece in your chuck and turn the outside so that it is running true. Make a facing cut across the end grain so that that face is true.

Use your end grain hollowing tool of choice to make a cavity in the end that is almost as deep as the width of the blank much like you would to turn a wine glass.

Leave the rim about 3/16" thick. Turn the outside contour so that the wall thickness is between 3/16" and 1⁄4" until reaching what would be the stem if you were making a short stemmed wine glass.

The stem should be at least 1⁄2" though it can be larger at this stage.

Stop the lathe and mark a line on the bowl that is roughly centered from headstock to tailstock. Drill a 5/32 hole centered on the line and about 3/8" down from the rim. Then drill a second hole down about 5/32 from the first.

This next step can be done with the turning still on the lathe or with the chuck while still holding the work removed from the lathe. Use a needle file, carving knife, Dremel tool with rotary rasp or similar tool to reshape the two holes you've just made into a rectangle. In order for this square to whistle or sing, it is necessary that the edges be straight and have little thickness. Think of the outside of the top as the back of a bench chisel blade. The inside surface near the hole must be undercut forming a shape much like the bevel on that chisel. I aim for a 45 degree angle though this isn't critical. It is much easier to fine tune this shape now than it is when the top is complete.

If you have removed the chuck and top from the lathe, put it back on now. Use a sharp gouge or skew to complete the shape of the top including the point upon which it will spin. Remember that all tops will spin better when the point is close to the body. Part it free from the original blank.

Carefully measure the inside lip of the top body with calipers.

Mount the other blank in the chuck and true the end grain face. Make a narrow parting tool cut (perhaps 1/16") to form a tenon that is a snug fit into the calipers and also the bottom part of the top. It may take several tries to get it just right. Press the two parts together.

Use a sharp gouge or a skew to finish shaping the bottom of the point upon which the top will spin by using very light cuts. Lightly sand the bottom portion of the top. I put super glue on a bit of paper towel and applied the glue to the point to strengthen it. Glue the bottom portion to the top section using the glue of your choice.

Turn the upper part of the top to the same diameter as the body. Then, turn away most of the upper blank to form a stem that will be used to spin the top.

I usually make that stem 3/8" in diameter and about 1-1⁄4" long. Sand the top, decorate if you wish and add finish if you choose. I used Magic Markers to add color to this example then coated with boiled linseed oil and bees wax. Part off the top from the supporting wood in the chuck.

I use a simple frame to support the top when spinning it. It is made by taking a 1 X 1 X 6" piece of hard wood and drilling a 7/16 hole near the end and centered on that face. Turn the blank 90 degrees and drill a second 7/16 hole about 1⁄2" farther down the blank than the first one. Take a hand saw or band saw and cut parallel down the side until intersecting the second hole. Repeat on the other side of that same hole so that you create a notch. This can work satisfactorily for spinning the top, but I usually turn this to make it a bit fancier.

Insert the stem of the top through the first set of holes. Use a 5/32 drill to make a hole for the starter string through the stem somewhere within the slot opening in the side of the starter stick. You can turn a simple handle to hold one end of the string, but this isn't absolutely necessary.

To spin the top, insert the stem through the first set of holes in the starter stick. Insert string through the hole in the top stem and let about 1⁄2" through the other side. Carefully wind the first circle or two around the stem without pressure. This helps keep the string from pulling out prematurely. Wind about 12" of string onto the stem. Lightly rest the top on the table top. Vigorously pull the string and simultaneously lift the stick off the spinning top. The top may not immediately sing. The air flow over the hole must be at the correct speed to make the resonance that is much like the noise produced when blowing over the mouth of an empty water bottle. The top will slow and reach a speed that produces a distinctive "singing" sound.

The pitch of the "singing" increases with smaller tops and conversely is lower with larger ones. The pitch is also higher with a larger air hole. Multiple holes increases the total area and also increases the pitch.

You can email John at jwolf96@columbus.rr.com.

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