The "incredible, edible, egg" makes a set of breakfast egg cups almost a mandatory exercise in design, multiples, and wood-harmony, a requirement for emerging and accomplished spindle turners. In my case, a local customer asked me to make him a set of three egg cups for a gift. When I asked him about shape, color, style, and size, he had no real sense of what he wanted. After a few more questions, we decided that he liked "cherry" and wanted them matched (all the same). That gave me the direction I needed. Although he previously was a woodturning student in my shop, he was firm that he wanted me to make them for him.
In our house, I am an accomplished provider of soft-boiled eggs, having learned the secrets of my maternal grandmother (pot of cold water with eggs just covered, bring to boil, boil for 2 minutes, fetch out, and eat). Years ago, I also acquired a set of four ceramic egg cups (pictured-white) that I am particularly fond of from my paternal grandmother – "heredity" from both sides paired with fond memories that I replicate many mornings with success for my wife and visiting friends.
Beginning with one of my grandmother's ceramic cups, perfect for the size of the extra-large eggs I prefer, and paying special attention to the lower cavity where the as-yet-uneaten egg stays warm while the upper egg is eaten from the shell, I drew a plan of basic critical measurements. I will point out that my paternal grandmother frequently turned her cup over to mix the egg out of the shell with her broken toast pieces to create a kind of egg breakfast salad, a ritual I never developed for myself, preferring the adventure of eating from the shell and using my toast to host the delicious marmalade that made breakfast with her complete.
One of the first challenges for woodturners approaching this project is finding the 3-1⁄2" X 3-1⁄2" X 4" blanks (in this case cherry) from which to turn the cups. Fortunately, I live in the woods of mid-coast Maine where I stockpile various log sections in my shed. I re-sawed my blanks to larger sizes for this project from some sweet cherry logs that I had on hand.
These blanks have few checks having been cut fresh, end-grain coated with Anchor Seal, and stored out of direct sunlight for several years. Another way to acquire the right-sized blanks is to glue them up from different colored wood and turning a decoratively multi-colored cup.
Carefully dimension the blanks to the appropriate size and then cut them all square to the exact length.
With the first blank mounted firmly in a four-jaw, self-centering chuck, the next challenge is to organize size and depth of cut for hollowing the bottom (where the "next" egg will warmly wait its turn). Using a tailstock mounted 2" forstner bit, mark the center and graze the outside to establish the 2" sizing.
Because I do not have a 3" bit in the shop, I can set a thumb-screw compass (avoid the sliding type which frequently reset themselves) to a 1-1⁄2" radius and make a pencil mark at the 3" diameter. This sets the interior hollowing limit at the bottom flared lip.
Drilling for depth on this project is a critical measure since the drill holes and subsequent hollowing will be from both ends. One convenient way to manage this is to set up the 1" forstner bit and mark it clearly with a marker or tape.
Drilling end-grain is always a challenge that centers best when the work is spinning and the drill bit stationary.
Keeping the forstner bit sharp, a secondary challenge, and the lathe speed slow (200-300 rpm) is an efficient compromise. When the drill reaches the mark, believe it and stop drilling.
With the inside 3" outer rim marked, and the 1" drilled to just under 1-3⁄4" depth, the especially ground "not-square" scraper and the round nose scraper can quickly and efficiently do the hollowing.
Using the hard edge of the 1" hole as a guide helps create the inner dome. Establishing the curve using the outer 3" ring and cutting to the bottom of the 1" drilled hole works amazingly well with the "not-square" scraper. Switching at this point to the round nose scraper and using it to smooth and round the dome and depend the cut minimally, just enough to remove the mark of the 1" drill bit completes the hollowing.
One final cut with the point of the "not-square" to round the bottom edge and mark the 1/8" outside wall thickness completes the work on the bottom hollow. Sand to finish grit – in this case 600 – and apply the friction polish finish of choice. I leave the sanding dust on the piece and apply the magic mixture of 1/3rd shellac, 1/3rd boiled linseed oil, 1/3rd turpentine (held in an air-tight bottle and shaken-to-mix with every application) with a paper towel while the piece is spinning. Polish/heat until the finish is dry. Another finish solution would be to apply walnut oil or other finishes that are labeled "food-safe." My own experience suggests that this finish properly applied hardens over a few days and can be waxed or oiled as needed to refresh it when the cup is used. Wooden kitchen and dinnerware pieces are not meant for dishwashers or microwaves.
Before turning the blank around, rough turn the outside of the bottom cup from square to almost but not quite round, leaving a full column at the 3-1⁄2" diameter or more. This will reduce the shock-load on the piece later when mounted in the jam chuck.
One of the reasons for finishing the inside of the bottom at this point is to realize that the outside of the cup needs to remain sturdy and supportive while the top of the cup is hollowed and shaped.
With the blank turned around and mounted again in the four-jaw self-centering chuck, bring the tailstock-mounted 2" forstner bit to the bottom and drill in about 1/8" to rough the outer flared lip of the upper cup.
Using the marked 1" bit, drill to 1-5/8" depth (remember to either use a different bit or to change your mark or tape). Using the marks of the two drill bits, hollow and finish the upper cup, remembering to also mark the outside 1/8" wall thickness, sand, and apply the final finish.
Before removing the blank from the chuck, rough turn the outside of the upper cup from square to round with a taper that ends near the marked outer edge.
Making a wooden jam chuck fixture simplifies the process and suggests that the turner prepare all the planned blanks (4, 8, 12) with the inner hollowing complete before switching to turn the outside profile. This jam chuck will allow the turner full access to shape and finish the entire profile; the danger is two-fold: first, the jamming pressure must be enough to hold the piece while it is being cut but not so much as to split the thinning wall of the two cups; second, the profile will be turned "blind" to where the inner hollowing ends.
The top (tailstock) of the jam chuck should be shaped to avoid too much pressure on the brittle lip and ideally fit inside the upper cup far enough to reach the bottom and center the sides lower down.
The drive end needs to capture and center the lower cup firmly and will benefit from being shaped to support as much of the sides of the hollowed dome as possible.
Initially, for the visually talented, it might help the turner to draw a picture of the various parts of the cup: upper cup inner hollow, the collar linking upper and lower, and the lower inner hollow. Having a sense of this is critical to shaping the outside.
Disaster can happen at any point and is most likely a result of thinning the wall a little too much on the curve to the collar. This can be a "teaching moment" and gives reason to preparing several extra hollowed blanks.
For turning the profile: rough the shape, identify the precise position of the collar (do not pursue the final diameter until the upper cup is complete), and then work to complete the final flare and decoration of the upper cup (work the tailstock end first following rule #3 and from large diameter toward small following rule #2).
As the upper (right and smaller) cup takes shape, be careful to take light, finishing cuts because the material is thin and may or may not be supported by the jam chuck at the point of contact.
The consistently thin wall thickness plus narrow connecting collar for this shape offers a challenge that practice, sharp tools, and a riding bevel can overcome. The benefit at the end is a strong but delicate, light-weight egg cup. Maintaining the thin wall and cutting the outside profile a little too close to the inside surface typically happens as the turner nears the end of the project (Frustration #1). My grandfather played tennis trying to have a "net-ball" or "let-ball" serve 1 out of 7 serves believing that indicated how close he was trying to come to the net. That guiding philosophy translated here suggests the turner was working to keep the side walls and bottom turn extremely thin and, on this occasion, too thin. More kindling prepped to light the woodstove on a chilly morning in Maine.
Working between the upper (close to finish) and lower-larger cups concentrate on the narrow point of transition. For the purpose of this article, there are actually four different designs of cups (pictured at the end). In this photo, the final cut will be with a 1⁄4" fingernail spindle gouge to produce a small cove in the middle of the narrow collar connecting upper and lower sections.
Note in this photo the still-present heavier shoulder of supporting wood on the upper section of the lower/larger cup. This absorbs the stress of the final cuts on the upper cut and middle transition section, avoiding a twisting failure that a thinner wall in this part (which is not as well supported by the chuck) might cause. This also supports the work and helps avoid the rippling waves that occur during finishing cuts to the right demonstrating the amazing flexibility of wood (Frustration #2).
In this different profile example, the hard edges of the cups encourage a stepped transition connecting them. Those outside hard edges also limit the challenges of cutting the thinner outside wall blind to the exact position of the inside wall. Note also in this photo that instead of the wooden tailstock jam chuck, the reversed cone of a Oneway Live Center works and is a viable option for those who have one. Beall Tool Company Live Cones can work as well. As a traditional turner, I advocate making the jam chucks from sharpened-edge-friendly wood because of the constant desire to improve skills, the inexpensive use of at-hand materials, and the ability to shape the device to a more exact profile to fit the specific job.
My preferred design is the one drawn and shown, but the variety of options, especially for decoration at the collar (or "waist") of the figure, are infinite.
The important thing is that the finished cup is stable, holds the typical and large eggs firmly, and ideally can accommodate hiding the second egg in the lower warming chamber. (Hint: there are two eggs in this photo!)
From beginning to end, this project challenges the spindle turner's skills and imagination yielding the best kind of blending of creating something useful that is also artfully pleasing.
While the differences in design are subtle, these matched sets of cups work well.
Regardless of design, the key to success lies in selecting blanks in prime hardwood that can be shaped, finished, and polished to an attractive luster that shows off the beauty of wood. In this case, the sweet cherry worked well and pleased my customer. I also like working these in walnut, locust, and oak.
My customer arrived and was overwhelmed by his choices in the three different designs. He surprised me by selecting one from each design and then adding another cup to have a matched pair. That opportunity set me up for creating the fourth design (center) and making one more cup to have a matched set of four (right).
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
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