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Efficient Woodworking with a Little Imagination
By Jeff Fleisher
New Market, VA

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

A well thought out design and skilled craftsmanship are the hallmarks to a quality piece of woodworking. As a custom woodworker you normally have as much time as you need to design and create your 'masterpiece'. However, if you are in a situtation where you need to mass produce a large quantity of a wooden item then there is a third element that factors into the equation...efficiency.

I was recently approached by a local classic automobile reconstruction and restoration shop with a project. This company is very well known in the automobile restoration industry and has won numerous national competitions. As part of their restorations they also include the accessories that were part of a classic car. One of these items is a tool kit containing two sizes of screwdrivers with fluted wooden handles.

They asked if I could make a handle that looked like the ones above. When I said "yes", I was then asked if I could make 100 of each! If you have ever done any production work you know that making the first one is interesting, the fifth is fun and the 50th is nerve-racking boring. Making 200 handles was going to be a nightmare! In addition, if you are getting paid to make them, then not only do you not want to go crazy while making them, but you want to do it efficiently so that you are not working for 50 cents per hour!

I thought it would be interesting to explain the innovative technique I had to come up with in order to make the handles efficiently. The first thing I needed to do was turn a couple of these handles to ensure that I could duplicate the originals. In addition, I happen to have a lathe duplicator which I use to make mallet and awl handles for Shenandoah Tool Works. The duplicator uses a template so as part of the upfront freehand turning to copy the original I made two masters for the duplicator, one for each size.

The bottom handle is my initial test and the top handle is one of the masters I ended up creating. The handle has a hole drilled in it for the metal screwdriver and the tenon is sized to fit the metal furrel they supplied. The master is mounted on the duplicator so I could turn the overall shape. Step 1 complete.

I didn't want to have to buy rough lumber, mill them to flatten and square up, cut into strips and rough blanks and then turn them round on the lathe. Instead, I found an online company that sold high-quality, hard maple dowels and bought a large quantity. I was able to easily cut them into a consistent length for mounting on the lathe. Step 2 complete.

That was the easy part, now comes the part that I wanted to share with my readers. How would I efficiently cut the flutes along the surface of the handle? Each handle had six flutes, so for 200 handles that meant I needed to cut 1,200 flutes. In addition, each flute had to be the same length and depth so all the handles would be consistent. I needed to come up with a technique to make the flutes efficiently as well as accurately.

My first thought was to use the indexer on my lathe and then a router mounted on some sort of track on the bed of the lathe. The lathe has holes in the headstock that you can look into and see holes drilled into the shaft. The lathe comes with a screw that you can use to screw into the holes and lock the shaft into position. That approach is slow and was a non-starter. I thought I could make a paper template with 360 degree lines on it and mount it on the shaft to make it easier to dial in the correct angles. That would help but still, a long and tedious process. I never even thought about how I could build a jig to hold the router on the lathe bed and accurately cut 1,200 flutes.

There had to be a better way! After sitting and staring, for an hour or so, at the beautiful mountains surrounding the Shenandoah Valley, where I live, I said, "well if I can't move the router over the handle, then maybe I can move the handle over the router." Now the concern became how do I accurately and safely move the handle over the router and create six equally spaced flutes around the handle? The issue now was the fact that the only reference surface I had was the unturned end of the handle (see 2nd photo) before I cut it off.

After thinking about it, I had the idea that if I mounted a hexagon shape on each end of the handle, I could rotate the jig and create six evenly spaced flutes. I made a hexagon and cut out the center with a Forstner bit for the end of the handle to fit into.

Now, what to do about the other end? Since I couldn't guarantee that all the tenons would be exactly the same size I couldn't take this same approach and have a tight fit. I needed a way to hold the tenon, given whatever size it happened to be, centered along the axis of the handle. After more head scratching, I decided I could mount a second hexagon onto a Morris chuck and use the chuck jaws to tighten down on the tenon, while at the same time keeping it centered.

Now I had a way to hold the handle at a uniform height above the router blade and level to the blade. In addition, I could just rotate the whole jig from one surface of the hexagon to the next between each pass. This would be fast and easy!

After setting the router bit to the height that I needed, I was glad to see that I could slide the handle over the runing router in the area of the thumb recess. That was high enough to not get in the way of the turning bit. Then I could just slide the whole jig to the left, cutting the flute until it exited the end of the handle and stop before I got to the rear hexagon. Then just slide it out, rotate, and repeat.

It worked very well. It only took a few seconds for each pass. By making two rear hexagons with two different size holes I was able to use the same setup for both handle sizes. They were very close to the original and were consistent within each size.

I can't say that it still wasn't a little boring by the time I got over 100 handles but I had a very efficient process and that is what is key to this discussion. If you are faced with a situation where you need to repeat something over and over again, stop and think about how you can do the operation efficiently. With a little imagination you can create a jig and an approach that is both efficient and accurate.

Jeffrey Fleisher has been a woodworker for approximately 20 years and a professional woodworker for the past 6 years. He is the president of his local woodturning club, the Woodturners of the Virginias and past president of the Northern Virginia Carvers. You can see some of the furniture he has made at www.jeffswooddesigns.com. He can be reached by email at furnmkr@gmail.com

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