Carve a Snowflake Ornament

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This article is from Issue 92 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Crushed shell creates the icy sparkle

Despite our best intentions, many of the “quick and easy” projects that we start in the weeks leading up to the holidays aren’t ready until next year. Here’s a project that you can wrap up in a few hours. In a good weekend, you could finish a flurry of unique gifts.

The secret to the ornament’s snowy sparkle is crushed mother of pearl. The iridescent inlay is set into the carved grooves of a snowflake-shaped design with cyanoacrylate adhesive (CA) (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 70).

To get you started, I’ve provided a few snowflake patterns, but I encourage you to come up with your own designs because experimentation keeps things exciting.

If you don’t have a lathe to create the convex shape, you can simply carve the snowflake patterns onto flat discs, but I think that it’s easier to refine the carving on a convex surface. Either way, select a wood that’s easy to carve and tight-grained. Dark-colored woods like purpleheart, walnut, and padauk offer an attractive contrast with the translucent white-ish color of the mother of pearl inlay. If you choose to use a lighter-colored wood like beech or maple, you can change the color of the inlay with aniline dyes to make the carvings stand out.

A flurry of flakes. This project offers an opportunity to experiment with different shapes, wood species, and carving techniques. No two flakes need to be identical.

1 Pick and print a pattern

To guide your carving, glue a paper pattern to the convex face of a wooden disc. Here are a few snowflake patterns to get you started. Feel free to add or omit branches, or create new designs, but I recommend using a pattern rather than carving freehand. In the real world, most snow flakes are irregular, but I think that symmetrical designs are more visually appealing.

2 Prep the blanks

Start by planing your stock approximately 3/4"-thick, and then saw out a stack of 3-1/2"-diameter discs. To mount the blanks to my lathe’s scroll chuck, I used a 2-1/2" hole saw to make 3/4"-thick discs which I glued to the blanks’ back faces. (Tip: Gluing a piece of paper between the block and blank will make it easier to separate the two later.)

Next, mount the blank to your lathe, and shape as shown. Seal the surface with a light coat of shellac, and then apply the pattern.

Shape the blank. Set the turning speed to around 1000 RPM. True the blank and then shape a 3-1/4"-diameter dome. The glued-on backer block makes it possible to mount the blank without marring the ornament with faceplate screws.
Make it stick. Cut out a pattern, and then slit between the snowflake’s stems so that the paper can lie smoothly on the convex surface. Mount the pattern to the blank with spray adhesive.

Follow the lines. The ornament’s dome-shaped face facilitates carving the branches in toward the center, but if the wood lifts ahead of the chisel, try working from the opposite direction.

3 Clamp it down, then start carving

To do the carving, you can employ any small 2-8mm V-shaped parting tool. However, for faster results, I recommend using a power carver with a 6 or 9mm V-shaped cutter. With each branch, start by carving the main stem and then adding the branches and finer offshoots. When you’re done, use mineral spirits to remove the paper and glue.

4 Check your work 

The secret to a snowflake’s beauty is symmetry, so make your carved lines as uniform as possible. I discovered that rubbing chalk in the grooves makes it easier to inspect my work. After evening out the depth and width of the grooves, set a compass in the center of the snowflake and verify that the ends of the branches are even. When you’re done, wipe away or blow off any remaining chalk.

Chalk it up. Scrape off a few crumbs of white chalk and rub them into the carving to highlight minor imperfections. 
Fixed with a file. Finesse the carved branches with a needle file, or a strip of 180-grit sandpaper affixed to a narrow stick.

Rub it in. Press the mother of pearl into the grooves. Do this work on a piece of kraft paper or paper plate so that you can salvage excess material.

5 Fill and finish

Now’s the time to add the snowy sparkle. Don a dust mask, take a pinch of mother of pearl, and rub it into the grooves. Then fix the inlay in place with thin CA glue. After the glue dries, inspect your handiwork. If the inlay material hasn’t completely filled the carving, simply add more and set it with another drop of CA. 

Once the glue has dried, remount the ornament on the lathe, level the inlay with a sanding block, and give it a final sanding. Then blow off any dust and apply a light coat of CA glue.

Finally, pop off the mounting block with a chisel and finish-sand the ornament’s back face. Drill a hanger hole and add a loop of cord, and your ornament is ready to hang.

Glue it down. Dribble a light coat of CA to set the pearl into the carving. Work out from the center until the entire snowflake is covered.

Cups keep track of sanding disc grits.

Sand and seal. Sand the inlay material flush with the ornament’s face, and then finish-sand the surface through 400 grit. To use CA as a finish, set the lathe to about 500 RPM, and apply 3-5 light coats as shown.


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