Four of a Kind

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This article is from Issue 79 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Check out David Heim’s new book Woodturning Patterns from Springhouse Press.

Turn a set of identical legs with these tips and tricks.

By David Heim

At the poker table, four of a kind is about the best hand you can have. At the lathe, four of a kind—four identical pieces, that is—represents about the best work you can do. Fortunately, woodturning ain’t poker, so you don’t have to depend on Lady Luck for great results. Woodturners who are in the business of making duplicate parts may invest in a lathe duplicator. But you don’t need this expensive accessory to make identical legs or spindles. Turning a set of legs for a coffee table (see p. 23) is a good opportunity to put a few duplicate turning tricks to work, as you’ll see just ahead. 

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Make a plan and get ready to turn

Begin by drawing a full-sized pattern for your duplicate parts. It can be an original design or one you adapt from a book illustration or an Internet image. Pencil and paper will work; or use a computer program like Adobe Illustrator or the free 3D program called SketchUp Make (available at sketchup.com). Add key dimensions to the drawing—diameters for beads and coves, plus measurements along the length. Make a full-sized print, and glue it to a thin piece of plywood. This makes the woodturning equivalent of a story stick; some turners also call this pattern a preacher. When your pattern is complete, your plan for turning the piece will start to come together, as shown here. 

Make your turning blanks from clear, straight-grained stock. The coffee table legs I’m making here are meant to be painted, so I glued up the blanks from thinner stock. For stain-grain duplicates, your first choice should be solid, riftsawn lumber. Riftsawn wood puts the growth rings at about a 45° angle to the sides of your blank, ensuring straight grain all around.



Begin with the end in mind. Mark up your full-sized pattern with key dimensions and diameters, then set your calipers to the larger diameters. For smaller diameters, I make sizing gauges by drilling holes in plywood with Forstner bits and then cutting the circles in half. Before mounting a blank in the lathe, transfer the key diameters to all four sides of your blank, so that they will be visible as you begin to turn.

Skew first. It’s easy to catch your tool on the corners of the blank, so make your first cuts lightly and carefully. Start by using a sharp skew chisel to make this curved bevel cut from one direction, then the other. Cut carefully, rolling the skew to create a gentle curve (inset photo).

Start at the top

It’s best to mount the largest part of your piece—in this case, the top of the leg—in the headstock. I start each leg the same way—by turning the pommel, where the leg transitions from square to round. I think this is the trickiest part of the turning, so I like to get it out of the way first. Once this task is complete, I follow the sequence shown here to complete each leg. 





Part to key diameters. Next, use a parting tool in conjunction with the calipers to cut the blank down to size at key diameters on either side of the top bead. Hold the calipers in the groove as you push toward the center with the parting tool. Stop cutting the instant the calipers slip over the wood. 






Rough-shape the leg, then complete the top bead. At this stage, I’ve roughed out the leg’s shape with a spindle roughing gouge. Here, I’m using a spindle gouge to complete the top bead. This allows me to focus on the lower sections of the leg. 

Safety Alert

  • Always wear a face shield or safety glasses when turning. 
  • When sizing the blank, hold the calipers correctly—keep your finger out of the ring at the top. That way, you won’t get hurt if the calipers catch and twist against the wood.

Check the pattern. Stop frequently to make sure you’re staying close to the key dimensions on your pattern.

Now finish the job

Always try to turn “downhill”—go from large diameter to small so the wood always supports the tool’s bevel. Since these legs are fairly beefy, I can work from the headstock toward the tailstock. But you’ll want to reverse this order if you’re turning very thin legs or balusters. This will minimize the wood’s tendency to flex as you turn. As you check your work against the pattern, pay particular attention to the distances between key diameters. The eye can detect small variations in length but is less discerning with differences in width. When you get close to the final shape, switch to sandpaper to avoid removing too much wood. Don’t be too aggressive with the abrasive, though. You want corners and edges to stay crisp and sharp.

Gauge your work. With the lathe spinning and a parting tool taking small shavings, you can hold a half-round gauge in place to turn an exact diameter.
Shape the bottom cove. Begin at one end with the flute pointing to the left or right. Roll the tool as you cut to center, so that the flute points upward. Avoid going past center, which can cause a catch.


Roll the bottom bead. Begin a bead at the center, with the flute pointing up. Turn down toward the base, rolling the tool over to the side while simultaneously lifting the handle. As you work, check your bead’s shape against a shop-made gauge (inset photo). 

Looking good so far!

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