Four Wood Ornaments That Take You from Tree to Shining Tree

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This article is from Issue 7 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Look to your favorite tree to provide wood for ornaments that will decorate the most famous tree of all.

As the holidays approach, it’s likely that every woodshop in the country is humming with activity as woodworkers hasten to make finely crafted items for the season. And, while gift making is the most frequent goal, it’s even more likely that the number one item being made as gifts is destined to decorate the holiday tree.

With that in mind, we thought you might enjoy four distinct takes on the theme of holiday ornaments, each one highlighting a different technique – woodturning, scroll work, segmentation, and bandsawn geometry.

1. Star of Wonder by Shay English

At first glance, this segmented star ornament may look difficult, but it’s not if you know the secret – first, create a star-shaped molding.

This is a great production project for anybody who wants to make several ornaments of the same type. It involves milling two identical moldings in contrasting hardwoods, gluing them together in pairs of five to create a large star-shaped molding, and then crosscutting them to create individual ornaments.

Using a sacrificial fence, cut two boards of  contrasting species each 3/4" x 2" x 24" long (Fig. 1); I used walnut and oak. Stop your cuts about 3" from the blade so the part doesn’t drop into the teeth, then cut off that last 3" on a miter saw or bandsaw.

Change the angle of the blade to 26 degrees, adjust the fence a hair toward the blade and make the second cut in each part (Fig. 1, inset). For safety, stop the cut short as before.

Crosscut the moldings at 3" intervals and glue up pairs of contrasting species (Fig. 2). Glue up fi ve cured pairs to form a star, making adjustments on a sander for a perfect fit (Fig. 3).

When the glue is dry, use a file or rasp to clean up the exposed faces.

Slice off the stars (Fig. 4), sand the faces, drill a 3/8" through hole in the center of each and glue a dome-shaped hardwood plug into each side for an accent. Apply the fi nish of your choice. 

Drill a hole through one of the points and insert a loop of gold thread or string to hang your ornament.

–Shay English, an 8th grader at Dean Morgan Junior High in Casper, Wyo., likes to ride horses,  motorcycle, snowboard, swim, and design woodworking projects with his dad. His grades are good; his room is a mess.

1. Set the table saw blade to 36 degrees and make the two angled cuts in each piece.
2. Use masking tape to make a “hinge” for each pair, to line them up perfectly for clamping.

3. Clamp the star with clear packing tape by wrapping the tape around the completed star set.

4. Scribe a line 5/16" in from each edge, then carefully bandsaw one star from each end.

2. Ornamental Exotics by A.J. Hamler

The designs may be simple and the work easy, but the beauty of the wood speaks for itself.

There’s no rule that says a handcrafted ornament must be intricate or difficult to be attractive. These ornaments combine simple shapes with the natural beauty of the wood itself to make a striking  decoration.

This is a perfect scrap barrel project – I was lucky to fi nd quite a variety in mine – but if yours is empty, small cutoffs of exotic species are often available very inexpensively. For a good contrast among the fi ve ornaments shown here, I chose pieces of cocobolo, lacewood, zebrawood, some bird’s-eye maple left over from the “Kitchen Caddy” project in Issue 6, and bloodwood. 

The stock can be any thickness, but something between 1/4" and 1/2" gives the best weight; most of the ornaments here are 3/8".

Before drawing your shapes, give the stock a good surface sanding up to at least 220-grit. This will make it easier to draw your shapes and simplify the finish sanding later when the pieces are pretty small.

Since the main goal of these ornaments is to show off the wood species, stick to basic geometric shapes. And, since most Christmas trees are already filled with holiday-themed ornaments, simple shapes complement other ornaments quite nicely.

Draw the shapes on the wood (Fig. 1). The figure in the round lacewood ornament looked far more interesting to me with the grain going diagonally. Species with dramatic, but generally straight graining – like the zebrawood and cocobolo – are wellsuited to longer, narrower ornaments. Species with unusual figure – such as the bird’s-eye maple and lacewood – benefit from shapes that are wider and rounder.

After cutting and sanding (Fig. 2), drill a small hole at the top, sizing it to your intended hanger – a tiny hole is fine for thread or fishing line; for ribbon or a metal hook, you’ll need a slightly larger hole.

After drilling, give the ornament a final sanding on all sides up to 320-grit, and round over all sharp edges. 

Just about any finish works well, but I like a glossy spray lacquer. It’s fast, dries in minutes to a high sheen, and reflects light nicely on the tree.

As a final touch, write the wood species on a small piece of card stock, along with the country of origin and the current year (Fig. 3). Thread it onto the hanging string before tying, so anyone admiring the ornament can readily identify what it is and when you made it.

If you make ornaments as gifts each year, you’ll find your recipients looking forward to them as their collection grows – they’ll never know what beautiful species you’ll choose next.

–A.J. Hamler is editor-in-chief of Woodcraft Magazine.

1. It’s generally best to follow the grain of the wood when drawing your shapes, but not mandatory.
2. Cut the shapes out on a bandsaw or scroll saw, then sand all the edges up to your drawn lines on a disk sander.

3. Document your work with a small card attached to the hanging string.

3. Turning to the Holidays by John Lucas

Of the hundreds of ways to turn an ornament on the lathe, this three-part form is widely recognized as a true classic of the genre.

There are many ways to turn a Christmas ornament, but the style that I make most is a three-part ornament consisting of a turned and hollowed ball shape, a finial turned to form a bottom “icicle,” and a smaller top piece turned for the hanger hook.

Glue a 21/2" to 3" diameter piece of turning stock to a waste block for your faceplate. Turn the basic shape, leaving a fair amount of wood on the headstock side to form a solid base for hollowing (Fig. 1). Drill a 3/8" hole through the ball portion and just into the waste section. I use two tools to hollow the ball, both homemade, but small hollowing tools are available from any turning supplier. (Hollowing reduces the weight, but if weight isn’t a concern you can skip hollowing.)

Enlarge the 3/8" hole to about 1/2" to make access easier, then use a curved hollowing tool to remove waste just inside the hole and up to the curve. Switch to a straight tool, and clean out waste often as you go. To do this, stop the lathe and use a straw or small piece of hose to blow out the sawdust.

Not a lot of hollowing is needed, but if you decide to turn the ornament thin, measure thickness  frequently. I use a C-shaped piece of copper wire, bent so there’s a gap of 1" on the open side. Reach inside the ornament with the copper wire and measure the gap on the outside. If the gap is 3/4" then your ornament wall is 1/4" thick (Fig. 2).

When you’ve finished hollowing, turn the tenon on the back to about 5/8", then sand and apply the finish of your choice. Use a skew or parting tool to cut off the last bit and free the ornament. If you’re not comfortable doing that, stop the lathe and saw off the last 1/4". You’ll have a 3/8" hole already in the top.

Design your finial on paper first, as they always look better planned out. I like to use a 1" square piece about 6" to 8" long. I use a four-jaw chuck to hold the work, and turn both the long and short finials out of the same piece.

Rough out the long finial first with the tailstock in place. Once the bottom of the finial is thinned almost to size, I pull the tailstock away and use my fingers to support the wood and take light cuts (Fig. 3).

It’s best to turn about an inch, then sand and apply some finish. Then turn another inch or so and repeat the sanding/finishing sequence.

When the whole long finial is done, measure the hole in the bottom of the ball and turn a tenon on the top of the long finial to fit (Fig. 4). Cut off the finial with a parting tool.

Turn a 3/8" tenon about 3/4" long on the wood remaining in the chuck (Fig. 5). This is the bottom side of the top finial, so under-cut the wood leading into the tenon. Reverse the finial and grip the tenon in the chuck, then turn the shape of the finial that goes on the top of the ornament.

Drill a hole in the top for the ornament hanger. I use small eye screws.

Sand and finish the top finial, then part off the 3/8" tenon leaving about 1/4" to complete all three parts (Fig. 6).

Glue the finials into the ornament ball, and you’ve just turned a three-part ornament. 

There are endless designs variations: The “ball” doesn’t have to be a ball; it can be bell-shaped, segmented, solid wood, anything you desire. Likewise, the finial can be long, short, segmented or beaded – it’s up to you.

Have fun with these, and happy holidays.

–John Lucas is a photographer for Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, Tenn. A woodturner for 20 years, Lucas teaches turning workshops at the Appalachian Center for Crafts. His articles have appeared in several magazines.

1. The ornament ball, the first of three parts, is turned separately
2. A bent copper wire is used to monitor progress when hollowing the ball.

3. The finial is completed in a process of alternately cutting, sanding and finishing.

4. The final step of making the finial requires turning the tenon that will fit into the ornament ball.
5. The ornament top is turned from stock left after the finial is removed.

6. The ball of this ornament is buckeye; the finials are padauk.

4. Dance of the Snowflakes by Robert T. Letvinchuck

This snowflake ornament is a frosty study in contrasts that lends itself easily to making several at once.

The scroll saw is a marvelous tool – it’s easy to use and can turn out the most intricate and delicate items. It also allows you to safely and easily do “stack cutting,” making it ideal for this snowflake ornament project. 

This is really an inlay project, with one species of wood nestled at the center of another. Since the inlay pieces should show up easily, you’ll want to use contrasting wood. For the snowflakes shown here, I chose aspen and redheart, but any combination of light and dark species will do.

Create your stock stack by applying a small dab of wood glue to the corners of one piece of 4" x 4" x 1/8" stock as in Fig. 1. Lay the second piece on top of the first, then clamp it up and allow to dry. Photocopy the ornament pattern below and adhere it to the stack with spray adhesive, then place clear packing tape over the pattern to prevent burning. Using a 1/16" bit, drill guide holes into the waste areas, and also a hole for a string at the top of the ornament. Insert the scroll saw blade through the holes and cut out the waste first (Fig. 2).

Then start from one side of the snowflake and make one continuous cut until the snowflake is completely cut out. Next, cut out the inlays – the diamond shapes surrounding the snowflake’s center – keeping track of where they are supposed to go. Cover your work surface with waxed paper, lay out your snowflake pieces, exchange inlays with opposite-colored snowflakes and glue into place (Fig. 3). 

Peel off the pattern remnants when dry, and carefully remove any glue residue with a disk sander. Finish sanding by hand with 220-grit paper. I used three coats of an indoor/outdoor spar urethane on both sides as a final finish. Thread some fishing line or heavy thread through the string hole, tie in a knot and wait for that tree to arrive so you can hang it up and admire its beauty. 

–Robert T. Letvinchuck is a self-taught wood artisan who creates custom works of art and patterns for intarsia enthusiasts. He lives in Fond du Lac, Wis.

1. You can glue up additional layers if you want to make several at once.
2. For such an intricate design, there is very little internal waste area.

3. Exchanged inlays are glued in place at the hub of each snowflake.


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