Graceful Pepper and Salt Mills

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This article is from Issue 50 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Pleasing looks meet functionality in this tabletop duo.

By Byron Young

Overall dimensions: 2 1⁄2" dia. × 6" h

Few woodturnings see as much everyday use in the home as salt and pepper mills. Aesthetically, you want a pair that features graceful lines and feels good in the hand. My design incorporates smooth flowing curves, V-grooves that hide the base/top seam, and a rounded top that’s easy to grasp and twist. Here, because the stainless steel mechanism for the pepper mill and the ceramic mechanism for the sea salt mills are similar, you can follow the same turning instructions and tapered design to shape both. To differentiate between the two, I chose contrasting woods: African mahogany for the pepper mill and lighter colored figured maple for the salt mill.

While mill grinding mechanisms come in several sizes up to 14", I decided on the ones suited for 6"-high turnings. (See the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide.) You’ll need a 3 × 3 × 63⁄4" blank for each mill. I advise ordering the mechanisms in advance to have on hand during the turning process. Consider ordering extras if you’re in the gift-giving spirit. Now, gather up the needed tools below and boring bits and let’s get turning. It should take three to four hours to make and finish one mill.


1) 1" roughing gouge 

2) 1⁄4" deep-fluted bowl gouge 

3) 3⁄8" spindle gouge 

4) 3⁄16" parting tool 

5) 1⁄16" parting tool 

6) 1⁄2" skew

Prepare the mill base and top

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, run the lathe at 1,800 to 2,000 rpm for all turning operations.

1 Strike diagonal lines from the corners on the ends of a 3 × 3 × 63⁄4" blank to locate the centers, and then mount the blank onto the lathe using a spur drive and live center.

2 With a 1" roughing gouge, round the blank to just over the largest diameter of the design in Figure 1. Now, referring to the drawing, mark your cylinder for the tenons, V-grooves, and top/base parting location, as shown in Photo A. Turn on the lathe, and continue the marks around the cylinder, as shown in Photo A Inset. I make the parting line wider and darker.

3 With a 3⁄16" parting tool, turn the tenon for the mill base and top, where shown in Figure 1, to fit into a four-jaw scroll chuck. Switch to a 1⁄16" parting tool, and part off the top end of the blank in two operations for safety. First, part down to 1⁄2" diameter where marked on the cylinder. Next, stop the lathe and finish the parting with a handsaw (Photo B). Slide the tailstock out of the way, and remove both parts.

Bore the mill base and top blanks

1 Install a four-jaw scroll chuck, and tighten the jaws on the base blank tenon. (Make sure it is secure as there will be significant pressure applied during the drilling process.) Move the tool rest around to the end of the blank and just below its center. Clean up the bottom end of the base blank with a 1⁄4" gouge. Now, with the toe of a 1⁄2" skew, divot the end, as shown in Photo C, to establish its center and prepare the blank for drilling.

2 Outfit your tailstock with a Jacobs chuck and 15⁄8" Forstner bit. With the bit’s spur centered in the dimple, and using a speed of around 1,200 rpm, advance the bit into the spinning base and bore a 1⁄2"-deep recess, as shown in Photo D.

3 Install a 11⁄16" bit in the Jacobs chuck. Now, bore a little beyond halfway through the base blank at 1,200 rpm, using quick, short cuts to avoid overheating the bit and burning the wood. Rid the hole of debris often by backing the bit out. Stop drilling once the hole exceeds the halfway point in the base blank. (I made a mark on the bit’s shaft to help me determine when I had bored more than halfway in the cylinder.)

4 To complete the through-hole, swap the ends of the base blank. To secure it, switch to 35mm bowl jaws and expand them inside the 1⁄2"-deep × 15⁄8" recess. Reduce the speed to 700 rpm, and remove the tenon at the top end of the base with a 1⁄4" bowl gouge. Dimple the end with a 1⁄2" skew, and then continue drilling the through-hole in the mill base, as shown in Photo E.

5 Install the original jaws in your four-jaw chuck, and then mount the top end of the top blank. Install a 5⁄16" brad-point bit in the Jacobs chuck, and bore a centered hole through the top blank.

6 Now, increasing the speed to around 1,800 rpm, turn a spigot to fit snugly in the through-hole in the top end of the base (about 11⁄16" diameter), as shown in Photo F. (Later, you’ll turn the spigot to a 1" diameter to fit with slight clearance in the through-hole for friction-free twisting of the top when grinding.)

Turn the mill parts to final shape

1 Make a 15⁄8"-diameter jam chuck to fit into the 1⁄2 × 15⁄8" recess at base blank bottom end (Figure 2). Mount it in the four-jaw chuck. Install a live cone center in the tailstock. Now, fit the cylindrical blanks for the base and top together, and place the assembly between centers on the lathe.

2 Make a copy of the full-sized template at right, and transfer the depth dimensions on it for a ready reference. Now, adhere it to a piece of cardboard, and cut it to shape. Use it as needed to check the shape as to turn your mill. Next, using the dimensions on the template or in Figure 1, mark the narrowest diameters on the mill assembly.

3 With the 3⁄16" parting tool and caliper, establish the depth of the large tapered cove, where marked and as shown in Photo G.

4 Use a 1⁄4" deep-fluted gouge to form the tapered shape of the mill, removing the waste between the bead locations. Always move the tool tip downhill during the shaping, as shown in Photo H.

5 With a 1⁄2" skew, make the finer cuts to form the V-groove-like coves and beads, as shown in Photo I. Here, strive for a depth of between 1⁄8" to 3⁄16", keeping the toe of the tool tip down. Lift the handle slowly as you enter the turning, rotating it from left to right or vise-versa, depending on the V-wall you are shaping. Take care to not round over the bead. You want a V shape around the edges as well. Finish-sand from 150 through 800 grit.

6 Switch to a 3⁄8" spindle gouge to round the top to shape. Work to establish a 1" top height from the top/base joint to the top end of the top. Stop the lathe and remove the top.

7 Secure the base with the live cone center at the top end and a jam chuck at the bottom end. Now, use the 1⁄2" skew to form the V-groove-like cove at the bottom of the base, as described in Step 5. Also taper the bottom end of the base to final shape. Now, sand the base from 150- through 800-grit sandpaper. Stop the lathe.

8 With the lathe stopped, apply finish to the base. I wiped on a generous coating of Mylands High Build Friction Polish. Then, with the lathe running at around 1,800 rpm, I pressed a cotton cloth to the surface, raising a long-lasting sheen. (See page 45 for alternative woodturning finishes.) Remove the base and chuck.

9 Make the shop-made wood cone center, as shown in Figure 3. Now, place the top between cone centers and reduce the spigot’s diameter slightly with a 3⁄16"parting tool, as shown in Photo J. Test the fit to ensure that the spigot fits with a slight clearance in the base through-hole.

10 Replace the cone centers with the four-jaw chuck and 35mm jaws. Now secure the top’s spigot in the jaws. With a 1⁄4" bowl gouge, finish shaping the top. Repeat the sanding and finishing processes described in Step 8 to complete the top.

11 At the drill press, use a 1⁄16" bit to drill the needed 3⁄4"-deep pilot holes for the mechanism screws, where shown in Figure 4 and as shown in Photo K. Finally, drive the screws and assemble the grinding mill components. Secure the mill top to the base with the knob. Now, fill the mill with peppercorns or sea salt crystals, depending on the mechanism.  

About Our Author

Having turned for some 40 years, Byron Young is the current vice president of the Mountaineer Woodturners in Cedar Lakes, West Virginia. He enjoys turning and selling a variety of items such as finials, Christmas ornaments, and animal calls. He also does turning demos at the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair.

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