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This article is from Issue 2 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Show your cordial side by sending beautiful turned bottle stoppers home with your guests. They’re the perfect, personal token of an intimate dinner party or an evening spent with friends. 

Weekend projects come in a variety of flavors: Some are easy to make, and some can be made quite inexpensively. Others can be completed quickly, using only a few supplies or materials. Still others can be quite beautiful, even when you have only a minimal amount of time to spend in the shop. And then there are those that are just perfect for gift-giving.

From time to time, however, there comes along a project that is all of these things. Fast, easy projects that are true crowd-pleasers, bottle stoppers turned on your lathe require a minimum of materials (much of which can come from your scrap barrel), but allow maximum use of your creativity. You can make several stoppers in a style or profile you prefer, or make each stopper one-of-a-kind. If you’re taking advantage of some of the scrap and offcuts that have been piling up in your shop, you can even match the stopper profiles to the materials you have on hand. The possibilities are endless.

Getting started

Bottle stoppers can be made from any kind of hardwood, but look for something with an interesting grain pattern or a brilliant color, or both. And while you might shy away from using a beautiful but expensive exotic species for a larger project, even a minimal amount of material can turn out several stoppers for only a small investment. However, the dust of some exotics can be irritants, so be sure you have adequate dust collection near your lathe. It’s also a good idea to wear a dust mask while turning exotic wood, especially when you create fine dust when sanding.

Each stopper consists of only three parts: the turning blank, a hardwood dowel centered in one end, and a stopper cork with a 3/8" hole through the center.

As with materials, you’ll only need a minimum of tools and equipment for turning bottle stoppers. 

Stoppers can be turned between centers, but if you’re fortunate enough to have a lathe chuck you’ll find the process faster and less wasteful of materials. (I’ll describe both methods in a few moments.) Besides your lathe, a basic set of turning tools will do fine – a gouge, skew and parting tool are about all you need. If you plan to copy a specific profile from a drawing or photo, a pair of calipers will come in handy. Have sandpaper in an increasing variety of grit sizes, and some type of final finish. A simple oiled finish works well, as does a light coat of paste wax, but if you’re looking for a nice shine the easiest to use is a friction polish – a small amount goes a long way, and it dries in a matter of moments. 

You’ll also need a 3/8" drill bit and glue. You can use a waterproof glue if you prefer, but regular shop glue does just fine.

Stock preparation

Each stopper starts as a small turning blank  (Fig. 1). These can be purchased already cut or you can simply cut blanks from a larger piece of stock, sizing them to match the profile you’re looking for. I’ve found that a blank measuring 2" x 2" x 23/4" will work for just about any profile. Of course, if you have a quantity of odd-sized scraps, you can just make your profiles match them. Likewise, if you’re looking for a heftier stopper, feel free to cut a larger blank.

There are two ways to prepare your turning blanks, depending on whether you’ll use a lathe chuck or turn your stoppers between centers.

Lathe chuck: 

Cut your blank to just a hair longer than the exact size of stopper you want. You’ll use the lathe’s tailstock for part of the turning, so you’ll need just a bit of waste on the tailstock end.

With the blanks cut, mark the center on each end (Fig. 2), then drill a 3/8" hole, 3/4" deep in one end of each blank. A drill press works best for this, as it can ensure that your holes are at 90-degree angles.

Each bottle stopper uses a hardwood dowel cut to a final length of 2" to accommodate the 3/4"-deep hole and the 11/4" length of the cork stoppers, but make the dowel as long as needed to fit the chuck securely, and still leave 11/4" exposed – this way, the chuck jaws won’t mar the dowel where the cork stopper will go. We’ll trim the dowel to its finished length when the stopper’s done.

Put some glue into the hole and tap the dowel home with a hammer or mallet (Fig. 3). Then, holding a stopper cork in place, mark the dowel the length of the cork to use as a stopping guide when mounting it in your chuck (Fig. 4). 

Slip the dowelled blank into the lathe chuck only up to the mark you just made (this will prevent chuck damage to the surface of the dowel) and tighten it securely. Bring the tailstock up to the center of the other end of the blank, and tighten it into place.

Turning between centers: 

Make the blank 1/2" to 3/4" longer to allow for waste created when mounting on a spur center. As before, mark both ends of the blanks and drill a center hole in one end of each. On the opposite end, cut shallow grooves along your lines with a hand saw for seating the lathe’s spur center. 

For turning between centers, an extra 1/4" for the dowel will work fine. Cut the dowel and glue it into place, then mark the cork length.

Place your spur center into one side of the blank – you can tap it into place with a mallet – and slip it into the headstock (Fig. 5). Bring the tailstock up and center it on the tip of the dowel, then tighten it into place. Note in this photo that I cut off the corners of the blank before mounting. This makes it easier to rough out a cylinder, and creates a lot fewer chips and less dust. You can ease the corners of the blank on a bandsaw or belt sander, or you can trim them off with a bench chisel after you’ve mounted it on the lathe.

Shaping up

From this point, turning is pretty much the same whether using a chuck or turning between centers. There are a few small differences, but I’ll point them out where appropriate.

Start by creating a simple cylinder (Figs. 6 and 7), followed by roughing out your profile (Fig. 8). Note that I created a waste nib to support the workpiece as I worked the profile. For chuck-turning, use a parting tool to create the nib on the tailstock end; for turning between centers, your waste nib will be up at the headstock on your spur center. Both will be removed later.

Take your time when turning your profile, and be sure your chisels are sharp. Failure to do this may result in losing a perfectly good workpiece, especially when chuck-turning. If your chisel “catches” the workpiece, the dowel can snap, not only leaving you with a worthless piece of scrap (Fig. 9), but also creating a dangerous situation when the workpiece flies loose from the lathe. 

When your profile is complete, sand through a progression of grits. I started with 100-grit, then moved through 150, 220 and 320. Some exotics, like Macassar ebony, can become quite glossy without a finish, so you may want to sand these up to 600-grit or higher. Again, be sure to wear a dust mask when sanding.

The biggest difference between turning methods comes when sanding is complete and you’re ready to apply your finish. For chuck-turning, reduce the size of the waste nib as far as possible with your parting tool. Then back off the tailstock and, with the workpiece spinning at a lower speed, sand the nib off, progressing through grits as before until the top of the stopper is smoothly sanded.

For center-turning, leave the waste nib the way it is for now.

Finishing up

The most amazing part of turning bottle stoppers is the finishing process. I especially like using a friction finish because you can do everything right on the lathe. I used Hut Crystal Coat for the stoppers in this article, but whatever type you use, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s specific directions.

With the stopper turning at a low speed, apply a few drops of finish to a clean scrap of cloth, then touch the finish to the spinning stopper until it’s thoroughly coated. Increase the lathe speed and rub the cloth over the spinning surface, keeping the cloth in motion at all times. As the friction warms the surface, the finish will cure, developing a glossy shine right before your eyes (Fig. 10). Repeat finish application until you get the look you prefer, and then follow up by buffing with a clean cloth as the workpiece spins.

If you’re chuck-turning, your stopper is done. For turning between centers, you have one more step. With the lathe on a slower speed, use your parting tool to cut your waste nib until you can easily free the stopper from the waste. By hand, sand away any marks left by the nib. Apply a bit of friction polish to the top, and buff it vigorously against a clean cloth until shiny. 

You can also sand the nib and apply finish to the top of the stopper by chucking it into a drill press. Wrap the dowel in some stiff paper before putting it in the chuck jaws to avoid marking the dowel.

Popping the cork

Using the mark you made earlier as a guide, trim the dowel to just slightly more than cork length. Apply a small amount of glue to the wider base of the cork and to the inside of the hole, and slide it in place over the dowel until it’s snug against the bottom of the stopper. (Do this quickly in one smooth motion so you don’t end up with a cork stuck halfway onto the dowel.) Wipe off any squeeze-out with a damp cloth. When the glue has dried completely, touching the end of the dowel gently to a belt, disc or random orbit sander will true it up to the end of the cork.

You’ll find that you can make quite a few bottle stoppers in a short time, so be sure you keep some finished stoppers on hand. When dinner guests admire one sitting handsomely atop a wine bottle, surprise them by letting them take a finished stopper home as a memento of the evening.

A.J. Hamler

Woodturning was one of the first things Hamler learned about woodworking back in his high school shop class when growing up in Cincinnati. And although his shop pursuits today are usually in areas other than turning, he still comes back to the lathe from time to time. He has no idea how many bottle stoppers he’s made.


Wood blanks with width and length sufficient for desired profiles
3/8" hardwood dowel
Hut Crystal Coat, #141049 (6oz. bottle) $9.99
Bottle stopper corks, #111191 (pkg. of 10) $3.99

Woodcraft Supply
(800) 225-1153

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