Spiral Turned Box

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This article is from Issue 39 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A simple container with a twist

It’s not surprising that turners enjoy making wooden boxes just as much as people appreciate receiving them. This gem of a box can be used to package another gift, such as a piece of jewelry, or as a gift by itself. In addition, it’s easy to make, letting you transform a few special pieces of scrap into a prized possession.

You’ll find several turning lessons with this little box. First, you’ll learn how to hollow end grain and form a lid 

that fits the container’s base. You’ll also find a primer in 

using Sorby’s Texturing and Spiraling System, a unique turning tool that adds twists to bowls, hollow forms, and platters quickly and easily. 

The system includes an additional texturing cutter that can create striations, whorls, orange peel, and still other textures, but here we’ll stick with spirals.

Note: For the cleanest spirals, select a tight-grained wood. For this example, I chose purpleheart, but maple and cherry are also good choices. Be sure to use a well-seasoned blank; otherwise future dimensional changes may result in a lid that doesn’t fit the base.

Prepare the blank

1 Mount the 3 × 5" blank between your headstock and tail centers. Set the tool rest just above the blank’s centerline and clear of the spinning corners. Set the lathe to 1,500 rpm and then round the blank using a 3⁄4" roughing gouge. Work from the center towards the ends (Photo A) rolling the gouge in the direction of the cut, so the wood doesn’t catch the tool’s top edge.

2 Adjust the tool rest close to the tailstock and set the speed at 1,800 rpm. Using a beading and parting tool, turn a 3⁄8"-long 

tenon (roughly the width of the tool) to fit your scroll chuck, as shown in Photo B.

3 Adjust the rest slightly above the centerline of your blank and smooth the cylinder with a skew. Here, rest the tool’s bevel against the blank with the skew’s long end pointed up and move it across the surface as shown in Photo C. Don’t push the tool; just let the cutting edge slice the wood.

4 In order to maintain the crispness of the spiral beads, now’s the time to finish-sand the cylinder. Using a rotary sander as shown in Photo D, finish-sand the cylinder starting with 120 grit and working up to 400 grit.

Do the twist

1 Adjust the lathe’s tool rest so that when the spiraling tool is positioned horizontally on the rest, the cutter's bottom edge is level with the centerline of your work.

2 Set the lathe speed to 400 rpm. Next, hold the spiral cutter at a slight downward angle against the rest, and lightly press it against the blank until the cutter begins to spin. (Note: For right-hand spirals, start on the left side of the blank; for left-hand spirals, start on the right.)

3 Slowly raise the cutter, so that the top edges of the teeth engage the work at centerline height (Photo E).

Don’t move the cutter on the rest just yet. Simply hold it against the workpiece to create a few reference grooves. You’ll use these grooves every time you set the spiraling tool on the work.

4 After stopping the lathe to inspect your grooves, turn the lathe on and reposition the cutter into the reference grooves. At this point the wheel is spinning, but not cutting. To start spiraling, raise the handle so that the top edge of the wheel begins to cut, and slowly feed the tool in the direction of the higher edge of the tilted head as shown in Photo F.

After the cutter’s first pass, the spiral may not be to full depth. If you like the look, stop here. For more texture, simply reference the cutter against the starting grooves and make another pass.

5 With a pencil, lay out the lid at one end of the blank making it about 2" long (Photo G).

6 Adjust the lathe speed to 1,500 rpm. Using a thin-kerf parting tool, separate the lid from the base as shown in

Photo H, or part down to 1⁄2", turn off the lathe, and separate the two with a saw. (The thin kerf helps maintain the continuity of the grain pattern where the lid meets the base.)

Turn the lid and fit the base

1 Mount the lid blank on your scroll chuck using the tenon cut earlier. True the face with a scraper. With a parting tool, make a 1⁄4"-deep flange 1⁄4" in from the outside edge as shown in Photo I and where shown in Figure 1. When measuring wall thickness, be sure to account for the depth of the spiral. Note that the flange should be straight or slightly taper out; if it tapers in, it won’t accept the base.

2 With the tool rest set so that the tool sits above the center of the lid, remove the waste from the lid with a hollowing tool. As shown in Photo J, ease the tool into the wood so that you get a thin shaving and then pull the tool toward you to gradually widen the cavity.

3 Use a depth gauge to obtain the depth of the cavity and transfer that measurement to the outside of the lid, as shown in Photo K. Now part the lid above the line.

4 Mount and true the end of the base blank. Then turn the end to fit the lid. Using a dial caliper, measure the inside dimension of the lid, and then flip the caliper to transfer the outside dimension to the base. Draw a line on the face of the base piece, as shown in Photo L.

5 Adjust your tool rest to the side of your base. Using a parting tool, as shown in Photo M, carefully cut through the spiral and up to your pencil line.

Take light cuts and check the fit after each cut. Aim for a “suction cup fit”—tight enough to hold the lid in place, but loose enough to pull off. (Note: Tapering the tenon slightly inward will provide a little wiggle room, but still provide a tight fit when the lid is installed on the base.)

Once you achieve a snug fit, adjust the rest parallel to the end of the base and use the parting tool to create a 1⁄8"-thick flange.

6 Hollow out the base in steps, as you did with the lid but to a depth of 21⁄8" inches, as shown in Photo N. (Note: If you have a drill chuck adaptor for your tailstock, you can use a 5⁄8"-diameter bit to drill out the base to finished depth. Mark the desired depth on the bit with a piece of tape.)

Finishing touches

1 Install the lid on the base and reinstall the tailstock. Employ the depth gauge to obtain the depth of the lid’s cavity, and mark the location on the outside of your box to make sure that you don’t cut into the lid. Now at 1,000 rpm, shape the top of the lid with a spindle gouge as shown in Photo O.

2 Using a 1⁄4" round skew chisel, make a shallow V-cut where the lid fits the base as shown in Photo P. (This detail will help disguise a gap that may show up as the wood dries out.)

3 Turn off the lathe. Now hand-turn the box and flood its surface with a penetrating finish (Photo Q), using a brush. Allow the finish to soak in for 10-20 minutes, and then wipe off the excess.

4 Using an oval skew chisel on edge as shown in Photo R, remove the nib from the top of the box. Carve off the nib with a penknife, and hand-sand smooth.

5 Wrap the base’s flange with masking tape for protection, and then mount the base into your scroll chuck. Using a spindle gouge, make the base slightly concave, carefully working up to the tailstock (Photo S). Finally, remove the tailstock, adjust your rest, and trim off the remaining nib with a round skew chisel.

About Our Designer/Builder

Chris Pouncy has been a turner for over 20 years. As demonstrator for Sorby tools, he has taught throughout Europe and the United States.


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