Get a Round Without a Lathe

Sick of settling for store-bought stock? Break out a bit, and rout what you need!

Turners have a leg up when it comes to furnituremaking. Without an easy means of creating round parts, lathe-less woodworkers are stuck searching for ways to squeeze square pegs (e.g. leg or spindle stock) into round holes. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. Using your router table and a few bits, you can mill perfectly round stock for spindles, legs, and more.

Aside from chair and bench making, shop-made dowels and spindles are useful for all sorts of projects. Using available stock not only saves time and money otherwise spent on store-bought dowels, it also enables you to make spindles from matching stock, or select a species that isn’t commercially available. And by selecting straight grain stock, routed dowels are often straighter and truer than those that have been sitting on a shelf.

Now for the fine print: Bear in mind that routing dowels is a specifically paired arrangement. A 3/8"-radius bit will only create a 3/4"-dia. dowel. Also note that this technique works best for dowels 3/8"-dia. and up. Smaller stock has a tendency to vibrate, resulting in an uneven cut.

From square to round in 4 steps

The keys to routing straight, round spindles are careful stock preparation and a perfectly set up router table. Investing a few extra minutes here will eliminate a lot of annoying sanding later.

Start with your stock. I recommend ripping the strips so that the grain runs from end to end, as if the strips were split from the log. With most boards, this means sacrificing some material, but straight-grained spindles are much less likely to snap than those with grain runout. The milled strips can be a little fat, but they must be square in section.

After setting the bit and fence, make a test cut on the end of a scrap piece. Since setting the bit height is tricky, expect to do some fine-tuning. If you end up with a flat spot, raise the bit; if you wind up with a small shoulder, you’ve gone too far.

With the bit and fence set, you’re ready to rout your blanks. In order to keep the ends square, you’ll need to start by pivoting the blank into the bit, as shown. After routing four corners, trim off the ends to create a custom dowel.

Square up your stock. Digital calipers are my go-to tool for sneaking up on the desired diameter. It’s better to err on the plus side; you can’t sand down an undersized dowel. Cut the strips about 4" longer than needed. The ends are kept square to keep the strip from rolling.

Set the bit. Position a piece of scrap wood against the outer tip of the bit. Turning the bit by hand, lower it until it no longer scratches against the end grain.

Set the fence. Using a straightedge, adjust the split fence so that the bearing is perfectly tangent to both halves.

Test your setup. Rout the end of a scrap strip. If the test cut results in flat spots, check the fence and bit. If there’s a ridge in your dowel, check the bit height.

Round off the first corner. Set the trailing end of the blank against the fence, and pivot the front end into the spinning bit. (Leave the leading 2" of your blank square.) Feed the stock across the bit, stopping 2" from the back end.

Now rotate and repeat. Rotate the workpiece 90°, and rout the adjacent side. Repeat the process on the remaining two edges, and you’re done.

Tackle tenons too

This router table turning trick is good for more than just knocking off corners. Once you’ve rounded your stock, you can employ the same setup to create round, snug-fitting tenons.

First, replace the roundover bit with a straight or core-box bit. Next, set the bit height, and then clamp a stop to the fence to establish the tenon length. To rout the tenon, simultaneously slide the stock into the bit and rotate the piece clockwise, until you reach your stop. (TIP: For super smooth tenons, take your time.)

Finish without flats

On a good day, “router-turned” spindles require little more than a light sanding, but mistakes happen. Radiused scrapers are great for removing bit-induced burns and tearout and for slimming a dowel to fit a mortise without creating flat spots. A concave spokeshave is handy for fine-tuning larger-diameter spindles, and adding tool marks that hide the fact that I relied on a bit.

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