Telling Time with Tree Limbs

Crooked limbs add character

I have a 26 page pdf file detailing how to build the blank and turn the clock pictured here. I will send you this file for $2.95. Just click on the paypal button below to obtain your copy.

Included in this article are drawings for a jointer sled, right angle jig for your chop saw, and a link to my jig for gluing odd angled joints. There are also 20 photos showing you steps in the process of building the blank and turning the clock.

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The Towel Holder

As I promised, this is how to turn the sphere from my last post into something that will securely hold onto your towel or shop rag and easily turn it loose when you want it to.

Materials and Equipment

  • 2 by 4 by 5 inch block of wood
  • 1/2 inch rod or drill bit
  • Drill press with movable fence
  • 1 3/8 forstner bit (a spade bit ought to work as well)
  • various clamps
  • 5 by 1 by 3/4 inch strip of wood
  • two support blocks of wood
  • two 1 1/2 by #8 screws
  • previously turned sphere of ~ 1 1/4 inches diameter


I made my sphere slightly less than 1 3/8 inches diameter for the purpose of having it fit loosely into a 1 3/8 inch hole. If you have a different size bit, you can make your sphere accordingly.

Place a 1/2 inch drill bit at the base of the fence

The fence on my drill press is 2 1/4 inches tall. By placing a 1/2 inch drill bit at the fence base and then leaning my 2 by 4 block against the drill bit and the top of the fence produces a 12° to 13° angle.

The 2 by 4 is securely held in place

Clamp the 2 by 4 block in place such that the 1 3/8 inch hole is centered from side to side. Position the fence so that the back edge of the hole is between 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 inches from the front edge of the block. Clamp other blocks of wood to the fence, one on each side of your 2 by 4. Drill the hole to a depth of 2 1/4 inches.

Remove the marked portion of the 2 by 4

Remove the 2 by 4 from the drill press, and mark a line across the top that almost reaches to the back edge of the hole and down each edge that extends down 2 1/4 inches. Mark a line across the front 2 1/4 inches down from the top. This marks the section of the 2 by 4 to remove.

The towel/rag holder is in operation

Place the sphere into the groove formed by the forstner bit. Lay the 5 by 1 by 3/4 inch strip of wood on top, centering it over the groove, and screw it into place. The strip of wood should be such that the sphere cannot escape. If needed, you can plane down the portion of the 2 by 4 to lower the strip of wood until it holds the sphere in place.
You are now ready to screw it to the wall. You place your towel or shop rag between the strip of wood and the sphere. A gentle tug downward makes the sphere grip the towel tighter. To remove, lift the towel up, the sphere will rise and move back away from the strip of wood and release the towel.

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Turning Round

It all started by a chance comment from my brother, “Have you tried turning a ball by…?”

The sides are jointed square to the base

The sides are jointed square to the base

No, I had not tried that technique. Encouraged by his urging, I decided to see what I could do. The trick is to establish two axes at right angles to each other that will meet in the middle of the ball. And that is the trick! Your axes must be 90 degrees apart and they must meet. Slight variations in either consideration show up as defects in your “spherical” turning.

So, here is my approach. Start with a limb or dimensional lumber and joint three sides square. Be as particular as you can with this step. It will help you get better results.

Mark and center the hole in the end of the blank

Mark and center the hole in the end of the blank

Cut the stock into lengths that are just longer than the width between the flat sides. Mark one end with a “T” for top and the middle surface with an “F” for fence. Mark the middle of the top and the middle of one side (not the F side).

Position a fence and a stop on the fence to cause you to drill a 3/16 inch hole from end to end through the center when F is against the fence. (3/16 inch because that will accommodate my screw chuck.)

The fence and stop are especially useful if you preparing multiple blanks.

Position the block to drill on the centerline

Position the block to drill on the centerline

Turn the block, keeping F against the fence and position the stop so you will drill on the centerline you marked above. These holes should meet in what will become the center of your sphere.

Turn a cylinder and round over the tailstock end

Turn a cylinder and round over the tailstock end

Screw the block on to the screw chuck from all possible positions. If you attempt to start cutting those threads in the wood later, you can cause your forming sphere to split. Then, with the blank screwed onto the chuck so the grain is running lengthwise, turn a cylinder. I like to round over the tailstock end, reverse the cylinder and round off the other end.

Mount the cylinder crosswise on the screwchuck

Mount the cylinder crosswise on the screwchuck

Then mount the cylinder crosswise on the screw chuck. Make dark pencil marks running the length of the cylinder. These will show up as circles when the lathe is running until you have cut them away. Turn on the lathe and you will be able to see the sphere. Turn the tailstock end to a spherical shape, just cutting away all pencil marks.

The sphere is nearly complete

The sphere is nearly complete

Reposition the blank and repeat the process. Sand and you should have the completed sphere.

What are you to do with such a sphere? My next post will be about a novel idea I came across some years ago that makes use of your sphere and a few scraps of wood to make a towel holder.

The sphere

The sphere

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The Hoe Handle

It has been a long winter without much turning, though I have found some time to work in the shop of various projects. (More about that in coming posts.) So this spring I discovered that I “had” to get back to turning, I had pushed it aside for more pressing matters as long as was possible.

This was not really a surprise. But what was surprising was the satisfaction derived from performing a very simple repair. A couple of years ago, the head came off a scuffle hoe that I often used for weeding in beds. The handle was in good shape except for the hole that held the head of the hoe. It had become split and worn too large.

It would have been easy to run to the store and buy another hoe, if they had what I was looking for, but what do I have woodworking skills for if not to be able to use them for just this sort of thing?

I pulled off the metal that surrounded the business end of the handle. The hoe handle was too long to fit between centers, but I could grab the end with my scroll chuck and support the off end in the center steady. I carefully measured the inside diameter of the metal tip, the length of shoulder needed, and the length of the taper. I cut the shoulder, used a parting tool to cut a tenon of correct diameter that marked the small end of the tenon. I then used a skew chisel to turn the taper.

I cut the handle off at the end of the new taper. Drove the metal into place, which proved to be a good fit. I drilled the hole in the end of the handle and pounded the head of the hoe into place. As added security, I pinned the metal surround to the handle. It had been secured with a dent. I also pinned the hoe to the metal surround.

Yes, it was a simple job. But the satisfaction of a job well done is immense.


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Cheapening the Gift

She came to my table from an adjacent vendor at the farmer’s market. I had many turned, wooden items that you might want to use in your kitchen or in your garden. Among the items were some weed pots, small pieces I had used for practice. I could either consign them to the wood stove or sell them for a small amount.

One particular weed pot, made from burnished Russian olive, caught this woman’s eye. She finally said, “I have spent all my money, will you sell me this for $1.00 instead of the $2.00 marked price. I consented, feeling like sharing the beauty of my turnings with even someone who couldn’t afford it.

A few moments later I noticed this woman at another table, wad of bills in hand, buying polished rock lawn ornaments. “OK,” I said to myself, “I’ve been had.”

Some hours later, it struck me that the real loss was on the part of the woman. She had admired the weed pot, but all she walked away with was a bargain. In her deception, she exchanged a thing of beauty for a monument to her ability to deceive. My weed pots had been inexpensive, but what she had was now only cheap.

Ellis Hein

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Cottonwood Revisited

A Cottonwood Bowl with Pyrographed Chatter Work

A Cottonwood Bowl with Pyrographed Chatter Work

My last post showed a bowl with a post in the middle that can be used as a handle. As stated, the purpose of the post was to cover/hide where I cut through the bottom of the bowl. As is usually the case, the first iteration of an idea is not always the best. I do admit that not all my improvements have much to recommend them. But in this instance, the improvement was genuine.

Cottonwood tends to fuzz and takes some careful attention to clean up. Yes you can sand it to get rid of fuzzed grain, but I don’t like sanding. I have been able to use a round-nose scraper in shear position to leave a good surface. So I thought about trying a cabinet scraper with a rounded end.

With the lathe running at a moderate speed, I hand-held the scraper in shearing position against the interior of the bowl. (The left hand provides the fulcrum while the right hand holds onto the back-end of the scraper.) When the scraper started vibrating, I knew what I would see when I shut down. So I went over the area a couple of times to deepen the pattern. When I shut off the lathe, I had some nice spirals, which I burned with a pyrography tool to highlight. I like the results.

Ellis Hein
Author of the Woodturner’s Project Book

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New Ideas From Mistakes

A mistake turned good

A mistake turned good

One of the interesting things about turning is how many good ideas emerge from dealing with mistakes. As I mentioned in a previous post, we received a plethora of cottonwood limbs last fall. I had been wanting to try out an idea for what looks like a cross between a bowl and a plate. It is made from a limb section longer than wide and turned such that the ends curve up but the sides are scalloped down to the level of the bottom.

After turning a couple, I was having trouble getting this one to turn out the way I wanted it. So I took another cut, but alas I went too deep in the center and cut through the bottom. I liked the shape, but I didn’t like the hole through the center. I set it aside and worked on other things.

An idea for that hole in the center began intruding in my thoughts. I pushed it aside a couple of times before deciding I had nothing to lose except the time. So I used the sharp point of a skew chisel and cut the hole back to wood that was a little more than 1/8 inch thick. I turned a spindle from another cottonwood branch that had a shoulder larger than the hole while the diameter of the spindle provided a snug fit in the hole. I shaped the rest of the spindle as pictured, leaving a knob on the end to hold onto and glued it into place.

After giving the bowl and handle a walnut oil finish, I decided I liked the results. I then turned to the other bowls I had turned and gave them similar treatment, with one added dimension. I will post about that in a future post.

Ellis Hein

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Turning Cottonwood

When I think of a good turning wood, my mind does not immediately jump to cottonwood. Cottonwood trees are pleasant to walk under on a hot summer day. They provide a beautiful, shimmery, green haze as their new leaves emerge in Spring. But turning wood? not in my books–until recently, that is.

Last October we received 24 inches of wet snow in about 24 hours. The trees still had leaves so down came a rain of branches. An abundance of branches is a situation not to be resisted. That abundance can even overcome the inertia of fixed ideas about what woods are worthwhile to turn.
Our cottonwoods are Lanceleaf and have a dark heartwood and white sapwood. Crotch wood shows a mix of light and dark color plus showing interlaced grain. I have lived among other varieties of cottonwoods, but I regret to say, I did not turn them to know how they compare to what I now have available.

I have found it best to turn cottonwood green with a sharp gouge. A scraper pulls the grain, especially on green wood, and the fuzz builds up under the cutting edge. Hollowing a vessel with a scraper is a slow task. A ring tool may work better.

Once the vessel is turned, I let it dry before sanding. I apply three coats of walnut oil and top off the finish with a coat of beeswax. The first coat of oil should not be very heavy as the wood acts like a sponge until you establish a coat of cured oil to seal it.

Turning cottonwood may be a little more work than turning some other woods, but my revised books now state: “Worth the Trouble.”

by Ellis Hein

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Sit On These

My ancestors made and wore wooden shoes, so why can’t my chairs sport wooden boots? In our cramped quarters, collapsible furniture is a must. Folding chairs are not elegant, but they can be easily moved out of the way for cello practice or other demands for space. But the problem with folding chairs is the feet. These chairs are made from steel tubing with a slight crimp on the end. This means they go through the usual rubber caps in a hurry. In the past, I have been always replacing rubber caps. But now things are better.

Boot Up Your Chairs

Chair Boots

I have taken to turning wooden “boots” to put on the chair leg feet. These boots have a 1/2 inch thick sole and have a much longer life expectancy than the rubber caps. An added bonus is that they can come in any species of wood I choose. I am the only one I know of who has designer boots for folding chairs.

by Ellis Hein

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What Is That?

The Chipmunk's Playground

The Chipmunk’s Playground

The Chipmunk Has Been Busy

The Chipmunk Has Been Busy

“Ok, I give up. What is it?”

If those were your words, you are in good company. I have been asking the same question ever since the idea started bugging me.

I could say that at the moment it is unfinished. But neither you nor I would find that answer satisfactory.

I suppose one could use it as a trivet. The hot dish would sit on the four corners of the top. The base sits on the four corners at the bottom. There is plenty of room for air to circulate. But it strikes me that it is too tall to be a good trivet.

So I shall leave the question of identity unsettled for now.

The genesis of the idea is impossible to trace. Yaakov’s Tiki series may have had something to do with it. (I can’t find the direct link, but feel free to roam around his blog.) The wood was scrap pine 2 X 4, rough cut. It has nail holes and other defects; the perfect material for a trial turning blank. Even though it was only meant to be a trial, I like it. And I am pleased with how the chipmunks came out. I like the overall shape and the way the surfaces merge together. It retains the impression of being a cube. But, because of what has been removed, there is so much more than cube there.

Your responses and critiques are very welcome.

Ellis Hein, author of The Woodturner’s Project Book

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