Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Complex Spindle Transition
By Temple Blackwood

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Turning the Corner focuses on using woodturning on the lathe as a way of enhancing cabinetry, furniture designs, and architectural installations. Each article also suggests an important woodworking book to read, reread or listen to, and a link to an appropriate article in The Highland Woodturner. Along the way, these articles seek to inspire woodworkers (cabinetmakers, carpenters, and housewrights) to extend their skills into basic, novice, and advanced woodturning while discovering for themselves this particularly sensual and spiritually rewarding dimension of working with wood.

During the past year and a half, much to my delight, customers from all over the country overwhelmed my email and website looking for someone willing to make an assortment of house parts, balusters, finials, newel posts, and porch post replacements. The compulsion to stay safely home and keep busy clearly led many people to tackle delayed maintenance projects of repairs, replacements, and restoration. This, in turn, created a higher demand for architectural turnings and a welcomed load of new jobs in my shop that occasionally stressed the creative challenges for packaging, shipping, and delivery.

One order came from an owner of an older home in Southern Maine who wanted to restore his staircase to its historical grand elegance. Apparently, a previous owner had removed and discarded a 6 foot section of walnut banister and the 8 supporting painted balusters. My customer sought a solution by contacting an area woodturning club whose president sent out the appeal. While my shop is a considerable distance away, I offered to help if he couldn't find someone closer.

Through email, I corresponded with the customer who packaged up and sent the sample. He wanted to have the copied balusters turned from 1-7/8" X 1-7/8" X 29-1/4" poplar which he planned to paint to match his existing balustrade. When I received the mailing tube and opened the package, I found the sample with careful measured markings for each dimension with several pieces of green painter's tape – one marking a large chip (the void had been painted) missing from the top bead with the comment, "do not replace this chip-out." Later, I learned his wife had insisted on that special note and we probably talked more about that than any other feature. Humor often makes good friendships.

With the eight blanks milled (actually nine, one for my inventory), the layout begins with accurately identifying the critical points using the original baluster as a story-stick.

The unusual parts of this baluster are the dramatic lamb's tongue transition from square pommel to round and the second equally dramatically double-transitioned 2" square section just above the first turned section. Because these square pommels are full size, the mounting points at each end of the blank must be dead-on centered.

Early in the 1970's, the beginning of my turning adventure, I acquired a "center-marking" tool which I have mounted on one of the doorways to my shop.

With the blank firmly seated in the 90 degree cup, I can whack the end with a wooden mallet to mark the diagonal, turn the blank 90˚ and whack it again to mark the second diagonal.

The resulting marks identify the true center on each end.

I further prepare it by pushing an awl point into that center point to make it easy to mount the piece correctly on the lathe between centers for turning.

Once mounted, my first concern is to carefully "save" the sharp edges of both square pommels.

The key element for this transition detail is the dramatic pitch of the lamb's tongue where it levels exactly at the largest round diameter – 1-7/8" – using the small gouge.

With a sharp parting tool mark the end of that tongue leaving just the right hint of accent from flat pommel section to round. This must be mirrored in the second 2" square portion as well as in the original sample turning.

Note the "X" pencil mark to remind me visually to protect that section. It also helped remind me that the 2" square is not centered between the two transition details but is rather nearly 1/8" higher on the post (also visible are the story-stick pencil marks). While somewhat disconcerting to the turner's sense of symmetry, a design detail like this often makes the overall "look" even more pleasing.

With the two square pommel sections and their three transition details completed and protected, the next step is to locate, size, and turn the top largest bead detail. (Note on the original sample the "missing chip-out" that I had been admonished to not replicate).

Following the rules of spindle turning – 1. Keep the bevel rubbing, 2. Cut from large diameter toward small, 3. Complete each diameter detail on the right (tailstock) before reducing diameters toward the left (headstock) – the rest of the blank is rounded.

The next stage is to size and turn the top spindle that will slide into the underside of the banister rail.

Having created a story-stick from the ninth blank, the pair of square pommels make it easy to transfer the critical points for the remaining details.

Again, completing the details on the right (furthest away from the power) and working toward the headstock reduces the challenges of vibration and allow for clean, smooth cuts from the skew and gouge.

In this case, leaving the smallest cove for last also promotes the blanks stability in the process.

Note the "X" also on the toolrest to reinforce the protected square sections. These visual cues help maintain the necessary attention to detail when turning multiples.

Establish the critical diameters at just the right points.

Complete the larger diameter details on the right and then move left.

This ensures crisp, smooth, ripple-free (vibration) cuts that end with the right-to-left final thin coves.

Often, I am asked if it is boring to turn multiples of the "same thing." I am quick to respond that each piece of wood is different, and my challenge is to make those unique blanks appear to be the same as the one next to it.

Hand-and-eye, as much measured by eye as by instrument.

I found this particular baluster both challenging and unique in its design, so much so that I did ultimately turn the ninth (story-stick) blank for myself, or perhaps for when the customer calls me up to say he counted wrong and needs just one more – perhaps with the top bead chipped out in just the right way. The figure in this poplar is almost too pretty to paint.

A valuable read: More By Eye Than By Measure: The Maritime Life and Art of John Prior Gardner by Sandra Dinsmore, 2019.

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

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