Turning Miniature Bowls, vases and plates without a lathe!

by Chuck Holcomb

If you've ever looked at and admired the miniature bowls, plates, vases, etc., that are turned by some of the world's premier miniature artisans, and thought: "Gee, if only I had the right tools, I'll bet I could do something like that," then fear not, hope is in sight!

I recently had very good luck turning miniature dowels out of hardwood, using a drill press, which was okay, but not really all that creative. Besides, *I* don't have a drill press, and had to go to a friend's house and use his.

So, it occurred to me that if I could do it with a drill press, then why not with an electric hand drill? So, I cut out and chucked-up a piece of square stock, and, holding the drill on my lap, upside down, with my left hand, and pressing the trigger with my thumb, I very quickly turned out a perfect dowel, using nothing more elaborate than some sandpaper!

"So," I says to myself, "why can't I do this for other round things, as well?" So I took a larger piece of stock, drilled a 1/4" hole in the end of it, and glued a 1 1/2" piece of dowel into the hole. Lo and behold, I turned a vase!

Here's what I've learned:

SAFETY FIRST! Required safety equipment:

-Leather Gloves
-Approved Safety Glasses, goggles or face shield
-OSHA-Approved dust-mist filter mask - you will be creating a LOT of dust here.

[Important Note: Many hardwoods contain resins that cause allergic reactions (some severe) in some people, and some contain toxins. PLEASE use caution when choosing your woods, and if you decide to use exotic hardwoods, first find some information on the toxicity of the wood. A good place to ask is on rec.woodworking.]

First of all, laminations are beautiful, and are one of the major "tricks" of the wood-turning trade, for creating beautiful pieces. Just select some nice, complementary woods, cut them into whatever thicknesses you like, (I prefer about 1/16-1/8") and glue them together with some good carpenters glue, and clamping it tightly overnight. The next day, you can proceed with cutting out your blank.

Square up your laminate stock. If you've made a large piece, decide what your first project is going to be, and make a sketch of it. Transfer the sketch to the wood, but before you do any cutting, read the next section.

There are two ways you can go about attaching your dowel to the stock so you can chuck it into the drill. First, if you are making something deep, like a vase, the easiest method is to drill a hole, slightly smaller than you want the finished mouth of the vase to be, and glue the appropriately-sized hardwood (birch works fine) dowel into the hole. You don't have to go all the way to the bottom. Even 1/4" (I prefer 1/2" or so) should be deep enough, if you let your glue set up.

In any case, drill the hole and glue the dowel. When you are finished, with the outside of the vase, all you have to do is drill out the dowel, and then finish the inside with a drum sander, or some sandpaper glued to a small dowel.

The second method is to glue to the bottom. You would likely want to use this, if you were making a shallower vessel, or a plate. For this you will need to leave some extra stock on the bottom, perhaps 1/4-1/2". Find the center of the stock, drill your hole and glue the dowel, as before.

Okay, back to cutting stock. Once you've decided on your design, and your method of attachment, you can transfer your design to the stock, and then, using a coping saw, scroll saw or pocket knife (!), remove as much material as possible, particularly the square edges. This is especially important in light of our method of smoothing and rounding. Unlike a lathe, with the drill you don't have a tool rest and you don't have both ends of the work supported, so you'll be unable to use gouges, parting tools and the like. As a consequence, you will have to do most of your shaping and smoothing with abrasives, rather than actually "cutting" the wood.

Once you have your piece shaped so it is fairly smooth, you are ready to begin the actual rounding and smoothing. Chuck your piece into the drill, and begin. I use strips of sandpaper, leather gloves (that's HOT sandpaper, in very short order!), emery boards, needle files, fine wood rasps, and anything else I can think of that is abrasive, at a medium slow speed.

This helps prevent heat buildup and burning of the piece and your fingers, and also helps you control the amount of material you are removing.

The sandpaper I use is the black, silicon carbide paper, that can be found in nearly any hardware store, in grits up to 1500. You can use all of them, up to and including the 1500 grit.

If you have used the stick-in-the-mouth method of fastening, finish sanding the outside of your piece while it is still mounted. When you're satisfied with it, unchuck it from the drill, carefully saw the dowel off, flush with the mouth, and then drill it out with the same size drill bit. If you are happy with the diameter of the hole, just glue a small strip of fine sandpaper to a smaller dowel, or even use a round needle file to finish the inside of the hole, then apply your finish, inside and out.

If you have used the stick-to-the-bottom method, you may actually want to complete the project while it is still mounted to the dowel. Once you have it sanded and your finish applied, just unchuck it, and carefully padding it, hold it down and with a razor saw, remove the excess stock from the bottom. Of course, you'll have to sand and finish the bottom, but you are essentially done at this point.

For you folks who find that you'd like to take this a little farther, you can easily make a bench mount for your drill. Use a scrap piece of 2x4, a c-clamp and a long hose clamp. Simply screw the center of the hose clamp to the 2x4, clamp the drill to the 2x4 and clamp the 2x4 to your workbench. This way, you have both hands to work with.

Finish the piece just as you would any other wood project, with wax, polyurethane, stain, or whatever you like.

Have fun, and be careful!

Chuck Holcomb

For questions about this article email Chuck at

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This page last updated on: March 28, 1997.