Turning Miniature Dowels

by Chuck Holcomb

If you've ever had a need for a specific sized dowel, particularly out of a specific wood, (rather than having to stain birch dowel to try and match the wood of the rest of the project...WHAT a pain!) let me tell you how easy it is to do.

First, cut some small strips of wood, as square in cross-section as possible, at least 1 1/2 times the length of the dowel you need.

*Note: this is only for hardwood, and I wouldn't recommend using stock any longer than about 3 inches, for a finished product that is to be 1/16" or wobbles too much, even at very slow speeds. For thicker dowels, you can use longer pieces.

Anyhow, after you have got your pieces cut to size, take sandpaper or a drum sander, or whatever you have at hand, and just knock the sharp edges off the square pieces. This has a two-fold purpose: it makes that much less stock you have to remove on the drill, and it is easier to chuck a rounded piece into the drill than it is a square piece. AAMOF, the rounder you can make the end that will be chucked in, the better, because you will be able to center it better.

Assuming you have your pieces cut and rounded, it's time to assemble the rest of the supplies:

You'll need sandpaper in various grits, from about 120 up. For the finer grits, I use silicone carbide paper (the black stuff) that is made for sanding metal. You can get it in grits up to 1500, and it gives you a finish like GLASS! A word of caution, though, you may find that you can't use some of the finer grits (800, 1500, etc.) because the pores in the wood are larger than the grit, and they can get imbedded in the wood. I found this to be true of the birdseye maple, but only if I used the 1500 grit as a disc, with my Dremel, or manually, sanding with the grain. Using it on the drill press didn't present this problem, probably because the sanding was going against the grain.

Okay, when you have your sandpaper all collected, cut or tear it into strips about 1-1 1/2" wide. (A single strip will do LOTS of dowels)

Now, you will need a drill. I used a drill press, but you _could_ use an electric hand-drill, if it is variable speed, and you can lock the trigger. You'll just have to cushion it with some leather or wood and hold it down to your bench with some clamping arrangement. You could also go to the trouble of making a wooden clamp for it to be tightened down into the vice, but it's a real pain.

This will also work in the Dremel Moto-tool, if you are using very small pieces. You have to be extra careful and patient, though, because you are only working with one hand, while the other holds the tool.


When working with the drill press, remove ALL jewelry from your hands, and make sure your sleeves are rolled up out of the way!! You can injure yourself severely by getting jewelry or clothing caught in any power tool.

ALSO: make sure you wear some sort of eye protection: if a piece breaks off, it can be flung into your eye with disasterous results!

Okay, once you have your wood chucked into the drill press (medium slow speed) , switch it on and see if the wood spins without a wobble. There will be some wobble when you get it turned down small, just because the wood is so flexible. But, if you have a wobble in it, take it out and take a couble of turns around it with the candpaper, to round it some more. After you have it spinning fairly smoothly, you are ready to begin.

Take your first, coarse strip of sandpaper, and fold it into a "U". Wrap this around the piece, **CAREFULLY**, and a little experimentation will show you how much pressure you can apply. Shut the drill press off frequently to check your progress. Once you have the piece rounded, you can start moving to finer grits of sandpaper.

I used 80 grit for major shaping, then switched to 120 grit for final rounding, and then, in succession, to: 320, 400, 600, 800 and 1500. The pieces are so finely polished that they look like they are made of plastic. If you are sure you have the right size, you can also apply your polish or oil to the wood while it is chucked into the drill. Just apply a little to a cloth, and hold it against the piece, GENTLY.

I don't recommend trying to do actual _turnings_ with this arrangement, because you have no holder for tools, and only one end of the wood is supported, so the tool will just chatter anyhow. However, you can use a file, a very fine rasp or an emery board to give you some interesting shapes, and careful sanding will preserve them.

If you use the normal care that you use around any power tool, added to the patience and care that are required of working with miniatures, this should be a fun and safe project for you. I know _I_ had a ball doing it!

Chuck Holcomb

For questions about this article email Chuck at

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Last updated on: Friday, March 28, 1997.