How to turn bottle stoppers

I decided to add another class to the TechShop schedule and wrote this one up last week. It’s fairly basic, but I’m hoping it will attract some folks just getting started with turning. Stoppers make an excellent beginner project as they offer more freedom than pens.
20120111-230250.jpgIn this class, you will learn how to turn decorative wooden bottle stoppers for wine and other glass containers. Each student will leave with their own hand-turned stopper based on their own unique design choices.​
Materials cost: $6
Time Required: 2 Hours
Prerequisite: Wood Lathe SBU
Tools Required

  • Drill Press*
  • Lathe chisels
  • Bottle Stopper chuck
  • Sand paper

*You can do without one, using the lathe, chuck and a morse-taper drill

SELECTING AND PREPARING THE BLANK

20120111-230241.jpgBottle stopper blanks require very little wood and are a good way to make use of cutoffs from larger projects. Generally 2×2 stock is used at lengths of anywhere from 2 to 5 inches depending on the design you have in mind.

They are by definition spindle projects, meaning the grain will run the length of the lathe and not across. This is mainly to ensure the holding integrity of the screw portion of both the chuck and the finished stopper.

Exotic hardwoods tend to make the best stoppers, but really any wood can be used. A good stopper design takes the wood grain’s appearance into consideration. A particularly elaborate and vibrant grain pattern looks best on a simple design with smooth and sweeping curves. A more plain wood is better suited to some sharp turns/corners and design embellishments. The features should not compete for attention, in other words.

Another option is to glue-up contrasting woods for a more dramatic effect, or to make better use of your more expensive scraps.

The stopper portion itself is sold in several varieties from a number of suppliers detailed at the end of this manual. They range in material, style and price from between $6 and $10 each, or less if you buy them in bulk.

Most use the same size screw thread, but that is something to check before you purchase the pieces only to find they will not fill the holes you drilled. What we will be using for this class requires an 11/32 hole be drilled into the blank for both the chuck and later the stopper kit.

After selecting your blank, locate a center on the flattest plane of end grain. As this surface will be flush with the stopper hardware, you want to be sure the surface is clean, flat and exactly perpendicular to your drill.

The drill depth should just slightly exceed the screw length on the stopper hardware. Always go slightly over so the wood will seat properly when assembled.

MOUNTING THE BLANK

We use a Penn State Industries bottle stopper chuck for this class. It’s designed to screw directly onto the 1x8TPI spindle of both wood lathes at TechShop. The flat surface at the end of the screw thread exactly matches the diameter of the stopper hardware we are using, though you can easily cut a wooden washer of a different size to match other stopper diameters as show in the photo below.

I add painter’s tape to the end of the chuck to avoid accidentally rubbing the metal when sanding these small pieces.

With one hand holding the spindle steady, slowly screw the blank onto the chuck, being careful to keep the piece perpendicular as you twist.

Do not over-tighten or you will damage the wood threads needed to hold onto both the chuck and later the stopper hardware.

When properly mounted, there should be no gap between the blank and the chuck and no “play” in the wood blank. If you don’t have this tight fit, it is still possible to save the wood by removing it and filling the void with a mixture of wood glue and sawdust.

After a day or so of curing, the drilling process can be repeated with more care.

There are other types of mounting chucks for bottle stoppers, including one from WoodCraft that simply mounts inside of a morse-taper drill chuck (at right). While these are quite serviceable, they are more easily bent or damaged by an errant knock with the roughing gouge or tool rest.

ROUGH TURNING THE BLANK

 

20120111-230034.jpgBecause the diameters are well below 3”, there is no need to first cut the corners off of a stopper blank.

For the same dimensional reason, it is preferable to bring the lathe speed up from the standard 500 starting position to something over 1000 rpm.

In fact, if you are confident and comfortable you can even skip the roughing gouge and begin with a larger skew chisel or a medium-sized spindle gouge.

20120111-230025.jpgBut for the less experienced turners we will start with a speed of just over 1000 rpm and use the heavy-duty roughing gouge to at least knock the corners off of our blank. It is also safer for beginners to bring the tail stock up to the piece to further secure it between centers. It can be removed later, when most of the rough turning is complete, to access and complete the top of the stopper.

Because the piece is so small, it’s even more important to first rub the bevel on the roughing gouge so as not to accidentally knock the piece loose from the chuck mounting. Once you hear the bevel rubbing lightly against the corners of the wood, raise the back of the tool handle slowly to find the cut.

Once the large corners are removed (above), or after you are completely round, it’s time to switch to a spindle gouge. If the piece is round and true, you could start with as little as a ¼” spindle gouge. In this photo I chose a 3/8” gouge because 1) the blank was not yet completely round and 2) my design would have only larger, sweeping curves and no tight corners.

TURNING THE FINAL SHAPE

This is where your spindle technique comes into play. It’s one thing to have an idea but another thing to execute it as you envisioned.

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The good news is that the only critical dimension is where the wood meets the chuck, and even that can be altered for design effect.

20120111-230132.jpgBe patient and think ahead about the shape you want. Like a sculptor, you must remove material gradually to reveal the shape. This is not pottery – you can’t add wood back once it’s been cut away. Watch your shape evolve and amend or correct the design as you go.

Here are some techniques to remember and practice on small spindle projects:

  • If you haven’t already, bring the speed up to where you are comfortable (1-2k)
  • Rub the bevel before and throughout almost every cut.
  • Avoid scraping the wood. You want shavings, not dust, to ensure a quality cut.
  • Use your body to move the tool and adjust cutting angles, not just the wrist.
  • You are not the motor, the lathe is. Present the tool and let the wood cut itself.
  • If you find you are pushing on the tool, change your angle of approach.
  • Always cut downhill, from the thickest point (diameter) of wood on your curve.
  • Start beads at the top of the hill, end coves in the middle of the valley.
  • Stop to clear wood away so your tool can finish a tight curve cut.
  • Work both ways sequentially: left/right/left/right, not left/left/left, right/right…
  • Sneak up on bead with curving cuts; don’t try to hack off a corner in one pass.
  • To round the end, the gouge needs to be completely on its side (photo above)
  • On dramatic wood grain, the shape is easier to see while the piece is spinning.
  • Try to make your final cut(s) in a single, uninterrupted motion.
  • Your hands can judge a smooth surface better than your eyes.

SOME THOUGHTS ON DESIGN

20120111-230154.jpgAs noted earlier, a general rule is to balance the elegance of the wood itself with the shape and design you select. But there’s even more to it than that.

While these stoppers are made to preserve wine, spirits or other liquids, they probably won’t spend most of their time in the bottle. That’s something to think about when you are determining a shape. For many, I like to create a flat surface or ring at the top so the stopper can sit on the table upright and not roll away.

Some people want the stopper to have a very low profile so the bottle can be stored in a fridge or on a shelf without a massive sculpture protruding. Some manufactures even sell especially low-profile stopper hardware to ensure only the wood portion sits proud of the bottle’s neck.

You can turn basic or elaborate shapes, tight contours or whimsical curves, even themed designs like a top hat or snowman. Practice on cheap scrap wood, then execute them on your choice blanks. Your friends will be amazed and grateful.

SANDING AND FINISHING

20120111-230205.jpgSince the wood portion of the stopper never comes in contact with the wine, we need not worry about food-safe finishing. But as this small piece of art is designed to be held, you want to achieve the smoothest possible surface and seal the wood to avoid staining from any accidental contact with spilled wine or spirits.

Sand with small strips of paper used for pens and other small items. A box of various grits will be provided, but you will need to supply your own later.

Start with small (3-inch) strips of 180-grit paper and lower the lathe speed to medium, or about 800-1000. Hold the paper in one hand and rub from behind, as in the photo above. Move your hand from left to right – constantly — and press only lightly. If the paper starts to get uncomfortably warm in your fingers you need to back off. You may also hold both ends of the paper and pull it across the wood, though this method makes it more difficult to judge heat build-up.

This first grit is your only chance to correct any slight ridges or bumps that you failed to turn away. All other grits can only remove scratches left by the previous grit. Keep the paper moving, but focus more on any such areas until they are smooth to not just your eye, but your touch.

Repeat with progressively finer grits, (220, 320, 400, 600) applying less pressure for less time to remove the scratches of the previous grit. Finish each grit with the lathe off by gently rubbing with the grain – along the length — as you slowly rotate the piece by hand.

You can now apply a sealer to the wood while it’s still on the lathe. There are many options, but I like to use EEE Ultra-Shine polishing wax.

You can then use Pen Polish, a wipe-on poly, spray varnish, mineral oil or even shellac. The finish should be applied before attaching to the stopper hardware.

That’s it, simply unscrew the blank from the chuck and screw it onto the stopper hardware. If the fit seems a little too loose, a few drops of CA glue will ensure it won’t twist off down the road.

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  • Ron Howe

    Having trouble with wood stoppers, what finish will go in an out of the refrigerator without dulling out?

    • weekendturner

      I would recommend a CA glue finish applied in several layers. It’s the most durable I’ve seen and easily applied to small objects like stoppers.