I’ve been turning door knobs for cabinets on and off for forty-five years to date. That’s what I did yesterday and a little over the weekend. It’s a useful skill for a furniture maker of course, so I learned fairly early on in my working.

Handy to have a stock of door knobs in and best to do a few at once. Turning small and useful parts has always been stock in trade for me as it would be for most furniture makers in times past. Table and chair legs, spindles for chair backs, rails, arm supports come in a matter of minutes as do an infinite range of knobs you can’t buy online or in the big box stores. From the simplest shapes to complex coves and beads that are limited only by the mind alone.

I had several poplar offcuts from the leaning wall shelf I built as a recent project for woodworkingmasterclasses not too long ago. Poplar is an unusual wood. I used the white grain that transitions from the light and bright sapwood before it develops its mineralised inner heartwood where wide bands and narrow streaks greet one another to create untold deeps of rich and diverse colours characterising poplar. It is indeed one of those ideal woods we furniture makers enjoy. It has consistent density across the bands of sap- and heart-wood. A nice density that responds well to the cutting edges of skews and gouges of every type and yields features reminiscent of maple.

Poplar stains exceptionally well and you can use colouring from low coat milk and chalk paints instead of stains to develop any colour you want if that’s your preference. I will keep these knobs as they are in a jar now and can take them one by one to make mahogany coloured knobs or ebonize them to a  jet black that defies detection from the real McCoy. It takes about five minutes to turn a cabinet pull silky smooth including the finish. Small components are immediate gratification and very DIY. You don’t need a big, heavy or commercial lathe to turn them and mini lathes work just fine. I picked my lathe up for £60 from a car boot sale a few years ago and then found a tray of interchangeable chucks that give me all the variations I will ever need. It’s unlikely that I will turn bowls and such for a living again so heavy duty is unnecessary. This lathe does 24″ between centres but I can rig it for any length I ever want by removing the tails stock and bolting head and tails stock to a board or a bench top.

Tomorrow I am filming turning door pulls and door knobs. I am ready for any turn of events.


  1. Richard Kelly on 10 July 2018 at 11:22 am

    “Turn of events” – very good!

  2. martin brown on 10 July 2018 at 11:47 am

    It would be very nice if you would demonstrate some simple wood turning techniques together with tool sharpening. I am sure your presentation would be far superior to most I have seen Paul.

  3. Ed on 10 July 2018 at 1:14 pm


    For furniture parts, should we expect to get a good finish straight from the tool, maybe with a wisp of sanding, or will lathe work generally involve a fair bit of sanding on the lathe?

    I often can get a shape, but the surface is poor, or I can get a good surface but struggle to get my shape. I’m guessing this is common as one learns, but I don’t know what my expectation should be for skilled turning. If there’s always sanding, I’ll back off on my expectations for tool skills. For example, I get better surfaces on beads if I roll them with a skew vs. a gouge, but it is harder to do with the skew right now. I can shape vases on spindles with a roughing gouge, but I get a better surface if I go over them with a skew, again more challenging, especially through the concave section.

    Bottom line…not sure what to expect of myself. Any insights?

    • Paul Sellers on 10 July 2018 at 6:13 pm

      Good question. This depends on a few issues. The wood type, the condition of the wood, the chosen tool type i.e. gouge type, chisel type, scraper, parting tool etc. The skew generally gives the best surface for beads but is a difficult tool for starters and does require much practice. Unfortunately, most of us have a severe level of failed grabs before we finally see what either we are doing wrong or that things do simply go wrong, or that both diffidence and over confidence can lead to failure and dash what ever expectations we might have left to pieces. Sapping confidence levels usually accompany the flawed work. On the other hand, when you persevere, the skew knows no equal for smooth planing cuts that ride the crest of confidence if it is gained based on good and consistent practice. Mostly we sacrifice angle of presentation for risk reduction so that the chisel or gouge safely makes contact but results in a powdery cut and not shavings. The outcome is the equivalent of scraping crossgrain with a #80 scraper rather than planing along or with the grain with a well-sharpened well-set plane.
      Techniques can be overhand and underhand, full hand grip and fingertips only. Mostly it is a question of presentation of the cutting edge to the wood. Whereas the choices of these angles are obviously infinitesimal, leaving many choices, there is in most cases only one optimal choice and we must feel for this because there is no other way to establish the right cut for the right diameter, the right wood and all of the other nuances we can only ‘feel‘ for at the time and in the zone.
      I will be developing my button knob using only a 1/2″ gouge and a parting chisel. I chose this because I wanted to keep it as simpler as possible. I could get this straight from the tool cutting edges without sanding but I did sand because I do not want anyone to think it is wrong to sand or a lesser level when most people I reach are not practiced wood turners. It is simple and effective.

      • Ed on 10 July 2018 at 11:18 pm

        Paul, your reply was extraordinarily helpful and encouraging. I recognize many of the things you say, especially the tradeoff between scraping and slicing cuts and learning to control slicing cuts. Okay, I will persevere with slicing cuts with both the detail gouge and skew. You’ve helped me see that I’m not wasting my time shooting for too high a goal. I’ve been cutting 1″ balls with the skew (mounted on a spike), learning a lot, and getting a sense for that sweet spot with the skew. I find that, more than any other tool, my turning skill evaporates quickly if I don’t exercise it.

        May I ask: Do you sharpen your skew like all your other bevel tools? So, straight edge but convex bevel? Or, is this a case where you aim for a straight edge and flat bevel? Do you polish, or is super-fine good enough?

    • Richard on 10 July 2018 at 6:15 pm

      What size lathe would be best for the majority of furniture making, I am thinking the maximum would be for tables etc .

      • Paul Sellers on 10 July 2018 at 6:45 pm

        For table legs you need 30″ between centres. Few tables are over 30′ tall. Personally I would not make a table or desk taller than 29″ tall unless requested for a good reason, so with say a 1″ or so thick top this will give you a couple of inches to play with. The swing is immaterial for spindle turning and turning between centres for tables, chairs and desks unless you are making columns.

        • John2v on 11 July 2018 at 9:21 am

          Really looking forward to your video on turning……is there no end to your knowledge?

          Thanks John

  4. Claudio on 5 October 2018 at 6:53 am

    Wow I hate lathes. Nothing against them in particular but in my country, as far as I know, woodworking was never one of our strenghts, and this tool was abused big time. Every time you look for antique furniture here you won’t be able to find something that doesn’t use a lathe for something. I mean seriously, it is WAY too much. Of course that’s a matter of taste, I’m not triying to tell anybody that lathes make ugly things.

    I would still like to have a small one for occasional work, like chisel handles or some round knobs(tough I like square or other shape of knobs more). I will start to make the bathroom cabinet from WWMC next week, so I’ll see what I do with the knob when I get there.

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