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  • Turning Miniature Acorn Birdhouses

    Jim Underwood describes his experiences and techniques for turning miniature acorn birdhouses.

    Iíve been turning fairly seriously since early 2005. I was almost literally dragged to my first few woodturning club meetings by some co-workers. They had been taking some classes, and told me about a new turning club starting up. I wanted to join a woodworkers club, but didnít know about the local club at the time. So reluctantly I went. After the first couple of meetings they elected a president who asked me if Iíd write a newsletter. ďJust a fifteen minutes or so, announce the meetings and a few paragraphs and thatís all you needĒ. Right! I accepted, and made it into A Big Deal. The newsletter grew into a fifteen-page monster by the time I turned most of that over to our webmaster (thank God!). At any rate, I quickly began to pick up a lot of ideas and information, because in writing articles about woodturning I had to figure out what the demonstrator had actually done. I was almost immediately caught in the Vortex from which there is no return. I joined the club, and have served as an officer for several years. I have contributed a lot to the club, but have gained more than Iíve put into it. Today, I enjoy woodturning and have more ideas and projects than I could finish in a year.

    In this document, I shall show you my method of making a miniature Acorn Birdhouse Ornament. Itís not the only method of making it, but my method. Once you understand the basics, you can vary the shape, the method of joining, and practice your technique until itís flawless.

    I suppose a safety disclaimer is in order. Always use proper safety gear such as a face shield and dust mask. Techniques used in this document are my own practice, and you must use your own judgment as to whether they are appropriate for you. Lathes can be dangerous if abused. Read the safety information that came with your lathe or do some reading in the library, Internet, or go to a club meeting and ask around.



    For the body, I start with pretty much any small scrap of lighter colored wood lying around. Iíve used Cherry, Peach, Crape Myrtle, White Oak, Privet, Elm, Ash, and Bradford Pear. The ornament tends to show up on a tree a little better if the body is a lighter color. The chunk you see here is a leftover scrap from a Bradford Pear bowl blank.

    First I chunk it up in the bandsaw to an appropriate size.



    Then I mount it in a 4 jaw scroll chuck with the corners protruding between jaws. Bandsawing the blank to a size that allows this saves the step of turning a tenon while between centers. There are a couple of considerations when doing this. The blank should be square, so that all the jaws contact the blank. If you only have two opposing jaws contacting the blank then itís too easy for it to wobble off center if you have too much tool pressure or a catch. It should also not be too large so as not to fit the chuck or let the backs of jaws protrude much out of the chuck Ė they hurt when you contact them.



    I make sure that the jaws are securely tightened on the blank, and I leave enough of the wood next to the jaws to protect against contacting them with any tools.



    Once the blank is roughed out, face off what will be the top of the body. I try to make it a clean cut that is slightly concave, so that the joint between the body and top is nice a clean, with no gap.



    At this point, I begin to give consideration to size and layout of the ornament.

    First a line drawn off the tool rest gives a reference upon which to center the perch and entry hole.



    Then I draw a rough shape of the body on the blank and estimate where the holes for the perch and entry will be. I put a cross mark at those points. I suppose one could measure such things, but I prefer to estimate it by eye since every blank is different, and it would be boring to take all the guesswork out of it. Leastways, thatís what Iím telling myself.



    At this point itís time to drill the holes for the perch and the entry. Itís done at this stage to help prevent tearout after the body is hollowed. Iím using a 3/32nd drill for the perch and a Ĺ inch for the entry.



    Iíve been told that my entry hole is too big. I figure itís a stylized birdhouse anyway, and exaggerate the hole. Perhaps in the future Iíll make it smaller.

    Once the holes are drilled, I use a skew to put a small dimple in the end of the blank for the drill to start in. This step could have been done after facing off, but this is the order I did it in when taking the pictures.



    To hollow the birdhouse, I mount a one-inch Forstner bit into my keyless tailstock chuck, and drill into the end grain to hollow the birdhouse. You could use a gouge to hollow it out if you donít have a Forstner bit and a tailstock chuck.

    Youíll want to estimate the correct depth and mark it on your drill so as not to go too far past the widest point of the birdhouse, which is generally the site of the perch.

    At this point it becomes obvious, that making things the same size each time and measuring them out would speed things up.

    But no one has ever accused me of being fast and efficientÖ

    You can see the drill in action, and at the marked depth in the photos below. 500 RPM is sufficient.



    Next I mark the widest point as illustrated on the right, to help me see it while spinning.



    Once you have the body hollowed, youíll begin to shape it as desired. It is well to get the thickness fairly even down past the perch a little ways. Donít go too far though, or youíll cut through to the bottom of your drilled hollowing cut. You can sand and put finish on at this point. Try to get as much of that done as possible before parting off, because itís harder to do once you reverse it.



    Parting off. Iíd show you catching it, but Iím not actually cutting; just propping the thin parting tool up
    there and taking a picture with the other hand.



    Well now what? You have a body mostly finished, but where itís parted off, at the bottom, itís rough. Well you could do what I did and make a jam chuck. I realized, though, after taking pictures of this step, that there was a quicker way to do this, and Iíll mention it when we get there.



    Here you see a scrap piece of wood chucked up and nearly the size to fit inside the body. I used a parting tool for this step. Note the burn line. I tapered this slightly so that when the body is held up to the spinning jam chuck, it burns a line right at the correct diameter to fit the body on tightly. Now the only thing is to turn it down slightly more so the body will fit snugly enough to hold while cleaning up the bottom.



    If you donít quite get it to fit right, you can use some paper to take up the slop, and if itís only slightly



    snug, you can wet the wood to get it to grip a little tighter. Itís also important to ensure the tenon here is at exact right angles so the body will fit snugly against the shoulders and not come off.

    Now just turn the bottom off clean, and sand.



    Put some finish on at this point also. I use wipe on Polyurethane. Use paper towel or a small rag (2in x 2in). You donít want to be dragged into the lathe with a big old rag.



    Well now we come to the top of the birdhouse. I tend to use a darker wood for this. In this case Iím using Walnut, but Iíve used a variety of woods such as Mesquite, spalted Oak, and spalted Maple. Once again I go to the bandsaw with cutoffs and scrap wood. Notice the cracks in the end cut. I tend to put those cracky ends in the chuck end, so that I donít have to contend with them as much in the final piece.



    Well you know the drill by now. Mount that squared up piece in the chuck and round it off and face it. Yes, itís probably more secure with a tenon on it, but I figure small pieces like this arenít much of a risk, especially with a face shield. Just get it in there good and tight.



    Hereís where I differ from a lot of folks in how I make my birdhouse. I make the top fit into the body, rather than the body fit into the top. Iím not sure itís the best way to do it, but itís the way I do it. In the figure below left I am showing how to mark the size of the tenon with the burn line from the body. At this point it should be obvious that I could have used this piece to jam chuck my body for finish turning, and skipped a step.



    Oops. Fit it like the jam chuck described above.

    The underside of the cap should be slightly concave so that the joint between the body and the cap is tight with no big cracks showing. You did remember to undercut the top of the body didnít you?

    Now you begin to shape the top as it pleases you. Use the body to test how it looks as you go along. Iíve
    found that a nice shape is secondary to getting a proportionally sized top. Although a nice shape is more desirable.



    Get a general idea of what the shape is like, but leave plenty of meat up top, because next youíll hollow it out, and you donít want it to snap off before you finish.

    I use a spindle gouge as illustrated to poke a hole in the top, and hollow it a good ways up, making sure I donít go too far so as to part this thing off prematurely. Iíve done it before too. It gets exciting when pieces just fly off into the great unknown- otherwise known as the 3900-RPM disappearing act. Push the gouge straight into the center with the flutes at a 45 to horizontal, and then sweep the tip to the left in a scraping cut.



    The next tool to use is a goose necked tool of some sort, to hollow around the corner. The purpose of hollowing the ornament is so thereís not too much weight and it can be hung wherever one wants.



    I made my hollowing tool from a small hex key. I used a propane torch to give it a goose neck shape, so the tip is in line with the axis of the tool. You need this shape so a catch wonít rotate the tool around. That right angle the hex key has, is for leverage when tightening a loosening fasteners. You want to eliminate that. Why? Because when your fingers get pinched between the tool and the tool rest, it hurts like the dickens. I still have a scar from it. Just a couple of heatings and bends should do it. Then sharpen and mount in a handle you made using copper pipe or coupling for the ferrule.



    On the left you can see a little more of the Ďaround the cornerí hollowing that the gooseneck will do. I actually donít show this procedure correctly. The rest should be positioned so that the support is not in the bend of the gooseneck, but in the straight portion. Once you have it hollowed sufficiently, itís time to shape the thing a bit more.

    On the right is the shaping a little further along. Iím deciding what kind of shape looks best for the eyelet to fit into.


    Here you can see what the final shape is going to look like. Iím sanding as I go here. Itís almost ready to part off and reverse chuck. Once again, I noticed after taking pictures how I could have saved a stepÖ More about that coming up.



    Parting off. I did catch this piece as it came off, I promise. The top is a bit rough and needs a clean up.



    Ok. Now you could make another jam chuck like I did, or you could skip a step. Itís handy to know
    how to do this next step, so Iíll show you what I did anyway, and then tell you how to skip this step in
    the future.

    Here I have a pair of dividers to size a mortise style jam chuck to fit my topís tenon. I make them just undersize so I can sneak up on the right size and not go too big.



    In the figure below I am scribing a diameter with the dividers. The picture shows the piece stationary, but in practice the piece is spinning. Just lightly touch the leg closest to you at approximately the correct location, and when you get the diameter right scribe the line. Itís very important while doing this to keep the leg of the dividers that is farthest from you OFF OF THE PIECE! Unless of course you want to wear the dividers in your forehead.



    If you feel uncomfortable with this practice donít do it. This is the way I do it, but I donít recommend it if you feel it is unsafe. I wonít be held liable if you do something stupid. You could always use a pencil or turn the piece by hand, or something else.

    If you havenít noticed, Iím using the original piece of Walnut that I cut the top off of for the jam chuck. You could do this same thing with the body if your blank was big enough.

    Hollow the mortise out with the spindle gouge as described for the top. I also use a Ĺ in. skew chisel to finish the mortise. I sight across the chisel and bed ways to ensure the mortise has straight parallel sides, and plunge straight in. It takes several trials to get an exact fit.



    If you do this just right, the top will just fit the mortise. If you think about it, a hole drilled through the center of your jam chuck now will make it easier to get the top out later- especially if you made this a tight fit.



    Right about now, Iím wishing Iíd remembered to drill that hole, because this fits really well. It wonít come off as Iím cutting on it. The other method of getting the top off the jam chuck is to turn the outside of the jam chuck smaller than the largest diameter of the top, so you can grasp the top and pull it out.



    So now you have the final shape and can clean up the top a bit, and sand it off. Put some finish on it as you did for the body.

    Dimple the top with a little skew in preparation for drilling your eyelet hole.



    Now just drill the hole with an appropriately sized bit. I have a hex shank on this one, so I just hold it with my fingers and it slides right in. Itís probably well to sand the ďfuzziesĒ off the top of this hole.



    I make my own eyelets so this 3/32 drill is the right size for those. I describe making the eyelets in Part 2 of this tutorial..

    I suppose itís time to tell you how we could skip a step. I could have just mounted this top in my small jawed chuck since the tenon was going inside the body of the birdhouse anyway. This would eliminate having to make a mortise style jam chuck. Iíll have to try that next time Iím making these.



    Well all we lack now is a perch and an eyelet.

    I mount a 3/4 x 3/4 piece of Walnut, Mesquite, Bloodwood or whatever is on hand for the perch. I place the square stock in a chuck with small jaws. I have used the inside part of regular sized jaws, but itís not as secure that way.



    I rough out the perch with a 3/8 spindle gouge. I leave it relatively thick until I make the tenon.



    To create a tenon on the perch that fits the hole in the body, I use a couple of small skews made from dental tools and broken off mechanics ďpicky toolsĒ.This tool is a little big, even if it is ľ dia. or so. I use these three tools a lot on micro turnings like the perch. I have two skew shapes and one ďgougeĒ shape if you look closely.


    Fit the perch to the hole in the body. When thatís done, make sure itís back cut so it fits fairly tight against the body.



    Shape your tenon with some small tools. I made a small ďgougeĒ with the aforementioned dental tools
    and pick tools. So I can make whatever details I want on these perches. Here I show it dry fit into the
    body.

    Now itís time to assemble the thing. You have some superglue?

    Put a small amount on the inside of the body, (probably too much in this picture) and slip the top into it fairly quickly and firmly before it sets and you canít move it. Donít get it stuck halfway onÖ.



    I put a drop of glue on the perch and place it fairly quickly also. A small rag wipes up any squeeze out if you apply it quickly enough. For the eyelet see my other document to make them from gold beading wire. Or go buy some fishhooks and cut them off. Or go buy eyelets. Or whatever you prefer. Youíll figure something out.



    And there you go. A finished birdhouse ornament.



    I create my own eyelets for use on Christmas ornaments and miniature birdhouses. It only takes a few seconds per eyelet once you get the material and tools. Shown in the top two photos are the tools and supplies. I have two sets of beading pliers, one of which is an antique, that Iíve grown used to and use them almost exclusively. The other tools are a pair of side cutters, needle nose pliers, and a 3/32 drill bit. The supplies are 20 ga beading wire, super glue, and an ornament needing an eyelet.



    I start with 20 gauge gold beading wire, available at Walmart, and a pair of beading pliers made for bending wire. I first pull 5 inches of wire off of the spool, then holding the wire with the beading pliers about 2 inches from the end, I make the first loop, creating an eye. Still holding the wire by the loop, I begin to wrap the wire tightly around itself.



    I make sure to keep the wraps tight around the spool end of the wire, and close to the previous wrap to ensure a uniform wrap. Once your wrap nears the end of the wire, it is difficult to bend the wire with your fingers, so I use the needle nose to crimp the last ľ inch or so, and I then snip the completed eyelet off with the side cutters.



    Make sure you have a pinprick made with a icepick or suitable tool in the end of the ornament to start your drill bit in before drilling the hole for the eyelet. It has been my experience that using the 20 ga wire in conjunction with the 3/32 bit makes a pretty snug fit.

    Youíll have to experiment with drill and wire size to find what works for you.



    At this point you are ready to insert the eyelet. Put a drop of super glue in the hole, and using the beading pliers insert the eyelet into the hole. I find it to be rather snug so I tend to twist the eyelet into the hole using the wraps somewhat like screw threads to help it twist in. Using the beading pliers makes this much easier, and also prevents fingers from being permanently attached to the eyelet and ornament.



    These take only seconds to make, and are quite handsome even if I do say so myself!

    Comments 18 Comments
    1. Ken Fitzgerald's Avatar
      Ken Fitzgerald -
      Excellent tutorial! Well done Jim!
    1. Andrew Raymond's Avatar
      Andrew Raymond -
      Thank you for your efforts and super job.........
    1. Windal Burton's Avatar
      Windal Burton -
      Thank you for the great tutorial, I enjoyed it.
    1. Matt Ranum's Avatar
      Matt Ranum -
      Thanks! Always looking for a better way than the way I already do things and this is one.
    1. Terry Murphy's Avatar
      Terry Murphy -
      A great How To!
      Terry
    1. Scott Brihn's Avatar
      Scott Brihn -
      Wonderful!

      Thank you for taking the time to share.
    1. Paul Johnstone's Avatar
      Paul Johnstone -
      Wow, that's a great job.. Thanks for all the detail.
    1. Donny Lawson's Avatar
      Donny Lawson -
      Thank you very much. I've been wanting to make these for a while now. It looks like I need to get busy.
      Donny
    1. John Oliver35's Avatar
      John Oliver35 -
      Very nice article. Thank you for taking the time for all of the detail and great pictures!
    1. Roger Bullock's Avatar
      Roger Bullock -
      Making these little bird house ornaments has been on my bucket list of turning projects. Your tutorial has inspired me to give them a shot. Thanks for sharing.
    1. Jeff Mohr's Avatar
      Jeff Mohr -
      If I ever got a lathe to do this you've made the directions very simple!!! Thanks.
    1. Jim C Bradley's Avatar
      Jim C Bradley -
      An excellent tutorial. My son, Glenn, says, "Let's make some!"

      You have spent a lot of time and effort on this. I know, because I have done tutorials. Tutorials of this quality require dedication. Thank You, Thank You.

      Enjoy,

      Jim
    1. Trevor Howard's Avatar
      Trevor Howard -
      Thank you for taking the time to make the Tutorial, Jim. I thought I would have to wait to make one, since I didn't have a goose neck tool, until you informed how you made yours
    1. Don Watson's Avatar
      Don Watson -
      Many thanks for the tutorial, Jim. I make these pieces but this just gives the 'right' idea of how to make them. A big thanks for showig how.

      take care
      Don W
    1. Alan Tolchinsky's Avatar
      Alan Tolchinsky -
      Thanks a lot for all your hard work on this. I can't wait to make some. Alan
    1. Doug Morgan's Avatar
      Doug Morgan -
      Fantastic. When/If I ever complete my Powermatic 45 lathe I want to give this a try.
    1. Richard Sole's Avatar
      Richard Sole -
      Very nice work and well illustrated tutorial. Thanks for sharing.
    1. steve johnson's Avatar
      steve johnson -
      Nice demo Jim,
      Steve