Canadian Woodworking

Christmas ornament

Author: Allan Cusworth
Photos: Lead Photo by Vic Tesolin; All others by Allan Cusworth
Published: December January 2010

Turn this heirloom-quality Christmas ornament for someone special on your list this year.


There are many ways to hold and turn a blank like this in the lathe. I prefer to use a four-jaw chuck. Some of the dimensions shown are for a Teknatool Supernova chuck, so if your chuck is a different make it will probably require different measurements. If you prefer to use different chucks or tools, that’s okay. However, those listed above are the tools that I used.

Christmas ornaments made of wood have traditionally been considered treasures that are passed down from generation to generation and they often occupy a very special place on the Christmas tree each year. This project will allow a woodturning enthusiast to become immortal! Well, okay, maybe I am stretching things just a little, but I predict that your creation will certainly attract a lot of attention.

Turning Christmas ornaments has always fascinated woodturners. Some of us have painted them with solid colours, while others have created beautiful pictures on their globes. Some creations have long ornate icicles and finials on them and some have none. I have studied the techniques of many other woodturners worldwide and the methods I have used to make the ornament in this project are a compilation of these techniques. Out of the many different ideas on this subject, I have selected a project that most turners with a little bit of experience should feel comfortable making. I do use some specialized tools for hollowing out the globe but, other than that, most common woodturning tools will do the job.

Globe blank
 Mount the blank and round it off to start.

Base tenon
 Cut the base tenon into the blank before shaping the globe.

 Shaping the globe
 Once the globe is turned, smooth and finish sand to at least 800 grit to achieve a glossy finish.

Access hole
 Bore the ⅞" access hole to accommodate the hollowing out process.

Remove the insides
 Using the hollowing tool of your choice, hollow out the inside paying attention to the wall thickness at all times.

Apply finish
With a paper towel, apply three coats of wipe-on poly before parting the globe off.

Two blanks in one
Use one blank long enough to form the icicle and the finial. Round-off the blank and mark your design elements with a pencil.

Shaped icicle
 Once the shaping is done, finish sand and finish the icicle.

Be precise
 Size the finial for a good fit in the globe’s access hole.

Wood Selection

The goal is to make a piece that is big enough to be seen on the Christmas tree and yet not too heavy to weigh down the tree bow. With that in mind, I selected a piece of box elder burl (Manitoba maple for some readers) for the globe and red Honduras mahogany for the finial and icicle. Box elder is naturally coloured with red streaks that, when coupled with the red mahogany, give the ornament a Christmas look right from the start.

It is important to work safely when using any woodworking tools, equipment, and materials, and a face shield and dust mask should be worn when applicable. Also be aware of the toxicity of any domestic or exotic wood you decide to use. Some woods, such as makore and cedar, can cause serious health problems.

Basic Design

I like to take the time to draw the design I want to make before I start to turn wood on the lathe. It is much easier to make changes on paper than it is on a piece of wood in the lathe.

The overall dimensions for this ornament are 2 ½” in diameter by 7″ long. The globe is 2 ½” in diameter by 1 ¾” high. In my opinion, and that of other designers, a globe that is slightly flattened on the top and bottom yields a more pleasing shape than a round one. The icicle on the bottom is twice as long as the globe is high, or 3 ½” and the finial on the top is 1 ¾” long. I try to follow the natural design ratio that Mother Nature has provided. Some people call it the ‘Rule of Thirds’; others call it the ‘Golden Mean.’ Basically, this places the middle of the globe about ⅓ of the way down from the tip of the finial.

Since burl has a multitude of grain directions, it doesn’t matter which way the piece is mounted on the lathe. If using a grained wood, I suggest orienting the grain direction vertically. The globe, finial and icicle will then all have the same grain direction. In my opinion, that simply looks better.

Forming the Globe

Start making the project by preparing a 2 ¾” by 2 ¾” by about 3 ½” long block of wood for the globe. If you choose an exotic wood you may want to cut a smaller piece and use a glue block to save on expensive material. Drill a 5/16″ diameter by ¾” deep pilot hole in the center of one end and mount the blank in the lathe on a Woodworm screw in the 1″ jaws of the four-jaw chuck. Bring the tailstock live center up for support and rough turn the blank to a cylinder with a spindle roughing gouge or a skew. Pull the tailstock back and true up the end of the block using a spindle gouge or skew. Make a dimple at the center. This is to guide the depth drill later.

Mark the 1 ¾” globe height dimension on the cylinder and, using a 3/16″ diamond parting tool, cut a groove to make an approximate ⅞” diameter tenon. Form the outside shape of the globe. Sand this surface starting with a grit size that will remove your tool marks and progress through the grit sizes to at least 800 so you can end up with a glossy finish. Note that each grit size in the progression should not be more than 50% finer than the previous one or you will leave scratch marks.

With a ⅞” Forstner bit in a keyed Jacobs chuck in the tailstock, drill a center hole to within ¼” of the bottom of the globe. Do not drill any deeper as wood is needed to support the globe for hollowing it out. I made a 90° angle depth gauge from a piece of 5/16″ drill rod. It lines up with the end of the bit flights when placed in a chuck hole on the Jacobs chuck. Using this gauge shows exactly where the tip of the bit is located when I’m drilling out the center.

Hollowing Out the Globe

Hollow out the globe with a swan-neck hollowing tool by taking small cuts starting at the mouth of the access hole. A number of specialty Christmas ornament hollowing tools are available on the market. A Google search for ‘woodturning +ornaments +“hollowing tools”’ will yield some interesting reading. Some people make their own by grinding Allen wrenches into angle scrapers and mounting them in handles.

Make the cuts parallel to the outside surface of the globe to reduce the chance of breaking through. Leave a heavier wall thickness for support at the back of the globe during the hollowing process. Remove the shavings often as a build-up on the tool can cause the wall to crack. Check the wall thickness with your thumb and finger caliper and verify the feel with a set of calipers periodically. Gradually reduce the wall thickness to approximately ⅛” or less. The thinner the wall, the lighter the finished ornament will be.

When the globe is hollowed out and sanded to your satisfaction you should finish it before you remove it from the tenon as it will be more difficult afterwards. Apply two or three coats of wipe-on polyurethane with a paper towel. I do not use cloth to apply finishes because if the cloth catches anywhere it can cause a serious injury to your fingers.

To remove the globe, bring the tailstock with the ⅞” Forstner bit back up and drill through the back of the globe into the tenon. If the tenon is ⅞” diameter, the globe will drop onto the bit shank. If not, a small cut with a skew at the outside bottom of the base will release it.

Making the Icicle and Finial

I prefer to make the icicle and finial from one blank because this saves the need to chuck up two separate blanks. The blank for this project is a piece of red Honduras Mahogany 1½” square by 6½” long. This allows for a 3 ½” long icicle and a 1 ¾” long finial plus some material for chucking, gluing tenons and some final cuts.

Place the square end of the blank flush against the chuck base in the 50mm (2″) jaws on the four-jaw chuck. Bring up the tailstock live center and round off the blank with a spindle roughing gouge or a skew. Back off or remove the tailstock and live center.

The bottom point of the icicle will be at the tailstock end of the blank. Leave ⅛” at the tip of the blank for removing the live center dimple. Mark the 3 ½” icicle and 1 ¾” finial length dimensions on the blank leaving a ¼” allowance between them to make the icicle mounting tenon. You will also need the same allowance for the finial tenon later. You can also mark on the design elements if desired. I kept the finial design reasonably simple for this project since I feel that a simple design often looks better. However, if you want to make a more intricate design, the element at the tip should be the smallest. Sizes should get progressively larger towards the base of the icicle.

Shape the tip element using a small spindle gouge, or a skew if you are comfortable with it, and sand it before shaping the next one while there is more wood to support the stress. Use the same grit size sequence as used when forming the globe. Make the outside diameter at the top 1 ⅛”, large enough to completely cover the ⅞” hole in the globe with a little surface to spare. Shape the last element of the icicle to make a smooth transition area for gluing the icicle to the base later.

Define the top surface using a 3/16″ diamond parting tool. To make sure the icicle tenon fits the globe, use a vernier caliper to transfer the ⅞” ID of the globe hole to the OD of the tenon. Don’t make the fit too tight so that you have a little space for the glue joint. Using a 1/16″ narrow parting tool, carefully make an angled undercut at the base of the tenon. This will allow the icicle edge to fit closely to the surface of the globe and will also provide a place for the excess glue to go when the pieces are glued together later.

Apply two or three coats of wipe-on polyurethane with a paper towel as was done on the globe. After the finish is dry, carefully part the finial off at the top of the ⅞” diameter tenon with a 1/16″ narrow parting tool. Make the cut on an angle to remove some wood, which will reduce the weight of the finished ornament.

The finial is made in the same way as the icicle except that it is much shorter. The elements should complement those on the icicle. I like to leave the tip element large enough to drill a 1/16″ hole through from the side using a V-block on my drill press to hang the ornament. Make sure the hole is perfectly centered or the ornament will hang lop-sided. You may want to drill the 1/16″ hole in the top of the finial and screw in a brass eyelet. This hole can be drilled with the 1/16″ bit held in a Jacobs chuck in the tailstock.

Assemble the ornament by gluing the icicle and finial into the holes in the top and bottom of the globe by putting glue on the tenons only. I use PVA glue and allow sufficient time for it to dry thoroughly. Make sure that no glue is applied to the inside surface of the escutcheon to avoid any squeeze-out on to the globe.

The final touch is to thread a piece of ribbon, gold thread or put a brass wire hook through the finial hole and get ready for the compliments and requests from all your friends and relatives.

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