Canadian Woodworking

Turning alternate materials

Author: Paul Ross
Published: April May 2003

In addition to turning domestic and exotic woods, you can also turn alternate material and add them to your work to create unique, original pieces.


The Butternut for this ornamental piece becomes a focal point and provides visual interest. In this article I will give you the method for turning the actual nut, itself. Alternate materials such as Tagua nuts also make interesting knobs for lids as they contrast with the wood. I chose to work with the Butternut because it is something a little different and because it is from Ontario, so it is readily available. Various other nuts, such as the Tagua Nut or Uxi Kernal from South America, are also easy to turn, producing a fine finish and a nice result.


They are “vegetable ivory”. The big advantage of these exotic nuts is that they can be substituted for real ivory, which is illegal to import.

To turn the Butternut, glue it onto a waste block (spigot) so that you can grab it and hold it with a chuck. Shape it between centres, then remove the tailstock and hollow out the front and inside of the nut. Before you shape the outside make sure that the Butternut is on the spigot, secured on the chuck and that the tailstock is in place as support. Now use a 3/8” spindle gouge to shape the outside. The Butternut cuts somewhat like acrylic and produces a very smooth cut at a fast running speed.

Make sure the spindle gouge is ground in the profile of a fingernail, on a 35-degree angle. Face the flute in the direction of the cut, and always cut downhill, going from high to low. The Butternut has no grain; cutting downhill helps the tool fall into the shape you are cutting.

The shaped Butternut, with the tailstock removed, is now ready for hollowing out.

The tools for hollowing have to correspond to the small size of the piece. I used a set of three miniature hollowing tools.

Each tool is a ¼” bar with a high-speed steel tip glued into the end; one tool is straight; another is cranked at a 45-degree angle; and the third tool of the set is hooked. There is no need to drill out the middle, as the piece is so small. This can be done quickly using the straight tool. In fact, about 80% of the hollowing out process can be done with the straight tool.

The larger the curvature of the piece, the more appropriate it is to use the cranked or offset tools. Attach the turned Butternut to a pedestal. I made this one from Palmwood, which is a wood with a prominent grain. Rough out and shape the foot, using a ½” spindle gouge.

Square off the ends. Use a 1/16” parting tool, as shown in photo 7 and part each end down to a little pip. Leave the piece mounted between centers, to allow for further shaping and tool work. Now turn a double bead with a 9-in-1 tool.

It is important that the cross section of this tool is diamond shaped and ground to about a 30-degree angle on the end. The tool can be used like a little skew to roll a bead to the left and right, even to the point of undercutting the bead with the point left and right. This tool produces a super clean cut, one that requires very little sanding.

Having cut so cleanly, all that is required for sanding is starting with about a 280 grit through to 400 grit, using J-flex, which is a little softer paper that allows you to get into the smaller areas.

Part off the Butternut entirely, with the chuck holding the Butternut mounted back onto the lathe. Use the small 1/16” parting tool.

Turn both ends of the foot; one end for the Butternut to be glued on to and the other end for the bottom of the foot. One way of doing this is to take the steel jaws off the chuck and, using the rubber bungs, (which come with the One-way jumbo jaws) screw these directly onto the base jaws of the chuck. Now what you’ve created is a chuck with soft rubber jaws.

Clean both ends of the foot with the toe of a tiny skew. Make a nice shearing cut by lifting the toe into the centre of the piece. Roll a bead with the 9-in-1 tool where the Palmwood meets the Butternut to blend them together. Now complete the piece by gluing the Butternut onto the foot.

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