August 2016



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Turning a Wooden Clock

Probably one of the very first projects I turned was a clock. I glued a couple of boards together to get the proper thickness and then turned it. I’ve made quite a few since then and learned a few tricks. I hope to pass these on to you in a few articles. This one will be pretty straight forward turning--nothing fancy--but I will describe different methods of creating dowels to be used as markers.

The first thing is to buy your clock movement. Several dimensions will be taken from it so you need this in hand. You can buy them from a lot of sources. If you only need one, your local hobby shop or even Walmart may have them. The biggest problem with store-bought movements is the shaft length is too short.  These were designed to use with metal or plastic faces. The wood may be too thin and fragile. I prefer a clock with a shaft length of at least ¼”. You still need space for the nut to hold it in, so this will give you a wood thickness of 3/16” at the center. Check the online sources at the bottom of the article. Make sure to buy a movement that has this shaft length.

I select wood that is 1 ½” or more thick. If you don’t have it that thick, glue two pieces together. What I did on many of my early clocks was to make the front piece solid and the back piece segmented to save on wood. You would think this might have wood movement problems, but my clocks done this way have held up. Probably because the segmented pieces were at least 2” wide so there was a lot of glue surface. And since the clock is only 8” across, there is not a huge amount of wood movement. It’s pretty easy today to find wood that is 1 ½” thick, so I just use that most of the time.

I glue a 3 ½” square waste block (mostly because I have them on hand and use this size a lot) to what will be the front of my clock. It needs to be larger diagonally than the hole you will bore for your clock. This block has a 3/8” center hole to make alignment easy. I just place a 3/8” drill through the hole and put the point on my centering mark and then push it down after applying glue. 

Photo 1  

I use medium CA glue with accelerator. The accelerator makes the glue joint brittle so it’s easy to remove later. I put a waste block on my faceplate and center drill it. Now all I have to do is put a short piece of 3/8” dowel in the hole, apply some glue to the wasteblock, and put the two pieces together. I use medium CA here also.

Mount the wood on the lathe and true up the face and outside edge. My clock movements are all just a hair over 3” diagonally, so I make the hole in the back at least 3 ¼” or more to give me plenty of room. I make the hole 1” deep. I use a home-made depth gauge to check it.  

Photo 2 

I use a bowl gouge to hollow most of it and then clean up the deep shoulder using a detail gouge. I use a Hunter #4 to clean up the bottom so I don’t have to sand. 

Photo 3. 

Most people would probably use a bowl gouge followed by a parting tool. I don’t want to fiddle with the torn grain the parting tool leaves so I use the detail gouge. I try to turn the back of the clock to the same standards as the front. I use the back as a sort of practice piece. I practice cutting the wood with different tools to learn what tool cuts the cleanest on that wood or at least to practice my cuts. I try to leave the bottom of the hole flat so the clock movement will sit flat. I recess the back of the clock about ¼”. This helps it sit flat against the wall. If you want to practice turning beads on a platter, this is a good place to try. If you mess them up, just use this as a design opportunity and change the details on the back. Like I said, I often use the back to learn new techniques because I can change it to cover up any mistakes.  

Photo 4

Center drill the back with a 5/16 drill. If your clock shaft size is different, use the appropriate drill. 

Photo 5

When you have the back turned and sanded, remove the blank from the lathe. Place a chisel on the joint between the clock and waste block and hit it quickly with a mallet. This will fracture the joint and break them free. It’s not the wedge action that splits the joint, it’s the impact--so I hit it with a hard short blow.  Usually it will pop free with little damage done to either the glue block or the clock. 

Photo 6

Now install the faceplate back on the lathe and turn the waste block to fit the hole you bored in the back of the clock. Leave a shoulder for the clock to sit against to align it. This is what we call a jam chuck.

Photo 7

I like to use a little hot glue to help hold the wood in place. A really tight fitting jam chuck won’t need glue but it takes longer to make. If I get it just a hair loose, I just use the hot glue on the outer edge.

Photo 8

Now you can turn the front. I start by measuring the hands I purchased with the clock. I mark a circle on the lathe for the shorter hand. I start hollowing the clock face, turning a slight concave area to get the proper thickness for the clock movement shaft length. I made a special tool to measure this depth. It was just a piece of coat hanger with the tip bent 90 degrees. Then I measured 1/8” lengths and marked them with a file. This allows me to reach into the hole, pull the bent portion against the back side of the hole, and see how many lines are left. This gives me the exact thickness of my wood at the hole.  

Photo 9

For my clocks, the wood needs to be 3/16” thick. If your clock uses a thin rubber washer you may have to allow for this and turn it a hair thinner. Since I leave this area concave, the wood is plenty thick a short ways from the hole, which makes it pretty solid.    

Turn the rest of the clock face at this point but leave the wood wider and thicker at the point where you drill for the dowels that will be the hour markers. The reason for this is the drill can damage the edges of the hole, and being able to clean that up later is a life saver. 

Now on to the fun part. I started off using store bought dowels for my clocks. I ran into two problems. One was the limited color or wood choices for the dowels. The other was that the dowels often were not round, so you would have an ugly glue line on two sides of the dowel.  Over the years, I developed three methods that work to get accurately-sized dowels out of contrasting woods. I’ve even used Tagua nuts and Corian to make Ivory-looking dowels. 

 Probably the most used is what I call plug cutters. 

Photo 10

These are drill-type cutters that are used to cut plugs to fill recessed screw holes. There are two different styles. One cuts a tapered plug and one cuts a straight-sided plug.

The tapered plug will fit the hole very snuggly and is good if you don’t have to remove any more wood from the body of the clock. But because it’s tapered, it can crack the wood if you drive it in or there wasn’t enough wood outside the hole. Using a gap-filling glue like epoxy, push the plug in with light pressure and then turn it down flush but not beyond. If you turn it and the wood down more than just a tiny bit you cut into the tapered gap (which looks quite ugly).

The straight-sided plug cutter doesn’t have either of these problems but it may not fit your hole exactly. You need to run a test using different drill bits to find one that fits exactly. These are really good if want to taper the wood around the plug or cut it at an angle. Lee Valley makes a good tapered plug cutter and Irwin makes a good straight sided cutter. The plug cutters are better than dowels because you can cut the plugs' side grain or end grain depending on the look you want and of course you can use any wood or other material. I drill the plugs and then use the bandsaw to cut at the bottom of the plug to free them. 

Photo 11

Lee Valley also sells a dowel-making cutter. This is somewhat similar to what is called a rounder plane for making large dowels on a wood lathe. However, this one is designed to be mounted in a vice and use an electric drill to spin the wood. You start with a square piece and chuck in the drill with a special adaptor that comes with the tool. Then feed it through the cutter and out comes a dowel.  It requires some experimentation to get the plane iron set just right. It works wonderfully on some woods and causes a lot of tearout on others. Do some tests on scrap before wasting good wood. I ruined a nice piece of cocobolo trying to make some 36” long 3/8” dowels for a friend. They are also fairly expensive. 

Photo 12

The third method is the method I use to use a lot. It uses a router and a custom made jig that’s easy to build.  It requires some accurate adjusting to get the dowel to the right size but works really well for making long dowels. The square piece of wood is fed in through a larger hole, runs past the router bit and exits through a smaller hole that holds things steady.  Some woods may require a different bit to cut cleanly. I use up or down spiral bits designed to cut mortises.  You don’t get the cleanest dowels so I usually sand them afterwords. This method is handy because you can have dowels of any length you want. You do have to allow for sanding when you size the dowels. 

Photo 13

Now that you have the dowels, it’s time to drill the holes. You need some way to support the drill and some way to lock the turning into position. You can, of course, use your lathe's indexing if it has this feature and has the correct spacing. If not, you can buy an index wheel or simply make your own. Here’s a photo of the homemade set up I used for this article.  

Photo 14  

I will explain it below. 

I have two index wheels: the Ironfire and the Alisam. The Ironfire is much less expensive. You have to build your own block for the index pin to go into but this makes the whole system very inexpensive.  Click here to see the Ironfire Index Wheel.

The Alisam is a much higher quality unit that comes complete and ready to go.
Click here to see the Alisam Index Wheel.

For this project, I show a homemade version that works quite well. You can go online and print out the divisions:
Click here to download or print the homemade divider wheel.

Or you can simply draw the lines on, as I did on this one. I made the wheel out of masonite but luan plywood or even good quality matt board will work. I make the L-shaped index locking bar out of any scrap wood I had handy.  I simply eyeball the marks on the wheel to align with the top of my index bar and clamp them together with a hand clamp. Simple and accurate.     

Now you need a way to hold the drill.  Oneway sells an expensive but well made adaptor for this called the Drill Wizard.  Click here to get information about the Drill Wizard.

This wasn’t even available when I first started turning clocks, so I devised a much simpler and much less expensive system. I just take a square piece of wood, drill the size hole I need, and then turn the lower portion down to the size that fits my lathe banjo. The one I made out of oak has lasted years. I thought they would wear out quickly but they don’t. If they do, they are so quick to make I just toss them and make another. The only part that wears is the tenon that gets marked when you lock it in place. The nice thing about these is you can easily angle them for angle holes. I use tape on the drill bit to mark the depth I want to drill. I prefer to use brad point bits. If you don’t have any, just use regular drill bits and allow for a little bit of tearout on the drill bit entry. You can also use Forstner-style bits but you have to insert them before positioning the jig because the head is usually larger than the shank.

I simply lock the index wheel into place, push the drill in to drill the hole, pull it out, rotate the clock to the next index position, and drill the next hole.

When you insert dowels into the holes they can easily pop back out due to the hydraulic pressure of the glue. I twist them into place so excess glue can work its way out. For straight plugs, I just use yellow wood glue. For tapered plugs, I prefer epoxy.  

Photo 15  

I saw off the excess using a hacksaw blade that has had the set ground off one side. Put tape around one end to use as a handle. This won’t tear up the face of the clock but cuts the dowel close to the wood surface. 

Photo 16  

I find that turning away the long dowels can be risky if they stick up very far.  If the dowels you make have pronounced grain lines, orient them so the point is toward the center. It just looks better than random orientations.

Now just finish turning the outside. I have often added a second row of dowels on the outside drilled at an angle so the dowels look oval as you cut across them. It’s your clock; have fun on the design!  Sand and finish with your favorite finish.  Depending on the hands you pick, you may be able to bend them to fit more exotic shapes on the clock.  You can also paint them if you don’t like the color. In a few cases, I glued wood veneer to the hands to make them a little more unique.  Here are a couple of examples. 

Photo 17

Photo 18


In a future article I will discuss using the router for some more unique details in the clock face. 

Here are some Mini-Quartz Movements at Woodcraft:

1) For face stock thickness of 1/4" to 3/8" -  $6.99, click here.

2) For face stock thickness of 3/8" to 5/8" -  $6.99, click here.

3) For face stock thickness of 5/8" to 3/4" -  $6.99, click here.

Click here to read about the author, John Lucas.