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Turning Wood: Wooden Plates


Turning Wood: Wooden Plates

Beautiful tableware from scrap boards.

By Alan Lacer

One of my woodworking friends defines offcuts as boards that are too short to be useful, but too good to throw away. That explains why he always has a big stack of unused short boards. As a woodturner, I view those offcuts as prime material: Short, thin boards are perfect for making plates, platters and saucers. The turning process is fairly simple, because all three objects are really just shallow bowls. You don't need a big lathe, either, because these objects don't have much mass. The only tricky part is mounting the blank so you can turn both sides, and I'll show you a method that simplifies the process.


Use almost any board

Almost any offcut or short board will work, or is at least worth trying, as long as it is free of checks (cracks) and pith (the material at the very center of the tree). The board should also be relatively dry—plates made from wet wood are much more likely to warp. Any traditional hardwood used in furniture making is suitable. Maple, cherry, oak (especially quartersawn or riftsawn), walnut, hickory, butternut, birch, and beech are all good choices. Cypress, cedar and pine work well, too. These projects are also a good way to test the turning qualities of exotic woods, or local woods that you’ve cut yourself.

The plate's diameter depends on the width (or length) of the board, of course, but it's ultimately limited only by your lathe’s capacity. For starters, I recommend turning a plate with a diameter between 7" and 10". As the plate will be hollowed into the board's face grain, the board's thickness is another consideration. Hardwood lumber is available in a variety of roughsawn thicknesses— 1", 1-1/4" and 1-1/2" thick boards all make good plate material. If you plan to turn a small saucer (6" dia. or less), you might even use a board as thin as 1/2".


Mount the blank backwards

Plates tend to be on the thin side, so mounting the blank is the first challenge. This story shows my favorite mounting method, which uses special double-faced tape. However, you should use this method only after you have turned a number of bowls and have developed a sound technique with bowl gouges.

The best strategy is to turn one side of the plate and then remount it to turn the other side. I prefer to turn the back of the plate first, so I start by mounting the blank "backwards," with its front face oriented toward the headstock (Photo 1). I use the double-faced tape later, when I remount the blank.

The tape must have a superstrong grip (see Sources, below). Do not substitute garden-variety tape from the hardware store, or even carpet tape. For the tape to adhere properly, the blank must be flat, clean, unfinished, dry and absent of oily resins. If the wood is oily or resinous (teak, cocobolo, or bocote, for example), scrub the surface with lacquer thinner or acetone.


Turn the back side

1. Start by truing up the blank's edge (Photo 2).

2. Next, true up the blank's back side and determine the size of its base (Photos 3 and 4). The center area must be absolutely flat.

3. Shape the back side of the plate (Photo 5). This shape should roughly mirror the shape you have in mind for the plate's open (front) side.

4. Draw a circle on the base to mark the faceplate's next location, so when you reverse the blank, it will remain accurately centered (Photo 6).

5. Remove the blank; then remove the faceplate. Make sure that the faceplate is absolutely clean of rust and residue by wiping or scrubbing it with lacquer thinner. Cover the faceplate with the doublefaced tape and mount it on the outside of the blank (Photo 7).

6. Remount the blank on the lathe—its open side now faces the tailstock. Use a block of wood and the tailstock center to clamp the blank/faceplate assembly (Photo 8).

7. Complete the back side of the rim by power sanding, using a drill and a 5" cushioned disc (Photo 9 and Sources). Power sanding is a fast and effective way to true up any slight irregularities.


Turn the open side

8. Determine the shape of the rim: bead, flare, rolled edge or just a gentle transition into the bottom of the plate. If you intend to do a bead, lay it out with a parting tool (Photo 10), and finish the shape with a detail/spindle gouge (Photo 11). Then complete the rim (Photos 12 and 13).

9. Use the bowl gouge to shape the plate’s interior (Photo 14). Work from the rim towards the center in stages, one section at a time. The goal is to complete the turning for each section as you go. Consider the wall thickness as you create the transition from the rim to the bottom of the plate. Cut in decisively—it’s difficult to go back and rework this shape later, due to the lack of support. Leave the tailstock in position until only a 2" dia. section remains at the center (Photo 15). Remove the tailstock and peel down this remaining section.

10. The bottom of the plate's interior is usually flat or curves gently to the center. Remember that you often have very little thickness to work with on these projects, so don’t overdo the hollowing—leave the bottom of the plate at least 3/16" thick. I normally shape the bottom with the bowl gouge, followed by very light scraping with a square-ended scraper (Photo 16). Sanding completes the process. I prefer to sand this side of the plate by hand, especially if it has beads and other fine details.


Apply the Finish

11. Removing the plate from the taped faceplate can be challenging, because of the strong bond. The key is a steady, even pull for 20 to 30 seconds (Photo 17). If the project has turned out to be on the thin side, work some mineral spirits or naphtha into the area of the tape and wait a few minutes. Then try the slow and steady pull—don't force it.

12. Clean the bottom with mineral spirits or naphtha; then sand lightly by hand.

13. For functional objects that will be well cared for, I like to use foodsafe oil finishes, such as pure tung oil, walnut oil or mineral oil (Photo 18). Tung and walnut oils will eventually dry; mineral oil never dries. For stain resistance, I suggest using a film-type finish, such as a wiping varnish. Plan to apply at least four coats. Once they’ve fully cured, these finishes are food safe.


(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

Packard Woodworks,, 800-683-8876, High Strength Double- Faced Tape, 1" width, #121091; 2" width, #121092.

The Sanding Glove,, 757-665-4597, 5" Disc Holder, #SM5M; 12-Piece Sanding Disc Assortment, #275-AST-5".

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker August/September 2009, issue #143.

August/September 2009, issue #143

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Prepare the bandsawn blank for turning. The back of the plate will be turned first, so fasten a faceplate on the front of the blank. The screw holes will disappear later, when the front (or "open") side of the plate is shaped.

2. Use a bowl gouge to true up the edge of the blank and make it round. Avoid splintering the blank's faces by working the edge from both sides. Start at the outside and move to the center.

3. Flatten the back side of the blank. Work from the center to the outside. Start with the bowl gouge; then switch to a square-ended scraper to level the surface.

4. Use a straightedge to check the leveled surface. The center area must be absolutely flat, so you can successfully remount the faceplate when it's time to turn the plate's open side.

5. Use the bowl gouge to shape the back side of the rim. Work from small to large diameter. As you shape the outside, consider your intentions for the inside shape.

6. Mark a circle slightly larger than the faceplate on the spinning blank. Then remove the blank from the lathe, and the faceplate from the blank.

7. Install the faceplate on the outside of the blank, using the centered circle and high strength double-faced tape (see Sources, page 30). Trim the tape to match the faceplate.

8. Remount the blank. Then use the tailstock and a block to clamp the taped joint. The block isn't glued; it's used to distribute the clamping pressure. Allow at least one hour for the tape's bond to fully strengthen.

9. Sand the back of the rim using a cushioned disc mounted in a drill. Before sanding, remove the clamp block and reposition the tailstock so it continues to support the plate.

10. Always work from the outside edge towards the middle when shaping the open side of the blank. Start by creating the rim. It can be flat, curved or detailed. Here, cutting in with a parting tool roughs out a bead.

11. Roll the bead using a detail/spindle gouge. Complete each half of the bead’s rounded shape separately, by starting at the center and working to the edge.

12. Remove waste beyond the rim, using the bowl gouge. Plunge down and toward the center. This step provides clearance, so you can complete the rim.

13. Complete the rim. It can be tapered or flat and wide or narrow, depending on your taste and the shape you've created on the outside of the plate.

14. Establish the plate’s depth. Cut in decisively from the edge of the rim, plunging down and towards the center.

15. Remove the waste at the center, using the opposite side of the gouge and working in the opposite direction. Plunge in and down to full depth. Back off the tailstock to complete the job.

16. Make a light, cleaning cut with the bowl gouge to blend the transition between the previous two cuts. Switch to a square-ended scraper to level the surface. Then finish sand this side of the plate.

17. Remove the plate from the faceplate with a slow, steady pull. Remove any tape or residue that remains with mineral spirits. Finish sand the back side of the plate by hand.

18. Apply your chosen finish. This is pure tung oil.

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