Why would you ever make your
own knobs when you can buy them
for less than a buck? I can think of
several reasons—limited choices of
wood, for example. Many knobs are
only available in oak or birch. But perhaps
the best reason is aesthetics.
Most production knobs look pretty
plain, due to the constraints imposed
by mass production. It’s a shame to
saddle your furniture or cabinetry
with run-of-the-mill knobs when it’s
easy to enhance your work with
knobs that are hand-turned and finely
detailed. Plus, there’s the undeniable
satisfaction you get from making
your own knobs.
Knob-making is a great exercise in
understanding grain orientation and
how to work with it. The face of a
knob can show either end grain or
face grain. End-grain knobs (also called
“long-grain” knobs) are turned with
the grain oriented parallel to the
lathe’s bed, as in spindle turning. Facegrain
knobs (also called “short-grain”
knobs) are turned with the grain oriented
perpendicular to the lathe’s
bed, as in most bowl turning.
The tools you’ll need for turning
both types of knobs include a
detail/spindle gouge, a parting tool
and a skew chisel.
End-grain knobs are strong because
the grain runs lengthwise through
the knob. This makes them the best
choice if you want to turn slender
shanks with delicate shaping and
fine detailing. End-grain knobs usually
have tenons on the ends rather
than being fastened with screws,
because screws that are threaded
into end grain don’t hold well.
Although end-grain knobs are oriented
the same way as spindle work,
you shouldn’t mount the blanks
between centers. Instead, provide
clear access to the face of the blank
by mounting the stock in a scroll
You can easily chuck a blank that’s
long enough to turn several knobs—
just allow sufficient length for
mounting and for waste between the
Once the blank is mounted, turning
an end-grain knob is fundamental
spindle work. Start by establishing
the knob’s diameter (Photo 1). Then
shape the knob’s face by cutting
from large to small diameters (Photo
2). Use a skew to add details (Photo
3). Shape the shank to create a finger
recess (Photo 4). Again, work from
large to small diameters. Finally, turn
the tenon to fit the hole drilled in
your door or drawer (Photo 5).
Face-grain knob shanks must be larger
in diameter than end-grain knob
shanks, to compensate for their grain
orientation—these knobs are likely to
break at the shank, due to the short
grain, if the shank is too slender. I seldom
go below 1/2" dia. behind the
On the other hand, the faces of
face-grain knobs show face grain, so
they match the fronts of drawers and
doors better than the faces of endgrain
knobs. Face-grain knobs are
also a better choice when the wood
is going to be stained, because their
faces take stain more evenly.
A screw chuck is the best device
for mounting a face-grain knob blank. This
chuck has the added benefit of creating
a centered screw hole for mounting
the knob (face-grain knobs
attach securely with screws). I attach a shop-made drawbar to prevent the
chuck from popping out during operation.
It’s best to turn face-grain knobs
one at a time. Using stock milled flat
and slightly thicker than the pulls’
desired height, cut out a series of
blanks, including one or two extras,
just in case.
Face-grain knob-turning resembles
bowl turning, because the grain
runs at a right angle to the lathe’s
bed, just like a bowl blank. You will
quickly discover that cutting coves
and fine detail on the side of a facegrain
knob is more challenging than
it is on an end-grain knob. That’s
because the side alternates between
end grain and long grain as it rotates.
On the other hand, detailing the face
of a face-grain knob is much easier
than it is on an end-grain knob.
To turn a face-grain knob blank into
a cylinder without chipping the ends,
start your cuts from off the blank at
both ends and meet in the center
(Photo 6). Because of the blank’s
weak short-grain structure, turn the
knob’s face first. (If you turn the shank
first, it may break while you’re turning
the face.) To create fine convex and
concave details, treat the face as if it
were a small bowl (Photo 7).
Once the face is complete, you
can address the side of the knob.
Here’s where things get a little tricky:
Because of the side’s short-grain
structure, you have to work from
small to large diameters—the opposite
of normal spindle work (Photo
8). Add fine details with a skew
chisel (Photo 9).
(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October/November 2008, issue #138.
October/November 2008, issue #138
Purchase this back issue.
Click any image to view a larger version.
To turn end-grain knobs, you’ll need a four-jaw scroll chuck to hold the stock. For face-grain knobs, use a screw chuck with an attached shop-made drawbar to keep the chuck from popping out of the headstock. The drawbar consists of a threaded rod (match the threads inside your screw chuck), a wood spacer, a washer and nut.
Turn an End-Grain Knob
1. Start an end-grain knob with a blank mounted in a scroll
chuck. Establish the knob’s diameter with a parting tool and
outside calipers. Make sure the caliper points are rounded and
smooth, so they won’t catch.
2. Shape the outside face of the knob, using a detail/spindle
gouge. Work from large to small diameter.
3. Detail the knob’s face with the long
point of a skew chisel. Most woodworkers
avoid working with end grain, but
turners know it presents unique possibilities.
4. Create a finger recess between the
knob’s head and base, using the gouge
and working from large to small diameters.
End-grain knob shanks can be
turned to slender diameters.
5. Size the tenon with the parting tool
and outside calipers. Go slow and make
sure your calipers are set for a perfect
fit. Accurate sizing is essential for a
Turn a Face-Grain Knob
6. Mount face-grain knob blanks on a screw chuck. Turning
these knobs takes a light touch, as heavy cuts can strip the
screw hole. Start by creating a cylinder. Work from the ends
towards the middle to avoid chipping the outside corners.
7. Detail the knob’s face with the detail/spindle gouge. This
work is similar to turning a small face-grain bowl: Work convex
areas from small to large diameters and concave areas from
large to small diameters.
8. Create the knob’s shank by working from small to large diameters.
Face-grain knobs require a different technique than endgrain
knobs, as cuts are made in the opposite direction.
9. Crisp detailing separates handwork from production pieces.
The long point of the skew adds fine details and crisp lines that
emphasize transitions between concave and convex shapes.