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Turning a Spinning Top Toy

Updated: Jun 4

Videos Below; I believe one of the most important lessons I ever learned as a Woodturner was the Spinning Top Toy. Not that they are harder to do than Bowls or Ornaments but that they come with their own difficulties which have to be overcome by sheer repetition. Balance in the finished piece and excellent technique are more important in these than other pieces that you might turn. If you get the shape wrong or leave a rough finish off the tool, sandpaper will not correct and will in fact unbalance the spinning top meaning less spinning time.

Early Spinning Top Toy Attempts

I struggled when I started Woodturning, with each Spinning Top taking up to 20 minutes to complete (including finish application). 20 minutes of pure grind with the end result being a blobby. Basically what I call pieces that have no defined shape and rounded over details due to poor sanding techniques.

Why did it take so long I hear you ask? Simple, I was self taught (badly) in the 90s and I had only a vague notion of how the tools should be held and presented. Tool sharpening didn't enter into the equation either at that early stage. It wasn't until I sought the advice of a Professional Woodturner years later that things started to improve for me. It took some time after that, putting the new knowledge to task until I started seeing results in my work. If only I had taken a lesson back then, where oh where would I be now I wonder?

The more students I teach, the more I realize where I failed early on. I have noticed that some of my students don't last at Woodturning because they are put off

  • By their early failures

  • By the amount of work and time they have to put in before becoming competent

  • By the look of the pieces they make after a few weeks/months.

  • By all the money investment before being able to make complex pieces

Woodturning requires a lot more commitment than just a wish to do it. I keep seeing people who have a huge desire to turn only to drop it after only a short period of time and it's an awful waste to be honest.

For those of you that want to improve your Woodturning techniques, I have this Blog Post for you. I will describe the turning of a Spinning Top and you can then view it on 2 of my YouTube videos below which should give you some good pointers. The next few paragraphs deal with what you can't see or what is not included in the videos.

Select your Piece

Firstly, my advice is select an appropriate piece in both width and length. I generally cut 50mmx50mmx60mm Width x Depth x Length which is quite small and designed to achieve minimal waste and maximum yield by a Professional Woodturner.

If you new to Turning then I suggest a length of around 100mm which will keep you away from the spinning Jaws. As a caveat, vibration may become an issue as you move further away from the headstock. As you improve, you can shorten the length down by 5mm or so with each new piece to save wood and to give you more confidence. Always be comfortable with the wood you use and don't try to shorten because you see someone else doing it until you are proficient enough to do it safely!.

Cut a proper dovetail to suit the jaws you have. Each manufacturer makes jaws for their own products and they all differ slightly from each other. I use Vicmarc Chucks & jaws which are angled to 77 degrees. I generally roughout the shape and add the dovetail on my small Jet 1221vs before bringing the piece to the next lathe for finishing. I normally make Spinning Tops on my Vicmarc VL300 or Jet 2424 lathes as they offer maximum stability and at this stage I'm just comfortable working with them. Having multiple Lathes makes your processes much easier and is a great timesaver.

Have a look at the video below for my methods, hopefully you will find something you didn't already know

Riding the Bevel

To do any work on a lathe you must familiarize yourself with the supported cut, ie; riding the bevel. It is the safest way to turn and gives the best results as you are always cutting the grain from a solid, supported position and not yanking the fibers out as the wood turns. There are often arguments between traditionalists and Carbide Cutter enthusiasts about which offers the best results. I am a traditionalist, I believe the physics of a supported cut far outweigh the carbide tool at every turn and are much safer. If you are unsure about the bevel, take a Woodturning lesson immediately, it will be money well spent. If you are a new Woodturner, I suggest learning the Traditional way first before experimenting with Carbide Cutters. In order to do a Spinning Top, you will be working further off the tool rest; more so than normal so you need to know what you are doing.

Adding Colour

In the early days of my business my products were all natural grain and I actually prefer the wood to look the way nature intended. When I started adding colour to my pieces, sales went up dramatically. I was a little annoyed by this while at the same time delighted to be making more money. A real paradox. We are making products for customers to buy so we shouldn't project our own tastes into the pieces but it invariably happens anyway. In saying that, Spinning Tops sell way better with a few colours added. You can pick up a Hampshire Sheen Intrinsic Colours box set here if you'd like to try or some of the Sharpie Pens for minimalist colouring here. Enjoy the videos below.

An older video below, sped up a bit. This is the way I used to do them when I started making them for the shops but I have since changed the design to the coloured ones above.

Take Away - It's a Child's Toy

At the end of the day, the Spinning Top you create will probably go to a small child as a gift. The person giving the gift is probably doing it from a position of nostalgia because they had a Spinning Top when they were a child. When I first introduced these into a shop the feedback I got was that 50-70 year olds were spinning them and then buying them saying that they hadn't seen one in in several decades. What starts out as a project for you to improve may end up bringing a little joy into someone's life.

Do the best job you can!

Stay Safe Turning! David

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