Sunday, April 12, 2009

Making Rope From Wood--Carving Rope Columns by Hand

I hate turning.

Bowls, spindles, boxes, pens, definitely not pens, doesn't matter. I just never had the desire to turn for interest or fun. And I still am not crazy about it. I've watched videos of Richard Raffan make it look easy. I've spent hours trying to work a skew chisel with skill only to have it catch on the last cut. Nevertheless, I have to do it for certain projects.

Recently I got a commission for a piece of carved furniture that included some carved rope twist columns in basswood. Here's a quick step-by-step on how I do it. Nothing revolutionary here. I had the camera in the shop and thought I'd snap a few shots.

These half columns start out as split turnings. Before gluing the two halves together I lay a single layer of newspaper in the joint. This is an well-known technique and it works great. The center points need to be dead on center and each half must be precisely dimensioned for the finished columns to match. Here I've turned down the major diameters so I can bandsaw a curve in the capital and still have a flat reference surface for cutting on the bandsaw.

I cut the curve into all four sides.

Then I remount the column in the lathe.

Roughing out the shaft of the column.

The shaft completed.

The base of the capital is transitioned into the bead at the top of the shaft.

Here I'm getting ready to turn the large bead at the base of the shaft. I hate this part, since it's really easy to catch the corner of the square base, especially in this basswood.

The shaft and beads complete after a little sanding.

To lay out the spiral I begin by drawing a grid on the shaft. The less squares, the wider the bines (these are the individual "ropes") will be. I shoot for a chunky bine at about 45 degree pitch that will catch the light nicely.

To draw the spiral lines I use some cardstock or other heavy paper and connect the corners of the squares.

The spiral layout line.

I begin carving the bines with a 90 degree V-tool, about 12mm wide. I don't go too deep, because on one side of the bine I'm cutting with the grain, the other side is against the grain. I don't want to tear out the grain to extent that I can't get below it later.

Here I've done almost all the bine valleys. Notice that I terminate the valley in a nice point short of the beads.

If I didn't carve deep enough the first time around, I'll make another pass and deepen the valley slightly.

I switch to a #3 sweep fishtail gouge (again, about 12mm) and knock the top corners from the bines, making them as round as possible with the carving tool. Since I'm now only working one side of each bine (with the grain) I can only do half the bines before switching to the other side of the lathe and doing the opposite half with the grain. It's easier to carve clockwise spirals than counterclockwise for me since I'm right handed.

This is what the spirals look like after the #3 gouge work.

Next I take some 120 grit paper on a convex sanding block and refine the bines.

I've sanded about half of them.

After sanding all the bines to shape, I go back with 180 and 220 (this goes quickly) to further smooth the carving.

To give some crisp definition to each bine I go back with a 60 degree V tool and make a light pass in each valley.

Once the carving is complete, I split the turning. I drive a chisel right into the end grain of the glue joint.

Once it starts to give way, I'm careful so I don't crack the narrow section below the bead.


Works like a charm.

It's fun to see 3 columns multiply into 6!

Here's a pic after carving the capitals.

And here's a couple pics of the finished piece.


  1. Jameel,

    Wonderful tutorial - thanks!

    The entire piece is striking, impressive, and a work of art. I find it inspirational.

  2. Your comments as a fellow woodworker are meaningful. Thanks Al!

  3. What a FABULOUS piece! Very impressive!

    Thanks for the carving tutorial.

  4. Thanks Bob. Much appreciated.

  5. Beautiful work Jameel. The finished piece looks like a candle stand for an Orthodox church. Is it? The carved cut-outs are stunning. I really enjoy checking in on your blog.

  6. Thanks, Bruce. It is for an Orthodox church in fact. Good eye!

  7. brilliant work...Inspirational indeed so I'll start carving :) ... Thanks. By the way, where is that Orthodox church please?

  8. Wow... Am new at this and hope to do such beautiful work some day!


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