Making Bottle Stoppers

Bottle stoppers are a relatively fun and easy project that uses basic spindle turning techniques with a small piece of wood, generally somewhere in the neighborhood of 1”x1”x2”.  Much smaller and the base would be potentially too small, depending on the style of stopper hardware being employed, but using a piece that is too large simply results in wasted wood, or a finished item that overbalances the hardware.  Commercially prepared bottle stopper blanks are readily available in a wide variety of woods and acrylics, or you can use your own remnant stock from cutting bowl rounds or other projects.  Another option is to purchase long stock, something like a 1”x1”x12” and cut it into blanks on your own.  This option, especially if you want to work with a number of items of the same material, is likely to be a more cost advantageous one that buying individual blanks.

Uses for Bottle Stoppers

Bottle stoppers make great gifts for most anyone.  While bottle stoppers are generally designed to be used with wine bottles, they can be used in a wide variety of bottles of the same diameter, so for the non-wine drinkers on your gift list, this is still a good option.  Stores like Cost Plus World Market or Pier One Imports sell a variety of decorative bottles that are perfect for fine oils (olive, walnut, almond, etc) and higher end specialized vinegars like balsamic, both of which look great in decorative bottles with custom made stoppers.  If you are truly artistically creative, you could even try making decorative arrangements by stuffing various vegetables into a bottle and filling with vinegar to preserve it as vegetable art!  And if nothing else, consider that it is the thought that counts and bottle stoppers don’t take up much room in the ubiquitous kitchen “junk” drawer.

Techniques for Turning Bottle Stoppers

There are two basic techniques for completing a stopper.  You could mount a blank between centers, turn to round and shape a collet for mounting in a chuck.  You would then turn to shape, drill a hole in the bottom to accept the hardware, and using a mandrel, reverse the piece to gently turn off the collet which is now the top of the stopper.  A more straightforward method is to simply use the mandrel from the beginning.  Bottle stoppers have a threaded post that is used to attach them to the decorative turned portion and these posts can be of different sizes depending on the manufacturer.  Those pictured were manufactured by Woodcraft and utilize a 6mm mandrel.  Alternatively, I have also made stoppers using hardware from Craft Supplies USA which utilize a much larger 11/32” mandrel.  In either case, the process starts with squaring off the blanks to ensure a flat fit of the hardware.  I do this by cutting off perhaps 1/8” of each end of the blank using a bandsaw.  Most commercial blanks are fairly square to begin with but it never hurts to verify this.  Then using a drill press (or the lathe with the blanks mounted in chuck, although this would be much more time consuming for little benefit) the appropriate size hole to match the mandrel is drilled into the blank to the depth recommended by the manufacturer of the hardware to match the depth of the post.  At this point with the Woodcraft method you are ready to mount the blanks on the mandrel, but with the Craft Supply USA method, you have one more step to go.  They supply and recommend the use of a thread cutter and instruct users to mount the drilled blanks in a bench vise and then using a power drill to SLOWLY cut threads into the blanks using a thread tap.  Using a power drill for this seemed like a disaster waiting to happen since I couldn’t imagine how one could remotely ensure a square cut with the tap.  Instead, I reset my drill press to run as slowly as possible, about 60RPM, and cut the threads that way.

Theory and Reality Collide

This is supposed to allow both the mandrel and the hardware to securely thread into the blanks.  If only it actually worked that nicely!  In a VERY hard material like acrylic this process does work wonderfully well, but many if not most woods are simply too soft to hold the threads and the result is a grossly stripped out hole that is now too large for both the mandrel and the hardware.  In practice what this means is that the blanks will spin out on the mandrel when you start turning it to round, forcing you to run up a tailstock with some sort of attachment that will inevitably mar the top end of the blank which you will have to try to either part off or aggressively sand out.  In most cases, except with the acrylic, the only method that even remotely worked, and even then not to my complete satisfaction, was to part off about ¼” of the top and then try to delicately sand out the marks since you can’t aggressively sand the piece since any pressure placed on it will cause it to simply spin out on the mandrel.  This is a VERY frustrating situation.  The only solutions I can think of are to not attempt to cut threads (unless working with acrylic) and simply thread the blank on the mandrel without that step, which works well with the Woodcraft hardware and mandrel.  Most woods with the Woodcraft method do NOT spin out on the mandrel.  Alternatively, the mostly finished stopper could be GENTLY remounted into a standard chuck, utilizing rubber or cloth to cushion the finished sides of the piece from marring, which would give a stable platform for finishing the top however desired after parting off.  Yet another thing to try would be to hand chase the threads by clamping the blank and then using a Crescent-type wrench to grip the square head of the thread tap and turn it with only manual pressure.  I have not yet tried the alternatives but in the process of filling a large order of stoppers, I will try all three I should imagine until I discover the process that works best for me.  Stay tuned, or go forth and try it, report back and save me the grief!

This project saw the use of several new materials, or at least materials I have not previously written about, and that is the subject of a separate post.