How To Choose the Right Type

Overview: Faceplates are one of woodturnings tried and true fixings. They offer a superior hold in many cases over other mounting methods and are the only viable option for some large and heavy blanks. Through the years, I’ve used various styles made from cast iron, steel and aluminum for various projects.

Although I use scroll chucks for most of my fixings (old production habits are hard to break), I have begun using face mountings more and more for certain projects. Like so many tools and accessories, some fall short of being well thought out, others are spot on with their design right out of the box.

Please note: In some instances, we will use "fp" for "faceplate".

Design Challenges

This 4" steel fp lacks chamfers
around any of the drilled holes

Lack of Chamfered Holes - After more than thirteen years of turning professionally, I still see lots of faceplates manufactured without chamfers around the screw holes on the bottom side (blank mounting side). Why is this important? When you install your mounting screws into a wood blank, the fibers around the hole tend to lift up slightly as the screw is inserted.

Without a tiny chamfer around the hole on the fp, there is no space for these wood fibers to lift up. The raised fibers around each screw can actually prevent the fp from sitting flush with the surface of the blank in some cases, compromising your mounting.

The black triangles on this Maple bowl
blank point to evidence of raised
fibers around screw holes

This is more of a problem with green wood than dry wood, but it can also happen when using a faceplate without chamfers on seasoned wood blanks. This problem can be easily corrected with a small chamfering tool. Chamfers can be purchased at any home centre or hardware store and can be mounted in your drill press, or used with a hand drill if you’re careful.

This combination chuck can be used
as a mini fp or a screw chuck

Flexing - Others I’ve seen are made from metal that is too thin in cross section to prevent flexing, or lack stiffening ribs to strengthen the fp. If you’re using a faceplate like this with small projects, you might not experience any problems at all. However, if you are using a one that is prone to flexing when larger blanks are mounted, you’ve got a long road to hoe. If the fp flexes during turning, it can cause vibration in the blank that can make it difficult, if not impossible to create a smooth surface on your project.

Major parts of the combination chuck, disassembled,
showing fp and screw chuck components

While there are ways to stiffen these kinds of faceplates so they will not flex, it requires metalworking tools and welding skills to re-engineer them to eliminate any flexing. If you have one like this, it’s probably easier to limit the use of the fp to small jobs like jam chucks and purchase a heavy duty fp for turning larger projects. If you do decide to re-engineer one of your faceplates remember that you will need to have the fp balanced and trued at a professional machine shop after you complete your rebuild, to insure that it is balanced and running true without vibration.

Lack of Holes/Flats for Removal - I’ve also seen faceplates that lack any type of flats or registration holes on the spindle collar or rim. This can make removal from the spindle difficult when you’re ready to dismount your project, especially if you get a catch when turning. There is nothing worse than having your fp stuck on the spindle with no easy way to remove it. Some turners place high density plastic interface washers on the spindle to help prevent faceplates and chucks from getting too tight on the spindle, but just as many turners say this can lead to vibration when turning and use nothing at all.

This 4" steel fp has no flats on the spindle collar
or holes in the rim to remove the fp.

I fall into the latter camp and do not use spindle interface washers at all. Years ago I found out (by experimentation) that adding a drop of air compressor oil to the spindle threads before mounting faceplates and chucks totally eliminated any removal problems. I have been using this trick for at least ten years now and it really works.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of using spindle collar interface washers, you still want to be able to easily remove your fp when necessary. That means it needs holes in the rim, so you can use a Tommy bar to assist with removal, or machined flats on the spindle collar that will allow the use of a large box, or adjustable wrench to assist with removal. If you’re in the market for a new fp, make sure it has a way to easily remove it from the spindle.

No Locking Screws - Many of the lathes being manufactured today have the ability to reverse turn the spindle. This is a great feature to have on a lathe unless your fp (or scroll chuck for that matter) lacks locking screws on the mounting collar. These grub screws are used to lock the fp/scroll chuck onto the spindle, so it cannot accidentally unscrew itself from the spindle when turning in reverse. If your lathe has the ability to reverse turn, make sure all of the chucks and faceplates you plan to use with the lathe turning in reverse can be locked onto the spindle to prevent accidents.

Note: Most lathes that are capable of reverse turning feature a special non-threaded flat area on the spindle where the grub screws register against when seated. This area is hardened on some lathes to prevent damage to the spindle. If you are unsure if your lathe is setup to use grub locking screws, contact the manufacturer. This will insure that your lathe spindle will not be damaged in any way by seating grub screws against the spindle. If your lathe does not have the ability to reverse turn, a locking grub screw will not be of much benefit to you, unless you later decide to sell your faceplates and/or scroll chucks to someone who needs this feature. Faceplates and scroll chucks that feature locking grub screws are obviously more desirable on the used market, since they can be used by any woodturner, regardless of whether their lathe can be used in reverse or not.

Minor Modifications

This 3/8" HSS chamfer cutter makes quick work
of cutting chamfers around screw holes

I have added small chamfers to several of my faceplates using a chamfer tool mounted in my drill press. This removes a tiny amount of metal from around each drilled hole. Since I can set the depth of each chamfer to the same depth for each hole, the amount of metal removed (provided your mounting in the drill press vice is accurate) should be the same for each hole. Therefore, I have not felt it necessary to have the fp rebalanced after chamfering.

A 4" aluminum fp after cutting chamfers

However, if you plan to do anything substantial, you may need to take them to a professional machine shop once you’re through and have them rebalanced if necessary. This will insure that they run true, without any vibration. Balancing may also be required if you drill more holes into an existing fp. You will probably need to have it rebalanced to eliminate any vibration.

You can clearly see the holes in the rim that
were drilled to balance this 6" cast iron fp

All of the larger faceplates I use (6" or larger) were balanced by the manufacturer. You can easily tell this by turning it over (spindle collar facing you) and looking for random drilled holes around the rim area. There will usually be a few, grouped together in one or more areas around the rim. This is where metal was removed to balance the fp during manufacturing. None of the small ones (4" or less) I use show signs of balancing, however the aluminum ones are all CNC machined, the rest are cast iron or steel.

Having a properly trued and balanced fp is especially important if you plan to make large faceplates from scratch. Unless you have the necessary skills and equipment to properly true and balance your home-made faceplates, you should have this done for you at a local professional machine shop. If the cost is too much, consider buying a good quality fp that’s good to go straight out of the box. One way or the other, it will cost you a wee bit of change to get a good quality fp. When you consider that you will be able to use your faceplates for many years to come, any cost is negligible in the long run.

What to Look for in a New Faceplate

If you are in the market for a new fp, here are a few things to look for:

Heavy Duty Construction - Cast Iron and thick steel are a good choice for large and heavy projects. Aluminum is great for small and intermediate loading like jam chucks, small bowls and platters. Faceplates with reinforcing ribs are necessary if you plan to turn big and heavy blanks.

This fp features a 3/8" thick plate with
a 1" wide rim for added strength

Plenty of Holes - Some faceplates have very few holes drilled in the plate. Look for models that offer a good amount of holes for the size of the plate. Remember the screws you install into the blank through the fp are the only thing that holds your project onto the fp. More holes = more holding power.

Chamfered Holes on the Blank Facing Side - Few faceplates seem to come this way from the manufacturer, although many feature chamfered holes on the spindle collar side to facilitate the use of tapered head wood screws. If your fp does not have chamfered holes, you can ask the manufacturer to add them (some custom shops will do this for a nominal fee) or use a chamfer mounted in a drill press, or a hand drill to add chamfers to each hole. If you will be using wood screws with tapered heads, you may also wish to chamfer the top hole if it is not chamfered already.

Chamfered holes in the top of this 6" fp can
be used with tapered screws or panhead screws

Machined Flats or Holes on the Spindle Collar - You’ll need some way to easily remove the fp from the spindle when you’re ready to dismount your fp. Look for holes drilled in the outer rim that can be used with Tommy bars, or machined flat areas that can be used with wrenches to facilitate easy removal. If you see a faceplate for sale that is made with no provision for removal, run don’t walk to another vendor.

This 4" fp features machined flats on
the spindle collar for easy removal

Locking Grub Screws on the Collar - Even if your lathe does not reverse, I would opt for a faceplate with a locking grub screw if possible. If and when you decide to sell your equipment, your faceplates will be worth more than standard models on the used tool market.

This 6" steel fp features a locking
grub screw on the spindle collar

Aluminum Models

A few of my faceplates
manufactured by Don Pencil

I have been using Don Pencil’s "True Turn" aluminum faceplates for the last few years in my studio for turning various projects like bowls, jam chucks and platters. They are CNC machined and are made from solid 6061 extruded aluminum, which makes them strong, lightweight and durable. They are available in numerous spindle sizes and diameters, including 2", 2.5", 3", 3.5" and 4" -- all colour coded for easy identification.

These center finders are inserted into
the spindle collar of the fp to
accurately mark the center

In addition, Don offers some great optional accessories like a center finder (manufactured from 6061 aluminum and 1018 steel) that fits inside of the threaded portion of the fp. To find the centre, you simply insert the centre finder into the back of the fp and insert a centre marker into the hole. This makes finding the exact centre a snap when you need to remount the blank later to finish turn the project, or any other time when you need to know the exact centre of the project.

A 4" fp showing a center finder
inserted into the spindle collar

The fit and finish of these models are very good and they’ve performed well in my studio for small and intermediate sized projects.

Cast Iron Models

When I need to turn BIG and HEAVY, I use one of Oneway’s cast iron reinforced faceplates, or one of Kel McNaughton’s heavy duty steel faceplates. Oneway’s 6" and 10" faceplates are manufactured from cast iron, with a 1" wide x 1/4" thick outer rim. The outer rim is connected to the hub with four reinforcing ribs that are tapered all the way to the hub. This insures maximum stiffness with minimum overall weight and effectively mitigates flexing during use.

Rear view of Oneway's 10" cast
iron fp, showing reinforcing ribs

Eighteen holes are drilled on the 6" fp and 30 holes on the 10" fp insuring a secure mounting of your wooden blanks. They also feature holes drilled in the side of the rim that you can use with a "Tommy" bar, or knockout rod, to make it easy to remove the fp when you’re ready to dismount your project. Locking grub screws are also standard.

Steel Models

Rear view of Kelton' 10" steel fp

Kel McNaughton also makes a very nice heavy duty fp that I have used for more than ten years. It is made from steel and features 20 holes drilled in the 10” diameter fp. Kel’s faceplate is made to fit into the Kelton Eccentric Chuck, which allows even more uses beyond what a standard fp can offer. It can also be adapted for use as a standard fp, when mounted in the centre of the eccentric chuck. Note: This chuck/fp cannot be operated in reverse.

Mounting Screws

I’m sure everyone knows this, but I will mention it anyway for any new woodturners… Never use sheetrock screws in a faceplate! They are far too brittle for this type of loading and can easily break off when turning, possible causing the blank to detach from the fp and cause an injury to you, or damage to your property. They also strip out very easily. It’s not worth the trouble or the risk.

Square-head screws (left) and #3 Phillips head
screws (right) will not strip out when used with a fp

I always use hardened steel wood screws or lag screws for any mountings on a faceplate. Some of these screws feature a square drive head and others feature a #3 Phillips head screw drive. I do not use #2 Phillips head screws at all, since they are so easily stripped. I have yet to have one of my #3 Phillips head screws, or any of my square head screws strip out in more than 12 years.

When I need to use larger wood lag screws, I use a pneumatic impact wrench with the appropriately sized socket, which allows me to install and remove them faster than you can say "Bob’s your uncle, Fannie's your aunt." Also, be sure to install a screw into every available mounting hole in your fp – safety first! Remember, the screws you install are the only thing keeping your blank attached to the fp, so use a screw in every hole, every time. In addition, always install the largest screw that will fit into the drilled hole.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.