Turning Small Projects:
Inlaid Letter Opener & Magnifier

Completed letter opener projects (from left): Box Elder burl, Kingwood, Tulipwood, Sicilian Olive, Cocobolo, Utah Elk Antler, Knob Thorn, Texas Redbud

Two of the more successful items in my studio’s Premier Gifts line are openers and magnifiers. These projects are turned between centres, on a mandrel similar to turning a writing pen. These types of projects can be turned with slender graceful handles, or in a more robust and provocative fashion, with precious metal inlays, gemstones and other materials.

Selecting the Stock

Letter opener and magnifier handles can be turned from various sized stock. Slim line handles are typically turned with 3/4"-1" square stock; larger and more robust styles utilize 1.25" to 1.5" thick square stock. I prefer the larger and more robust styles, which offer more options in the creative process of turning the handles. Buyers appreciate the larger handles, which are easier to grip and have a more solid feeling in the hand.

In addition, the more robust styles allow significantly more options when inlaying the handles with precious metals and gemstones. Since my “Premier Gifts” are sold as up-market items, I only utilize highly figured timbers, burrs and other special materials like antler, or horn for the handle bodies.

Box Elder burl letter
opener and magnifier set

Small crotches are good choices for local timbers to use in this application, as are areas that feature tight fiddle back, or curl. Burrs are an excellent choice as well and are very popular with buyers. Since these projects utilize smaller turning stock, off cuts from bowl blanks and other scraps can be used, if available.

Drilling the Letter Opener Blank

Sharply pointed brad point drills are not recommended for drilling blanks

Bullet point drill bits are recommended for most drilling applications into endgrain exotics. Notice the small bullet point on the tip of the bit

Parabolic high-speed drill bits. The flutes are specially designed to allow faster chip extraction. Recommended for production drilling, synthetics and antler

Proper drilling procedures should be followed to insure a well-centred, straight hole for the brass tube. Because many of the timbers we prefer to turn have wild grain, you must take care when drilling the blanks to prevent “blow-outs”, or off centre holes.

Certain drill bit designs are more prone to this, especially the sharply pointed brad point style. The newer blunt pointed, or bullet-point bits work well for drilling into potentially difficult timbers.

They track very well through wild grain and produce clean and straight holes. Parabolic style bits also work well, although I use the bullet pointed bits for most of my drilling.

Many drilling jigs can be used to secure the letter opener handle blank for drilling; however, I prefer to use the X-Y style of drill vice. This allows the blank to be moved in both the X and Y axis and saves time when the blanks are of slightly irregular size.

To drill the letter opener blank, I use a Fluid-Pulsed technique to drill the holes in a quick and efficient manner. This technique uses an occasional shot of compressed air to clean the drill flutes and cool the bit. Some exotics are quite sensitive to heat build-up and you must be careful to insure that you regularly clear the flutes of the drill bit to prevent seizing, or heat related checking inside of the drilled hole.

The fluid-pulsed technique uses an up and down pulsed action to drill the hole and clear the flutes. This fluid-pulsed technique is a modification of my high-speed drilling protocol and is more suitable for non-production drilling requirements.

Steve Russell's Fluid-Pulsed Drilling
Technique for Letter Opener Blanks

The letter opener blank must be securely fastened for drilling. With the blank centre clearly marked, turn on the drill press and advance the bit until it enters the top of the timber. As you advance the tool slightly, withdraw the bit and re-advance the drill bit in a fluid-pulsed, or (in-out) movement.

The first few millimetres of the drilling is critical to insure a straight and clean hole. Once the bit has penetrated the letter opener blank one-centimetre, you may begin to increase your pulsed drilling motion, utilizing a faster and deeper plunge stroke.

Depending on the species, you may have to stop and use a short blast of air to cool the bit and clean the sticky debris from the flutes. Some of the Rosewood species (i.e. Madagascar Rosewood) are particularly bad about gumming up the flutes during drilling.

As you continue your fluid-pulsed drilling, you need to slow down and reduce your penetration speed when you near the bottom of the letter opener blank. This prevents torn grain on the bottom of the letter opener blank, when the bit exits the timber.

Magnifiers (from left): Cocobolo, Knob Thorn, Nigerian Ebony

Upon completion of the drilling, remove the letter opener blank from the vice and give a short blast of cool air down the drilled hole, to cool the inner walls of the hole. Another quick blast to the tip of the drill bit and you are ready to drill another blank. I typically process these blanks in batches if 25-50, which saves valuable set-up time and increases the overall efficiency and throughput of the process.

Gluing the Tubes in Your Letter Opener Blank

Once the drilling has been completed, the next step is to glue the brass tubes into the drilled holes. Take some 320-grit sandpaper and scuff up the outside of the brass tube. This removes residual tarnish on the tube and creates small scratches for the adhesive to bond to. If you are only doing a few pieces, you can scuff the tube by hand. If you are doing several, you can mount the tubes on the mandrel, side by side, and scuff the tubes with the lathe set to a low speed, to speed up the process.

If the letter opener handle blank is an oily exotic timber, you may wish to swab the hole with Acetone, or another similar solvent, to remove any residual oils that may interfere with the adhesive bond. When the solvent has dried, you can glue the tube in place. To glue the tubes in place, several types of adhesives may be used. If you like 2-Cyanoacrylate type adhesives, use the thicker products for best results. I apply three thin lines of a thick-bodied CA glue equidistant around the exterior of the tube.

Gently insert the tube into the drilled hole in a spinning and pumping motion. This will evenly distribute the CA on the inner walls of the drilled hole and help to insure a uniform application of the adhesive. Some exotic timbers contain natural extractives that act as accelerators for CA glues. This can sometimes cause the CA glue to bond prematurely, before you have fully inserted the tube into the drilled hole. Using the thicker CA’s helps to counteract this problem, as does the pre-emptive solvent wash of the hole.

Another good choice for gluing in the tubes is Poly Glue. These glues will work on oily exotics and give a generous setting time in which to insert and spin the tubes. These types of glues are moisture cured and take a few hours to bond before you can turn the letter opener blank. Poly glues will foam out of the hole and completely fill the mating areas between the tube and the blank.

This produces an excellent bond, although it takes much longer to cure than a thick CA type of glue. In my production studio, I typically glue the tubes one day and turn them the next. If I need to turn one faster than the Poly glue can set-up, I use the thick, faster setting CA’s, or a fast setting epoxy.

Squaring the Wood to the Tubes

Once the adhesive has cured, you must square the ends of the blanks to the tubes. This can be done by sanding the end flush and straight on a sanding station, or by using a special tool called a barrel trimmer. Barrel trimmers are the preferred tools to use, because in addition to squaring the end of the blank and the tube, the inner cutter also cleans the interior of the tube of any excess glue.

Barrel trimmers should be used only with the letter opener blank secured in a vice, or other secure fitting. Do not try to hold the blank in your hand!

A drill press with an X-Y vice can be used or, you can use a hand drill and a small wood vice to hold the blank securely.

A modular pen barrel trimmer with interchangeable drill bits is used to square the ends of the letter opener blank

With the letter opener blank secured, insert the proper size barrel trimmer into the tube and activate the drill. If you cut your blanks accurately, there will only be a millimetre or two of excess timber on each end of the tube. The barrel trimmer will quickly remove this waste and square the end of the brass tube.

As soon as you see the bright brass of the tube revealed, stop and repeat the process on the opposite end of the letter opener blank. You should have a uniformly flat area around the tube and the brass end should be uniformly bright. If there is a small area that is not bright, use the barrel trimmer again to flatten and true the end of the blank until the end of the brass tube is uniformly bright.

Mounting the Drilled and Squared
Letter Opener Blank on the Mandrel

Before mounting the blank on the mandrel, insure that your lathe’s Morse taper is clean and free of debris. A special Morse taper cleaner like Taper Mate can be used to quickly clean the interior of the taper.

Once the Morse taper is clean, take the mandrel and insert it into the taper securely. If you can lock your spindle, do so and try to turn the exposed mandrel taper end to check if it is seated correctly. The opposite end of the mandrel contains a dimple to accommodate the point of a revolving centre from the tailstock.

Pen Tools mandrel with letter opener/magnifier bushings installed (left) and spacer bushings (right)

Taper Mate Morse taper cleaner (from top): Morse #3 cleaner, Morse #2 cleaner. The Taper Mate is inserted into the spindle and turned to clean the taper of debris

Insure that the dimpled end of the mandrel is also clean and free of any debris. In addition, the point of your revolving centre needs to be clean and in good condition. If your point is damaged, consider replacing it, or dedicating a special point or revolving centre for your mandrel work.

Use a short blast of compressed air to clear the interior of the blank tube and the mandrel shaft, before mounting the blank on the mandrel. Any bits of debris left in the tube, or on the mandrel can affect the performance and accuracy of the mandrel.

There will be two bushings for your letter opener or magnifier handle. Install the first bushing on the mandrel, then the blank, followed by the second bushing. Depending on the length and style of the mandrel, you may have to use spacers to allow the end nut to tighten the blank and bushings.

You can use other bushings that you may have, or take some spare brass tubes and turn a few short pieces of scrap timber of different lengths to use for your various projects.

Nigerian Ebony letter opener blank mounted on the Pen Tools mandrel. The bushings are installed on the left and right sides of the blank

Rounding Over the Letter Opener Blank
and Readjustment of Tension

I do not cut the corners on my blanks before rounding them over. In a production environment, this is not cost effective. Therefore, I must pay particular attention to how I round the blanks over. The mandrel can become bent, or inaccurate from an overly aggressive rounding over technique. This is especially true with the longer double mandrel styles.

When you mount the letter opener blank, the tightness of the nut on the end of the mandrel and the amount of tailstock pressure you apply is CRITICAL! Newer mandrels have a brass nut that you can tighten by hand. This is far superior to the old style mandrels that required a wrench to tighten. Use just enough pressure on the knurled brass nut so the blank does not spin freely on the shaft.

When you bring up the tailstock, advance it near the end of the mandrel and tighten the tailstock. Do not “bang” the tailstock into the end of the mandrel when you are moving it up; this can cause the shaft to bend, rendering the mandrel useless for precision work. Advance the tailstock’s revolving centre into close contact with the mandrel dimple using the hand wheel of the tailstock.

You must be very careful here; the tailstocks can easily bend/bow the mandrel if you apply too much force. Bring the cone centre into the mating dimple/cone on the mandrel shaft until it just touches the mandrel. Then, turn on the lathe and advance it the last few millimetres, which will cause the revolving centre to begin turning.

Round the letter opener blank over towards the headstock and tailstock, working towards the center

This requires the right “touch”, which you will have to learn. It is very easy to apply too much force and cause the mandrel to bow. This will cause you to turn an ellipse and your project parts will not fit correctly. As you round the letter opener blank over, you may tend to push the tool into the blank causing the mandrel to bow or flex. You must be spot on with your technique here.

I prefer to turn these types of projects at 3,000 - 3,950 RPM from start to finish, including sanding and finishing. This creates a more elegant, but smaller cut that rounds the blank over quickly. Never apply the tool straight into the mandrel when rounding it over, always cut at an angle towards the headstock, or tailstock end. To round the letter opener blank over, I use a 3/8" Spindle Gouge ground with a slender fingernail grind, or a 1" Skew Chisel.

This is very important. After you have rounded the blank over, stop the lathe and RE-ADJUST the tension on the retaining nut. The rounding over process makes it tighten up considerably. Too much tension on this nut can cause the mandrel to bow.

After you have rounded the blank over, very little pressure is needed to keep the blank from spinning on the mandrel shaft. This helps extend the life of the mandrel and insures you produce the most accurate projects possible.

The letter opener blank is rounded over. Turning the tennon for the decorative band with a 1/16" Super
Thin parting tool

Turning the Letter Opener Handle Body

The tennon is complete and the decorative band is positioned on top to test the length of the tennon

Once the letter opener blank is rounded over, stop the lathe and examine the blank for defects. Decide which end will receive the decorative band and restart the lathe. Using a small parting tool, turn and form the tennon for the decorative band.

The bushing for this band will contain a free moving bushing, which can be used to size the tennon shaft correctly. However, most of the decorative bushings are longer than the free moving bushing, so you have to manually check for proper fitting of the decorative band.

Once you have completed sizing the tennon for the decorative band, turn your attention to the opposite side of the letter opener blank and begin to turn the area that will mate with the end cap. I like to use a small bead here, which is turned with a Henry Taylor 1/8" or 3/16" Micro Spindle Gouge and refined with a 1/4" Skew Chisel.

The end cap bead on the letter opener blank is rough turned and the body shape is roughed

Once these areas are sized, you are ready to turn the main body portion of the handle. Since the user will hold this, you should turn ergonomic designs that are easy to hold and fit the hand comfortably. I prefer to turn handles that taper somewhat from the larger cap end to the smaller decorative band where the letter opener blade, or magnifying glass will be installed.

The letter opener handle is further refined and the inlay beads have been started

To turn the main body portion, I use Henry Taylor Micro Turning Tools, including the ¼", 1/8" and 3/16" Spindle Gouges. Bead details are refined with a ¼" Skew Chisel, with the long point leading the cut.

Refrain from incorporating details with sharp or acute angles, these will not be comfortable to grip when prospective purchasers examine the piece and your sales may suffer. In addition, sharp or thin edges will not stand up to bumping about in desk drawers and may chip out.

Sanding and Surface Perfection of
the Letter Opener Handle Body

If your chisel work is good, you can start sanding at 400 or 600 grit metric. If your surfaces are not that good, start with a lower grit and work your way up through the grits, to at least 600 grit metric. Up-market designs in my studio are sanded to a minimum of 1500-grit metric.

The surface is good enough to start sanding at 400 grit metric. Thin strips of sandpaper are used to efficiently sand the fine details

Do not skip any grits and if possible, reverse sand with each grit change. In addition, if your studio has an air compressor, give a short blast to the letter opener blank between each grit change. This will remove residual sanding grit and dust that may have accumulated on the surface, or in the pores of the wood.

If you are not comfortable sanding at 3000-3,950 RPM drop down to a slower speed, but observe the same procedures with respect to using the grits in sequence, reversing if possible, and cleaning the surface between grit changes with air for best results.

Some exotics are sensitive to sanding at high speeds and may develop heat checks. As a production turner, I must be cognizant of the time spent with each piece I turn. Therefore, I have developed high-speed drilling and sanding protocols that allow me to drill, sand and finish at high speeds without any heat related damage (checks, etc.) to the timber.

These high speed drilling and sanding protocols feature a constant flow of air that is directed towards the piece, via an articulated pneumatic coolant arm. This constant airflow eliminates heat build-up and allows much higher speeds to be used, increasing overall throughput and efficiency.

The letter opener handle has been sanded and burnished with #0000 wire wool

Finishing the Letter Opener Handle Body

Once the timber is sanded to the highest grit, clean the surface once more with a short blast of compressed air, or a tack rag. Restart your lathe and apply #0000 wire wool to lightly burnish the surface.

U-Beaut EEE Ultra Shine and Arbortech Burnishing Wax are used to perfect the surface prior to applying the finish

These are applied at high speed with a small, clean swatch of kitchen paper and buffed with a fresh, clean piece of kitchen paper. I must stress the importance of only using CLEAN kitchen papers, or safety cloth. Using kitchen papers that have been lying about in the shop will introduce dust and possibly grit, that could damage the surface you have worked to perfect.

The surface after application of the Arbortech Burnishing Wax. No finish has been applied as yet

After the surface has been burnished with the wire wool, further refine the surface with a cutting wax like Arbortech Burnishing Wax, or U-Beaut EEE Ultra Shine. These special waxes incorporate cutting compounds in a light wax base and are used to refine and perfect the bare surface of the timber, before finishing. They can also be used to smooth and perfect cured finishes.

The surface after application of U-Beaut EEE Ultra Shine

At this point, the surface of the timber will be gleaming, but there is still no finish on the piece. The next step is to seal the surface with either Lacquer sanding sealer, or a thin French polish. This is buffed to friction dry and cut back with a clean piece of kitchen paper, or wire wool. The surface is now ready to receive the primary finish.

Many different types of finishes can be used at this point, but remember that the piece will undoubtedly be stored loose in a desk drawer and may see daily use from the buyer. Therefore, limit your finish options to those that will stand up well to daily use and still look good.

I use several different types of finishes, depending on whether the item is standard grade, or up-market. Finishes such as French Polish, Mylands High Build Friction Polish, Lacquer, Shellawax, Shellac and Epoxy stand up well to the daily usage these items are sure to receive.

The completed letter opener handle after application of Mylands High Build friction polish

All of these finishes will give a rich, high gloss lustre to the piece. If you (or the buyer) do not care for a high lustre, you can still use these finishes, with an additional cut back of the final glossy surface with #000 wire wool, or burnishing wax. Additional options for satin lustre surfaces include pure Tung oil, Polymerised Tung oil (may need to be cut back) and various oil finishes.

Installing the Inlay on the Letter Opener Handle

If your handle will incorporate inlaid precious metals, semi-precious stones, or gemstones, you must finish the handle before you install the inlays. If you are using precious metal bands, these should be dry fitted, whilst the body is being turned. Once finished, the band needs only to be cut and fitted into the recess with the adhesive.

A 3mm (1/8") 14kt gold band is dry fitted between the inlay beads

For precious metal strips, do not apply a finish to the mating surface that will receive the adhesive. This should remain bare for best results. The mating surface of the band and the mating surface on the timber should be wiped with Acetone, or similar solvents to remove any debris or oils that may interfere with adhesion. If you will be installing the Swarogem Presets, totally finish the exterior of the body and drill the necessary holes for the pre-sets with the special carbide drill.

Comprehensive instructions for installing the pre-sets were covered in the February 2001 issue of “Woodturning” magazine, in the article titled “Show Stoppers” which covered inlaying wine bottle stoppers with cabochon’s and pre-sets. These pre-sets can also be installed directly into the precious metal strips in flush, or surface proud configurations.

The body of the letter opener handle is tested for proper fitting of the decorative band and the 3mm (1/8") Turquoise inlay cabochon

Small polished round cabochons can also be installed in narrow bands between beads. These tiny cabochons are available in sizes as small as 2 mm. They can be used in a side-by-side configuration and should applied to the surface with a flexible adhesive.

If you are installing the tiny cabochons between two rows of beads, use a 1/16" parting tool to turn away the finish in the centre strip (1/16" wide) of the inlay area. This will not be seen when the cabochons are installed and will offer better adhesion between the timber and the cabochon.

Do not use brittle bonding CA adhesives, or the bond may prematurely fail causing warranty claims. Use the newer flexible CA’s, or another flexible-when-cured adhesive. When installing the tiny cabochons, you may need to lightly file the sides of the last few cabochons, to allow a tight fit all around the band.

Installation of the Letter Opener and Magnifier Components

Once the piece is finished and any inlays are installed, you are ready to install the components. An arbour press is useful to install the press fit components, but if you do not have one, you can use any one of several other methods to assemble the project. “Quick Grip®” style clamps will work, but you must be careful to insure that the parts stay inline during insertion of the components.

The project components for the Craft Supplies USA 22kt gold plated letter opener

The first component to install is the decorative band; this slides over the tennon and is secured with a tiny bit of thick CA glue. Be careful when applying the CA glue to the tennon, any excess will squeeze out and may ruin the finished surface of the handle. The next item to install is the end cap assembly. For the Letter Opener, the cap screws into a small press fitting. Install the press fitting, apply a small drop of thick CA to the threads, and screw the cap into place. Reapply the vice (with padded jaws) to insure that the cap fits tightly against the end of the handle.

The project components for the Craft Supplies USA 10kt gold plated magnifying glass

For the Magnifier, there is only a small press fitting to insert into the end of the tube. When you install the components into the finished handle tube, there should be resistance upon insertion. However, if there are burrs on the inner tube, you may have to use a small countersink to gently remove these.

In most cases, this will not be necessary, but if your barrel trimmer is not sharp, it may leave small burrs on the inner tube wall. Barrel trimmers need to be periodically sharpened with a diamond hone to maintain the edge.

When you install the component pieces, you must insure that the insertion is straight and true to the tube. If not, the component may be installed at an angle, which will not seat correctly and may cause the handle to split on thin, slender styles. If the component screws into a friction fitting, I apply a tiny dab of thick CA glue to the threads to prevent loosening during use. If the pieces simply press into place (i.e. friction fit), the CA glue is not necessary.

When you install the letter opener blade, or the magnifier glass, align the best side of the grain with one side of the blade/glass. This will make the finished product much more attractive than causally inserting it into the blank. This allows the best side of the grain to show when the piece is laid on the desk.

The completed Turquoise inlaid 22kt gold plated Nigerian Ebony letter opener

Caring for Your Mandrels

No matter what style of mandrel you prefer, single, double, or adjustable, you need to take great care in using and storing the mandrel to maintain its accuracy. In addition to the care required when rounding over blanks and turning on the mandrel, you need to carefully store your mandrel when it is not being used.

The completed letter opener with a Nigerian Ebony magnifier

When you are finished with the project, be careful how you remove the blanks from the shaft. If a bit of finish has made its way into the bushing/blank/tube union, it may stick a bit upon removal. Take care to remove the blank inline with the mandrel and support the free end of the mandrel if necessary, until the blank is removed.

Mandrels last about three years in my studio before I pitch them into the rubbish bin. If you are a hobby turner, you may well get many more years out of your mandrel. However, you must exercise caution when using and storing the mandrel to maintain its precision. If you take a bit of time to carefully store your mandrel, you will be rewarded with accurate projects for quite some time.

Safety Concerns

While these are small projects secured to a mandrel, there is still the chance of injury when turning any item on the lathe. You need to wear safety glasses at a minimum, although a full-face shield provides more complete protection.

The shavings and dust created from turning create the need for proper protection for your lungs. A high quality dust mask, or respirator should be worn while turning and sanding these items on the lathe.

Magnifiers (from left): Knob Thorn, Nigerian Ebony, Cocobolo, Box Elder burl, Purpleheart

Magnifiers (from top): Cocobolo, Box Elder burl, Purpleheart

If your finishes will contain toxic or harmful ingredients, wear the appropriate chemical resistant glove and consider an organic vapour cartridge for your respirator when applying or working with toxic, or harmful products. Gloves can be worn to apply the finishes with the lathe off and then removed for further work.

As turners, we all need to be concerned with safety and protecting ourselves properly. In my younger days in the Fire Department, we had a saying: “Don’t buy cheap injuries.” In other words, do not let an easily avoidable accident happen to you! Take a moment to insure that you’re wearing appropriate safety devices before working on your lathe.

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.