Inlaid Wine Bottle Stoppers:
A Marriage of Stone and Wood

Various inlaid wine bottle stoppers and mixed stones

As a full time production woodturner, I specialize in bowls, platters and hollow forms. A select group of artistic turnings and elegant gifts, supplement my production work. Smaller turnings like bottle stoppers make good use of exotic wood turning blanks and cut-off scraps.

Wine bottle toppers can be produced relatively quickly and allow unlimited artistic design explorations. They can express a sophisticated casual elegance, or a rich and formal opulence. Bottle toppers are however, a very common item at most craft fairs.

For more information on turning bottle stoppers, check out our latest DVD video, "Turning Elegant Bottle Stoppers." Click the photo on the left for full details

Because of this, the market in many areas is saturated. Traditional wine bottle stoppers in the Houston, Texas U.S.A. area, usually sell between $8.00 and $15.00 each. Typically, these are made entirely of local or exotic timbers with a natural cork stopper.

Although these wine bottle stoppers were nice, I wanted to express a more formal and opulent style with my Premier Gifts line. The marriage of semi-precious stones, gemstones and exotic timbers was just what I was looking for. Several months of research on various precious and semi-precious gemstones, agates and precious metals provided a broad knowledge base, from which I began my inlay journey.

I vividly recall my first few craft fairs several years ago, when I unveiled these inlaid wine bottle stoppers. Several turners who happened by my booth scratched their heads and mused, “Why bother, it's only a stopper!” Others questioned whether I had been standing in the sun too long and predicted that they would be difficult to sell at such a high price.

Nigerian Ebony with 18mm Amethyst inlay

Today, inlaid wine bottle stoppers are one of my studios best sellers in the Premier Gifts line. Currently, I inlay over seventy-five different types of stones, agates and gemstones in my wine bottle stoppers. Three different styles of stopper fixings are offered - Flor cork on a Maple dowel, silicone stopper on a Maple dowel and a chrome plated metal cone with “O” rings.

Knob Thorn with 25mm Fancy Jasper inlay

Turning an inlaid wine bottle stopper can take significantly more time than standard bottle stoppers. Precise measurements and drilling are required to insure a good inlay fit and to allow for subsequent wood movement. In addition, extra time is required to match each individual stone’s colour and grain characteristics to the best stopper blank.

Inlaid wine bottle stoppers do, however, open many new roads of artistic design. Using new materials and techniques expands your overall growth as an artist, encouraging a more balanced artistic perspective.

Wine Bottle Stoppers: Preparing the Blanks

Select and cut blanks that are 38mm x 38mm (1.5" x 1.5") for 25mm diameter inlays. (For 20mm inlays, 32mm (1.25") stock is used.) As the bulk of my stoppers are marketed as up-market designs, I prefer fine, highly figured exotic timbers and burrs for the stopper bodies. The figure needs to be very tight, so it will show up well in the finished piece.

Drill each blank using a 10mm (3/8") bit to a depth of 32mm. Place several drops of glue (I use yellow label thick set CA, or a Polyurethane glue) into the drilled hole. (If the timber is an oily exotic, swab the hole with Acetone and allow it to dry before the gluing the dowel in place.)

Insert a fluted Maple dowel into the drilled hole and insure that it seats firmly. This leaves approximately 38mm of the dowel exposed for mounting in the chuck. Yellow glue or Poly glue can be used to secure the dowel, but they require a much longer drying time.

A production dowel chuck is used to turn the wine bottle stopper body. This chuck is specifically designed for holding 10mm dowels. The centre section of the jaws has been drilled out to accept a 10mm round dowel. Therefore, it grips 100% of the surface of the dowel, when compressed.

Standard drill chucks only contact the dowel in a very narrow strip in three places and significantly increase the chance of dowel breakage during turning. A pin chuck, or screw chuck can also be used to turn the stopper body utilizing the drilled hole.

38mm Cocobolo wine bottle stopper blank mounted in the 10mm (1 1/2") production dowel chuck, with tailstock brought up for additional security against dowel breakage

Turning the Wine Bottle Stopper Body

Insert the fluted Maple dowel into the dowel chuck and gently tighten all three jaws. Bring up the tailstock with a revolving cup centre attached. The use of a tailstock prevents breakage of the dowel during the initial rounding over phase. I prefer a lathe speed of 3,000 – 3,975 revs for all phases of the turning, including sanding and finishing.

Wine bottle stopper has been rounded over, with lower portion correctly sized for the natural cork

The faster speed allows a more elegant cut and reduces the overall time required to complete each piece. Miniature Henry Taylor turning tools are used to form the wine bottle stopper body profile.

These include 6mm, 3mm and 2mm spindle gouges and a 6mm skew chisel. Using the 6mm spindle gouge, round over the stopper blank to form a smooth cylinder. Square up the bottom section of the stopper body using a 1.5mm super-thin parting tool.

Stop the lathe and examine the stopper blank for defects and grain patterns. If the piece has checks or large defects that cannot be turned away, discard it. Next, you need to determine the size and type of inlay you want to use. Polished stone/agate cabochons come in many different sizes from 2mm to 38mm.

Choose stones and agates with colours and grain patterns that complement the highly figured timber in the blank. After you have chosen the size and colour of the inlay, set it aside for later reference.

Using a caliper and a 1.5mm (1/8") parting tool to size the lower portion of the wine bottle stopper for (16) 2.5mm Pre-Sets. This area will contain the Pre-Sets inside a double beaded row

1.5mm relief cut made to define lower double-beaded inlay area

Next, turn and size the bottom section of the wine bottle stopper using a 1.5mm parting tool and a caliper. Decorative details such as double, or triple beads are added using the 3mm and 2mm spindle gouges, or the 6mm skew chisel. A slight overlap on the bottom of the stopper body helps to hide minor irregularities in the roundness of the natural flor cork.

The mid-section of the wine bottle stopper is turned next with the 6mm spindle gouge. Use the 1.5mm micro parting tool to make a shallow relief cut above the completed lower section, into the body of the stopper. The middle section needs to flow gracefully from the bottom of the stopper into the upper inlay area.

Mid transition section of the wine bottle stopper is completed and lower bead sections have been roughed

Top section of wine bottle stopper is defined with the 1.5mm (1/8") micro parting tool

Choose body designs that are easy to grip and have no sharp edges. Beads and other details are added with the 6mm skew chisel and the 3mm, or 2mm spindle gouge.

The inlay recess area at the top of the wine bottle stopper is turned next. Remove the tailstock to gain access to the top of the stopper. Graduated beads on the stopper top are excellent designs for holding the round inlays.

Measure the inlay and cut a flat-bottomed recess slightly smaller than the diameter of the inlay. The 6mm skew chisel is turned on side and used as a tiny scraper to cut the recess. Once this recess is completed, use the pointed tip of the skew chisel to make a dovetail rebate of 2 degrees on the inside wall of the recess.

This 2 degree rebate allows expansion room for the inevitable movement of the dissimilar materials. Place the cabochon over the inlay area and insure that it will fit the recess correctly.

The very bottom of the stopper is the last area to be turned. Use the 6mm spindle gouge to turn a slight concave, so the top of the cork will fit tightly against the body of the stopper.

Top and lower beads are completed and defined with 6mm (1/4") skew chisel

Sanding Protocol for Wine Bottle Stoppers

For sanding, I use cut strips of Finkat-Eagle, a paper backed Japanese sterate coated dry sandpaper, in varying widths from 3mm to 12mm wide and 105mm long. If your chisel work is good, you can start sanding at 320 or even 400 grit. If your tooled surface is not that good, drop down to 240 grit or lower to begin sanding.

Top waste area has been parted, inlay recess has been completed, and wine bottle stopper is ready for sanding. Surface is good enough to start at 400-grit metric and is continued through 600-grit

Many exotics are sensitive to heat from sanding, so take care to prevent heat checking. If you must begin sanding with course grits, give the stopper a quick shot of compressed air between each grit change. This will help to control the heat from sanding and cool the surface, preventing heat checks from occurring.

Finish sand the exterior of the stopper body (being careful of the inlay recess area) to at least 600-grit metric. The overall surface of the timber is significantly improved if you reverse sand between each grit change.

High-end stoppers in my studio are sanded to 1500-grit metric. After sanding through all the grits, take the last grit and sand by hand in the direction of the grain. A #0000 wire wool burnishing follows next, with the lathe set to 3,000 revs. A compressed air blast and a tack rag remove residual sanding dust.

Nigerian Ebony with 25mm Turquoise and 3mm Turquoise around band

The last step in perfecting the bare surface of the timber is the use of a special cutting or burnishing wax. Arbortech’s Burnishing Wax or U-Beaut’s EEE–Ultra Shine smooth and perfect the timber surface, leaving a mirrored surface ready for finishing These burnishing waxes contain ultra fine abrasive compounds, which remove fine sanding scratches and significantly increase the resulting brilliance of high gloss finishes.

Finishing Protocol for Wine Bottle Stoppers

Before applying a finish, it is important to apply a primary sealer to the wine bottle stopper. French polish and cellulose sanding sealers work very well and can be friction dried in a few seconds. Spirit sealers will also work, but require up to fifteen minutes to dry. In a production environment time is money, so I prefer to use a sealer which can be friction dried.

Wine bottle stopper finished with Mylands High Build Friction Polish, ready for Pre-Set drilling

The intermediate finish is applied next. Depending on the timber and style of the stopper, several finishes are used. These include Mylands High Build Friction Polish, French polish, Shellawax, Lacquer and a few homemade finishes. Certain finishes/timbers also get a final coat of pure Carnauba wax to enhance the gloss.

The Carnauba wax is applied, whilst spinning at 3,000 revs on the lathe and then polished out with kitchen papers to a brilliant gloss. These finishes are very durable and stand up well to bumping around in kitchen drawers.

Inlaying Stone and Agate
Cabochons in Wine Bottle Stoppers

Installation of the polished cabochon requires an adhesive that remains strong, yet flexible when cured. A special adhesive like E-6000, or a standard Jewelers epoxy should be used to mount the cabochon.

If you wish to use another type of adhesive, remember, it must remain flexible when cured for best results. 2-Cyanoacrylic Ester Polymer adhesives (CA, or Super Glue) are unsuitable for this type of mounting. Polymerised CA glue is somewhat brittle and does not adhere well to the highly polished surface of some stones.

Nigerian Ebony with 2.5mm White Cubic Zirconia inlays set in 14K yellow gold and Mercedes-Benz Club of America cloisonne

25mm Crazy Lace Agate inlay installed in the top of the wine bottle stopper

Before installing the inlay, carefully clean the stopper inlay recess and the bottom of the cabochon with Acetone. This removes any oils from the surfaces and insures a strong bond with the adhesive. Apply a small amount of E-6000, or epoxy to the cabochon and press it into the recess in the stopper top. The stone should “pop” into the recess with gentle pressure.

Align the grain, if any, on the cabochon with the grain in the stopper body. This is a very important step that will contribute greatly to the overall beauty and visual impact of the stopper.

Take a pre-drilled Flor cork and apply a small amount of thick CA glue to the fluted dowel. Yellow and Poly glue can also be used to secure the cork to the dowel. Push the cork onto the dowel in a spinning motion, to evenly distribute the glue along the fluted shaft. Insure that the top of the cork rests firmly against the stopper body bottom.

Group of five wine bottle stoppers with 25mm (1") cabochons

Nigerian Ebony wine bottle stopper with 25mm crazy Lace Agate inlay

Sand the bottom of the cork and any exposed dowel until it is flush and smooth. Blow off any sanding dust and seal the bottom of the dowel with creamed beeswax. Wipe off any excess and lightly polish the bottom of the dowel by hand. Wrap the exterior cork with plastic shrink-wrap and insure that it fits tightly. Most customers hold the stopper by the cork to examine it. This plastic wrapping insures that the cork will remain clean and sanitary until it's sold.

While this may seem like a lot of trouble for a wine bottle stopper, it becomes second nature after a while. Your reward can be a significantly higher selling price for your efforts. The inlaid stoppers from my studio start at $30.00 each and go up to $300.00  or more, depending on the style and quality of the inlay.

Inlaying Precious Gemstones, Synthetic Stones and Pre-Sets

In a continuing desire to push my creative boundaries, I envisioned creating stoppers that expressed the rich and formal opulence that only gemstones can provide. The challenge however, was how to take gemstone settings created for the Jewelry trade and modify them for inlaying into wood.

One of the most important design aspects of a gemstone setting is the ability of light to penetrate in and around the setting for the highest reflective brilliance in the stone. Therefore, you must choose your gemstone settings well and be prepared to modify your bottle stopper designs to allow for inclusion of the inlay. Individual gemstones can be inlaid into various styles of single settings; however, the style of the setting may have to be modified for best results.

Signity® Pre-Sets

To simplify the inlay process, you can install pre-set stones. These stones come pre-installed in split bezel settings. Signity® markets a line of these pre-sets called Signity® Pre-Settings. Various genuine stones are available including Ruby, Sapphire, Amethyst, Citrine, Peridot, Rhodolite, Smoky Quartz, Spessartite, Spinel, Topaz, Marcasite, Green Agate, Chrome Pyrope and Mozambique Garnet, set in genuine 14K yellow gold split bezels.

Created stone presets are also available in Cubic Zirconia, Spinel, Corundum, Opal, and Alpinite stones. Created stone split bezels are available in genuine 14K yellow gold, or gold/silver-finish over base metals.

Pre-Sets: Created colored 2.5mm (5/64") stone assortment in gold base metal (left) and silver finish base metal (right)

Installing the Pre-Sets in Wine Bottle Stoppers

Pre-Set installation tools (counter-clockwise from top): Pre-Set installation tool, carbide tapered drill, drill stop and hex key

To install Signity® pre-sets, you will need two specialized tools. The pre-set is designed to be installed into a specifically shaped and tapered hole. This is achieved with a custom made Carbide stepped drill bit, available from Signity®.

In addition, a specialized setting tool is needed to install the pre-sets. This tool picks up the tiny pre-sets and is used to install them into the drilled holes.

To drill the holes for the pre-sets, I use a variable speed Dremel® tool, set to 10,000 revs. On very dense timbers, I will drill the holes at 15,000-20,000 revs. Any similar high-speed tool can be used to drill the holes; even a standard drill press will work.

Drilling Pre-Set holes with the Dremel tool and the carbide tapered drill

However, you must have a lathe with an indexing plate, or a supplemental indexing system on your drill press to accurately space your locations for drilling. As a production turner, I prefer to drill my holes, whilst the stopper is still mounted on the lathe. My Oneway® 2436-3 lathe has an indexing plate, which is critical for precise drilling of the pre-set holes.

Dremel tool with taped line level on top. Tools in foreground are installation tools for Pre-Sets

Since all of my drilling for the pre-set holes is done freehand, I have taped a small line level to the topside of my Dremel® tool. This helps to insure that my penetration is square to the face of the stopper.

Bring the tool rest up as close as possible to the area to be drilled. I use a small strip of masking tape on the top of the tool rest where I rest the shank of the drill bit during drilling. A small drop of oil is placed along the taped area to reduce any friction.

The drill bit is capable of drilling two styles of tapered holes. The first allows the pre-set to stand proud of the surface a wee bit; the second countersinks the pre-set slightly for a flush appearance. You will need a strong light illuminating the subject area, to monitor the depth of penetration and insure uniform holes have been drilled. After you have finished drilling all of the required holes, remove the dust from the drilling area and evacuate any residual dust in the holes.

Once the drilling has been completed, you are ready to begin inserting the pre-sets into the drilled holes. The specialized setting tool makes the loading and insertion of the tiny pre-sets a snap.

To insure the best overall appearance of the stones, plan your design on paper first. This is especially helpful when you are mixing different colours of stones. The pre-sets feature tiny barbs on the lower portion of the split bezel. Once inserted into the hole, they cannot be removed!

Bottle stopper body is finished and Pre-Set drilling has been completed

Completed Cocobolo wine bottle stopper with Crazy Lace Agate inlay. 16 Pre-Sets have been installed inside double-beaded row at the bottom of the stopper

Load the required pre-set into the setting tool and gently place the lower portion into the specific hole. Slight pressure is required to insert the pre-set to the correct depth. Continue installing the pre-sets until all of the stones have been installed.

If necessary, you can gently buff the stopper body to enhance the finish. Do not buff over the inlaid stones, because the visual quality of the pre-sets may be compromised. In addition, if the bezel settings are not genuine14K gold, you will remove the gold, or silver finish and reveal the base metal underneath.

In addition to inlaid wine bottle stoppers, I also inlay precious metals, agates and gemstones into many of my turned items. These inlay techniques work equally well with boxes, pens, desk accessories, bowls, platters and hollow forms, as well as many other items. Both end grain and side grain timber can be inlaid with success.

Purchasing Custom Cut Stones

Most woodturning stockists carry a limited selection of cabochons in round sizes. If you want to broaden your selection, you will need to contact lapidary suppliers. There are two basic types of lapidary suppliers, resellers of cut stones and manufacturers that custom cut stones to order. In your quest for a larger selection of stones in the round, you will find the variety and sizes are quite limited. Oval and freeform cabochons are much more popular in the jewelry trade than round stones.

When purchasing cabochons or gemstones for inlay, try to hand pick the stones, if possible. The quality and price can vary significantly from stockist to stockist. One of the most important factors in choosing cabochons for inlay into turnings is to insure that the stones are well calibrated (uniformly cut). Other important features to look for include a brilliantly polished, uniform domed surface and a rounded edge.

Completed bottle stopper

Two inlaid wine bottle stoppers with silver finish Pre-Sets. Diamond and pearl (lower front) and sapphire and diamond (below stoppers) earrings are genuine stones

Some stones are ground to a knife-edge, making them a challenge to inlay into wood. Stones with knife-edges are very prone to chipping during handling and when trying to inlay the stones.

Poorly calibrated stones create gaps around the inlay recess, causing a poor quality finished product. A custom jeweler would make his/her setting fit these stones. It is much more difficult for a turner to work with these types of poorly cut stones. Therefore, limit your suppliers to places you can visit firsthand, or places you have dealt with in the past and trust.

Supply Sources

An Internet search can locate foreign/domestic suppliers if you want more sources, or wish to have stones custom cut. Components such as polished round cabochons, production dowel chucks, corks and fluted dowels can be obtained from most turning supply stockists.

Henry Taylor Miniature turning tool sets are available from most major turning supply stockists. Custom cut stones and agates can be obtained from lapidary suppliers in Hong Kong, India, Thailand, China and the U.S.A.

Nigerian Ebony with 25mm Rhodochrosite inlay and 2.5mm White Cubic Zirconia inlays set in 14K yellow gold

Wine Bottle Stoppers: Final Thoughts

Another view of the above wine bottle stopper

I have always felt that the marriage of stone and wood was visually provocative. There is an unspoken purity and a natural harmony in this marriage that nurtures the creative spirit within. The subtle warmth of the timber and the coolness of the stone, combine to fill the senses with nature’s unlimited beauty. Once you begin inlaying stones and agates, you’ll be hooked!

Subscribe to Steve Russell's "Lathe Talk"

Want to read more woodturning education articles? Our free monthly newsletter for woodturners is chock full of woodturning techniques, as well as valuable tips and tricks. Fill out the form below to subscribe to "Lathe Talk". Your email address is kept confidential. Click here for more information.

Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Steve Russell's Lathe Talk.

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.