Canadian Woodworking

Turning classic tops

Author: Rick Campbell
Illustration: Rick Campbell
Published: April May 2003

Wooden tops have fascinated children down through the ages with their mystifying ability to defy the laws of gravity. Who knew that physics could be so much fun?

To make your own handcrafted tops all you need is a lathe, a few scraps of wood, and some spare time. Be forewarned though, making and spinning these marvelous toys can become addictive.

Spin Into Action

Get started by preparing a blank that is at least 6” long and 2” square. Any wood you find lying around the shop will do but dense species, like hard maple, work best. If you don’t have 2” stock in your scrap bin, laminate thinner boards together. When the blank is ready, locate and mark the centre point on each end by scribing diagonal lines from corner to corner (photo 1).

Before you mount the stock between the lathe centres, take the time to chamfer the edges using the tablesaw with the blade tilted 45 degrees (photo 2).

Removing this waste material now will reduce vibration and save time at the lathe.
With the lathe turning at a slow speed, use a large gouge to rough out a cylinder that is approximately 1 ¾” in diameter along the entire length (photo 3).

When this is done, mark the locations for the stem and body sections on the blank by touching a pencil to the rotating cylinder (photo 4).

Now you’re ready to begin forming the stem section with a square nosed parting tool. When using this tool, avoid jamming the tip directly into the side of the blank. A better technique is to gradually lower the chisel onto the top of the cylinder until the cutting edge begins to make contact and shavings start to fly (photo 5).

Periodically check your progress with calipers as you approach the final dimensions. When the diameter is a hair wider than ¼” along the entire length, switch to sandpaper to finish the job.

When the stem is done you can turn your attention to the body section. Start with the crown by rounding over the top edge using a skew or gouge, then complete the decorative grooves that run around the perimeter by cutting in with the tip of a chisel (photo 6).

Clean up the crevices with the folded edge of 200 grit sandpaper before continuing on.

Top Tip

Below the crown, the body gradually tapers towards a point. With your gouge, start roughing out the profile until the area at the tip is approximately ¼” in diameter. At this stage things get a little tricky because the point will become weaker as more material is removed. Sand all the areas that are complete before you continue refining the tip using sharp tools and a delicate touch. It’s a bit of a game to see how fine you can shave the point before it breaks off (photo 7).

Remember to periodically sand as you work because your next pass could be your last. When the top finally breaks free, complete the sanding on the end by hand.

After using the bandsaw to cut away the remaining waste material attached to the stem (photo 8), bore a ⅛”-diameter hole with the drillpress to receive the end of the cord used to wind the top. Drill the hole with the top on its side and a piece of scrap under the stem for support.

To make the tip more durable and reduce friction when the top is spinning, add a round-headed brass nail, called an escutcheon pin, to the pivot point.

Escutcheon pins, typically used to install decorative brass hardware on wooden boxes, can be purchased at any well-stocked woodworking supply store.

Insert the stem into a hole bored in a piece of 2” thick scrap to hold the top upright while drilling the pilot hole for the pin (photo 9 – left). When you’re done, tap the pin into place before moving onto the next step (photo 10 – right).

Handle and Peg

A simple handle is required to hold the stem vertical when the top is sent spinning. You can turn one on the lathe (photo 11) or use an 8” length of 1” diameter dowel as a ready-made alternative.


On the end of the handle drill a ¼” diameter hole to receive the stem and make a 1” deep slot for the windings. To prepare the slot, drill a ⅜” diameter hole at the end, then remove the remaining waste material with the bandsaw or scrollsaw. Take a look at the plans for further details. A wooden peg tied onto the end of the winding cord will allow you to get a good grip when it’s time to spin the top into action. Use a piece of ½” diameter dowel for this or make one on the lathe in no time at all (photo 12).

The overall shape and size isn’t important but a notch in the centre will prevent the string from sliding out of place.

After securing a 10” length of cord to the peg, you’re ready to take your top for a spin. Insert the end of the top into the handle, then wind the string around the stem 10 or 12 times. Hold the top a couple of inches above a flat surface, then firmly pull the cord to get the action started. If the top is properly balanced it should spin in place for a lengthy period of time without wobbling or skipping.

Finishing Up

I applied several coats of wipe-on polyurethane to the top, handle and peg to enhance the natural grain but stains, aniline dyes, and brightly coloured paints are other finishing options that would look great. If appearance isn’t a consideration, forget about the finish all together – it won’t affect the performance of the top in any way. Once you’ve built one of these fascinating tops, others are sure to follow.

For your next attempt, why not be creative by laminating different types of contrasting wood together to make interesting and eye-catching designs. You can also experiment by altering the basic profile within certain limitations. Rest assured that every top you build is certain to find a good home with an appreciative child.

Rick Campbell - [email protected]

Rick Campbell is an award-winning woodworker who has been making piles of sawdust for over 30 years. Rick got his start driving nails into a 2 x 4 in his father’s workshop.

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