The Saga of My Wood Lathe

In 1975 we inherited a nice rocking chair from my wife’s grand parents.  It was missing a spindle.  We looked everywhere for someone to make one spindle for us.  We found places that would make 100 but not one. I was starting to get into woodworking as a necessity in rehabbing our first house so I decided to buy a lathe and turn it myself.  The lathe cost $500 so my wife was not a happy camper as together we were only making $18,000 as  teachers.

When I told a friend at work that I bought a lathe he literally laughed loudly at me saying that he knew all kinds of guys that had bought a lathe and then made a couple of salt and pepper shakers and never used it again.  I vowed to prove him wrong and appease my wife.

Tom Ackeman and David Powers had converted a run down mansion that was being used as artists flophouse in the neighborhood into a private dining club called the Butterman’s. The rehab of this house was the first in a neighborhood and turned out to be an inspiration to others to do the same.  I had noticed that the fancy porch was missing two spindles in the spandrel.

I went into the club and found Tom in the third floor lounge sitting back in a huge chair smoking a cigar and sipping a cocktail.  I asked him if I could make the two spindles for him in exchange for a dinner for my wife and I. He jumped at the chance. I made the two spindles before reading anything about how to turn wood. I later found out that what I was doing was really scraping wood  not turning it. There are two different spindles in the spandrel and I made one of each. Here it is today

We had a great dinner and the rocker was repaired  so my wife was feeling a little bit better about my new expensive toy. I made friends with Tom and Dave and later did some intricate spindles for the interior balustrade. They had a wedding reception there and kids broke several of the spindles. I was paid well for the work.

This picture shows ones missing.

This picture shows my repairs.  The spindles are small and oak so they were very hard to turn.


I read everything I could about wood turning and did several more jobs in the neighborhood for pay.

When my daughter came along in 1981 so I definitely wanted to use the lathe  to make some toys.

The first one was a rattle that she never used as the handle was too big to hang on to and it was too heavy for a baby. Making the rings was a challenge but luckily I had an article describing how to do it.





My mother used to put string thru a large button to create a toy.  If you pull  in and out on the string it spins the button. It was a lot of fun to play with. I made the same thing out of wood:

I made a wonderful spinning top

I glued maple and walnut together to make  striped ball for the seal.  The axle has a cam on it so the ball goes up and down when you pull it.

Since then I have made hundreds of interior and exterior spindles for old house customers.  The most satisfying ones I have ever done were for a mansion at 4 N. Jackson in Elgin.

In the 70’s it was vacant and homeless people were living there.  They took out several details to burn to stay warm. They took drawers made of quarter sawn sycamore which I also duplicated. Another thing they took were spindles from the grand staircase.  They were missing all these years until I volunteered to make them.

It is common to find Tuscan column bases rotted.  I have turned at least 50.


I turned turned 75 spindles for our own porch.  The wood is glued up old growth cypress recycled from a water tower taken down in Chicago.

I turned the spindles for the porch across the street from us:

After the crash President Obama started a program called the National Stabilization Program.  (NSP)  Cities were given money to buy and rehab problem properties. Elgin received 1.2 million. I got to make the spindles for one.  Thanks President Obama for spending taxpayer dollars in such a productive manner.  Sure beats buying a new fighter jet!!!! For the cost of one jet hundreds and hundreds of problem properties were brought back across the nation.

As a volunteer I turned the balls for this porch balustrade on a house Habitat for Humanity rehabbed:


I have made hundreds of custom rosettes which are also called bullseyes for interior and exterior old house trim. I wrote an article for This is Carpentry on how to make custom rosettes.

I love round corner blocks on old house trim.  It is not used very often.  I only know of two houses in Elgin that have them and I got to duplicate some for both.  You start by turning a big disk then cut in into four parts for the corner block.












The owner of the The Wing Mansion in Elgin had an old picture of his porch showing details that were now missing.  I made the crosses with the chamfers and ball finial 0n top and the half balls.

The most difficult job I have done is turning the parts for a missing balustrade.  A past owner had taken two sections of the balustrade down to put in a will for an apartment.  I made all of the little pieces for the balustrade including hundreds of small turnings in oak. I also made the newel post and rail.   This picture shows one of two sections I made.





For 40 years I have turned wood into spindles, finials and column bases.  I have never used a lathe duplicator and would often mention that those that use one are not really turning wood.  A few months ago I finally broke down and bought one.

I spent as much for the duplicator as I did for the entire lathe back in 1979.  I have used it twice.  Once for large ball finials.  Balls are typically hard to make look round on a lathe.  With the duplicator I drew a perfect circle for the template and made a perfect circle every time.  That was nice.

The only problem with the duplicator is that it cannot do fine lines so I have to touch up with lathe tools. I made the bead in the center of this ball with a skew, not the duplicator.

These were the first spindles I turned with the duplicator.  The gray one is the original.

I made these finials for the same house before I got the duplicator.  The one with paint is the original I duplicate the old fashioned way with calipers and lathe tools.


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Repairing an unusual porch post

This house on Douglas Street in Elgin has four columns with unusual large beading on the top 18 inches. 


The two in the rear got a lot of water from the roof and were rotten.  I was hoping that some epoxy could give them several more years.  When they were taken down the top on one crumbled in my hands so epoxy was not an option.

The column was coopered (made like a barrel with sections glued together) as was the fluted portion.

The owner of the home came to the Design Review Committee asking to replace all four columns with new fiberglass columns.  The Committee urged him to try to replicate the two good columns as the flutes were a unique feature.  A compromise was struck in that the owner bought two new fiberglass columns and I replicated the fluted portion to be placed on top of the fiberglass column.  The new fiberglass columns were very close in diameter to the originals. 

I made the fluted portion the same way they were originally made.  I made a custom molding knife to cut each section of three flutes.  Each of those was cut at the precise angle necessary for it to glue up to be a circle. Just as was originally done, a spline was cut to keep them together. Below is a cut off section of the fluted portion of the column showing the splines.

Band clamps were used to glue the sections together.




The transition plate was turned to duplicate the original.  A piece of wood was attached to the flutes to slip into the fiberglass column to allow the two to be attached to one another. The capitol on the column shown (on the bottom of this picture) is new and fiberglass. It was very close to the originals and simply slides over the column.

Below is the new column installed. The new wooden flutes were made from old growth cypress which has excellent rot resistance.  They were also treated with a sealer/preservative and the end grain was painted. The installation contractor added some flashing to the roof so they should not get water and rot. The new and the old columns cannot be distinguished.  The owner and I were very happy with the results.



A porch upgrade for 126 Hill

Porch aprons

Overthe years I have collected a lot of porch apron designs, especialy sawed ones.  When a  customer is considering installing a new porch apron I often take my mockups and actually place them on the porch to give the customer a choice as shown below.    

When we were rehabbing the house next door I did the same for my wife.  We had several onthe porch and actually asked neighbors for their opinions.  I often put different moldings on a mockup to show the customer   the choices as shown below.

Lattice is often appropriate.  Store bought lattice does not usually look good.  Lots of people just tack it onto the water table board.  If you are going to use lattice it has to have a frame and be set back a coupole of inches. The frame should be a little wider at the bottom than the top and sides.  I like to make my own lattice.  Store bought lattice make squares.  I like to make a little smaller diamonds.  I think it looks really classy.  Some moding and a routed cove on the edge add a lot also.

The apron designs that I have collected all come from actual old houses. The most famous one that I have is from a house that W. W. Abell designed at 327 W. Chicago.  Remaking it was very time consuming as it has overlapping joints.

Click here to see other porch apron designs. Double click on a picture to enlarge it.


162 Summit

162 Summit Elgin, IL

After the crash President Obama initiated what he called the National Stabilization Program (NSP).  It gave money to cities to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed problem properties that were having such a negative impact on our neighborhoods.  The City of Elgin was awarded over two million dollars.  I was lucky enough to be on the committee that looked at houses for sale in Elgin to pick the ones most in need of help.  With the Federal money the city bought eight or ten houses, rehabbed four themselves and gave the rest to Habitat for Humanity to rehab.  They put out a request for proposals to contractors to bid on the city owned properties.  One of the houses was awarded to Carlos Rivera at  Homework Construction an Elgin firm and the other three were given to a contractor from St. Charles.  I have a great relationship with Carlos so I was hired to recreate a lot of the missing details at 162 Summit.  Here is how it looked when the city purchased it for $56,430 in 2010. It had wide exposure aluminum siding on it and was two units.



I exactly duplicated hundreds of feet of missing interior trim, recreated fancy window hoods on the exterior and repaired the broken gable ornaments.

When a past owner put aluminum siding on the house he had to take all of the window trim off to make a flat surface to easily reside. The marks onthe house were used to recreate the window hoods.

Here is a mockup of a window hood I made to get approval from the city and their architect.


Here are  finished window hoods:

The original side porch post and balustrade had been replaced with wrought iron but no pictures of the original porch were available.


Luckily the gable ornaments, front porch canopy and their fancy brackets remained. The gable ornaments needed extensive repairs.  Here they are after repairs were made. The left half is new as is the turned pendant.

This was made new to duplicate the original exactly.  

An architect was hired to design the new porch.  I suggested a design that I thought would be appropriate.  I made full scale mockups of everything to show the city and architect.  I was allowed to carry out my designs.

I put the mockup on the house to check for scale and to get the okay from the city and architect. The two window hoods in the picture are new.
















The spindle design was taken from the spindle on the canopy brackets as seen below.

Here is the finished bracket. Notice the classic symbolism of the crescent moon and star.

Of the design Wikipedia says, “Today, the crescent moon and star symbol is universally recognized as a symbol of Islam, and for that reason, it appears on the flag of many countries where Islam is a state religion or which has a largely Muslim population. Currently 8 countries have this symbol on their national flags, and all of them are


For info on the history of the star and crescent moon click here.

The plans had called for Home Depot spindles.  I turned 15 custom spindles to match the design in the brackets.  I also made the rails and post.

The contractor entered the home in the annual Chicagoland Painted Ladies contest and won.




Click here to read a Herald article about the property.

Click here to see some interior pictures of the home.

162 Summit

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132 N. Channing

For years 132 N. Channing was a two unit that was not nice enough to attract decent people. The Gifford Park Association uses the proceeds from its annual Historic Elgin House Tour  to purchase and rehab problem properties.  In 30 years, this was the fourth one they did.

The home had asphalt siding on it and the Gifford Park Association used volunteers to take it off in their annual Great Unveiling.  The cement stoop was taken off with a traditional wood one replacing it.

On the back of the house we found a shadow showing a Mansard type roof on the porch.  We put that back in copper.

As a volunteer, I made the newels, treads, posts, balusters and brackets.  All the wood was recycled from an old redwood water tower taken down in Chicago.  As always I made a full scale mockup to check on the scale and to show to the Design Review Committee for approval.

To make more room in the kitchen for cabinets,  the door with windows was blocked on the other side with windows painted black so the wall is not shown. We did not want to change the original outside of the house but needed the room in the kitchen. There is another door to the kitchen on the back of the house so it was not needed.    The other door shown goes into the dining room.

Many old houses built in the 1870s and 1880s have a door from the dining room to the outside.  It was designed to let dining guests spill out to the outside – maybe to smoke or just to chat and enjoy the outside air.

The front of the house had a wonderful canopy so we added a balustrade to match.  The spindle design in the bracket was duplicated for the balustrade.

I  designed and made the balustrade. This picture is before the finials were added.

I am proud to say that I made wooden storm windows for all of the basement windows.

And I duplicated missing trim and bullseyes

By making it nice we were able to attract young new people to our neighborhood.  The Gifford Park Association lost money on the project but it was well worth it to get this wonderful addition to our neighborhood.

Habitat for Humanity rehabbed the house next door and one two houses south so the street scape has really improved.  Here is a before and after shot of 140 N. Channing done by Habitat for Humanity. The home was purchased by the city of Elgin and was given to Habitat.

Here is a after and before shot of 114 S. Channing, again rehabbed by Habitat for Humanity.

The home was purchased by the city of Elgin and given to Habitat.

272 Division

According to Steve Stroud’s book There Used To Be  272 Division was built in ca 1875 for H. D. and Ida Barnes.  H.D. was an assistant manager of the Elgin Packing Company.  He owned the home until 1901 when it was sold to St. Joseph’s German Catholic Church for their rectory which it is still used as.

Here it is as it looked for many years with substitute siding, and inappropriate porch and additions.

This house was next door to the east and  was torn down for parking and a playground for the school.

Two houses to the west were used for Nuns to live in for many years.  They fell into disrepair and were torn down for a possible addition to the church.  The Heritage Commission encouraged them to keep the houses and even suggested moving but had to give in in the end. The Gifford Park Association administered a salvage on the three houses being torn down by St. Joe’s.  The entire bay and porch was taken off of this house and reused on a house on Michigan St.  The guy that did it got a Mayor’s award for his efforts.

Over the years St. Joe’s came to the Design Review Committee asking to make changes to the rectory.  They seldom got what they were requesting.  They came asking for new siding and were told that it they took the aluminum off it could be determined if original siding is there and if it could be restored.  They took the aluminum off and assumed they could put new on if it were wood.  They used a wide exposure, knotty, rough sawn cedar which looked terrible  They were stopped about half way thru.  They were told that the siding was inappropriate and it had to come off.  Needless to say, they were not happy.

While the controversy expanded the city council knew that if the Heritage Commission stuck to their guns the church could appeal to the city council where they would have to decide the matter.    Mayor Ed Schock did not want to have to do that.  Arguing against a church is not very popular.  The city and preservation would look bad when it hit the papers.

Toll Brothers, a nationally known developer was in the middle of a huge development on Elgin’s west side.  They Mayor had worked closely with them on their development and had a rapport with them.  He assed for a favor -would Toll Brothers donate the time and materials to do right by the  rectory? I wrote seventeen pages of specifications and drawings  for rehabbing the house and porch so they could decide if they wanted to participate.  They bought into all of it!!!  They agreed to execute my plans exactly. Wow!

The Gifford Park Association held a Great Unveiling there where we took the appropriate wood siding off for them.

Much of the wood was salvaged and used to build the new porch.  The corner boards were 5/4 X 6 so they were especially useful.

I made all of the parts for the porch including, posts, newels, rails, brackets, balusters and lattice skirting.  I put in 14 hour days to stay ahead of them.

They brought in 7 union carpenters and were done in a week and a half. An apprentice caulked joints all day, every day.   A professional painting crew of 4 had it painted in a few days.

I wanted to rebuild the bay myself so I did that while the others did everything else.


That allowed me to be on site every day so if they had any questions they could ask.  They asked a lot and always took my advice.  That was refreshing.  Toll Bros. had bought into my specs so they were told to take direction from me.  Wow!!! They had no old house experience as all of their work was new housing.  Many of the guys found it refreshing.  They would ask how to do a specific things  like  install the porch flooring.  I would say, you can do X or Y.  They would ask which is better and do it that way.

Toll brothers donated $70,000 in labor and materials.  They received a Mayor’s award for their efforts.  They actually had a little breakfast at the Centre where they congratulated and thanked everybody.

Here is the finished porch:

DuPage Street condos

This building was built as three apartments and was later changed into six. It deteriorted badly and was attracting nasty  people as renters.   It origianlly had porches with roofs but was changed into just decks.

An investor bought it and changed it into four very nice condo units attracting excellent owners.    Each unit has three levels.  He put the porches back but used interior balusters and newels for the exterior porches.  Within years they rotted off. I was a friend of two of the condo owners so I agreed to help as their condo owners assocition had a very limited budget for repairs.  I found a very approprote treated spindle at Menards at an incredibly low price of about $3 each.  They needed a lot.

The condo owners got togeher and while watching sports in the garage primed and painted all of the spindles themselves to save money. This common goal also built their friendships.   I made the newels, finials and rails for them and lent them an air nailer, drills  and chop box  to install them.


I  spnet a half day with them instructing them on the installation.  None of them had any construction experience but did a great job of installing the spindles rails and balusters.  They found it to be very satisfyng and saved a tremedous amount of money. It felt good for me to help them and to get an asset to our neighborhood.




467 Division

Several years ago the City of Elgin bought this house for $140,000 as it was a bit of a problem property. It had asphalt siding on it. They offered it to our neighborhood organizaiton to rehab.  We had done four problem properties in the past but we felt this one was nice enough that it could be done by an indvidual.


Here is the house with the siding taken off.


I had always thought the porch was unusual so I checked the Sandborn map and found that it origianlly had a small six sided porch.

The city gave the house to Habitat for Humanity to rehab and they hired an architect to draw up plans for a six sided porch.


Some time before that a friend and I were looking on the Library of Congress’ web site.  We queried houses in Elgin and found quite a few.  We found the one shown at right that clearly had an address of 467 on it which was his address.  We studied it and came to the conclusion that it was not a picture of his house.    A few months after that I had an epiphany when we were talking about the Habitat house whose address was 467 Division and I remembered the picture from the Library of Congress had an address of 467.  When the siding was taken off of the Habitat house there was a clear mark for the post box shown in the old picture so there was no doubt it was the habitat house.


I voluntered to make the spindles, brackets and rails for the porch




As always, the first thing I did was to make full scale mockups of the details to show Habitat, the Design Review Committtee and to prove to myslef that the scale was right.  I had gotten the dimension by studying the picture keeping in mind I knew the width of the clapboards shown.

When the substitute siding was removed an exact outline of the original porch roof was uncovered.


Here is the finished porch:



The window hoods were taken off when it was sided. A paint outline could be seen on the house for the hoods so I used it to make them for the entire house, all as a volunteer.






806 W. Highland

When the current owners bought their house it had wide exposure aluminum siding  and the porch balustrade was missing.

The owners have spent years getting the original details replaced.

I made a mockup for a proposed porch balustrade.  I used two sizes of spindles to give them a choice.

The mockup was placed on the house to check for proportions.

I did not make or install their balustrade but my mockup was used as a pattern.  The owners painstakingly painted the spindes themsleves.




Notice the tiny round parade porch with a balustrade on the right of the photograph below.  Sometime after this photograph was taken, that balustrade was taken off.




I made a blaustrade for it using the same design as on the porch.  The rails were made by cutting small sections of a round rail then putting the three layers together by staggering the joints (bricking) for strength. This is the top rail. When it was finally put together it was symmetircal, not as shown in the picture.

This is the bottom rail made in two layers, glued and screwed together.  All the wood used was treated.



This is the finished rail:


This is the new balustrade on this little and very interesting parade porch. To access it you would have to go thru a window.  Only one person could stand out there.  I think it is for looks only, not to be used.  Some people call this a Juliet porch as it looks like what Juliet would stand on to call Romeo.

When the aluminum siding was put on the building they took off the keystones to make the surface flat.  I made new keystones for above the attic windows.

The gable ornaments were missing. Chuck Keysor (  made the individal squares on a CNC router from pvc material.

They rented a lift to install  it.  The only projects left onthe extrior restoration are two smaller gable appliques.