Weekend Projects – Sycamore rocket box

Monday 9 July 2018

Nick Arnull creates this sycamore box with black legs and finial, inspired by science fiction

This month, I am going to concentrate upon only one item; however, I will show the thought and inspiration behind the piece and hopefully give you some insight into how I go about creating new pieces. I will show the development along the way and conscience changes as the project progresses. These include sketches and notes direct from my sketchbook, along with prototypes and comments/personal critiques about some of the production problems I encountered, as you can see opposite. Sometimes the evolution of a piece is quite spontaneous, and is a result of external forces, often applying a 'what happens if' approach – this is when things get exiting, or depressing if it all goes wrong. As a result, I would encourage the making of a prototype, which can help resolve issues along the way.

Tools used:

32mm spindle roughing gouge

Small Woodcut end-grain hollowing tool

Swan neck scraper

Square-ended box scraper

12mm round skew

10mm round skew

10mm round skew

6mm parting tool

12mm fingernail spindle gouge

10mm fingernail gouge

6mm point tool

Sketchbook ideas and inspiration

Sketchbooks are extremely important to me. They store ideas that sometimes may not be possible when drawn, but when development and techniques can be drawn upon the idea can then be transformed into reality. As time passes the idea will evolve through subliminal thought. Simply by having the image in a sketchbook, the subliminal mind will be able to work upon the idea in the background until the day comes when you need to create the piece. My modern travelling sketchbook is my camera phone and it is something I cannot live without. The idea for this box started some years ago and came from seeing an image of the Alessi juice squeezer. Other images have also been influential to this project, and those inspirational images are from space and science fiction.

The body of the box represents the body of a space capsule and the carved area represents the exhaust vents of the engine at the rear of the craft, whilst the finials at either end are the antenna/probes fitted to a space capsule. The legs are reminiscent of fighters in Star Wars as well as other imagery, such as that from War of The Worlds and Tin Tin. The amazing thing here is that the mind doesn't always need to be thinking to be creative, but more importantly, it needs to be open to be receptive to allow images to enter the mind without direct/conscious thought about a specific idea. It is a bit like a library full of images, but it is one that is constantly getting new images online without being asked to find the information. Some would describe this as the Eureka moment and believe me, they do happen from time to time. The sketches in my sketchbook show the original idea, including the shape of the legs and internal shape for the body. These have remained the same and little has changed from the sketch other than the colour scheme.


The purpose of a prototype is to resolve any problems or issues and check how a thing will look from a visual perspective, before committing to the final piece. When creating this prototype the top was scavenged from an old prototype that happened to fit, so I saved time as I didn't have to create a new one. The legs were made to what I felt were the correct size and proved to be visually too short. The black leg worked, but the left-hand leg was just too delicate for me, so this gave me a pattern to work to. The piece can easily be assembled and disassembled by using hot melt glue. The gold on the finial didn't work and the finial was way to short. The carving was meant to be fluted but in reality it became 'V' cuts, which fitted much better with the overall design concept I had for the box. The fitting of the legs was another issue which I had to resolve and I still feel they need more work. I simply flattened the area that the leg needs to be joined to and this became the glue area that would join the legs to the box – a simple glue joint with accurate fitting of the legs to the body. The prototype allowed me to finalise a colour scheme that I felt would work – black and white. I have used acrylic products throughout this project.

Creating the body


Take a piece of air-dried, straight-grained English sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) – without figure is ideal – measuring 85 x 85 x 140mm, which will allow for the waste wood jam chuck. Mount the blank between centres and make round. Create a spigot matching your chuck diameter with a 6mm parting tool. With a 10mm fingernail spindle gouge true the end of the blank and create an opening for the box measuring 30mm. Create a chamfer to make the area that will become carved whilst leaving a raised lip for the box lid to sit upon


Shear scrape the area with a round skew chisel. Use a box scraper to ensure the opening is parallel – you only need to scrape the top of the blank


Remove some of the interior of the box using a long-grind 6mm bowl gouge. Rough out the inside leaving it quite thick at this stage, adding support when carving the top


Add a stop cut to the outside rim – this will avoid breakout when carving. Sand and seal the top, allowing the sealer to travel down the outside to prevent staining when colouring the top. Paint the top with acrylic black paint


Using the indexing head mark out 24 times around the piece with a watercolour pencil. Transfer the chuck to a carver's clamp and carve the radial lines around the piece using a 'V' gouge. Now subdivide between the carvings and carve again – this will give 48 carved lines around the piece – representing the exhaust vents of the engine


Return the chuck to the lathe and spray the top with acrylic satin lacquer to seal the paint and the carving. Now hollow the box and refine the inside shape


After the refining is done you will need to sand and seal the box interior


Using a point tool create a detail 8mm from the top


Colour the line you just made in using a sharp pencil


Measure the box depth and transfer this to the outside and add 10mm to allow for the exterior bottom, then part in to the left of the line using a parting tool


Now remove some of the waste material on the outside to begin revealing the shape of the box


Part the box off from the waste wood using the 6mm parting tool


Use the waste wood to create a jam chuck for the box opening


Remount the box using the jam chuck and a friction drive to trap the box between centres. Final shape the outside using a 10mm fingernail spindle gouge, then sand the box


Using a small point tool create two lines at the bottom of the box, then add the pencil to blacken both lines


At the very bottom create a small finial to finish the bottom of the box. Turn this as fine as you can, remove from the lathe, and finish by hand


Apply acrylic black paint with a good quality brush to the bottom of the box. I think of this as the nose cone for the space capsule. Mount the box onto a tapered cone to allow easier spraying of the piece


Once the acrylic is fully dry apply multiple coats of satin lacquer to the bottom of the box

The lid and finial


For the lid use a piece of end-grain sycamore 50 x 50 x 20mm and mount it using a scrap wood chuck and glue in place using Cyanoacrylate. With the tailstock in place for extra support make the blank round and create two parallel spigots with a 6mm parting tool: one is the opening of the lid and the other is the final diameter of the top/lid


Using a round skew chisel create a chamfer which will become the undercut of the lid


Now dish the underside of the lid using a round-nose scraper. Do not go too deep or the spindle may well be viewed from the inside


True the face of the lid flange, again using a round skew chisel. At this stage, sand, seal and lacquer the back of the lid. Carefully remove the piece from the glue chuck. Create a jam chuck, turn the top of the lid and drill an 8mm diameter hole 5mm into the lid. Don't drill through the lid as it will become unsightly


Sand seal and lacquer the lid, then remove from the jam chuck

Making the finial


You need a small drive centre to make the finial. Simply make a wooden one and fit it with a small pin


Mount your blank measuring 15 x 15 x 125mm between centres and reduce to diameter. Then, using an 8mm spanner, create a spigot at one end – this is the joint for the lid and spindle


Follow the drawing and create the details at the base of the spindle


Refine the spindle and lay out the top details. Reduce the diameter to approach the final shape


Take great care as the blank becomes thinner. Create the finial at the very end, which will require some hand finishing once removed from the lathe. Sanding here requires the lightest of touches. With the spindle removed from the lathe remove your homemade drive centre and use this to hold the spindle while spraying. This requires three layers of matte black spray and multiple layers of acrylic satin lacquer


Take a piece of sycamore and glue the template in place using the square edge to align with the straight face that will become the glue joint – the grain is running left to right. Reduce to a manageable size. Carefully divide the board into 15mm strips. Accurately glue back together with hot melt glue and then cut around the paper template using a bandsaw or fret saw. Once glued, sand the inside radius with a belt sander. Use hot melt glue to add a temporary handle


Sand the outside curve down to the template using a large disc sander. Remember to keep the glue joint absolutely square. Once the shape is correct to the template, the legs can be separated


Using the disc sander position the leg at an angle and create the facets required for the legs. Remember that each leg must be the same. Mark the shape of the leg onto the glue joint face and use this as a guide for the final profile. Fine-tune the legs so they look similar and carefully hand sand the legs, maintaining the sharpness of detail created when disc sanding. Sometimes the careful use of a carving knife may help define the sharp edges. Glue the leg to a stirring stick using hot melt glue and spray matte black. Use satin lacquer when dry, then leave. Again, use multiple light coats and allow to dry thoroughly


Remount the box body between centres, protecting the top and bottom using tissue paper. Divide the box into three equal sections and draw a short line – the leg centreline. Offer the legs and create flats for the legs to join onto. Number each leg to each joint, working carefully. Now spray the box with satin lacquer, again using the tapered stick to allow you to hold the box body and place it safely to dry. When the lacquer is dry remove the lacquer from the area that glue needs to be applied to. With a sharp knife scrape away the area required


Remount the box body between centres with protection, using the centreline of the lathe and a very small amount of Cyanoacrylate. Attach the first leg and hold until the glue is set. Pay careful attention to the leg position, as it must be upright


Repeat this step for the other two legs of the rocket box


When all the legs are attached leave the box on the lathe so the glue can set. Glue the top and finial together


Here is the finished rocket box, which makes a stunning ornament