Weekend Projects – Owl-shaped salt and pepper mills

Monday 9 July 2018

This pair of salt and pepper mills was made using a simple segmental technique to produce a striking modern design. Made from reclaimed walnut (Juglans regia), the addition of a light-coloured wood such as sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) provides a strong contrast. When these two pieces first emerged from the workshop my family thought they looked like a pair of owls. I must confess this was not intentional but it may at least provide a good talking point at dinner parties. I wanted a shape that showed the pattern to good advantage and would be nice to handle. After all, this is a practical item. Before starting any woodturning project I usually experiment with various designs. Although I sometimes use CAD software, for this sort of project you cannot beat a piece of paper and pencil! Various shapes were cut out in paper and rejected before deciding on this one. These mills are designed to incorporate standard mechanisms as sold by Axminster Tools&Machinery and other popular woodturning stockists.

Tools used:

Spindle roughing gouge

Thin parting tool

Skew chisel

Spindle gouge


Resin-based glue – Aerolite 306

Combination square


25mm drill bit

Extension bar for Jacobs chuck

Pin jaws or jam chuck

Range of abrasives

Clear finish, such as Liberon Kitchen and Bathroom Varnish or your choice of food-safe finish

Standard salt and pepper mill mechanism

PPE: facemask, respirator/dust mask and extraction


The first step is to prepare the blank. The blank is sized at 450 x 65 x 65mm. The inner square of sycamore measures 33 x 33mm. Around this core is a wall of walnut, which measures 8mm-thick. Finally, there is an outer wall of sycamore 8mm-thick. Each piece of timber needs to be accurately dimensioned and for this a thicknesser certainly makes life easier


Use a resin-based glue to glue up the prepared timber sections, I used Aerolite 306. Stick two pieces together at a time. The width of each piece should be slightly oversize. Once the glue is set, plane away any excess timber and glue ensuring a flat surface for the next glue up. The photo here shows the blank before the final two pieces of sycamore are glued in position


Divide the blank in two so that each half is about 220mm long and carefully mark the centre. Everybody has their favourite method. I use a combination square set to mark in from each edge, as shown. Any deviation from the true centre will become apparent once you start to turn


Mount on the lathe, rough down to a cylinder and form a spigot at the tailstock end. Mark and cut almost all the way through the cylinder to partially separate what will become the main body allowing at least 12mm oversize. Once almost all the way through, stop the lathe and saw off so you end up with the main body and what will be the top


Mount the main body in the chuck and true up the cylinder. Clean up the tailstock end grain


This project involves a fair amount of drilling. Start making the main body of the mill by drilling a 40mm recess to a depth of 16mm


For the pepper mill you now need a further hole 27mm wide drilled to a depth of 30mm. The remaining length of the main body is then drilled using a 25mm drill bit. For the salt mill, after drilling the 40mm hole drill a 25mm hole through the rest of the body, as shown here. An extension bar in the Jacobs chuck enables you to do this in one operation. Unfortunately while I was doing this the grub screw in my extension bar became too loose to hold the drill shank and I had to resort to the method shown below


If you don’t have an extension bar you will need to drill to the halfway point and then reverse the work in the chuck and drill from the other end until the hole meets in the middle. This is the process being shown here. The work is held in the chuck by pin jaws. If you do not possess pin jaws, a jam chuck made from a scrap of timber works well


Once a hole has been drilled all the way through, mount the piece in the chuck using the spigot shown in the photo above. You can now begin shaping with a spindle gouge, concentrating first on the foot. Continue with the gouge until the required shape is reached but leave oversize at this stage because it will be refined once you have completed the top and the two parts are finished together


Mount the top of the mill in the chuck and drill a 6mm hole. I usually start the drilling process by making a pilot hole using a centre finder to ensure accuracy and minimise the risk of the drill bit wandering


Form a 5mm long spigot to fit the 25mm hole in the main body. The top should be free to turn in the hole but not be too loose. Use a skew chisel or gouge to clean the bottom, then use a parting tool to create a recess to house the plate. Test to see the plate fits but do not fix it in at this stage. Start shaping the top with a spindle gouge


There is not a lot of waste wood and consequently not much working room close to the chuck. Continue shaping while checking against the template. When access near the chuck end became an issue I changed to ‘between centres’ mode to complete the basic shape. Now that both parts of the mill have been rough turned, fit the top to the main body and mount on the lathe. Using a spindle gouge, blend the two parts together and refine.Sand from 120 down to 400 grit. After each grit, clean the surface by rubbing it with shavings. Finish the outside of each mill with your preferred finish. I used a clear finish that did not colour the sycamore and reduce the contrast between the two timbers. I applied three coats of Liberon Kitchen and Bathroom Varnish; this gives a hard-wearing finish and is easy to apply. It is touch dry in 30 minutes and another coat can be applied in three hours. Being water-based it does raise the grain but a light sanding between coats produces a satin finish. The inside can be left in bare wood or, if you prefer, apply a food-safe finish


The salt – see step 13 – and pepper mill mechanism – see step 14 – shown here have exactly the same fitting procedure for each. Check each mechanism packet to ensure all the components are present.


Screw the drive plate to the recess in the top. Assemble the drive shaft/male grinder, female grinder, spring and spring retainer together and insert into the mill base to test the fit. Holding this assembly in place, fit the mill top


There is a flattened section in the top of the drive shaft rod and you may find the mill top won’t sit properly on the mill base because this flat section does not extend far enough – the drive plate has a square hole that operates in the flat section of the drive shaft. The answer is to extend the flat section sufficiently using a file. To facilitate this, cut a groove in a scrap of wood and clamp the drive shaft firmly in place. A few passes of the file should be enough to suffice


To complete the fitting of the mechanism, grip the top of the drive shaft in a vice while the two base screws are inserted. Finally, put the mill top in position and screw on the cap


The completed owl-shaped salt and pepper mills should look something like this


1. Ensure each piece of timber is accurately dimensioned, flat and clean before gluing

2. Aim to get about 5mm of thread protruding from the top of the assembled mill. If there is insufficient thread protruding, you can somewhat increase the depth of the bottom recess