Turn Some Spin Tops

Author: Art Betke
Photos: Art Betke
Published: December January 2016
Spin Tops
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Turning spintops is easy, highly productive and lots of fun. And if you’re into craft shows, they’re good sellers.

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  • LENGTH/TIME
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A woodturner needs to be able to see the finished product in a raw chunk of wood, then follow a process to achieve the reality of that vision, a process that often requires several stages and days, even months before it’s done. Sometimes it’s fun to be able to take a break from that method and turn something quick and easy, like spin tops.

I start by choosing the right wood. It needs to be a fine-grained material like birch, which I find in plentiful supply in my firewood stack. Maple and cherry also work well.

Anything with a coarser grain makes it more difficult to get the fine edge cuts. It should also be a somewhat heavy wood so the flywheel effect will keep it spinning longer than if a light wood is used.

Rough Wood
A piece of fine-grained wood is perfect for a spin top. Betke uses check-free and knot-free chunks of wood from his woodpile, but you can easily use lumber from your local mill.

Large Dowel
The first step is to turn a cylinder just over 2" in diameter. Each top is cut from the end of this cylinder.

Nice, Even Taper
Betke is careful to cut an even taper on the end of the cylinder. This helps ensure the top spins evenly.

Time for Texture
Though you can skip this step, adding texture to the spin tops makes them really stand out.

Wire-Burn Line
With a small metal wire you can add a narrow groove in the outer edge of the top. This adds to the final look of the top.

Add Colour
Adding a mixture of colours to each top creates a unique, eye-catching spin top that people will be more likely to reach for. Betke uses children’s markers to add a splash of colour.

Simple Handle
Working from the spin top towards the lathe shape the handle of each top to no less than 1/8" thick.

Soft Landing
With your hand loosely around the spin top, part it off.

Different Designs
Though there are thousands of designs and shapes that you can create, Betke generally makes two different versions of spin tops; a standard version (left) and a larger diameter version (right). The larger version has a bit more weight to it and performs slightly differently. 

Turn a large dowel

I start by turning it down to a dowel with a length about 6″, and just slightly bigger diameter than the finished size of about 2″.

Then it’s just a matter of shaping each top and cutting it from the blank. I use a speed of 1500 rpm. It’s rather important to make the point as close to perfect as possible because if it’s off-centered even a little bit, the spin will be affected. It’s necessary to use a sharp tool to make a slow, fine cut for the final pass. The smoother the top spins, the longer it will spin, and kids will compete to see whose will last the longest. You don’t want to disappoint the kids. Their parents (who pay for the tops) will be impressed by how long they spin.

Next, the edge diameter is trimmed down to final size. This is done for each top individually to ensure the best balance. Then the top of the spin top is cut out, leaving the edge about 1/8″ (3 mm) thick. I usually slope it up but it can be flat too.

Add decoration

At this stage, it’s time to consider the decor. I sometimes leave a smooth surface, sometimes a series of steps. If I want to do any texturing I leave the stem thick for now, for stability.

For texturing I use the Sorby Spiraling tool, held vertically for a stippled effect, or slanted to obtain a spiral pattern. If the lathe is reversed and the wheel slanted the opposite way, the spiral is reversed. Because the radius of the top is small, the result will often be a repeated pattern. I never know exactly what the end result will look like.

I generally like to put a groove in the edge and wire-burn it for extra effect. That allows for two colours on a small space.

There’s always a bit of fuzz left by the spiraling tool so it’s necessary to do a touch of sanding. I use 280 grit to do a quick pass over the whole spin top. The sanding leaves a bit of dust behind and this must be removed or it will clog the tips of the felt pens that I colour with. This can be done with a cloth or blowing with compressed air.

A splash of colour

Next comes the colouring. Experimentation is the key. I just hold a fine-tipped felt pen against the top while it spins at 500 rpm. This will colour only the outer surface of the textured area, accentuating the pattern. I use whatever colour combinations I think will work. I rather like the effect achieved by black lines between different colours.

When all else is done it’s time to cut the stem down to size using gentle cuts, drawing away from the top toward the stability of the dowel. The smaller the diameter of the stem, the faster the spin, but there’s a limit. I like it to be not less than 1/8″, maybe a bit more.

Finally, I cup my hand loosely around the top to catch it and part it off with a skew.

It takes only about five minutes per top to turn them from the dowel.

There is one final step – the top must be tested. If for some reason it doesn’t spin well, it isn’t for sale. Wobbling could be the result of the point being off-side, or if the wood came from nearby a knot and is denser on one side.

There are always those who think bigger is better and for them I make a jumbo top. At 2-3/4″ it isn’t all that much bigger, but there’s quite a difference in the performance. I found that it feels quite a bit heavier and I just can’t get as fast a spin with it, so I cut the thickness down at the outer portion and always cut the top surface flat to reduce the mass. It also helps to leave the stem a bit thicker.

Craft sales are for adults, not children as a rule. Vendors are appreciative when parents tell the kids not to touch, but they love it when I tell them they can try out the tops. Even adults can’t resist playing with them. A surprising number of them aren’t able to get a good spin going so I have to frequently demonstrate and assure them that it just takes practice.


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