Weekend Projects - Traditional humming top archive

Friday 30 September 2016

Spinning tops go back a long way into prehistory, and they have been made from a large variety of materials including ceramic and gourds, nuts, bone, ivory and, of course, wood. There are twirling tops, whipping tops, throwing tops and supported tops. Tops have been found in Egypt that were made as long ago as 2000 BC, that’s at least 4,000 years of spinning tops! Most spinning tops were just simple toys to be whipped with a cord or twirled between forefinger and thumb, but there was a more sophisticated variety, the ‘humming’ top. These were much more elaborate in construction and were definitely the aristocracy of spinners, and the materials were upper-crust too. Ivory, bone, coquilla nut and boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) were the favoured materials, all having the denseness that allowed a fine finish and exquisite detail. These humming tops started to appear towards the end of the 18th century and were bought as intriguing and valued souvenirs after visiting spas and historic cities.
This project is for a traditional ‘supported’ humming top turned in boxwood. I cannot guarantee that your top will whistle or hum – there is no formulae that I am aware of that will ensure this. You will observe from the illustrations of the antique examples that all have an opening that creates the sound, and that these vary from square, circular and slotted indicating that the shape of this aperture is unimportant. There are no essential measurements, so just do your own thing. The order of turning the two-section top is not ‘set in stone’ and can be varied from that set out below. Similarly, my choice of tooling may be different from your own. You will also notice that I have chosen to use a more simplified handle to those depicted with the antique examples.

Tools used:
25mm spindle roughing gouge
10mm spindle gouge, fingernail grind
10mm spindle gouge, standard grind
13mm round skew
6mm round skew
13mm box scraper
Parting tool
O’Donnell – extended reach – jaws
Vernier callipers
PPE: facemask, respirator/dust
mask and extraction

STEP 1: The first step is to mount the timber between the lathe centres. Boxwood is often far from being round and this blank is distinctly oval

STEP 2: This top is to be turned in two pieces. After roughing out to a cylinder, create two 40mm spigots: one to the centre and the other at the chuck end

STEP 3: Use your favourite parting tool to sever the blank, mine is an antique 4.5mm re-ground mortise chisel

STEP 4: Now mount the right-hand section in the O’Donnell – extended – jaws with the 38mm inserts fitted; this will be the uppermost section and will ensure that the grain will run through the entire top. The two cylinders could also be of different, contrasting woods. Use a standard 10mm spindle gouge to remove most of the waste leaving a shaft of approximately 6mm diameter. Gently plunge a 6mm skew in a ‘parting-off’ fashion where the shaft junction and the upper body meet to tidy this area up

STEP 5: The completed top is spun by winding a thin cord around the shaft and pulling it. To facilitate this, drill a 3mm hole at the lower end

STEP 6: A spigot is required to insert the upper section of the top into the hollowed-out section of the lower half, just as you might make a lid for a box. This can be easily achieved using a 6mm skew chisel

STEP 7: Use the 10mm spindle gouge to shape the slope of the upper section, then use a 6mm skew tocreate a small bead. Boxwood is such a fine, dense timber that a final light cut with a sharp tool will produce a finish that requires only minimal sanding

STEP 8: Because the drill bit was likely to leave a ragged finish where it exited the shaft, this was deliberately turned oversize but it now needs to be turned down to a final 6mm. Use a 13mm round skew for this

STEP 9: You can now incise some simple decorative lines using the tip of the skew

STEP 10: A little friction polish on the top is all that is required to impart a rich lustre

STEP 11: You are nearly at the halfway stage with the parting-off now completed

STEP 12: Secure the second blank in the O’Donnell – extender – jaws. Measure the upper spigot using Vernier callipers and transfer this measurement to the face of the blank via the point closest to you. When you’re doing this, ensure that this point is slightly dragging and at no time allow the furthest point to make contact with the wood

STEP 13: Using a suitable tool – I used a 6mm round skew – a recess was created to accommodate the upper section; this often takes a number of attempts before a good fit is obtained. Start by making the recess slightly undersize and then adjust little by little until you succeed

STEP 14: Time to drill another hole, this time one of 7mm diameter into the solid body to approximately 6mm deep

STEP 15: The hollowing out is mostly achieved using a 10mm spindle gouge with a fingernail profile. This is a very efficient tool but care must be exercised never to use the tool with the flute vertical – this will catch! My illustration shows the gouge in the ‘pull-cut’ position

STEP 16: Turn the opening to a wall thickness of approximately 2mm and square up at the bottom using a 13mm box scraper. I imagine that a thin wall helps create resonance, therefore ‘whistle and hum’, but I cannot quote the physics behind it!

STEP 17: As stated earlier it appears to make no difference, judging from antique examples, what shape the aperture is. I opened out the round hole into a square using a flat needle file

STEP 18: Before the final shaping, the depth plus just a little more needs to be marked on the work

STEP 19: Now to complete the side section with some simple decoration, sand and polish and then proceed to taper the bottom of the top – although we started turning ‘top to bottom’! Taper the base with the standard spindle gouge

STEP 20: Complete the final delicate parting cut with the 13mm round skew

STEP 21: This style of top is referred to as a ‘supported top’ because the shaft is held in a handle and then released during the spinning process. I chose to make a simple upright handle from a round blank. Secure the blank within the O’Donnell – extender – jaws and drill out using a 7mm drill bit held in a Jacobs chuck set in the tailstock

STEP 22: Remove the waste. I used my 70-year-old 25mm spindle roughing gouge

STEP 23: This is a simple spindle turning exercise with the main shape created using the 10mm standard spindle gouge

STEP 24: After general shaping, complete the final finish of the handle including the bead using the same round 13mm skew, then sand and polish. The completed components include a simple handle for the pull cord. I have not covered this because if you can turn the first two items, this is a doddle! The pull cord is threaded through the hole in the shaft and wound by rotating the body; I used a thin nylon cord from my grandson’s kite. Insert the shaft into the handle, hold vertically, then pull and release

STEP 25: Your top should whistle and hum, but if it doesn’t, contact an astrophysicist for the required equation, not me!

1. I regard this as an advanced project and the tools shown are my chosen preference. As with most turning operations, there are often many alternative tools and methods that can be used to achieve the same results
2. Use the tools that you feel comfortable with for this project; do not feel that you have to slavishly follow my approach to the last letter but rather as a guide. If you wish to try a tool that you are unfamiliar with, then experiment with it using a waste piece of wood first – after all, this is how we learn and develop
3. Although I will always encourage experimenting with any timbers that take your fancy, for this project do bear in mind that your material must be well seasoned. Any residual moisture is likely to cause warping or splitting upon drying therefore reducing the top to a wobble or worse!
4. A dense hardwood would be preferable; this will provide for a potentially good final finish