Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Latest from the Shop: Birdhouses

Update: The mystery wood (birdhouse #4) is solved.

Update: All the birdhouses are sold.  More will be available shortly.


I meant to post this two days ago.

Between the Microsoft Malfunction and the fact that I was so dog tired last night, I didn’t get around to it until today. You understand.


As I mentioned previously, birdhouses are a fun project on the lathe.

They’re fairly easy, depending on how fancy you make them. They are a good way to practice turning skills, both basic and advanced skew work (the skew being the hardest of the lathe techniques to master, at least in my not so humble opinion), spindle turning, and face turning. And they are a good way to introduce kids to the lathe.


I start with the wood, of course.

Birdhouses 002

You can use whatever you’ve got laying around. That’s a large 4” thick slab of American walnut, some Brazilian rosewood, tigerwood, babinga, bloodwood, and some mahogany.  None of it looks like much, but it cleans up real nice. Trust me.

I cut the wood into 4”x4” pieces, six to eight inches long. Drill a 1” hole with a Forstner bit in the middle of one side (this will become the opening, the door, in the front of the birdhouse) on the drill press – it’s a whole lot easier to hold the blank steady on the press when it’s still a rectangle. Then I spindle mount the blank on the lathe between a spur drive (a spike with a ring of teeth around it, that allows the motor to turn the blank) and a live center (a pivot inside a bearing that supports the non-drive end of the turning) - and rough turn it to a cylinder.  I cut a dovetail on what will be the bottom end so that I can securely mount it in a heavy duty dovetail chuck (that shiny silver jobber in the picture, sort of like the Terminator’s oven mitt).

Like so: (note for you turners: the live center in the right hand picture is only there temporarily to ensue that I get the blank exactly centered in the chuck before cranking it down tight):

Blackberry 040 Blackberry 041

I then core out the middle of the blank using a large Forstner bit mounted in the tailstock:

Blackberry 044 Blackberry 045

You can already see in the above pictures that the wood is pretty spectacular. And it should be, it’s Amboyna.  Amboyna comes from the Narra tree, Pterocarpus Indicus, which grows in Southeast Asia – with the most prized trees growing on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. The wood is extremely rare and very, very expensive with some (burled) cuts costing as much as $500/board foot. Wood like that is usually used for master crafted musical instruments. 

This isn’t one of those pieces.

It’s a straight non-burled chunk I got out of a cast-off bin along with some other odd sized pieces.  It was cracked and split, but enough remained to make a decent little project like a birdhouse out of – a really expensive birdhouse. Whatever bird takes up residence in this house is going to be the cock of the walk, just saying.


Next I reverse mount the piece on a friction chuck – which is a fancy way of saying that I push it firmly onto a wooden block mounted in the chuck:

Blackberry 046

Then I start shaping it with a gouge and skew.  Usually I have no idea what the final shape will look like.

Blackberry 047 Blackberry 048

One thing.

It is very, very, very, very, very important to measure the depth of the interior hollow correctly. Mark it on the outside of the turning. Pay attention.

So, you know, you don’t ruin a really expensive and unique piece of wood.

Very important.


Blackberry 049


I misjudged by about a millimeter.





Well, it’s an easy fix.

birdhouses 004


Oh, settle down, I’m just kidding.


No way I was throwing out that piece of wood. In addition to being unique, spectacular, and – did I mention? – expensive, it was an ever lovin’ bitch to turn. The wood is incredibly dense and hard and difficult.

Contrary, I think is the word I’m looking for here, contrary.

So, I cut off the bottom and glued in a piece of Brazilian rosewood – which I thought was a nice compliment, color wise, and is about the same density. Then I glued the finial back on:

Blackberry 050 Blackberry 052


Blackberry 053

Doesn’t look like much, does it?

Just wait.


Next I turn the perches.  Those are about the size of a matchstick.

When I mentioned birdhouses in the last post, I got an email from a guy claiming to be an “old school” turner. He chided me for saying I turned the perches on my Delta 46-525. He thought I might be exaggerating. The 525 is a fairly big lathe, designed for industrial shops – Old School suggested that I was really turning those perches on a mini lathe.  Why would I exaggerate about such things? Old School didn’t say, but I took him to mean that I was fibbing in order to impress Saw Dust Groupies, you know, that band of hot chicks who follow middle aged wood turners around hoping to sleep with them and bear their children.  Well, the chicks and the fame and glory.


For the record, I really do turn the little bitty perches on the 525.

 Birdhouses 005 Birdhouses 004Birdhouses 006

I never went to the old school, I didn’t know I couldn’t. Sorry.


The caps get turned from whatever contrasting wood I have on hand, in this case birch burl, rosewood, and tigerwood.


birdhouses 007

Remember the Amboyna? Here it is with a cap of and perch of Brazilian rosewood, finished in walnut oil:

birdhouses 008

Pretty, isn’t it? The picture doesn’t do it justice at all. The wood is amazing, I really wish I had more of it.

This one is not for sale. I’m sending it to my Dad. He’s an avid birdwatcher and my folks’ backyard is filled with birdhouses and feeders. I think he’ll like it.


This next one is also not for sale. Or rather it’s already been sold, this one is going to Stonekettle Station regular and UCFer, Janiece. It’s South American Bocate, a yellow and black striped wood taken from the Cordia tree. It’s a dense and very fragrant fruitwood. Capped with Brazilian Rosewood and finished in walnut oil.

birdhouses 009



The following pieces are for sale.  Each one is numbered. There are six of them. First come, first served, note in the comments section which one you want by number. Again first person to comment gets the piece. One each. If they don’t all go, you may have two or more. I’ll let you know when.

I know, I know. Different time zones and such, unfair. Yep. I wish it were different, but life is sometimes cruel in the willy nilly wild and woolly world of wood turned birdhouses.  Besides, I’ll be making more shortly. Please, no pushing, no shoving, no throwing of panties on the stage.

(Snark aside – I will have more available soon, probably next weekend)

Prices are set by the cost of the wood.

Shipping is $10 for all pieces – which is a bargain from Alaska. Shipping will be via USPS, unless you specify otherwise. And otherwise will cost you more.



#1 – White Birch, Cherry and Tigerwood. Tall, very light.

The body is birch, the cap is cherry, with tigerwood inlay.

Price: $30

birdhouses 010



#2 – Bocote and Birch Burl Cap

Price: $40

birdhouses 011



#3 – Bocote and Tigerwood Cap

Price: $35

birdhouses 012



#4 Mystery wood Orange Agate and Spalted Birch Heartwood Cap.

Honestly, I have no idea what the body of this piece is made out of.  I got the wood out of the turning blank bin from a hardwood supplier in Anchorage. It came in with a consignment of odd pieces from South America but nobody had any idea what it was. Neither do I.  My good friend and regular reader, fellow wood turner and expert of exotic hardwoods, Beastly, might know.  If he figures it out, I’ll make an update.

It’s Orange Agate, a wood cut from the jungles of Peru. It is hard as a rock, fragrant and quite beautiful with amazing grain and figure.

(Thanks to Beastly for identifying it).

Price: $40

birdhouses 013



#5 – White Birch and Rosewood

I really like this one.  I like the contrast between the woods. This is a small house, with a teardrop shaped door. Just because I felt like experimenting with door shapes. In the future I may do ovals and other teardrops.

Price: $25

birdhouses 014



#6 – Bocote and Rosewood

Price: $35

birdhouses 015




All the birdhouses are finished in walnut oil – a non-toxic, bird safe natural oil. The houses are decorative, however they are suitable for hanging outdoors and for use by nesting small birds – BUT they will age and weather over time, unless you oil them once a season.  Additionally, NOTE: They cannot be opened for cleaning – I’m working on a design that will allow you to remove the cap for cleaning, but I’m not there yet. If you need to clean these, you’ll have to pull the old nest out in pieces through the opening with a pair of needle nosed pliers. It’s perfectly doable and not really a problem, I just like you to know what you’re buying up front.


As always, I prefer payment via Paypal, but I’ll consider other methods as long as we work it out via email first.


  1. Hey, I could have first choice of bird houses! They are lovely, but I have a bad track record with things that go outside but need special maintenance. You know: rosebushes, tomatoes, dogs, wood birdhouses. Okay, not the dog, but only because he spends most of his time inside. Besides, I'm saving up for a bowl like the one I fell in love with on your Flickr page.

    What I really want right now is one of those fiction chucks, so I can mount up a misbehaving short story and force it to behave.

  2. Thanks, Jim! My aunt and uncle will totally dig that piece. I'd also like to order another for my Smart BIL, provided there's one left after the rest of the Hot Saw Dust Groupies get done with their screeching and hollering.

    As usual, your talent astounds.

  3. Aw, what's this going and fixing typos thing? I liked that one. A lot.

    Although I actually picture a fiction chuck as more like a drill chuck key: a little gizmo you can insert into your story and use to tighten plot holes.

    Wouldn't that be useful?

  4. Well, that's sort of how I regard you this morning, Phiala, my fiction chuck - tightening the typos. ;)

    Thanks. I'm pretty sure that wasn't there when I posted though. The "r" must have fallen out in transit.

    I blame Bill Gates.

  5. So these are fictional birdhouses then? I'm so disappointed!

  6. No, the birdhouses are real, Bill Gates is fiction - though "friction" work too.

  7. I would like #5. Paypal is fine.

  8. Woot! I've been trying to figure out what to get my mom for Christmas.

    #6, please.

  9. Pam gets #5.

    Send me an email with your contact info, Pam. I'll reply with a PayPal enabled email.


  10. Mary, same thing, please send an email to the address in the info box over there on the right of the main page. Sometime later this evening I'll send out Paypal invoices.


  11. I would like to order #3. Paypal works! Thanks so much for making these available.

  12. hee - I got the "you didn't do that on that big ole lathe" once. I guess we didn't go to the same school, either. And using the live center to do chuck line up is just smart.

    Bummer about the blowout, but even better save! And that bocote reminds me to go check out the stripey olivewood chunks at Superior.

    Awesome work, Jim!

  13. #1, with puffs instead of fries and a large sweet tea. Side order of moose nuggets thankew.

    E-mail en route.

  14. It's amazing, how just putting your hand (and machinery) to that stack of "unremarkable" wood brings out the beauty of it. Even before you've done the finishing, just seeing that grain pop like that is a "wow moment" for me.

    I'm so glad you share these pics of the process with us. In these days of automation and disposable commodities, I think most people don't realize the work and care that goes into hand-crafted things - and why they're so preferable to the mass-marketed crap we're importing from all over.

    Also: Men who work with wood are hawt, just sayin'. When he's not building/designing houses, my husband works in wood too. He's constructing the final version of my floor stand (for needlework projects) out of Tennessee Cedar. It makes my heart turn over, every time I see it. :)

  15. #4, please, and I'll take a number to buy a second one (for my aunt!) when the next group comes up.

    I'd buy #2 in a heartbeat, but Janiece has dibs.

    They're soooo pretty!

    My mail address is lauren




    next (drop the x to make a common suffix.)

  16. Purty. You wouldn't have any of them stunning bowls available, would you? Because, damn.

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  18. Hey -- I want one! Just because I'm late to the party, doesn't mean I should be shut out. And I already said I wanted one (after Janiece in the previous birdhouse post)...

    Is the whining working?

    Thought not. Phooey.

  19. WOW those are gorgeous. Unbelievable, really. Would you consider setting up a waiting list for the next round, or even doing a special order scenario?

    I'd love to buy one for my dad for Xmas. I had considered a bowl, but a birdhouse is even better. He's been having a particularly bad year - burglarized and "relieved" of all his USMC decorations and papers as well as some cheap-but-meaningful jewelry he got for my mom while he was fighting in Vietnam. Then he was diagnosed July 1 with Pancreatic Cancer, and is going through chemo now. Part of the reason I enjoy your blog is that your sense of humor reminds me of his in some ways. He really loves to spend time in the backyard, and he and my mom have worked hard to develop a bird-friendly garden so they can sit and watch the birds "doing bird business."

    I'd be thrilled if you'd be willing to make him a house. I think it's the most perfect gift I could give him. If you are willing, and want to talk about cost, please email me at aimgrrrl (3 r's) at gmail.

  20. Jim,

    Mighty fine crafting! Mighty fine indeed!


  21. OK, this is what I have:

    #1, Jeff Henstosz
    #2, Available
    #3, Cindy
    #4, Lauren Uroff
    #5, Pam Adams
    #6, Mary Robinette Kowal

    I've got email addresses for Jeff, Lauren, and Pam. Cindy and Mary I'll need your email addresses so that we can arrange payment and shipping privately.

    nzforme, I don't currently have bowls available. I will have some soon (and by soon I mean roughly before Christmas). I've sold nearly everything I've made recently, and have orders for half a dozen, including two I'm finishing for a charity auction. But I do have a dozen or so in progress (they take months to make, in various stages) and blanks cut for a dozen more, so there will be bowls for sale shortly. Promise.

    Aim, I'm sorry to hear about your dad. Here's wishing a complete and speedy recovery. To answer your question, yes, you may order birdhouses ahead.

    That goes for everybody else. Barring some unforeseen disaster, I should have a dozen or so birdhouses next week. If you think you'd like one, please note here so I have some idea of how many to make this week. As I said, I'm turning, finishing bowls, carving, and sculpting another bear statue base for the Air Force - so having an idea of how many of these things you're actually interested in would help me budget my time.

    Also, it appears #2 is still available, unless I missed a claim in the comments (if so, somebody please point that out to me). That's a very cool piece, Bocote and birch burl.

    I intended to get out Paypal emails to you all tonight, but I had a couple unexpected things to take care of (that parenting thing). I'll get them out tomorrow evening. Birdhouses will ship Friday. You know me, I only go to the Post Office once, and once only, and then grudgingly and with malice in my heart.

    And thank you all for your interest and kind words. Means a lot to me.

  22. Folks I suddenly realized that NeuronDoc had asked for one these in the last post - I'm going to give her priority on #2. If she wants it, it's hers.

    Doc, say yay or nay here in the comments (if you don't want this one, I'm cool with that - There should be plenty to pick from next week).

    If NeuronDoc doesn't want it, it's available to new folks for the rest of the day. If by this time tomorrow it's not claimed then it's available for anybody, including folks who've already reserved a piece.


    Yeah, sorry, I'm very tired tonight, and my kid is giving me a headache. School work. Urk.

  23. Absolutely, positively, definitively, I want one from the next round. They're really something special - you have a lot of talent! And my husband (former AK resident) will get a kick out of giving him something made in AK.

    Thanks for the good wishes for Dad.

  24. Opps, I do have Cindy's email address - and had even sent her a response.

    Yes, I'm very tired tonight.

  25. If Aim wants #2, then I will happily cede it to her and wait for something in the next round. Otherwise -- MINE!

    I can't believe my whining actually worked. :-D

    Hope you are more rested today.

  26. Hope you are more rested today.

    It's too early to tell, but it doesn't feel like it. Come on coffee.

  27. Neurondoc - Fair's fair. You were in first! I'll wait til next round :)

  28. Jim - I run a charity auction here in Chicago in March, and I'd be willing to buy something (bird house or otherwise) in the $30-$50 range.

    BUT, I'd like some kind of picture / document that says "I handmade this in Alaska" to go with. I think I can convince my Chicago auction buyers to bid it up!

  29. I will likely go for another, but I didn't want to be grabby this time round. (Also need to investigate first for evidence of "Made in China" mark being artfully scrubbed -- fair warning, mister!)

  30. Jim, I will also want another one, besides #2 above. If I have to wait for round 3 for my 2nd one, then I'll be patient. Really. Yes, really, now shut up.

  31. I too would like a second or third round choice.

    I'm sorry that we're forcing you to go to the Post Awful.

  32. I may be down for a birdhouse in the next round as well, although I am all over the whole "bowls around Christmas" thing.

  33. Count me in for the next round, too! This would be great for my parents.

  34. I'm going to need to get some more wood ;)

    At least I know what I'll be doing this weekend. Thank again, folks, for interest and kind words.

  35. Chris Gerrib,

    I'd be glad to help out with a charity piece, Chris. Send me an email and we'll work out the details.

  36. OK Jim at first glance I would have called mystery wood Red Oak. It is hard as hell and though there is a fragrance it usually reminds me of dirty socks. I will do some comparing.
    Now I have a few questions.
    1. What groupies are you talking about?
    2. Did the old school close recently? I hear about it all the time but can never seem to find it. It must move around a lot.
    3. How is it that you have all this exotic wood all of a sudden? Birch, Birch and only Birch must have been something I remembered from another Jim.
    4. If you are out of bowls why then aren't you pimping my stuff? Crap I got seven boxes of the stuff lyin around. Help me Pimp Momma Janice. Break out the purple suit.

    Ok now it's back to our regularly scheduled program.

  37. The Mystery of #5 is cleared up. Beastly has identified the wood as Orange Agate, an exotic wood from Peru.

    Now you know why I keep Beastly around. He's a useful guy to know.

  38. I've got everybody's email address, you should have paypal invoices.

    Birdhouses will ship tomorrow morning via priority mail. And after my visit to the Post Office, I'll be in the shop making more. Just for you.

    Thanks guys.

  39. I got my invoice! I paid it! I hope PayPal gives you the money quickly.

    (I've never been on the receiving money side of PayPal. Do they make it easy enough to get the funds out?)

    And big shout of Thanks to Beastly for extra identification efforts, especially since I won the one with the previously unidentified wood.

  40. Lauren, Paypal is very simple and easy to use as a seller. Which is why I use it.

    It handles the invoicing and book keeping. I have the Premier type account which works like a business savings account complete with debit cards and an excellent interest rate.

    Frankly, Paypal is better than most banks.

  41. Beastly, Beastly - you're supposed to put your etsy URL in your comment so that folks can check out your wares, not just whine about it.

    Beastly makes fabu boxes, y'all. His stuff is different in style from Jim's, but equally lovely.

    Jim, put me down for one more birdhouse for round 2 for my Smart BIL.

  42. Wow, I can actually afford these. I'd like to reserve two that look like #5 with the contrasting woods. Anytime before Christmas, so it doesn't matter which batch (everyone else looks like they've dibbed ahead of me by this point).

  43. I really like the look of these wooden birdhouses. A couple of them actually remind me of acorns, which is a nice touch. That last one and the 7th to last especially look like acorns. Those would probably be the ones I would want the most.


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