Shop Tips & Tricks #12: Making Long, Round Things in Wood - with the Norwegian Dowel Cutter

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Blog entry by GnarlyErik posted 04-15-2013 11:10 PM 94592 reads 23 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 11: MORE than you ever wanted to know about HOLES! Part 12 of Shop Tips & Tricks series Part 13: Duplicating Parts in Wood and Smoothing Curves »

Sometimes you need long round parts made from wood. Prior to the 19th century, specially made wooden dowels often served where nails, screws and bolts are used today. For instance, in barn building and shipbuilding, ‘trunnels’ were used to fasten timbers together and planks to a ships ribs. Outside of lacking the strength of of metal, trunnels are not affected by electrolysis and do not rust, important considerations in ships – although of course they can eventually rot. The word ‘trunnel’ comes from a corruption of the words ‘trenail’ or ‘tree nail’. Who’d a-thunk?

Today if you need long round things made from wood the first recourse is usually a lathe – but lathes are often not available and all lathes have their limitations. Here I will try to present a way to show how to make long, round wooden things without a lathe, quicker than with a lathe, more accurately than a lathe can do, and longer than most lathes can do. Tall order, right?

Not really, since almost anyone can easily make a ‘Norwegian dowel cutter’ – also known by other names. Just an aside here: There is a complete genre of ethnic jokes similar to ‘Polish’ jokes, except they are about Norwegians. I feel entitled to make such jokes since my father immigrated from Norway as a young man and I am half Norwegian. On the other hand, my father often said to me back when I was a teenager, “Son, you are half Norwegian, and the other half a complete sh*ta$$!” I’m still not sure exactly what he meant by that. Anyway, back to the Norwegian dowel cutter.

This is an easily made tool, similar in operation to a big pencil sharpener except the ‘pencil’ rotates instead of the sharpener. The following pictures explain things pretty well I think. This tool consists of a wooden ‘die’ of hardwood, bored through the same diameter of the dowel or rod you wish to make – or a bit over:

A. A custom cutter is made from a suitable piece of steel, configured to fit the die. This tool is a bit like the tenon cutters you can buy, except this one is not limited as to depth – you can make dowels or any length you have the stock for. You can make this apparatus in an hour or so, for any diameter rod or dowel you wish to make, up to about 3” or so. It is good to make a tang on the die to aid in clamping to your workbench – see pictures. Note that the cutter has a beveled starter side to accept stock that is not round;

B. The cutter can be made from any piece of suitable hardened steel. I Often use an old saw blade or something similar. Cutting this hardened material is easy with a small hand grinder equipped with a cut-off disc. The working edges are keenly sharpened, and the cutter affixed to the die as shown. Note the scores made with a grinder on the back side of the cutter to help keep it clamped tightly in position in operation.

C. Square your stock about 1/8” over, then eight-side (see The eight-siding can be quickly done by hand or power plane, jointer, or even a planer equipped with a suitable jig.

D. Since the stock must rotate thru the die and cutter, you must spin it. You can do this by hand (very laborious!), or far better, use a drill motor equipped with a ‘Norwegian Nut driver’. See photos. This driver is self-explanatory and works great. The ‘socket’ should be made of hardwood, of sufficient thickness to allow about a 1” deep socket, plus enough material to accept a 3/8” or 1/2” carriage bolt. (Need I say here it is always good to work from ‘the center out’ by drilling the hole for your bolt first, then make the socket, then cut the outside edge?) The bolt must be double-nutted on the driver side since clockwise rotation will tend to loosen a single nut. But of course I guess you could always run things in reverse . . . . hmm. A note here about the size of the nut driver; if you want to make more than one size of rod, it is good to settle on a single size for your driver – like a 1” square. Your working stock can then be squared on the driven end to a common size for your driver.

E. In operation, the stock is turned through the die and cutter apparatus. The cutter is adjusted to just a tiny fraction less than the hole diameter of the die. You should experiment a little to get everything adjusted just so. Once set, you will be amazed at how quickly and accurately this little set up can make rods for you. Hardwood is the best material for making rods and dowels, but with a properly sharpened cutter, you can do softwood rods almost as well – these pictures show making a dowel of soft pine.

This apparatus can also be used with a lathe, by starting it on one end of your stock before it is chucked into the lathe. With the lathe running at a slow speed, the die and cutter is simply held firmly and run down the length of your stock – giving you a consistent diameter the full length without calipers. If you use a lathe, try clamping your cutter to a longer piece of material for better control. It goes without saying you should always work slowly and deliberately, so as not to ruin material, and more importantly, hurt yourself or someone else!

I hope you find this useful . .

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

5 comments so far

View eddie's profile


8565 posts in 3826 days

#1 posted 04-15-2013 11:52 PM

love your tips ,you have a vast knowledge of this craft thanks for sharing it , it may just be my end but the link want work when i tried it on your blog section but dose on my comment post anyways thanks

-- Jesus Is Alright with me

View GnarlyErik's profile


363 posts in 3347 days

#2 posted 04-16-2013 12:29 AM

Thanks Eddie,

I went back to correct the link. Evidently I should not have used the punctuation I did. I think it works OK now. Thanks for pointing this out!


-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

View Jim Rowe's profile

Jim Rowe

1133 posts in 3525 days

#3 posted 04-16-2013 08:24 AM

Great idea. Many thanks for sharing.

-- It always looks better when it's finished!

View SFC's profile


2 posts in 2982 days

#4 posted 07-22-2013 06:07 PM

I like the do it yourself tooling. I have many old factory made tools in my shop, but some tools have to be made and can’t be bought. The old 19th century cast iron foundries are no longer producing stuff like this, and finding an old one in serviceable condition is a dicey proposition at best.

View Octavius's profile


60 posts in 4386 days

#5 posted 12-21-2013 03:20 PM

I’m seriously impressed, Erik.
And an excellent presentation.
Thanks for the inspiration.

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