STEFANG'S CHINESE BALL QUEST #1: Project Description and Making Special Tools

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Blog entry by stefang posted 01-28-2012 09:58 PM 26124 reads 10 times favorited 35 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of STEFANG'S CHINESE BALL QUEST series Part 2: Some Tool Details and My Ball Cutting Jig »

Here’s a photo of the kind I am attempting to make. There are four balls encased in the outer ball which is about 2-7/16” in diameter. Please note that it is turned from a solid piece of wood on the lathe.

I first became aware of Chinese balls while visiting Hong Kong as a young sailor in 1957. I saw some in a shop made from solid ivory. I could see they were made from solid pieces with no gluing. I should have bought one, but they were too expensive for me. During the years after being discharged from the Navy, I wondered off and on how those balls had been produced, but not enough to try and find out.

I bought a book by David Springett entitled ‘Woodturning Wizardry’ at my local woodworking store. I had heard that the book had some interesting projects and chucks, so I bought it without leafing through it. When I did finally get time to read it I was amazed that one of the projects was how to make Chinese balls similar to the ones I had seen in Hong Kong, Though these wooden ones were not intricately carved after turning as the ivory ones. Here is a link to Springett’s fine book on making them.

I’m not intending this as a tutorial blog. The book is far better on the subject than any how-to that I might attempt. I just thought that some of you might be interested in seeing something a little off the beaten path. I also thought that it might inspire others to give it a try.

This will be a challenging project for me and perhaps some others, but a snap for folks who already possess some of the skills required. Referring here mainly to metal working skills and woodturning.

I plan to share with you my failures and successes with this project for better or for worse. This will reveal some of the pitfalls that I have encountered so that others might avoid them. The idea is: If I can do it so can you.

1. Make special turning tools
2. Make a ball cutting jig for the lathe
3. Make a wooden chuck to hold the ball workpiece in various fixed positions for drill/turning,
4. Make a special tool rest for the lathe or an adapted standard tool rest.
5. Standard tools needed: Metal cutting hacksaw metal files (small and regular), twist drill bits in various sizes, a Jacobs bit for the lathe tailstock, a drill press (small or large), A tap & die set.
6. Suitable wood to turn the balls from (described in the book)
7. A small butane/propane torch. (cheap at most hardware stores).
8. A center punch for steel that can be used for marking out holes to be drilled in the cutters and tool holders.
9. A vise to hold the steel in for sawing out the steel cutters and filing the cutter profiles.

I bought some steel plate cut-offs from a local engineering firm at a good price. This was unhardened plate of a decent quality. I got 1/8” and 1/4” plate. The cutting tools are made from the 1/8” plate and the tool holders from the 1/4” plate.

Tool holders
The thick plate for the tool holders was hard to cut by hand and the jigsaw was no better, so I chain drilled around the layout marking and then cut the thin part between the holes with a metal cutting blade in my jigsaw. The drilling took some time, but it was much easier physically to do. The cutting to separate them from the plate was done in minutes. I first painted the plate with typing correction paint and them traced them using a cardboard template. Here are some pics of it.

After cutting them out I ground the rough edges smooth with my bench grinder, tapped two holes in each to hold the slotted cutting tools and then I polished them. No hardening was required for the tool holders.

Cutting tool
I also made cardboard (cereal box) patterns for the five cutting tools made from the 1/8” plate. I used a hacksaw to cut them out and file/ground the rough edges. I chain drilled holes for places I couldn’t get to with my hacksaw. I sawed the slots in these with a metal blade in my scroll saw, but handheld coping saw with a metal cutting blade would also work well here. The tip of these cutters have to be hardened and tempered. Heat to cherry red and then douse in a bucket of cold water to harden, then reheat to a light blue color and douse again to temper.

Tool handles
I turned these from some white oak stock I had on hand. I turned the first one the way I like it, then I made a simple pattern from the inside curve (or cove) and used that to help duplicate the others. Here is a photo of the finished turning tools.

That’s it for today. I will show you the ball cutting jig in the next episode. I will try to keep the next blogs less wordy now that I have explained what the project is all about. Thank you for reading. The following links cover all the blogs in the series to date. #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

35 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile


118162 posts in 4692 days

#1 posted 01-28-2012 10:20 PM

Wow Mike this is way cool, I look forward to the rest of your blog.


View degoose's profile


7281 posts in 4469 days

#2 posted 01-28-2012 10:34 PM

Now you are messing with MY head.. I look forward to your blog…

-- Don't drink and use power tools @

View Dave's profile


11435 posts in 3955 days

#3 posted 01-28-2012 10:40 PM

Holy Cow Mike its multiple projects in one. Just to imagine the time you have spent. Great job. I can see those grandchildren playing with it.
My dad was in the navy during WWII. He showed me a knot called a monkey paw. It took me weeks to master it. He was teaching me patience.
Thanks for sharing. Awaiting the next blog.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View lew's profile


13366 posts in 4870 days

#4 posted 01-28-2012 10:46 PM

This is so cool, Mike!

You indicated the tool holders were not hardened, how about the cutting portion of the tool?


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View Mark Shymanski's profile

Mark Shymanski

5623 posts in 4827 days

#5 posted 01-28-2012 10:49 PM

Very interesting! I think this will be a great blog to follow.

-- "Checking for square? What madness is this! The cabinet is square because I will it to be so!" Jeremy Greiner LJ Topic#20953 2011 Feb 2

View stefang's profile


17040 posts in 4449 days

#6 posted 01-28-2012 10:55 PM

Glad you guys are interested enough to read it! Thanks for the positive comments.

Dave Ok for the older kids, but not the younger ones. If a ball like this is dropped on the floor it will almost certainly break. Each ball has walls only about 3mm thick except for the smallest one in the center which is solid with a radius just a little over 1/16”

Lew Good catch. I forgot to mention that the cutting tools have to be hardened and then tempered. I worried about this part all the time I was making the tools, and it turned out to be the easiest part. I just heated the cutting tips to a cherry red color, dipped them in a bucket of water to harden then I reheated to a blue color and again doused them in water to temper. I tried for a straw color but wound up with light blue, which was recommended in the book anyway.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 4151 days

#7 posted 01-28-2012 10:56 PM

I can see the sort of thing you saw back in ‘57, in my mind. Its the sort of thing you look at and wonder and look at and wonder, ad infinitum. If I ever see something like the Ivory one you saw I will sell all my worldly goods and buy it. This should indicate the depth of my interest in your project, here. THIS is CLEVER stuff.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

View daltxguy's profile


1373 posts in 5029 days

#8 posted 01-28-2012 11:27 PM

Wow, this is fascinating already, just with the making of the tools!

If you hardened and tempered the cutting edges of the tools, then the steel plate you were using must not be simple mild steel, is it? it must be some carbon steel?

Or is the 1/4” steel mild steel but the 1/8” steel is tool steel ( ie: high carbon or carbon/alloy)

-- If you can't joint it, bead it!

View Jim Bertelson's profile

Jim Bertelson

4275 posts in 4279 days

#9 posted 01-28-2012 11:34 PM

Youse is a man on a mission…..pretty darned involved, I would say. It will be fun to see how it goes.

-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

View stefang's profile


17040 posts in 4449 days

#10 posted 01-28-2012 11:45 PM

I’m very happy to see that this is striking a chord with you guys.

Martyn This clever stuff comes from a fellow Brit of yours David Springett. God save the Queen!

Steve Yes, I used high carbon steel plate. It isn’t tool steel, but it is a good quality and holds it’s edge well (I’ve already tried that).

Jim Yes, now I will have to finish this project successfully or really be embarrassed.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View shipwright's profile


8727 posts in 3913 days

#11 posted 01-29-2012 01:25 AM

Way….. Too….. Cool !!

I’ll be watching Mike.

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View grizzman's profile


7836 posts in 4418 days

#12 posted 01-29-2012 01:32 AM

well you never cease to amaze me mike, from making these turning tools to what your taking on for a project, it certainly will be a great project, one that is not the norm…cant wait to see it…and what you do, we all make mistakes, we know that…its how we learn…thank you mike…grizz

-- GRIZZMAN ...[''''']

View patron's profile


13721 posts in 4456 days

#13 posted 01-29-2012 01:51 AM

well done mike
you have captivated us all again

with your clever projects
and razor sharp …..

....... well tools lol

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Hoakie's profile


307 posts in 5151 days

#14 posted 01-29-2012 02:42 AM

WOW!! This is going to be an exciting journey….can’t wait for the next installment. Definitely an inspiration :)

-- John H. [To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. ~Edison]

View Dale J Struhar Sr's profile

Dale J Struhar Sr

520 posts in 4245 days

#15 posted 01-29-2012 04:01 AM

This is exciting.

-- Dale, Ohio

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