Circle Cutting by hand

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Forum topic by brianl posted 08-30-2011 04:53 PM 17504 views 0 times favorited 14 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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108 posts in 3588 days

08-30-2011 04:53 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I’m looking at building a tabouret with a circular top (similar to and I’m looking for some advice on how to cut the top with only hand tools. I’ve dug through all of the hand-tool woodworking books I own and I can’t seem to find anyone speaking about the technique(s) used to cut a circle. Anyone have any pointers to share?

Here the methods I have brainstormed:

  1. Cut to rough shape with panel saw, then use a spokeshave to smooth.
    1. This sounds like the best option so far. Cut into a 16-sided polygon and then smooth it out.
  2. Cut to a rough shape with panel saw and then sand.
    1. This would be a HUGE amount of sanding…
  3. Cut with a coping saw
    1. I don’t know if I could stay on the line for such a huge project.

#1 sounds like the winner, but it also sounds like a ton of work. Any advice?

-- Brian - Belmont, Massachusetts

14 replies so far

View Alan S's profile

Alan S

181 posts in 3824 days

#1 posted 08-30-2011 05:53 PM

I would vote for #3. You don’t have to stay on the line the whole time, just stay on it or outside of it then clean it up with sandpaper.


View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 3504 days

#2 posted 08-30-2011 06:03 PM

A bow saw is the real tool for this. The longer stroke will cut much more quickly than a little coping saw.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View yrob's profile


340 posts in 4159 days

#3 posted 08-30-2011 06:03 PM

Traditionally, it was made as in #1. You can keep drawing tangents as you get closer. At some point, you will get a perfect circle. A bow saw is also what people would use.

-- Yves

View Jon3's profile


497 posts in 4612 days

#4 posted 08-30-2011 06:44 PM

Drop a pin in the center, tie a string to it. On the end of the string, tie a pencil. Make your circle. The more hand-tool-y way would be to cut as close as you can with a bowsaw and spokeshave your way back to the line, but I think to do that properly you need a real good quality bow/coping saw with good blades, as well as some well practiced skills. Grammercy Tools makes a good bowsaw kit.

On the other hand, even though I love hand tools I’d probably do the top with a bandsaw and a tack for a pivot. =)

View brianl's profile


108 posts in 3588 days

#5 posted 08-30-2011 07:18 PM

Great, thanks for the feedback everyone! I think I’ll go with #1 (keep cutting corner off until it’s mostly circular and then use a spokeshave to smooth it down).

My concern with #3 (coping or bow saw) is trying to get it perfectly round. I am worried I’d get into an uneven shape. With #1 I know where all of the high spots are so rather than trying to smooth everything, I’m just smoothing known points.

-- Brian - Belmont, Massachusetts

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 4154 days

#6 posted 08-30-2011 10:52 PM

Use a trammel or cardboard template to draft a circle onto your panel.
Cut to the outside of the line, then use planes, chisels, rasps and files to work
to the line. You can tell when you’re getting close to an even, geometric
curve by closing your eyes and using your sense of touch to feel the edge.

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18671 posts in 4182 days

#7 posted 08-31-2011 05:49 AM

I would do #1 if i didn’t have a bow saw. A coping saw is not for cutting stock that thick. You might do a little more roughting with a draw knife or a really sharp small hatch before you start the spoke shaving. A rasp will take a lot of wood off quickly too.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3161 days

#8 posted 09-01-2011 05:22 AM

Bow saw. And I would smooth it out with a scraper shave (less worry about grain direction that way)

Lay the think out with tramel points (or string) and do your best. I think you will find yourself impressed with making it look right.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View maljr1980's profile


171 posts in 2963 days

#9 posted 09-05-2011 02:26 AM

why do you insist on using hand tools? if it were me i would use a router and a swingarm

View oldskoolmodder's profile


801 posts in 4186 days

#10 posted 09-05-2011 02:48 AM

I can understand the idea behind the hand tool circle, but time is important to most people, and a router can do the job in less than 5 minutes from setup to finished product. Each side has it’s own arguments for and against to some people.

-- Respect your shop tools and they will respect you - Ric

View Alster's profile


101 posts in 3721 days

#11 posted 09-05-2011 02:50 AM

I cut a 3.5 ft. circular tabletop a couple of weeks ago, and I did it with a coping saw. Kept outside my line by an eighth or sixteenth, and then smoothed up with a spokeshave. You’ll be able to hog off amazing amounts of wood with a spokeshave if you’re not timid about it, and can fine-tune things to snug right up to your line.

My guess is that this is both faster and easier than trying to knock off corners with a panel saw and then smooth the leftovers.

View BarneyTomB's profile


28 posts in 3024 days

#12 posted 09-05-2011 06:58 AM

Draw your circle. I’d use trammel points on a large metal straightedge. Bow saw just outside the line. Lay it flat on your workbench or flat table, IE 3/4” plywood or MD board. Clean the edge up with a shoulder plane.

-- Profanity; The last refuge of the limited intellect.

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3161 days

#13 posted 09-05-2011 04:39 PM

Barney, that’s awesome.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 2982 days

#14 posted 09-05-2011 05:04 PM

If you insist on doing it by hand then make a shooting board that will accommodate the radius of the circle you want to make plus a little bit more to put a pin in it. Shave a bit with the plane, turn a little bit, shave, etc. This is how a circle is done with a table saw.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

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