Thirty years ago, if you needed an old house head block with a bullseye or rosette in it, you would have had to buy one pre-made or seek out one of the few rosette cutters on the market. Either way, it would’ve been too small for a typical renovation of an old house. Today, there are some rosette cutters that have interchangeable blades with the ability to have custom knives cut. But they’re too expensive, especially if you only need a few. And rosette cutters are hard to use on a drill press because they tend to chatter, ruining the work. My 1975 Craftsman has a little play in the bearings—it certainly won’t work with a rosette cutter!
Over the past few years, companies have come up with larger rosette cutters in a nice variety of patterns for those of us who love old houses.
For example, these are from Japan Woodworker.
Many companies are also making larger rosettes to match the width of typical old house trim, which is often 5 1/2 to 6 inches. The problem comes when you are trying to duplicate rosettes to match the ones that already exist in a home.
A few years ago, I was looking at an old catalogue for house trim. There was a section called “Turned Rosettes.” I suddenly had an epiphany! That’s how to make a custom bullseye—turn it on a lathe with a faceplate, like you would for a bowl! Everybody else in the world probably already knew that, but it had never occurred to me. I have an architectural woodworking business, so since my epiphany, I’ve made hundreds of rosettes. Now I can make one in any pattern in just a few minutes…
This is one rosette I wanted to duplicate:
(Note: Click any image to enlarge)
I had to create eighteen of them. The paint was so thick that the lines and depths of cut weren’t clear, so I took a heat gun to it, removing enough of the paint to allow for a clear view of what I would needed to replicate.
I cut squares to the desired size and thickness. In this case, they were 5 1/2 inches square and 1 1/8 inches thick.
I made a 1/4-inch plywood template for the faceplate holes so I wouldn’t have to lay out each blank individually.
I screwed the faceplate to the blank with short screws so I wouldn’t hit them when it came time to turn the other side.
I also made a little story pole to show where the key lines were.
I mounted the stock in the lathe and while the lathe was turning, I used a pencil and the story pole to mark the key junctures.
The beads on the rosette I was duplicating had a little flat bottom and not a typical pointed valley. The pointed end of the skew wouldn’t work perfectly, so I ground my own little flat parting tool to match the desired width.
You can always purchase thin parting tools, but I didn’t want to wait! With a marker, I marked the depth of the two cuts on the parting tool.
Unlike a spindle, in this case, you can’t use a caliper to check for thickness.
I then cut my key transitions with my parting tool.
I used a skew chisel in a scraping move to round over the beads and the center. Woodturners would probably tell you to use a small spindle gouge to round them over, but I find the skew easier to use. I have ruined too many pieces with a catch using a spindle gouge. Scraping does take a little more sanding, but it’s worth it.
I also used the skew chisel to get the subtle curve leading up to the center piece.
A coving tool works very nicely for reaching in to the tight spots without any chance of catching. It has become my favorite tool for projects like these, and for making coves in a spindle. You can find them online at the Craft Supplies Woodturners Catalog. It’s much easier to use than a gouge and it’s a lot easier to sharpen. The first time I read about it, the article I was reading described how to make your own out of a steel rod: Simply grind the end to sharpen and then rub the sides with a stone to get rid of the burrs. Add a homemade handle and you’re ready to go. That’s certainly ten times easier than getting the correct fingernail tip on a spindle gouge. It requires a little more sanding as you’re scraping, but I’ll gladly do that for an easy-to-use tool.
This is the end result—a very close match to the original:
These are a lot of fun to make and very satisfying. As I mentioned earlier, since I had the realization that these could easily be made on a lathe, I’ve made quite a few…
This is another head block I’ve turned. I made the top and bottom separately, on a bandsaw, and then I attached them with biscuits. I made it to match a head block from an 1890s house.
This one was so long that I had to turn it on the outboard side of the lathe. I kept my speed low, and I made the bottom with a bandsaw after it was turned. I made a little sled to screw it to so that I could ensure it would stay perpendicular while I was cutting.
The turned portion had to be in the center of the piece of wood or my lathe would fly away! If the end result isn’t centered, you can always cut away, or add on, after turning.
This is the installation of the above bullseye.
The original little flower on the bottom of this picture was about 40 feet up, applied to a bracket as a decoration on an 1870s home. I had seen it for years and always wondered how they were made. I assumed they were hand carved. When I took a broken one down to duplicate it, I noticed it was simply a turned bullseye with sections cut out with a bandsaw to make the flower. Clever idea! I made twenty for the restoration.
I also made several of these for a restoration.
And lots of these, all using this turned bullseye technique.
Some homes in the 1890s had trim head blocks that were a quarter of a circle. They can be made with the same method on a lathe…
Cut a round blank a little larger than you need to make a perfect circle, and connect it to the faceplate just like you would a bowl.
You’ll then turn it on the lathe as you would a bowl.
Once you have your finished circle, you’ll mark and cut it into quarters.
After some paint and finish, you can install it into the moldings and it’ll be an exact duplicate of the original.
You’ve probably already noticed that old houses sometimes have three of these in the panel below a large picture window. Now, after my epiphany and some practice, I can quickly recreate them for restoration projects and for my own creative woodworking pleasure!