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I am in the process of designing a baby crib and am considering using vertical dowels for the sides. I am not looking forward to purchasing dowels which are pricey, hard to find in quantity and quality, and don't show up in any but a few very common woods.

I am thinking about making them from scratch. I know it's foolish and/or impossible to do on a lathe. Any advice on methods and pitfalls of DIY dowels?

Still in the design phase, but anticipate 5/8" diameter by about 30".

  • 1
    Related? woodworking.stackexchange.com/q/1040/158 – RedGrittyBrick Apr 22 '15 at 10:16
  • I know it's foolish and/or impossible to do on a lathe. Isn't making square wood round exactly what a lathe is for? I'm sure that's just a typo... – FreeMan Apr 22 '15 at 11:32
  • Do they need to be round? why not just round the corners off the wood and leave them with flat sides? Or do you like the prison look? ;) – bowlturner Apr 22 '15 at 12:57
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    @FreeMan dowels are too long and too narrow to be safely used on a lathe, any pressure from the tool will cause the blank to bend and explode in your face. – ratchet freak Apr 22 '15 at 13:01
  • @ratchetfreak, good point. The 5/8" diameter didn't really register with me on that particular scale... – FreeMan Apr 22 '15 at 13:12
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LeeG's method of using a router table is good though you can add finger boards.

After getting the blanks nearly round with the router you can jig up a chisel in a block of wood so it ends up looking a bit like a pencil sharpener.

enter image description here

Then with a hand-drill you can rotate the blank against the chisel so it ends up truly round.

This article describes the full process in detail.

  • That's an amazing hack, I should try it. – PeterK Apr 22 '15 at 12:02
  • I like that too! Great idea. – LeeG Apr 22 '15 at 13:01
  • Thanks for the input. I really like the drill and chisel method. No limit to length, no capital required, looks safe, but like anything worth doing will probably take some tinkering and practice to master. – Ast Pace Apr 22 '15 at 16:54
  • I haven't used the "pencil sharpener" method but it seems you need to use one of the other methods first to get the dowel almost round. It would be nice if you summarized the complete process. – rob Apr 22 '15 at 16:56
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Three methods I know of. First is a dowel plate. You trim your wood to approximate size and use a mallet to pound it through smaller and smaller holes until it is the size you want.

Lie-Nelson Dowel Plate

You can also use a round over bit in a table mounted router. Leave the ends square (to run along the fence), and pass all 4 corners across the appropriate sized round over bit. You need to have a router fence and table that is about twice the length of the dowel you want to create.

From Wood Magazine

A third way, that I have never tried personally, is to use a table saw. You make a jig to pass the piece through perpendicular to the blade and turn the piece to round the corners. If you want to go this route, it deserves a full question and answer by itself.

Making dowels with the table saw

Lastly, there are companies that make custom dowels out of a variety of woods. If you need several long dowels, this might be a better way to go.

  • Thanks for your answer. I had considered the router solution before asking the question, and was hoping for some other suggestions (and received them). As pictured, the table saw method looks like an accident waiting to happen (pushing hands toward the bare spinning blade - certainly easily corrected, though) – Ast Pace Apr 22 '15 at 17:05
  • The table saw system is best suited for cutting round tenons on the ends of pieces too large to easily round over in other ways without a lathe. – keshlam Apr 26 '15 at 2:30
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I have tried several methods. I'll list them below and comment:

  1. Using Mattias Wandel's "pencil sharpener" method.

enter image description here

This works moderately well but I found that the dowels had spiral grooves in them. Also, the wood broke over time, so I got sick of it.

  1. Using a router table:

enter image description here

This didn't work at all for me. There was too much force required to push the dowel through (although, I could have messed up somehow).

  1. Router table roundover bit. This was mentioned by @LeeG. This worked great. It didn't make them perfectly round, but it was easy to chuck it in my drill and finish it off with some sand paper.

  2. Izzy Swan's method. I actually haven't tried this yet. The basic idea is that you drill a hole through steel. That hole will have a burr and that burr becomes a cutter as you feed wood through on a drill.

  • @dife when you say "the wood broke over time" what did you mean? During cutting or the process seemed to weaken the wood prematurely - what? – Ast Pace Apr 23 '15 at 19:19
  • @ASTPace--the top of the wood (where it meets the chisel) is quite thin. There's quite a bit of force as you're pushing the wood through with the drill and so I found that it tended to snap. – dfife Apr 23 '15 at 19:32
  • Did the whole, thin top edge of the wood break off, just around the chisel, or away from the chisel? I can imagine drilling a slightly oversized (by maybe 1/32") hole then mortising out a gap for the chisel to fit in would resolve this. there would be no more thin edges. – FreeMan Apr 14 '16 at 12:34
  • Yes, the thin top edge broke off. – dfife Apr 14 '16 at 16:37
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I was quite surprised by your assertion that you can't make dowel on a lathe. So I asked my uncle, and we went out to the shop and made some on the lathe. It is not hard, just slow. To control breakage use both a tailstock and midpoint support and limit your effective length by keeping your tool near a support. This does require moving the mid support frequently.

Further a lathe is the only way to make decorative dowels with balls and tapers.

  • Thanks for your research. I included the insertion to make sure that I got responses other than "use a lathe." It's difficult to control the diameter over the entire length. (Easy to get subtle changes in diameter without realizing it.) Given the particular specification (5/8" D x 30" length, it's somewhere between tricky and impossible to eliminate whipping as when attempting to bring the middle down to the desired diameter. As for beaded turnings, I wouldn't call them dowels. – Ast Pace Apr 25 '15 at 20:16
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    as for constant diameter, you can clamp a stop to your tool, or do what I do and use a cheap metal lathe. For metal work I have a good lathe, but the cheap lathe is more than good enough for wood and the modified tool holder accommodates wood tools for precision work or screws. ( I put that rig together to make acme threads on hardwood to make a variable height stool. ) – hildred Apr 25 '15 at 20:24
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For completeness I would like to mention their are some commercial solutions available as well. This is one of several examples. It has parts that let you make dowels from 1/4" to 1" in diameter.

Dowel maker

Image from LeeValley Tools

This one in particular functions on the same principal as the Mattias Wandel's method shown in a couple of the answers here. There are two blades. The first one rough cuts the square stock, and the second details to create the dowel. Making square stock from wood should be a simple process.

From a financial standpoint this might only be something to consider it you plan to "dowel all the things" to quote Peter Grace. For making one or two dowels here and there one of the other methods might be more viable.

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The Finewoodworking May 27, 2015, edition has an article on making dowel. I would suggest a dowel plate which seems easier and safer than using a router. Rather than cutting the stock for the plate with a saw, I would split it with a clever, froe or chisel to ensure that the grain is running straight through the dowel.

  • Splitting the raw stock undoubtedly reduces the incidents of the dowel breaking during its machining regardless of technique. – Ast Pace Nov 10 '15 at 3:28

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