Turning a Traditional Mill


Turning a Traditional Mill:
Chris West guides you through the process of creating a simple mill for your salt or pepper

Chris West guides you through the process of creating a simple mill for your salt or pepper

In this article, I will mention the basic components of a traditional salt and pepper mill mechanism. The two
mills shown on this page have very simple shapes. When turned using attractive woods the simple lines focus attention on the chosen wood. These mills will look great on and enhance any dining room table.

Traditional pepper mill made from ash with UK mechanism

Spigot or tenon?
A little reminder of my interpretation of the words ‘spigot’ and ‘tenon’:
SPIGOT – where a projection is being used as a means of holding a piece of wood in chuck jaws and will be eventually removed as waste wood
TENON – where a projection is being used as an integral part of a turned object and will be there on completion whether seen or not

These two words are used extensively throughout this article.

Holding the blank
The blank can be held in a number of different ways. Which method you usemay well depend on the jaws you have available. Some of the options are:

Jumbo compression jaws
These jaws, provided they have enough capacity, can be used to hold the outside diameter of the blank. A big advantage is that jumbo jaws are strong enough to hold a longer blank, which is possibly going to be drilled from both ends. Never extend the jaws to the maximum, to avoid the risk of one or more of the individual jaws flying out when the lathe is turned on.

Smaller compression jaws
These can hold a spigot formed on the workpiece, or a custom-made jam chuck. A spigot with a diameter of around 40mm and a length of 15mm, will hold a blank more than 152mm long so that it can be comfortably drilled. 

Expansion jaws
Use these jaws to hold the inside of a previously drilled hole, where any potential jaw marks either won’t be seen or can be removed at a later stage. Masking tape wrapped around the jaws will reduce marking.

Plastic jaws
Plastic jaws are very useful when holding the tenon to turn the top of the mill. They cause less indentation on the tenon than metal jaws.

Dovetail jaws
The length of a dovetail can be less than that of a straight spigot, so less additional wood needs to be included on the blank. However, this depends on the shape of the very top of the mill. Dovetail jaws
of sufficient size will hold a blank well. 

Screw chuck
If you plan to drill the 8mm stem hole in the top of the mill using a pillar drill before turning, then a suitably-sized screw chuck can utilise this hole for holding the top at its tongue end while shaping the outside.

Drive jig
When shaping the mill body, it is recommended that the work is held between a drive jig (as shown on page
69) held in compression jaws and the tailstock.

Turning the blank
The initial rough turning is carried out in the normal way, between centres and using a roughing gouge, followed by a 13mm beading and parting tool to form the spigots/tenons. Start turning using a slow speed. Once the corners have been removed, the speed can be increased. When the blank is cylindrical, stop the lathe and mark out the required holding method.
The tenon should first be turned to around 5mm more than its finished size. The correct diameter can be achieved either by stopping the lathe and checking with preset callipers or, if you feel sufficiently confident, the callipers can be held in one hand over the tenon while the other hand controls the cut of the beading and parting tool.

Drilling the body of the mill
Most of the drilling required to turn a mill uses sawtooth bits, which cut into end grain well. It is possible to drill the holes on a pillar drill; however, there is a risk of the drill wandering if the wood is not held firmly.
I recommend that the holes are drilled with the blank on the lathe. The spigot is held in compression jaws, and the sawtooth bit in a Jacobs chuck in the tailstock. Once the base is running true, the lathe should be
set to around 500 rpm for drilling.
If you don’t have the correct size of sawtooth bit, a smaller one will suffice; the hole can then be opened up using the long point of a 13mm skew chisel. While drilling, withdraw the bit regularly to release the shavings; this will also reduce the chance of the bit and the wood overheating.
Always begin by drilling the largest hole. The centre point for the drill should still be there from roughing out the blank. Alternatively, use an engineering centre drill to pre-drill the centre point. Once the body of the mill has been drilled, it is taken off the lathe and the spigot is removed from the top part of the body, usually by one of two methods:
• Using a bandsaw, or
• By securing the inside of the first hole in expansion jaws and bringing the tailstock up, then using either a 13mm spindle gouge or a 3mm parting tool.

If you use the first of the above methods, the next stage is to mount the body in either expansion or jumbo jaws. Ensure it is running true and bring up the tailstock to make a new centre point. Face off the body to the right length. Replace the centre point in the tailstock with the Jacobs chuck and drill the necessary holes to complete the hollowing of the body.
The second method could well leave unslightly jaw indentations on the inside of the hole, which may remain visible after the mechanism has been screwed in. However, there is usually a chance to remove these marks at a later stage. If you are turning a taller mill, buy or borrow a sawtooth bit shank extension. This will extend your scope by 152mm at either end, which makes it possible to design and turn a 510mm mill.

Blank ready to be drilled

Sawtooth bit held in a Jacobs chuck, marked with the depth of the hole to be drilled

Engineering centre drill

Drilling the top of the mill
Hold the top by its dovetail/spigot in compression jaws. After ensuring that it is running true, face off the tenon to a length of around 10mm. If the top is going to be turned separately from the body, the tenon can be an easy fit, allowing for some movement of the wood such that the top of the mill will still turn if either the tenon or the body become slightly oval. If the tenon needs to be reduced after the outside
has been shaped, this is done before the dovetail/spigot is removed.
I use a 7.5mm drill for the shaft hole. I accept that this is an odd size, but it works really well. If you don’t plan to make many mills, then the 8mm drill will be fine.

Drive plugs, plates and jig
Depending on which type of traditional mechanism you are planning to use, the plastic drive plugs or the drive plate should be fitted into or screwed onto the tenon. The drill size required for the drive plug is a 9mm twist drill for a depth of 15mm. If you are fitting the drive plate to a salt mill, use stainless steel screws.
The aluminium circular drive plate must be positioned dead centre, hence the recess to take the plate, so that the sections of the mill can rotate together evenly. It is  important to drill the stem hole 8mm in diameter for this type of drive plate. 

Plastic drive plug

Aluminium drive plate

This drive jig is held in a chuck to support and drive the traditional mill’s body when being shaped

Drilling and turning a traditional mill
The mill below is made from maple (Acer saccharum) and walnut (Juglans spp.) and is an ideal project for a beginner. Whether you are turning this mill with one or two different woods, the outside shape of the blanks are turned as one. After rough turning the two blanks, the next stage is the drilling. Use a 175mm pepper mechanism.
The mill’s vertical dimensions have been worked out to accept the chosen mechanism without shortening. If you find it is necessary, adjust the height of either or both the mill’s body and top to be the correct length for the mechanism you use.

Blank size: 160 x 75 x 75mm
Mount the body by its spigot, face off what will be the bottom and drill parts 1 and 2 shown on the diagram (see below) with sawtooth bits. Reverse the blank, holding the 40mm hole in expansion jaws. When running true, bring up the live centre, measuring and marking the overall length 145mm. Face off drill part 3, to meet up with the existing hole.

Blank size: 92 x 75 x 75mm
Mount the top by the dovetail and face off the bottom of the tenon to a length of 10mm. Turn the tenon’s diameter until it is a fairly tight fit into the body of the mill. Form a recess for the drive plate if required. Drill to a depth of 50mm using either a 7.5 or 8mm drill bit. Reverse, holding by the tenon. Measure the overall length (63mm) and part down to the dovetail before drilling through to meet the existing hole.

Turning the outside of the mill
Hold the two halves of the mill’s blank between the jig and a live centre in the tailstock. The objective of the shaping is to get a smooth, contiguous flow between the two parts of the mill. The dovetail at the top of the mill has to remain in place for a little longer to allow you to reduce the diameter of the tenon to an easy fit
into the top of the body.
Take the two halves apart and hold the spigot of the top section in compression jaws. When running true, bring up the tailstock for support. Reduce the tenon’s diameter until it is an easy fit into the top of the mill. Remove the top from the lathe and wrap the tenon with masking tape before placing it in the compression jaws with the tailstock in place. Remove the dovetail and finally turn the curve at the top of
the mill. Sand the mill down to 400 grit, before sealing and finishing. 

The jig held in a chuck awaiting the body of the mill

Base and top ready to be shaped

Outside turning completed

Once you are happy with the sanding process, there are a number of alternative finishes you may wish to apply, such as colour, ebonising or burning. Whichever finish you choose, you are probably going to need to seal the wood. The aim is to avoid moist-handed chefs leaving permanent marks on your beautiful turned mills! Once the finishing process has been completed, the two halves are ready for the mechanism to be fitted.

Fitting the mechanism
Assume that the mechanism’s shaft/stem does not need shortening. Since I turn a large number of mills, I have drilled a 13mm hole in my bench. Slide the grinding mechanism’s individual parts over the stem in the right order and insert it into the bottom of the mill’s body. Using an index finger to support the grinding parts, tip the base of the mill over and place the stem through the hole in the bench. Position the retainer of the mechanism over the grinding mechanism, before screwing the retainer into the bottom of the mill’s body.
It is worth making pilot holes for the screws. Use a scriber with a wooden handle to lightly hammer through one of the retainer’s holes, at an angle away from the mill’s reservoir, to a depth of around 5mm. Now fit the first screw loosely, and make a pilot hole for the second screw once you are happy that the mechanism is central in its hole. Fit the second screw and tighten the first. Remove the mill from the bench. Place the drive plate in the recess in the top’s tenon and screw it in place. Screw on the finial nut to ensure that
the top can be made tight to the body of the mill. If it doesn’t bed down properly, it may be that the thread of the stem needs to be filed down a little.

Component parts of a common UK traditional mill

Component parts of a common USA traditional mill

Testing the mill
Giving maintenance tips to the client gives added value. Don’t forget the top of the mill should only be turned clockwise; the mechanism will wear out quicker if it is twisted otherwise. Tell your client to apply paste wax to the mills occasionally, to keep a nice sheen. Before giving a mill to a client, always test it first. It is well worth doing this because there is the possibility of something having been put together incorrectly, and you will sleep better at night knowing that you have produced a good quality mill.


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