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Turning a Wooden Hat

By Larry Hancock

I want to start by saying I probably never would have thought of making a wearable wooden hat on my own. Johannes Mi-
chelsen is the first turner, to my knowledge, to turn such a hat and introduced it to the public. I personally have never seen him
demonstrate but I have read articles he wrote and have seen a video of him turning. This along with the help from fellow turners
that have seen him demonstrate in person enabled me to turn my first hat. I would someday like to meet him in person and watch
him demonstrate in person. Please visit his site (woodhat.com) to learn more about his hats, process and video.

The first step in turning a hat is to select your wood. It needs to be a fresh piece with no cracks or checks and preferably a light
colored wood so the light shines through easily while turning. You want to select the blank from a straight and clear area of the
trunk without any limbs or visible defects. You do not want to start your first hat with a piece of wood that will cause undue
problems while turning or shaping. I use sycamore mainly because it is easy to get in large diameters here and makes a good-
looking hat, it will also shape oval easily. I used hackberry for this hat and it worked very well.

This is a crossgrain oriented turning; the grain of the blank is oriented perpendicular to the axis of the lathe. We are taking
advantage of the woods natural tendency to shrink in width to help shape the hat oval so grain alignment and orientation is
important. Make the cut from the log section parallel to the pith, avoiding any cracks radiating from it. The brim side of the hat
is located toward the center of the log and the crown is on the bark side.

There are no special tools or light setups actually needed to complete this project. Johannes uses a light run through the head-
stock spindle of the lathe to turn the top but I have never found this necessary and lathes like the Poolewood have no access
through the headstock for this so I will show you the way I reverse turn the top to finished thickness. The only tool required
for this turning is a bowl gouge. A simple frame for holding and shaping the hat once turned, that you can make yourself, is the
only special piece needed.

Tutorial by Larry Hancock • Photos and Text by Larry Hancock


Distributed by Craft Supplies USA
April 2006

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I use a 5/8” bowl gouge as the main Its time to start roughing out the blank.
tool for turning a hat. It is side ground I am using a 3/4” bowl gouge with the
using the Oneway wolverine-grinding flute facing my body and cutting in a
jig. pulling motion toward me. I start the
roughing at about 300 to 400 rpm. As
the roughing proceeds, the speed is in-
creased. Variable speed drives are very
nice for their ability to fine tune speed
to minimize vibration. This lathe has a
three-step pulley system and I have it
on the slowest pulley to maximize torque.
After seeing Stuart Batty turn, I now
grind my small 1/4” through 1/2” bowl The blank roughly coned shaped now
gouges with a grind similar to a spindle with the crown of the hat at the tailstock
gouge profile with a secondary bevel. end of the lathe. I have aligned the grain
The bevel angle is less than 90 degrees as I want it and checked for any defects
so it will reach into tighter areas than in the wood I can see at this stage.
the gouge above. I use this gouge to
turn the tenon to fit the chuck and to
make the inside cuts up to the brim.

Being fresh cut, they are very heavy. You can see a crack in the edge of this
I start between centers so I can adjust blank and a small knot that I will need
the blank for grain orientation and to to remove so it will not be in the finished
eliminate any defects I find before I piece. This can wait until after reversing
turn a tenon to fit in the chuck. Since I the blank in the chuck.
do not want the blank ending up com-
ing off the lathe at this early stage, I
drive the four-prong spur center into
the blank for a more secure seat.

Now that I am satisfied with the blank


While I am chain sawing the blank to a orientation, I can turn a tenon to mount
rough round shape I go ahead and cut the blank in the chuck and start shaping
away some of the bark parallel to the the exterior of the hat.
sawn side. This is where the tailstock I do not try to turn the finished profile
will seat. I remove bark where my tail- of the hat until the blank is in the chuck.
stock center will be to get down to a Some run out usually occurs when re-
harder area of the blank for a better versed, so I save the finish turning until
grip. then. Uniform thickness throughout this
If the bark were loose, I would go ahead turning is important so true up the blank
and remove it before starting the lathe after reversing.
to avoid it flying off. This blank is not close to the finished shape but I wanted to men-
tion it at this point because many turners expect the blank to run
I start the turning of all hats (actually perfectly when reversed. I expect some truing of the blank will be
everything like bowls, hollow forms, needed after reversing so I save finish cuts and sanding until then.
etc.) between centers on the lathe. This
allows me freedom to manipulate the The blank reversed and the tenon se-
blank by changing the spur or tailstock cured in the chuck. A faceplate with
center location to achieve the desired screws will work in place of the chuck.
grain orientation, which is very impor- Just remember the depth the screws go in
tant in this project. so they do not end up through the top of
Make sure the blank has a clear path the finished hat.
to rotate before starting the lathe. Ad-
just the tool rest and rotate the blank
by hand first.

This picture shows a line drawn to indi-


cate the centerline of the heart through The blank mounted in the chuck and the
the blank with the spur center seated on tailstock is supporting the outboard end.
the line. I can now make adjustments The wood grain could break in line with
on the tailstock side if needed for better the chuck jaws since this is cross grain
grain orientation. oriented. It is always best to keep the
tailstock in contact until it is necessary
to move it out of the way for hollowing
just as a precaution.

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If you want your hat to actually fit the dimensions of your head A view from the back of the gouge. The
so you can wear it you need to have those dimensions ready now, shavings come off the cutting edge as
actually when the blank was selected. long tight spirals or long and straight de-
You measure the diameter of your head from front to back with pending on the area of the cutting edge
some type of caliper and from side to side in line where a hat used and exact angle of the edge to the
would sit on your head. For example, my head measures 8” front lathe axis.
to back in diameter and 6” side to side. Take these two dimensions,
add them together and get the average, for me it is 7”. Now you
need to add 3/4” to this to get the outside diameter the hat should
measure at the hatband. The extra 3/4” is for 1/2” wood shrinkage
and a 1/4” for the thickness at the band area, 1/8” doubled. The
thickness of the hat throughout is 5/64” to 3/32”. I turn one for View of the difference between the sur-
myself that is 7 3/4” diameter measured at the outside of the band. faces to the left using a vertical gouge
Different woods will have different shrinkage so you will have to oriented cut and one to right using a more
experiment some with what you use to get it exactly right. You can horizontal roughing bowl gouge cut.
also turn the hat slightly oversize and add a sweatband with pad-
ding to make a better fit.
A flexible curve ruler can also be used to measure around your
head. This will give you a template of the exact shape of your
head to go by while shaping the hat in the frame later. You can find
flexible rulers in the drafting section of most art and office supply
stores. A close-up of the woods surface. There
Shaping the profile. The side ground is no room for sanding out any kind of
gouge held nearly horizontal can remove defect later when the hat is thin so make
wood quickly. If the lathe has enough sure that the surface is without any
torque the gouge will remove shavings chipped, uneven or torn areas now be-
as wide as the sharpened side is long. fore proceeding to turn to the final thick-
This does not give the best finish cut on ness.
the wood but is a fast way to get down
to where we want to start the finishing
cuts.
The outside profile of the hat sized to the
The gouge held with the flute facing the right diameter and the surface clean cut.
direction of cut. Rotate the gouge flute The hat has a brim 3 1/2” wide and is
back enough to allow the bottom cutting almost 14 1/2” in diameter. You can see
edge to lead the cut. I taper from small at the crown to larger
diameter at the band. If the sides are
straight, the sides above the band will
bulge out wider than the band when it
dries. The brim is sloped down from the
band and reverse turned back up slightly
on the outer edge to give a good shape to the brim.
Sand the topside of the brim now while it is thick and running true.
When taking heavy cuts the gouge needs The grain will raise some later and need hand sanding but this cuts
to be controlled with a firm grip. An down on the amount of sanding needed later.
overhand grip pressing the tool down on
the tool rest and the other hand holding Start at the outer edge to thin the brim to
the tool firmly against the side makes it final thickness. I am using a pulling cut
manageable. from the center to the edge. The gouge is
roughly at a 45-degree angle to the lathe
axis. The flute facing in the direction of
the cut.
Control the cut by placing the heel of the
hand on the tool rest and flexing the fin-
One of the gouge techniques I use gers to pull the gouge into the cut. A slip
for finishing cuts is to have the made now could shatter the thin area of
length of the gouge nearly vertical the brim.
and the bevel rubbing. It is like tak-
ing a skew cut along the blank. The The first inch of the brim is 3/32” thick.
shavings come off the gouge straight The light shining through the wood acts
down because of the alignment of the as a visual thickness gauge while turn-
flute. The cutting edge here is ground ing.
very acute so there is very little resis-
tance, and the wood cuts cleanly. The
edge profile of the gouge is slightly
convex and like using a radius edged skew.

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Continue turning the brim to final thick- Use a thin strip of rosewood or ebony
ness in small steps until the brim is all held with the narrow edge vertical rub-
a uniform thickness. Make sure that the bing against the wood to shade the band.
wood has no tear out or uneven thickness A lathe speed between 1200 RPM and
before moving to another step. There is 1800 RPM will work to burnish. The
no coming back to correct defective ar- brim will be pretty dry and warped now
eas so fix them as you go. With the wood so a real high speed with it unsupported
this thin, it will loose moisture fast and might break it. Small surface checks
begin to warp. Even if soaked with water may appear in the endgrain areas be-
again it will loose the moisture quickly cause of the heat generate. Do not worry
as it spins. too much about this; the checks close back up as the wood has a
Turn a couple of steps and sand that area. Check the wood surface chance to dry.
and then continue turning. When the wood is dry, it may reveal The band burnished and the inside hol-
some defects that are not visible while wet. lowed to thickness where you can see
Expect to sharpen the gouge often when making this cut. The sharp the glow of light. Now hollowing can be
edge is presented at 90-degrees to the wood’s spinning surface. finished.
This wears away the edge faster than a cut where the bevel rubs
the wood.
The brim turned to final thickness. You
can see the differences in the light shin-
ing through the lighter wood and the
dark spalted wood. This can make it
harder to get a true sense of thickness us-
ing the light as a gauge alone. Measure Now we can proceed with removing the
with calipers to make sure the thickness rest of the interior. I have my lathe rota-
is consistent. tion reversed so I can turn without lean-
ing over the bed and I have the light out
of the way on the backside of the lathe.
This is not necessary- just more com-
I start hollowing on the inside with the fortable. You could always stand on the
lathe rotation reversed. I can cut down backside of the lathe and do your cutting
the side without having to lean over the if your lathe does not reverse, accom-
lathe bed this way and keep the gouge plishing the same thing I am doing. I am
handle close to my body for control. I using my bowl gouge with the spindle gouge grind on the inside
can put the light behind the hat now to here.
see the hollowing progress. I use a One-
way chuck and it has set screws that lock The interior is finished but I have a dark
down on the spindle to prevent unscrew- ring at the top and it is not the wood. I
ing it. I am using a side ground gouge to usually cut a relief of about 1/4” wide
remove the bulk of the wood. and 1/2” deep between the chuck jaws
and the top of the hat once I have hol-
The hat turned to final thickness past the lowed a ways in so I can see the light
hatband area; we can now burnish the and know when I have reached the top. I
band. You can use an air compressor to neglected to cut that relief this time and
blow moisture out now. Make sure the almost turned through the top of the hat.
band has a finished surface before the Here you can see that thin ring I was talk-
burnishing starts. ing about. It happens to all of us at one time or another, if you take
The light will shine through the hat dif- chances and do not do everything perfect you will turn through the
ferently from the brim to the crown. The bottom of a bowl or the top of a hat. If it were easy, though it would
brim is flat grain and the light does not take the challenge out of it and not be near as great a feeling on
shine through it as easy. In addition, at those rare occasions when everything does work out just right.
this stage it will be drier and not allow the light to penetrate as
well. The crown of the hat is endgrain (like looking into the end of I work with a lot of green wood and
a straw) and lets the light pass through easily. This means that you this is my standard method for revers-
have to keep turning until the glow of the light is much brighter ing to turn away the wood that was in
than it was on the brim. Measure the crown thickness until it is the chuck. It works just as well for re-
right and then use the glow through that area as a guide to pro- versing the hat. You do not have to make
ceed. a light that goes through the headstock
spindle; many lathes do not have through
Sand the exterior of the hat around the bored spindles anyway. Using the meth-
band now. This also helps to dry the sur- od above with a spindle turned round to
face in preparation for burnishing. about 1 1/4” diameter and a piece of non
slip padding I can turn any hollow form, natural edge bowl or other
warped or uneven surfaced turning without any trouble. Clamping
force from the tailstock holds the hat in place. I still have the center
mark from my original between center setting before I mounted
the blank in the chuck so it is easy to recenter when reversed.

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The hat crown compressed between the I have turned the last of the waste wood
wood on one side and the cup of the tail- down and parted through leaving a small
stock center on the other side. With this area to sand. Since the hat is held by
method, the wood I am actually cutting compression, it will stop turning once
is supported and not the band area where the pressure is relieved. I also have a re-
no work is going on. With a thicker proj- mote stop button that I can position close
ect like the foot of a bowl, this would not to my hip. That leaves my hands free to
be much of a concern. hold the hat with one hand, the tool in
the other and stop the lathe with my hip
just before parting completely through,
the lathe will coast to a stop as I finish the cut. Since the grain of
You can see the ring of light near the the wood and the cut are in the same direction, it is easy to part
edge of the tenon where I nearly turned through.
through. The lathe speed needs to be
slow to finish the turning because of a lot
of unsupported wood spinning around.
If I had used a waste block to press the The shaping frame. I made this frame for
hat on at the brim side, the wood at the shaping hats after seeing a video segment
crown would not be supported and the of Johannes Michelsen at an American
pressure of cutting could break the top Association of Woodturners symposium.
out. It is best to let the hat set for about 12
hours after turning so the wood can loose
There is plenty of room around the small most all it’s moisture before trying to
spindle for a light to shine inside the bend the brim. After I heard about this,
hat. I have not had any brims crack as I did when taking the hat right
from the lathe to the frame. You can also use a light set over the hat
to dry it quicker and the heat seems to help it bend easier also. Do
not hurry the shaping. This is where I have broken hat brims trying
to force the shape too quick. As the hat dries it, will shrink and you
can slowly tighten the clamp and adjust the rubber bands. Leave
the hat in the frame for 2 to 4 days to let the hat develop a memory
and stay bent when removed from the frame.
I could also jam chuck the hat on a waste There is a square of wood at the bottom
block and finish the turning by listen- and four upright pieces with two concave
ing to the sound of the wood as it thins. shaped clamp faces at the top. Two piec-
The hat can be removed from the waste es on the sides with holes drilled through
block, checked for thickness and then for the thread and wing nuts to apply
pressed back on to turn away more if clamping pressure. Wrap rubber bands
needed. One of the problems of pressing over the brim and down to the frame to
a thin wet wood onto a dry wood waste control shape.
block is trying to remove it. Turn the
waste block small enough in diameter to
put some masking tape on. Now you do Side view of the hat and the arrangement
not have the transfer of moisture and it will be easier to remove. If of the rubber bands. You can see the hat
you use this method, still be careful removing the hat. is already turning down at the front and
the back. I have sheepskin seatbelt cov-
I am using a pulling cut to slowly turn ers on the sidepieces to prevent scratch-
the wood to final thickness. Since the ing or marring the wood surface when
top is crown shaped the cut is with the clamping.
grain.

Top view of the hat with rubber bands


stretched over it.

All that is left now is to turn the last of


the waste off the crown. Turning the re-
mainder away and parting through or
cutting through with a handsaw are two
options for this. Both options will get
the same result. You just need to decide
what you are most comfortable doing.
It never hurts to have a model for your
hats that lives under the same roof.