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Thread Cutting Tools for Wood

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To make threaded screws and


nuts of wood a set of two tools
is needed:
the die, for cutting external
(male) threads, and the tap,
for cutting internal (female)
threads.
Diego de Assis
In Brazil manual tap and die sets are only available for metal or PVC tubing, which
are not appropriate for use with wood. I have experimented with several alternatives,
but none was satisfactory. With wood, dies made for metal leave fragile threads
prone to breaking.
A common threaded nut can be made to work as a die, as shown on some videos
available on the Internet, but they are not as practical as they might seem.

So I turned to old methods, and to the masters, including Roy Underhill, who, in
addition to his fantastic videos, describes how to make these tools in his book The
Woodwright's Workbook.
Another important source is Andr Roubos Le Menuisier bniste, which was
published in 1774 and has a perfect description of these thread cutters, along with a
beautiful engraved illustration. [Plate 311-trans.]

And to understand the secrets of hardening and tempering metal parts I went to
Alexander Weygers. His book The Complete Modern Blacksmith shows how to make
metal both hard and strong, using simple and available techniques.

Following these and other references I describe in this article how to make manual
tap and screwbox set as an inexpensive alternative, using scraps and available
supplies, and as efficient as those made centuries ago.

First tool: the tap


To cut the internal threads of the die, you first make the tap. I made mine of an
ordinary steel bolt 1 in diameter, with a pitch of 8 threads per inch. The cutting teeth
were quickly shaped with the edge of an angle grinder.

The bolt is wrapped in masking tape and marked into quarters with a felt tipped
marker. For a better cutting shape, the channels along these lines are cut out with a
slight angle, or hook toward the direction of the intended cut, as shown in the
following image of the end of the bolt.

Next, to remove the burrs left by the grinder, the bolt is smoothed with emery
cloth or fine sandpaper, directed counterclockwise, or opposite the direction it will
cut, tapering the diameter somewhat toward the tip. This eases the edge leading into
the cutting channel, while sharpening the cutting tips, and helps avoid damaging the
threads as the tap is removed.

I drilled a hole in the head of the bolt to receive another smaller bolt that serves as
a handle for increased leverage in use. When drilling, its necessary to use plenty of
oil to draw heat away and reduce wear on the drill bit.

The die: shaping the cutter


Inside the screwbox is a blade ground to a V shape, a small cutter which cuts the
male threads, transforming round stock into a screw. This cutter should be of high
carbon steel, which can be hardened and tempered so that it will retain a sharp edge.
Low carbon steels cannot be adequately tempered, although they can be hardened by
a surface application of carbon.

I used a piece of an old file. Files are made of good high carbon steel, and they can
be used to make various cutting tools, such as gouges and chisels. There are several
types of scrap steel with high carbon content that can be used, but how does one
measure it?

A quick test is to grind the metal and observe the sparks it gives off. High carbon
steel gives off many sparks. Just touching it to the grinding wheel produces a small
explosion. Low carbon steel, in contrast, gives off few sparks. In the photos I
compare an ordinary bolt of low carbon steel (above) with a piece of an old file
(below).

Another test to heat the metal to the point at which it loses its magnetic attraction
(cherry red), quench it immediately in oil or water, then try to file it. If after this
hardening procedure the file skips, as if it were sliding on glass, it is high carbon
steel, which can be hardened and tempered.
To test for the desired temperature, simply touch it to a magnet while it is still
cherry red. When it does not stick it is hot enough to harden by quenching.

In an improvised forge made of bricks and a propane torch I heated the metal to
the cherry red non-magnetic point, then let the piece cool in the air, without
quenching. This anneals the metal, so that it can be easily worked.

To shape the V in the cutter blank I clamp it in a vise and begin with a shallow
hacksaw cut to guide the triangular file used to finish the job. Then the external
shape of the V is formed. Interestingly, the metal is very soft, making it impossible
to sharpen the edge.

Heat treating hardening the steel


With the piece in the desired shape, I set up the torch and heated it again to the
non-magnetic cherry-red point, then quickly quenched in water.
In this experiment I used a water quench with no problem. Oil can also be used for
quenching, which causes a softer thermic shock. The interior of the metal will be
less brittle, and thus more durable.

A water quench could lead to tiny cracks, if the structure of the metal cannot hold
up to the thermic shock. In this condition the metal is hard and as brittle as glass,
with a coating of slag.

Tempering the metal


The next step is to polish the metal, so that the spectrum of colors is visible during
the tempering process. After polishing I again apply heat to the piece, this time
carefully and paying attention to the color spectrum that appears as the metal heats
up.
The flame should be applied to the opposite end from the intended cutting edge,
so that the spectrum travels toward that end. The reheating, or tempering, will
leave the metal sufficiently hard to hold an edge. The metal is relaxed a little by
this process.
This is the most delicate step, because if the heat goes past the desired color, the
whole process has to be done over from the beginning.

The color spectrum gives an approximate indication of the temperature: the


highest temperature, nearest the heat source, is light blue, about 640F. Each color
of the spectrum corresponds to a specific hardness of the steel.
In the case of the cutter for this screwbox I let the area of the cutting edge
approach peacock or almost purple, around 540F. This is the color recommended
for delicate cutting tools, such as small gouges.
As soon as the edge reaches this shade I again quickly quench the piece in water.

Now the cutter is ready for final sharpening.

Mastering the tempering of metal with these rudimentary techniques involves


some trial-and-error experience, and close observation. As Alexander Weigers
comments in his book The Complete Modern Blacksmith, . . . the advantage of
making ones own tools is knowing that the next one will be even better!.

The Screwbox
Following the dimensions provided in Le Menuisier bniste, I simplified the design
somewhat, leaving out some details such as the turned handles and the decoration
on the opening for the workpiece.

The bolt I used to make the tap has eight threads per inch. For metal bolts that is
a coarse pitch (pitch measures the distance between the peaks of the adjacent
threads). For threaded parts that need to move a lot and are in constant use, such as
the screw of a bench vise, a very coarse pitch is preferable (fewer threads per inch).
And with wooden screws another reason for a coarse pitch is that thicker threads will
hold up better.

Hard woods should be used for these parts, as with softer woods the internal
threads could wear away. Woods such as Jatob, Tauari, Peroba-de-campos, Ip, and
Roxinho are excellent for making the screwbox. I used Jatob (Hymenaea courbaril),
which is hard and very versatile.

The screwbox has two parts: a lid or guide plate, which secures the cutter and

guides the round stock at the beginning of the cut, and the main body. After the
block is cut to dimensions the guide plate is cut away.
The two parts are then put back together and secured with two screws on diagonal
corners (placing the screws in line with the grain could split the wood). Then the hole
in the lid is bored, with a chip drill, auger, or Forstner bit, marking the desired depth
with a bit of masking tape. I used a 1 chip drill.
The first cut should go through the lid, with the tip or lead screw going into the
main body to mark the center. The bit is then changed to a smaller size, 7/8 in this
example, and the smaller hole is bored through the main body. The difference in the
diameter of the holes is exactly the difference between the two bits 1/8 in this
case.

Once the hole has been bored the internal threads are cut in the main body.

A little vaseline in the hole makes this go more smoothly.

With the internal threads cut, the next step is to locate the position of the cutter
precisely in the main body. The tap can be a help in this, by positioning the cutting
edge in the groove of its threads.
If the cutter is not seated correctly, it can be adjusted with the screws that hold it
in place. Andr Roubo shows three screws for this purpose, but I found that only two
screws were needed. Roy Underhill suggests a better way - an L-shaped bolt
tightened by a nut on the outside of the main body.

In addition to the slots in the main body for the cutter and the channel for
shavings to escape, recesses are cut in the underside of the guide plate to
accommodate the heads of the screws that secure the cutter. With the cutter in place
the tool is tested and adjusted as necessary.

Finally the optional curves are cut on the ends of the box with a bandsaw, and the
screwbox is smoothed and edges relieved. With the tools ready, lets put them to use.

Attaching threaded screws to blocks


Of the several species of wood I tried out, the one that stood up to the cutter the
best was Itaba preta (Mezilaurus itauba). I think its cousins in the Lauraceae family,
such as imbuias, louros, and canelas, would also be good for this purpose.

A good way to use threaded screws is to make them separate pieces, which can
then be attached to just about any type of wood. Such threaded attachments have an
unthreaded shaft that can be glued into a tight-fitting hole in any other piece.

To make these pieces, after cutting threads on a length of dowel it is returned to


the lathe to cut the pegs. Several separate pieces can be cut from a short piece of

threaded dowel.

This technique can be used for furniture, toys, and utensils that can be assembled
and broken down simply and securely. If you want to make your own
screwbox,download the PDF adaptation of Roubos design, and go to it!
Diego de Assis
February 2011

Translated from Portuguese by Tom Holloway.


CAUTION: Many workshop procedures come with risk of injury. They should not be done without the
appropriate protective equipment, including safety glasses, dust masks, ear protection, and other safety
measures. Only qualified people should use cutting tools; doing otherwise could lead to serious accidents.
Related Info:

A Jig For Grinding Chisels/Gouges by James D. Thompson

Using a Dressing Tool on a Grinding Wheel by James D. Thompson

Making a Scratch Stock by James D. Thompson

Sharpening a Tap by James D. Thompson

1913 - Steel: Its Selection, Annealing, Hardening and Tempering by E. R. Markham