During my first year of wood turning, nobody could have tempted me with turning finials. I would have run a mile and then some. The prospect was daunting in the extreme, and seemed to forever be reserved to proper professional turners. You know, the guys who actually make a living out of turning.
As time went on, the awe diminished, and I realized that some of my designs positively called for a finial. Maybe not quite as seemingly impossible as the ones produced by Cindy Drozda, and so eventually I did give it a shot. I started out with some soft wood, pine or the like, only to realize that this is in fact not a good idea. Although it does teach you proper tool control, the reality is that the slightest wrong touch or just the uneven hardness of the timber will result in small pieces braking off your nice, sharp edges, and the result looks more comical than elegant.
I am still not quite ready to try my hand on a £10 piece of African Blackwood, but I am getting closer. The picture shows a range of my finials to date. The one on the left sits on top of the lid to the Rocky Mountain Nod, and the one to the right of that is already committed to another box, which is work in progress (this will be a winged box in pentagon shape, with a matching pentagon shaped lid, should be quite spectacular when it’s finished). The other ones are still looking for a suitable purpose, which no doubt will be found sooner or later.
It is actually quite tricky to get the shape right. Small changes in diameters or distances will upset the balance of the finial tremendously, converting something elegant into a caricature (and vice versa), and you definitely want scary sharp tools. I bought myself a 1/4″ spindle gouge, which I have given a long swept back grind, with the heel taken off completely (i.e. the underside of the tip is completely rounded), and this does the trick very nicely. Since I am not a youngster any longer, my eyes are starting to deteriorate, and especially the focussing on short distances is getting troublesome. An essential tool to overcome that is the use of magnifying glasses such as these:
Sanding is a whole different game on finials. Anything coarser than 180 grit, and you will lose your edges. In consequence, good tool control and the best possible finish off the gouge is a must. Although you can get rid of some tool marks on bigger coves or onions/beads, the fine details basically won’t allow much sanding at all.
The best advice really is: watch Cindy (and some others) on youtube and practice, practice, practice.