Wooden Plates

Wood is by no means the oldest material used in the making of plates and other containers for food. Various metals and of course clay were used long before wood was. Nevertheless, there are examples of wood plates and other wood vessels that go back for about 2,000 years. Wood is still in use today, more for its appearance than any other reason. Wood bowls, plates and trays are not uncommon. The wood salad bowl is a tradition, as well as wood cutting boards.

But while wood may not be the number one material used worldwide for the making of plates, there is no reason not to use it. For those of us who appreciate the natural beauty of wood grain, wood plates can be a nice addition to our homes. Wood is perfectly safe to eat off of, as the wood itself has a natural ability to kill germs and bacteria. However, some people have concerns about bacteria entering into the pores of the wood, contaminating future food. The solution to this problem is proper cleaning and maintenance of the plates.

One of the issues with using wooden plates is that knives will cut into the surface of the wood, scratching it. Of course, how much they cut into the wood depends on the type of wood used, the sharpness of the knife being used and how much pressure is brought to bear on the knife. But scratches on wooden plates, like those on wood cutting boards, can easily be sanded out and the plates refinished.

Wooden plates are considerably more eco friendly than plastic or Styrofoam once. One of the newer disposable plates that have hit the market is bamboo. While bamboo is not wood, but rather a grass, it offers the same advantages as wood in that it is a natural product which is readily biodegradable. However, wood plates should never be put in the dishash. Not only will the hot water help to destroy any glue used in the manufacture of the plate, but it will also strip the finish off of the wood and help the wood to decay more quickly. Instead, hand wash the plates with mild soap and warm water.

Wooden plates and platters are especially nice for use as serving dishes. Bread and sandwiches look especially attractive on wood serving dishes and there is nothing better for displaying an impressive charcuterie than wood. The display of fine foods on wood hearkens back to a time long ago, when such spreads were set out to impress the guests of royalty.

Making Wooden Plates

There are two basic ways of making a wooden plate, either by turning it on the lathe or by using a router. Both have their advantages; the lathe allows for a wide range of design, including putting a base on the plate, to raise it up above the table. However, as with anything else turned on the lathe, a turned plate has to be symmetrical around the centerline. This does create some limitations.

The big advantage of making a wooden plate with a router is that the plate can take on any shape, whether it is round, oval, a leaf or a frog. The plate can also be divided into different compartments, making it possible to make plates which can be used for chips and dip, a cheese ball with crackers or a variety of relishes and other condiments.

As both have their distinct advantages, let’s look at both different ways of wooden plate making.

Turning a Wooden Plate on the Lathe

Woodturning can be broken down into two general categories: spindle turning and bowl turning. The basic difference between the two is that spindle turning deals with only the outside of the workpiece, while bowl turning has an outside and an inside. Still, spindle turning doesn’t just include turning spindles, as turning a woodcarver’s mallet would fall into the category of spindle turning. In a similar manner, turning a vase falls into the category of bowl turning, even though a vase can’t be used as a bowl (or vice-versa) because it has an inside that has to be turned.

Plates are somewhat unique in that they really aren’t spindle turning, but they don’t have an interior… or at least not much of one. While plates are flat, they usually have some sort of lip. So in a sense, they can be considered to be a very flat bowl. Even so, they are not turned in the same way that bowls are.

The big problem in turning plates as if they were bowls is that in bowl turning a faceplate is attached to the bowl blank with screws and used to attach the blank top to the lathe spindle. The hole that the screws make into the bowl blank are immaterial, as they are in the area that will be cut out, when the inside of the bowl is cut out. But in the case of a plate, there is on inside to cut out; or at least there isn’t enough to cut out to hide the screw holes. For that matter, the screws would probably go all the way through the plate.

The solution to this problem is to glue a sacrificial block of wood to the wood plate blank and screw the face plate to this sacrificial block, as shown in the photo below. Then, once the plate has been turned, it can be removed from the block and the block can either be discarded or saved for the next plate.

plate blank, lathe spindle, face plate
Plate blank held to lathe spindle by a face plate

When using a sacrificial block like this, it is important to ensure that it is tight up against the plate blank, all the way around. The block can either be glued on with PVA wood glue or with a hot melt glue gun. If PVA glue is used, the block will have to be cut off the plate at the end of the turning process. If hot melt glue is used, the plate can be pried off the block and the hot melt glue scraped off. This is ultimately easier, but not as strong; so care must be taken to not tear the plate off the block.

The size of the plate that can be turned is dictated by the size of the lathe. Lathes have two critical dimensions, the “lathe swing” and the “distance between centers.” The distance between centers tells us the longest possible project that can be turned on a particular lathe. The lathe swing tells us the largest possible diameter project that can be turned on that lathe. This can be problematic for turning wood plates, if large plates are desired.

The lathe in the picture above has a 12” swing. This theoretically means that the biggest plate that can be turned on it is 12” in diameter. But that’s a touch misleading, as it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. The 12” is derived from the centerline of the spindle to the lathe bed. In this case, that’s 6”. So the maximum available radius is 6”. If we double that, we get 12”. But that doesn’t leave any room for clearance or for the wood blank to be out of round. In reality, the largest plate that can be turned on that lathe is probably 11”, although it might be able to reach 11.5” with care.

Two things will help make it possible to turn that 11.5” plate. The first is to cut the outline of the plate on a band saw or scroll saw, turning the square blank into a circle. Then center the round blank exactly on the sacrificial block, so that it will be centered exactly on the lathe’s spindle. Secondly, position the banjo (the base for the tool rest) to the side of the blank. It’s not too visible in the photo above, but the red arrow is pointing at the banjo. The tool rest, which is the black thing at the bottom of the photo, extends past the sides of the banjo, allowing the tools to rest upon it while working the edge and bottom side of the plate.

Turning the Plate

With the plate blank properly mounted, the plate can be turned. Turning a plate is much like turning a bowl, only shallow. We start by turning the bottom of the plate, then turn the plate around and remount it so that we can turn the top side of it. For security, it’s a good idea to use a live center in the tailstock, with a rubber cover over it, so that it doesn’t dig into the wood.

There isn’t a lot of upward curve to the bottom of a plate, like there is with a bowl; but generally speaking only the center part of the plate touches the table. So the edges of the plate will need to turn upwards, with the bottom making a slight slope from there to the center area. Leave enough room there for a shallow dovetail.

With the bottom formed and sanded, the plate can be removed from the sacrificial block and remounted, using the dovetail that was cut into the bottom to mount it to a standard four-jaw vice for woodturning. The live center should be applied again, as a small dovetail is being used. Work from the outer edge inwards, leaving the center of the plate for last. That allows the live center to be used for the longest possible time, as it doesn’t have to be removed until it is time to turn the center.

While turning the top side of the plate, take care to ensure that the tool doesn’t catch in the wood. This most often happens when the tool is not supported and makes contact with the turning wood, before it makes contact with the tool rest. Extra care must be taken around the edges of the plate, as it is more likely to catch there and the plate is more fragile there as well.

Making a Wooden Plate with a Router

Those who don’t have a lathe available to them can still make wooden plates, using a router. There is a type of bit made, called a bowl bit, which allows a router to cut out bowls and plates from ordinary 4/4 lumber. These bits come in different sizes, allowing for a tighter radius in the corner of sectional plates and trays.

Starting with a Glued-up Board

While any lumber can be used to make a plate in this manner, a much more attractive plate can be made by gluing different woods together, especially woods with contrasting color. This also becomes a great way of using leftover pieces of wood, as just about anything can be cut into strips and glued together to make a flat board.

glue, board
Glued up board

For this bowl, I’ve chosen to use poplar and walnut, which gives a nice contrast, while keeping costs reasonable. Poplar just happens to be the least costly light-colored hardwood available and walnut is the least costly dark-colored hardwood, even though it costs considerably more than poplar.

The pine 1”x 4” on the left of my glue-up is there to spread the pressure of the clamp out across the width of the glue joints. Since the wood strips to the left in the picture above are narrow, the pressure from the clamps would not be evenly distributed across the width of the glue joints without that piece of pine. I didn’t end up using cauls for clamping this, because it turns out that the walnut is thicker than the poplar. Once gluing was completed, the board was planed, giving a finished thickness of 5/8”.

Making a Template

Making a bowl with a router requires the use of a template. The bowl cutting router bits are intended for use with a bearing that’s the same diameter as the bit. Many come with the bearing permanently installed. The bit is to ride along the inside of a template, allowing for extremely accurate cutting of the plate. As you can see in the photo below, this 1” diameter bit, with bearing, will just about cut through the board. The bearing allows for the use of as thick a template as necessary, so that the final cut depth works out as it should.

making a template
Making a template

For this plate, I made the template out of ½” thick plywood, which allowed me to make the cutout in stages, rather than having to have the bit cut out to full depth in one pass. I have also tried using a ¼” thick template. While it did work, I wouldn’t recommend it. While the bit can cut out to full depth in one pass, it is necessary to work slowly, as there is an increased chance of the bit catching in the wood and pulling it out of whatever clamps are being used to hold it to the workbench.

Take care when making the template to make the inside dimensions exactly the size desired for the plate and to make the inside edge of the cutout smooth. Any high or low spots in the edge, will end up transferred directly to the plate being cut.

Modifying the Router

The typical router base isn’t large enough for cutting a very wide plate, while having the router supported on both sides of the open cut. As the plate that I was making was 10”x 13”, it was clear that the router base wouldn’t have any support in the middle of the cut. Therefore it was necessary to enlarge the router’s base. I did this by attaching a 5/16” thick piece of clear polycarbonate plastic. I used that mostly because I had it. Otherwise, I would have stuck with ¼” thick material. Polycarbonate (Lexan) is better for this than acrylic (Plexiglas), as it is less brittle. While acrylic can be used, care must be taken when drilling the holes, so as to avoid cracking the plastic.

router with auxiliary plate installed
Router with auxiliary plate installed

Most routers have a couple of threaded hole in the baseplate, to allow attachment of accessories and other baseplates. In this case, I used those holes for mounting the clear polycarbonate. There are a couple of extra holes in my plate in the photo, because I first drilled and countersunk the plastic to match the 5/16-18 holes in the router’s baseplate. Then, after I couldn’t find flathead screw that size, I was forced to make adapters and use #10-32 flathead screws instead. Hence the extra set of holes.

To make the adapters I cut off a couple of 5/16-18 bolts and then drilled and tapped them for the smaller screw to fit inside. I ended up using #10-32 screws because ¼” diameter ones would not have left enough material in the adapters and #12 screws were not available at my local hardware store. While #10 is a bit small, by going with fine thread screws (32 teeth per inch), I gained greater holding strength than I would have had with coarse thread screws (24 teeth per inch). A slot cut through the top ends of the adapters allowed me to thread them into the existing hole in the baseplate with a screwdriver.

The center hole in the auxiliary plate should be made as large as the center hole in the router’s baseplate, allowing clearance for the bit and chips. If the hole is too small, it will be hard to see how the bit is aligning with the template.

One final detail about the auxiliary plate in the photo above; it’s mounted at a 45 degree angle to the router. That was a last-minute decision that turned out to be very fortuitous, as having that plate on an angle actually allowed the router to bridge a wider span. Considering that the plate being made is 10”x 13”, had I installed the auxiliary plate square to the router, it would not have bridged all the way to the other side of the opening in the plate.

Cutting out the Plate

With the template made and the router modified, the plate can be cut. The inside of the plate is cut first, and then the outside. This allows the corner material, which will end up being cut off, to be used for attaching the template to the wood blank with double-sided masking tape. Take care to ensure that there is enough material left all the way around the opening in the template to cut out the outside of the plate.

Clamp the workpiece to the workbench, using bench dogs connecting to the workpiece, rather than the template. They must be below the level of the template, so that the router auxiliary plate doesn’t run into the bench dogs during cutting.

Bowl cutting router bits really aren’t plunge bits, but they can plunge cut if given enough time to dig into the wood. Always cut in a clockwise direction, matching the rotation of the router bit. It doesn’t really matter what order the material is taken out in, as long as nothing is missed and that at some point in the process, the router bit is run all the way around the perimeter of the template opening to ensure a clean edge cut.

routed top side of plate
Routed top side of plate

While it is possible to cut up to ½” of depth in one pass with these bits, it’s best to break that up and not cut more than ¼” of depth in one pass. The last pass should be a light cut of 1/8” or less, eliminating chapters and making for the smoothest possible cut. As is shown in the photo above, the finished cut is smooth, but not perfect. It will still need sanding before a finish is applied.

Cutting the Plate Outline

With the top side of the plate cut, the template can be removed. Sketch the line for the outside edge of the plate, either using a pattern or by using a marking gauge, guiding off of the cutout in the top of the plate. There needs to be a lip on the edge of the plate, but how wide that lip is depends on the woodworker’s preference. The lip on the plate in the photos is 3/8”. alternatively, the plate can be made with a shaped lip that doesn’t match the cutout part, perhaps shaping it like some recognizable object, like a flower or leaf.

Cut out the outline of the plate on a band saw or scroll saw and sand the edge smooth to remove any uneven spots and saw marks. Then radius the bottom edge of the plate with the router and a ¼” to ½” roundover bit. The lip of the plate can be rounded over as well with a 1/8” roundover bit.

The entire plate will need to be sanded, top and bottom, with progressively smoother sandpaper. Before final sanding, dampen the surface of the wood to raise the grain and then make one final pass with fine sandpaper.

routed plate
Fully routed plate, unsanded and unfinished

Applying Finish to Wooden Plates

Regardless of whether the wooden plate is turned on the lathe or cut with a router, some sort of finish should be applied to the finished plate. The type of finish selected depends largely on what the plate is going to be used for. Varnish, lacquer and epoxy should not be used if the plate is going to be used for serving any sort of food. While they will seal the wood well, cutting on the plate can cause slivers of these finishes to come off and become embedded into the food, thereby becoming ingested.

The best finish for a wooden plate is some sort of oil, either Tung Oil or Mineral Oil. Olive oil or grape seed oil can be used as well, but these oils will affect the flavor of food that is being eaten off the plates. Apply at least three liberal coats of oil, allowing each one to soak in before applying the next.

Wooden plates, like wooden cutting boards, do need to be maintained. This means re-oiling them periodically. How often depends largely on how much the plates are used and how often they are washed. Plates that are only used infrequently should still have a fresh application of oil every three months. For plates that are used and washed frequently, allow the color of the wood to dictate when another application of oil is required. When the color of the freshly washed plate is significantly different than it is when the plate is dry, it is time to apply more oil.

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