Make a french rolling pin with simple toolsFeb 1st, 2016 | Category: Crafty
by Bill Pierce
If your aesthetic sensibilities are like mine, you’ve probably noticed that the French developed many things that bring life to an art form, especially when it comes to cooking. Woodworkers have long been friends to cooks because we can fabricate beautiful tools and vessels that enhance the culinary experience. Consider the French rolling pin; a model of simplicity and yet many bakers, particularly pastry chefs, prefer them to other styles.
A French rolling pin is a single piece of wood measuring 14-22 inches long, with a round cross-section. Its diameter is largest (about 2 inches.) in the middle and gently tapers toward the ends (about 1.5 inches). Though it would be easiest to turn one on a lathe, you can shape one in an afternoon with simple hand tools, centuries old.
Start with wood that is slightly larger in diameter than the center of the pin. You can purchase 2-inch thick stock at the lumber yard, split a billet out of a piece of firewood, or use a piece of branch wood that is already roughly round. Hardwoods like cherry, alder, birch or maple will hold up best in the kitchen. I would advise against porous woods like red oak, since they will be difficult to clean. Also, avoid wood with knots.
Cut your billet to length with a saw and draw circles (the diameter you want the ends to be) centered on each end. Now the fun begins: shaping. An important concept in hand-tool woodworking is that of Coarse-Medium-Fine. Different tools are suited to shaping wood at each of these scales. Hold your billet vertically on a chopping block, like a log round (see bottom photo) and start creating the taper from the middle to the end with a hatchet. Gradually chop the lower half of the pin from the end toward the center, removing material until the end has a diameter about 1/8 inch larger than the circles you drew. Flip the pin and repeat from the other end. The old carvers adage “remove anything that doesn’t look like a rolling pin,” applies. Try to create as smooth a surface as you can, but don’t worry if the hatchet leaves a surface as rough as tree bark.
Medium is next. Further smooth and refine the shape of the pin until the roughness is removed and you have a nearly round, tapered pin.
You can use a beefy knife for this. I like to use a drawknife. Cut down and across the grain from the center toward the ends. Try to keep the pin straight and round. At the ends, watch where the cut surface is relative to the circular lines you drew. If you go over the line on one side, you’ll have to reduce the diameter of the pin at both ends. Snarky woodworkers say, “It’s easy to remove wood, but hard to put it back.”
Now comes the Fine shaping and smoothing. You can use a knife, but a handplane will do a better job. For this, I hold the pin lengthwise in a pipe clamp and then hold the clamp in the jaws of my vise (see center photo). This allows you to work on one side at a time. Run the knife or plane from the center toward the tapered ends until you have created 16-22 smooth, adjoining facets, like a greek column. At this point, you can leave the facets or sand them away with sandpaper. I think the facets give the pin an earthy, hand-made feel for the baker.
Finishing is a matter of personal choice. Since this is a tool for preparing food, non-toxic finishes are a must. Mineral oil and beeswax are two options, but these will need to be reapplied from time to time. A more durable finish is food-grade polyurethane, which is easier to clean but less likely to hold flour as well. And there you have it. Give the pin to a baker you love, and start to enjoy more French pleasures in life.
As always, use caution when woodworking.
Bill Pierce is owner of Soaring Swallow Woodworks in Arlington.