There are many types of steady rests available but, as a thrifty woodworker, I challenged myself by designing and making my own to best suit my needs. If you choose to make your own, I recommend buying the hardware prior to starting your project so that each part will be milled accordingly.
For optimal results (think stability and rigidity), use high-quality Baltic Birch plywood at least 1/2" thick for the body, which should be about 16" square to support up to 5 1/2" diameter workpieces. If you turn larger pieces, simply adjust those dimensions.
To start, draw diagonal lines across one of the two required plywood body frames to find the center. After you have the center marked, use a compass to trace a circle about 10" in diameter. Next use your aluminum T-track to mark where you will cut the front frame to provide the channels for the sliding arms. Make sure you mark from all four corners to the inner circle. Notice that I added the vertical centerline for an additional channel on the upper center end to enable a three contact point set up.
The marked plywood body frame.
Stack and clamp the two body frames close to the edge of your work surface, making sure you overhang the part of the inner circle you will be cutting with a jigsaw, preferably in two set ups. The photos below show the fifth added channel location, the five numbered parts to be separated, as well as directional arrows on the upper areas.
Left: The clamped body frames ready to be cut. Right: The cut body frame pieces.
To make the cuts, I used my shop-made adjustable contact-point table-saw sled, the edge of which is lined with a strip of black sandpaper and features a runner underneath that rides in the miter slot. No doubt your own safe jig, method or technique will perform as well. In the photo, I removed the blade guard so you can clearly see how my sled rides close to the saw blade for accurate cuts.
The author used his own shop-made adjustable table-saw sled when making the cuts.
Cut and discard the pieces where all four T-track channels have been scribed. Having numbered the parts really helps here.
Cutting the pieces one by one.
Using a dado blade set or a single blade on your table saw, cut a centered notch in the lower part (#3) to fit a previously milled foot for the steady rest that is about 5" by 6". Sand smooth and square the three notched edges and put aside. Use good quality 3/4" hardwood plywood and make sure it is absolutely square, as shown. I later added plywood braces for support and to ensure it will stay square and firm.
Cutting a centered notch in the lower part to fit a foot for the steady rest.
Place part 2 flush with the back frame’s right edge. As shown below, temporarily inset a T-track between part 1 and 2 to establish the exact gap. Use a screw in each corner to secure part 1 to the back frame flush with the top edge. Make sure the T-track fits snugly between the two adjacent parts – no slack allowed. Repeat the above sequence one by one for the remaining parts, following the number sequence. Don't permanently secure part 3 (the lower one), as it needs further reinforcement. It’s beneficial to add more screws to the larger parts 2 and 4. Be sure to clamp each part to ensure it won't shift when side pressure is applied against the T-track.
The temporarily inset T-tracks help to establish the exact gaps required.
Cut two 90° braces out of 3/4" hardwood plywood, spread glue on all mating surfaces (including the plywood foot), drive in a few brads and gently clamp the assembly while the glue sets. The plywood foot should also be nailed into the plywood frame’s lower edge.
Glue the mating surfaces of the two braces and the foot. Clamp the assembly and allow the glue to dry.
Measure the rail thickness of your lathe bed and mill a slightly thinner rectangular plywood runner to fit snugly between the rails. Make sure it is square (photo below), and glue and nail it under the foot. If you own more than one lathe and want to use your steady rest on both, use screws only if two different runners are required. The same advice applies if sooner or later you plan to get a new lathe.
A plywood runner is glued and nailed under the foot.
When the glue has set, temporarily move the assembly onto your lathe so you can choose the size of tightening knob and where it will be installed so you won't rub, hit or injure your fingers on it. At the same time, measure and mill a wider 3/4" plywood block to bridge under the rails to lock your steady rest. When established, drill a hole through all three parts at the same time for a carriage bolt, and don't forget to counterbore from below to capture the head of the bolt, particularly if clearance between the rails and perhaps perpendicular cross braces of your own lathe is limited.
Installing the knob.
The photo on the left below illustrates, in sequence, all parts for each sliding arm as: a hex bolt (according to the diameter of your bearing center hole), a washer, the wheel itself, another washer, a T-track, a wider washer to bridge over the T-track slot, and a nylon ring lock nut. I bored one end of each T-track to secure the wheel, as well as a hole on the bottom of each channel, close to the inner end, to accept the threaded shank of a suitable T-bolt that will ride in the T-track slot and lock it down. If the surrounding edges of your sandwiched frame are uneven, you may want to trim them on the table saw prior to applying your preferred finish.
Left: The parts for each sliding arm. Right: The assembled arms, knob parts and the mounting frame.
As shown below, the steady rest positioned straight and square can ride along the lathe bed and be locked to any required location. When all knobs are tightened, it will allow for smooth turning. According to its size, my steady rest can support workpieces from 5/8" in diameter up to 5 1/2". If you turn long, slim spindles, bare bearings alone might be a better option instead of using polyurethane wheels as I did, or perhaps use another set of arms. From now on, keep steady, and rest as well!
Left: The completed steady rest – front and back. Right: Completed steady rest – back.
Text and photos by Serge Duclos
Serge Duclos started woodworking in 1972 after purchasing his first house. He soon found it was a way to relax from the stress related to his job as a human resources professional. Since retiring in 2004, Serge continues to enjoy his pastime and to update his bilingual woodworking blog http://atelierdubricoleur.wordpress.com with his projects, as well as his tips and techniques.