Every year, right about now, Ted starts building up a supply of Sputnik Sea Urchin ornaments for the pre-holiday sales season. We will have them available at Ptarmigan Arts Gallery in Homer, at the Kenai Arts and Crafts Fair (Nov. 28-29), and at the Homer Nutcracker Faire (Dec. 6-7). They are also available year-round through the Store section of our website.
The shells that make up the body of the ornaments are not from the local urchins of Kachemak Bay. The scientific name of the creature that produces the Sputnik Sea Urchin shell is Phyllacanthus imperialis, native to the Philippines. Ted buys the shells from Craft Supplies USA, a company that specializes in wood turning supplies. In the past he purchased them in bulk from a shell company in Florida, but a fair number of those shells were not in usable condition. Craft Supplies packages the shells securely and boxes them individually, making the extra cost worthwhile.
Named after the Russian satellite of the late 50’s, the shells are characterized by distinctive horn-like protrusions and intricate wavy patterns. The shells that we use have not been color-enhanced in any way. What you see are the natural colors of the shell, which can range from pink to purple to green to gray. Straight out of the box, the shell looks like this:
Ted’s first step is to use a dental pick to chip away the unattractive gray center portion of the top and bottom of the hollow shell.
Once he gets the centers chipped out, he uses a sandpaper-covered cone (150 grit) to round the edges of the hole and sand them smooth.
With the shell prepared, Ted turns his attention to the three wooden components required for each ornament. Using a caliper, Ted measures the top and bottom holes so as to turn custom-fitted wooden caps that will cover the centers of the shell.
Ted often uses ebony for the top and bottom caps. Other good choices are cherry, maple, bubinga, and walnut. The third component of the ornament is a decorative icicle (sometimes called a finial) turned from a wood that complements the natural color of the shell. For the finials, Ted selects fine-grained, dense woods that take detail well, such as maple, cherry, ebony, kingwood, and pink ivory.
Turning the icicles is the most time-consuming part of the project. He uses a ¼” spindle gouge for the tiny detail work.
In the photo below, a piece of pink ivory is turning on the lathe. Ted is cutting the curves and indentations in the icicle while the lathe is spinning at about 2500 rpm.
With all the wooden components turned, Ted can begin to assemble the ornaments. Here, he has fitted the finial and bottom caps onto the upside-down shells. After those pieces are secure, he will glue the top caps and ornament eyelets in place.
The next step is the application of four or more coats of spray-on clear enamel. That isn’t a task that is suited for indoors, so Ted steps outside his finish room to spray a very light coat on each ornament. The enamel brings out the colors, adds a protective layer that helps to strengthen the shell, and gives the ornament a subtle luster.
The ornaments are then hung on a rack in the finish room to dry and wait for their next coat of finish.
These ornaments appear fragile but are surprisingly sturdy (although you wouldn’t want to step on one or drop one on the floor). We suggest that customers handle them like an egg. The shell portion is strengthened by the caps that cover the top and bottom center holes. Going back to that egg, think about how hard it is to break an intact eggshell by crushing it in your hand. The tip of the icicle is delicate, however, and the ornament needs to be handled and stored with care. Our ornaments are individually wrapped in tissue or bubble wrap and packed in a corrugated box. Sputnik ornaments can be shipped to you. We wrap them carefully and double-box them to make sure that they arrive in perfect condition.
And now, the finished ornaments on display: