Southernmost Snowflakes

Simple-to-make island-inspired decorations for winter.

Think of a tropical island, and images of palm trees, sandy beaches, turquoise water and trade winds spring to mind. But snowflakes? If you visit Mallory Square in Key West, Florida, that’s just what you’ll find, thanks to the imagination and skill of Club member Greg Gutsche. He creates delicate wooden representations of these gossamer crystals out of cherry, maple, koa, walnut and purpleheart. (In fact, any close-grained hardwood will work.) But even more surprising than finding snowflakes in Florida is how simple and quick the construction process really is.

With only a few basic benchtop tools (a band saw, a table saw and a drill press), a random-orbit sander and an easy-to-build sliding crosscut sled (see the PDF below), you can create these hardwood wonders to give as gifts or to hang as ornaments. Though we only show here how to make a traditional six-point snowflake, you can devise infinite variations on the theme (just look at the other two snowflakes pictured above). You can be as simple or as elaborate in your design as you desire. But be prepared to make a lot of these delightful wooden gems — once your friends and family see them, they’re sure to want a few for themselves.

You’ll need to cut six blanks out of 3/4-in. close-grain hardwood stock. First, set the table saw blade to 30 degrees, and cut an initial bevel on the stock face. Next, position and clamp a beveled indexing block 7/8 in. from the blade onto the crosscut sled, place the beveled face of the stock against the indexing block and cut off six blanks (inset).

With the saw blade still set at 30 degrees but lowered so that only 3/16 in. is revealed, adjust the indexing block to the desired width and cut the grooves down the length of the six blanks. use a push block to keep the blank secure against the sled. Exact placement of the grooves isn’t necessary — just make an attractive pattern.

Glue the six blanks together using yellow glue, and wipe away any excess with a damp rag. Rubber bands are great for holding everything together until the glue cures. Once the glue is dry, trim off the ends of the glued-up blank (they probably won’t be perfectly aligned) with a band saw.

Place the blank on a drill press and bore holes in the body. The size and exact placement of the holes aren’t critical — drill them where they look pleasing. (Greg uses brad-point bits bits, as they eliminate walking.) SAFETY NOTE: Use a clamp to hold the workpiece.

Set the snowflake blank on its side on the band saw and cut off 1/16-in. slices. (For best results, Greg uses a sliding table similar to the one for his table saw.) Don’t push too hard, as the blade will flex if it is stressed.

Sand the snowflake slices smooth. To make the task easy, glue a sheet of 36-grit paper to scrap plywood secured to your workbench. Outfit a random-orbit sander with 80-grit paper to start, place the snowflake slice on the sanding board and sand away. (The sanding board will keep the snowflake slice secure and allow you to remove your hands from the workpiece.)

All that’s left is to finish the slices with two coats of varnish. If you’d like to create three-dimensional ornaments, just cut a snowflake slice in two and fasten each half to an intact slice with instant.

The Snowflake Man
He’s known on the island as the “Snowflake Man,” and you can find him every evening at the world-famous Key West Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square. But you may not guess that beneath Greg Gutsche’s warm, jovial manner beats the heart of a production woodworker.

Greg makes more than 3,500 wooden snowflakes a year — it’s been his sole employment for the past three years. Before he began making snowflakes in 1996, this fourth-generation woodworker ran a flooring company for 10 years.

Greg loves production work and would much rather make 200 of an item than just one. He estimates that he’s made between 200 and 300 different snowflake designs over the years.

If there’s one piece of advice Greg can offer, it’s that you shouldn’t get too worried about making snowflakes picture-perfect. After all, real snowflakes aren’t identical, so why should wooden ones be? Making each one unique lets your artistic side shine.