It is extremely easy to make your own circular needles. Your first pair will probably take you much longer to make, but after that, you’ll be ready to whip them out really quickly too.
A Tutorial by Rosemary Thomas, originally published November 2006
Note that I made two different pairs, in two different sizes, for the purpose of this tutorial. Also note that you don’t have to use the same size needle on each side of the cable. Sometimes it might make sense to have a smaller diameter needle in your left hand, and a larger diameter needle in your right hand, so make a pair for yourself! Imagine how much easier those k2tog’s would be!
I can walk out to my garage and walk back into the house in 10 minutes with a new set of circular knitting needles in hand, ready to use.
As you know, the needle portion of circular needles has two ends—one end is the part that you knit with, and the other end is the part that connects with the cable. I refer to this end as the “cable end” of the knitting needle.
Dowel. (Thickness varies depending on desired needle circumference. See below for help in choosing suitable woods.)
- Weed Eater Round Trimmer Line
- Black and Decker Drill
- Selection of Drills
- Basic Xacto knife
- Selection of Xacto Knives
- Selection of Fine Sandpapers
- Plumber’s tape
- Loctite Household Cement
Prepare Your Workspace
Here is my luxurious corner of the garage with my freezer-worktable, my supply of dowels strapped to the pipe running out of the top of my whole house vac, and more dowels on the work surface. Of course, there will be no progress without my coffee and my trusty assistants, Dixie and Spot. It only took 9001 photos to get both of them sitting still long enough to be photographed, but hey, on the 9001st photo—success!
Assemble the tools that you need. Here you see sandpaper in varying grits—the finer grits are readily available at hardware stores and automotive stores and not so readily available at the big box stores.
In this photo, you see 220, 320, 400, 600, and 2000 grit papers. It isn’t imperative that you get so many different grits; you can probably get away with the 220, the 600 and the 2000, assuming that your dowels are relatively smooth already (I’ll discuss dowel selection more in a minute).
You will also see tools I use that are not completely necessary—a Japanese Dovetail Saw and a chisel. In one of my other lives, I’m an avid woodworker and I’ve collected the necessary tools for that occupation. Instead of each of these tools, however, you can simply use an Xacto knife or even a razor blade. An Xacto knife will work perfectly well, and you’ll see one in use later in this tutorial. (Note: These are sharp tools—use at your own risk, and please be careful.)
A note on dowel selection: Your knitting needle dowels don’t need to be perfectly straight. It’s OK for them to have a bit of a bow. When you’re choosing your dowels, run your hand along the length from one end to the other, and then back again. You don’t want to feel any of the grain protruding—this is the biggest flaw.
Hold the end up to your eye and look along the length. You don’t want the dowel to have any prominent angles or bumps. Likewise you don’t want to see any knots or holes in the dowel.
Oak is a very poor choice for knitting needles due to the porous nature of the wood. I generally purchase birch dowels because they’re available at my local Hobby Lobby store for 19 cents a piece. Any other close-grained hardwood would be very nice too. One of my favorite circular needles is made from a pair of chopsticks (I found a round bamboo pair and these made the best set of circular needles in my collection.
I’d like to purchase some long straight ebony and cherry knitting needles and make some circs from them. If they’re 10 inches or longer, I can probably get two sets of circs from one pair of straights—very nice indeed!
It helps to tear the sandpaper into smaller bits for use.
You will also need a drill, and a sharp, pointy, metal object—I use a drywall screw, which you can see on the piece of sandpaper.
You’ll need “Weed Eater Round Trimmer Line,” which you will see referred to as weed whacker line, or weed whacker filament, in this tutorial. This is just one of many brand names available at your local lawn and garden store.
When you buy it, you must be absolutely certain that it is round in cross section, because it comes in other shapes, too. (Truth be told, I’ve not tried the other shapes, but my gut feeling is that it won’t work to use triangular or star-shaped line. Maybe you will be the one who tries it out?)
If you can’t find this stuff where you live, you can order it from Amazon.com.
You’ll need a drill bit that’s either the same diameter as your weed whacker filament or a tiny bit larger—but only a tiny bit larger.
I cut a short length of the weed whacker line and took it with me to the store so I could find the proper sized drill bit. (I can’t read the size of the one I bought! It is a fraction of something over 64. Maybe 5/64th of an inch?)
This drill bit was purchased from Sears. The little lug at the top of it makes is much easier to clamp into my drill, as these tiny drill bits can be quite difficult to center in the drill’s chuck. Keep this in mind when you shop for your drill bit.
Above the drill bit you can see the drywall screw that I use to start the drilled hole—you might use a compass point, or large darning needle, or some other pointy object if you prefer.
Begin by sanding the entire length of the dowel. Start with the 220 grit sandpaper, and proceed through all of the grits, finishing off with the 2000.
If you don’t have 2000 grit paper, a sturdy piece of cotton fabric might do the job. I used to use denim before I knew that the fine sandpaper existed.
If you want to go all out, then you can lightly dampen the dowel, let it dry, and sand it again with the fine sandpaper. I don’t go all out.
Cutting the Dowel
Cut the dowel to length. One of the reasons that I began to make my own needles is that I have large hands, and all of the ready-made needles were quite short. I want my whole hand to be grasping needle, not grasping the cord, which causes me to have hand cramps.
The easiest way to cut a dowel is to score all around it, then snap it off. This leaves a rough end, so you just sand it flat.
Start to drill—first you need to make a small hole for the drill bit to center in. I use this screw.
Then, you drill, being careful to keep your fingers well out of the drill’s way. [Seriously, be very careful here.] I try to drill about an inch deep, and sometimes…
…with the smaller needles, the drill comes out of the side. This is perfectly OK as long as you get the drill to go in for at least ½ inch.
If the drill bit pokes out sooner than this, you’ll have to start over. Maybe you can just cut that part off, and settle for a shorter needle?
With the smaller diameters, you may at first want to cut the dowels a little longer than desired in order to allow for this common mishap. I’ll use this needle anyway, and it will be fine.
The other needle drilled perfectly well during the drilling step, but I opened up the cavity in the shaping step (see below). Once again, though, the needle will work fine.
Shaping the Ends
Shape both ends of the needle. (You’re using an extremely sharp tool here so be very careful not to cut yourself. If you’re not comfortable handling these kinds of tools, get someone to help you.)
I like to use my wonderful chisels, but you might prefer to use an Xacto knife, or sandpaper. (Attention woodworkers: I know that I’m holding the chisel upside down. I do it this way on purpose. I promise that I won’t hold it upside down when I’m making mortises, OK?)
Here, you see me shaping the knitting end. You will also shape the cable end, too.
It is very easy to sand the smaller diameter points down to size. For larger diameter needles, you’ll probably want to remove some wood with some sort of blade, or maybe a pencil sharpener, before you start sanding.
Note: A pencil sharpener won’t give you the right shape for knitting needles, but it will remove enough wood so that you can finish shaping the needles with sandpaper. Also, when you are working on the cable end, remember that there is a tunnel-hole there and if you press too hard, it will collapse or even break off.
The cable-ends of this pair of needles are ready to move on to the next step. I include this photo to show how the hole is not exactly perfect in either one. The one on the bottom is the one in which the drill poked out of the side, and the one on the top is the one that I chiseled through in the shaping step. Oops.
There is still enough wood left in both of them for the project to work. It’s not really worth aiming for perfection, and these problems generally don’t show up in larger-diameter needles.
Here are the cable-ends of two different pairs of needles. See how the larger set is not broken? This is generally how it happens.
Note: I shape the cable-ends now, rather than later, when the cable is glued into place, because I find it difficult to shape the wood part without messing up the cable part.
Attaching the Cable
Once the cable is glued in, the project is at the point of no return. If you mess up the cable-end of the wood before you glue in the cable, well, you just chop it off and do it again or discard that needle and make it over again. Once the things are glued into place, and you mess up the cable, then the whole circular needle is trashed.
If I had a Dremel tool or something similar, I’d probably glue the cable into the unshaped cable-end of the needle and then shape it. This would prevent the wood from collapsing. However, with my tools, if I were to try to shape the cable-end of the needle after gluing in the cable, I’d probably either cut the cable or accidentally roughen the cable with the sandpaper, and this is un-solvable as well.
At any rate, even with the collapse it’s perfectly OK and will work well for a knitting needle. There needs to be some wood-to-cable contact, and the strength of this join will be strong enough. We are knitting, not towing trucks out of ditches. It’s strong enough!
You might like to sand the knitting ends with 2000 sandpaper now. Don’t sand the cable-end as you might crush the little tunnel.
Test-fit the cable. This looks good—the larger diameter needle is on the top, and the smaller diameter needle, the set with the tunnel problem, is on the bottom.
Fun with Cable Lengths
Measure out how much cable you need, put both needles on the cable, and see if this is the length you want. I like my circular needles to be REALLY long, so this is how I make them. Do you like Moebius knitting? Do you like Magic Loop?
You can make them whatever length you want. One of my circular needles is 90 inches long, because I wanted to see how the Red Tent blanket was coming along. I don’t use it for anything else, though, as this particular needle is just too long. My most commonly used needles are about 30 to 40 inches long, but make yours as long or short as you desire. Have fun!
But I digress—I’m ready for the gluing-up step.
Rough and Ready
Through trial and error, I learned that this weed whacker line is not very…for lack of a better word…”glue-able.” No matter what kind of glue, adhesive, or epoxy that I used, the cable would slip right out.
So I experimented with different ways of roughing up the cable, and this is the best method I found. I make some divots (cut fine notches) in the end of the cable so that the glue has some roughness that it can grab onto and, ultimately, hold the whole thing together. You’d be amazed at the difference this makes.
I figured that if rough feet are what holds houseflies to glass window panes, then rough ends of the cable are what I need to hold the cable to the glue. The glue holds onto the wood very well, as wood is infinitely glue-able. The problem was only with the cable-to-glue interface.
The above sequence of photos shows my favorite way of chunking little divots of plastic out of the cable. If you prefer, you can gnaw on the end of the cable with a pair of scissors or even some sandpaper. The point is to render the end of the cable very rough, with lots of indentations, so that the glue can hold onto it.
If you look very closely at the last photo you can see the tiny little divots of plastic on the table top. Any method of roughing up will work well, I just like to use my snazzy chisels!
This last photo shows me attempting to gnaw on the end of the cable with a huge pair of tin snips. This is because I was entirely too lazy to simply walk 10 steps into the kitchen in order to fetch a proper pair of scissors to portray in this photo.
I’m not suggesting that tin snips are the proper tool for the job—use scissors! But beware that it’s very easy to cut all the way through. Before you know it, you’ve nibbled the cable down to a 2-inch length.
I’ve used epoxy, which works very well. But it’s messy and tedious and odorous and involves lots of waste, so I’ve switched to this Loctite adhesive. Mind you, I didn’t make an exhaustive study—I simply had this adhesive on hand, I used it, it works very well, so I’ll continue to use it.
I stick the glue into the hole, wipe away the excess, wrap it with tape, and I’m done. No waiting time. The adhesive can dry while I’m knitting!
Joining Cable to Needle: Detailed Steps
First, you need to get glue into the needle hole. I stick the end of the cable into the tube of glue, then shove it into the hole in the needle.
Keep working the cable end into and out of the hole and hope that some of the adhesive will work its way into your carefully carved divots.
Set the needles aside to dry, which takes this Loctite adhesive about 10 minutes. I always skip this step…unless I’m making a photo essay on the proper way to make needles, that is!
Carve away the excess adhesive. If the adhesive is still wet, scrape it off.
If you desire, you can fine-tune the cable-end of the needle. If you do this step with sandpaper, be careful not to sand the cable itself. You can also skip this step and simply wrap on more tape in the tape-wrapping step below.
Here is the larger needle, finished with an Xacto knife.
(Remember to be very careful when using any sharp tools.)
The smaller needles with the collapsed tunnels—glued, shaped, and ready to wrap. Here we go!
Wrapping the Join
In these photos, you can see me applying the plumber’s tape to the join. This is the most important step of all. You need a gradual transition from the cable to the needle in order for the knitting to move easily over this join. As you can see, I wrap first moving away from the needle point, and then I change direction and wrap back to the original spot. This probably isn’t necessary, but it’s how I do it.
The wood here has to be very thin in order for this gradual transition to be present. The thin wood will splinter with use, and you will go crazy fighting with it. You wouldn’t believe how many different things I’ve tried to reduce this splintering, and the only thing that worked was this wonderful plumber’s tape.
The plumber’s tape is cheap, readily available, and easy to use. It works by static cling, not by stickiness, so you never have to worry about any sort of leaking adhesive or sticky residue.
With use, the tape will get ragged, but the rags and tags don’t present an actual problem. They are rather aesthetically unpleasant, so don’t look at them!
After you’ve wrapped the tape, twirl the needle between your thumb and forefinger, and you’re…
Two pairs of needles—ready to get to work! Now, knit.
These directions took a long time to write, and a long time for you to read, but if you have all of your supplies in one spot in your workshop it should take between 10 and 15 minutes to make a pair. Really! It’s that fast, and it really is easy once you’ve made a pair and know what to expect.