Alburnam's Archive

(I would like to thank John Pappas for contributing the second guest article to this web page, he went through a lot of careful work and thought to make this fine treatise on a nearly forgotten art of turning on a spring pole lathe.)


By John Pappas

Traditional Pole Lathe   

 The Author at work on the Pole Lathe

The name pole-lathe is a curious one.  In 1897, Collierís Universal Dictionary of the English Language defined a pole-lathe as follows:  ďA lathe in which the work is supported between centres on posts rising from the bed, turned by a strap which passes two or three times round the work.  The lower end of the strap is connected to the treadle, and the other end to a spring-bar on the ceiling.Ē   It has been written that the name lathe comes from the English word lath, which means pole or split strip of wood.   Of course, the pole-lathe gets its name from the spring-bar, or pole, as described in the definition above.  It might be reasonable to conclude that the word lathe was coined when the pole-lathe was developed, and as newer lathes were invented, people started to use the redundant term pole-lathe to distinguish one lathe from another.  I have no evidence of this and I leave it for you and scholars to ponder.  Meanwhile, I will continue with this simple description about the operation of the pole-lathe: the operator presses on the treadle with his foot thus pulling on the rope that is wrapped around the work piece causing it to turn against the cutting tools.  When pressure on the treadle is released, the flexible pole above straightens, it pulls the rope back up, the work piece turns in the opposite direction, the treadle is raised, and the cycle is repeated.   

The lathe and the bow drill are probably manís oldest machine tools.  There is evidence that lathes were used as early as 1000 to 1200 B.C.  The earliest turned wooden object to have survived intact is a bowl from about 600 B.C.  In an early Egyptian painting we see a lathe being operated by two men.  The turner has an assistant who rotates the work with a cord wrapped around the work piece, pulling alternately with each hand while the turner shapes the wood.  Such lathes are still in use today in the Near East and North Africa.  As early as 757 A.D., according to one source, or possibly 1150 A.D., a significant improvement, that allowed the turner to work without an assistant, was made with the introduction of the pole-lathe.   An early illustration of a pole-lathe appears in a 13th century stained glass window at Charters Cathedral.  Pole-lathes, however, have some drawbacks, a reciprocating motion, relatively slow turning speeds, and limitations on the size and weight of objects that can be turned.   In the fifteenth century craftsmen overcame these problems with the development of continuous drive lathes, driven by cranked flywheels that were powered by hand, foot, horse, or water. Replacing the reciprocating motion of the pole-lathe with a constant rotation enabled larger and heavier pieces to be turned.

While the continuous drive lathes might have spelled the end of the pole-lathe, it continued to be the tool of choice for bodgers well into the late 1950s.  Bodgers were woodworkers who turned wooden parts on a portable lathe. The pole-lathe was easily moved from one place to another or built on site using the material at hand.   The bodger would set up his lathe in the forest where he felled trees and prepared the pieces to be turned.  The still green timber was then made into chair legs and spindles.  After a winter of hard work, the bodger loaded his cart with thousands of spindles and chair legs taking them to High Wycombe to make the world famous Windsor chairs.  Today, the Association of Pole-Lathe Turners keeps the story of the bodgers alive.  This association has 420 members scattered around the world as far as New Zealand and the USA, but most reside within the British Isles.  Their objectives are to research the history of pole-lathe turning, promote a high standard of pole-lathe turning in the present, and explore and develop new applications of the pole-lathe in the future.  

Over the years I read articles about the early lathes, and I have been intrigued as I watched Roy Underhill, in the Woodwright Shop, turn pieces with his foot-powered lathes.  I frequently thought about making some type of simple lathe and recently curiosity prevailed and I made a modified pole-lathe.  I think that my desire to do this has its roots in my evolution as a woodworker and with my appreciation for hand tools.  Woodworking has been my hobby for thirty years.  It began by buying a few tools to do the things any homeowner is faced with. With a table saw, a router, and some hand tools I was soon making tables, clocks, cabinets, desks, shelves and other household items.  I added power tools to my small shop, but improving my skills with hand tools gave me more satisfaction and enabled me to tackle more difficult projects.  There was, for me, pleasure in the journey as well as the destination.   Itís only natural that I would be drawn to the simplicity of a foot-powered lathe.

Top view of pole lathe    View showing rope and tool rest

Detail of tool rest    Full view of Spring pole lathe

A pole-lathe functions the same as a motorized lathe in that the work piece turns between centers and stationery cutting tools shape the wood.  Of course there are differences.  For one thing, the pole lathe turns slower, and there is the problem of the reciprocating motion, but the main difference is that a treadle, not a motor, provides the power to turn the lathe.  To master the treadle and rope is to master the pole-lathe. This is where I had the most difficulty; the treadle was not stable and it tended to shift along the floor which caused the rope to wander off the work piece.   It was obvious that I needed to make some changes, but I wasnít sure where.  I made modifications to the treadle without success.  Finally, after hours of trial and error I found that the solution to my treadle problems was nothing more than a simple change in the positioning of the treadle. The other differences, lathe speed and the reciprocating motion, did not cause as much frustration or challenge.  I hope the following comments will prove to be helpful for anyone who might also embark on the building of a pole-lathe.

Drawing #1

Drawing #2

As seen in the drawings, my treadle is made with two narrow boards connected with an eyebolt to form an inverted ďYĒ.  The treadle is operated by applying pressure to its short leg.   What has worked well for me is to spread the legs of the treadle (approximately 70 degrees, but that can vary) and place it on a rubber mat so the two ends on the mat are along an imaginary line that is parallel to the axis of the lathe, and at the same time, position the upper end of the treadle so the rope is perfectly vertical.  When the treadle and rope are lined up this way, the arc made by depressing the treadle is on a plane that is perpendicular to the axis of the lathe.  The rope winds and unwinds within a narrow portion of the work piece, which simplifies keeping it on the work piece.  I also keep the short leg of the treadle on the inside so that the long leg always points in toward the center of the lathe.  If the rope is positioned near the end of the work piece, any wandering by the rope will tend to be away from the end, reducing the danger of running off the end of the work piece This arrangement also makes it easier to reach and press down on the treadle.  The rope winds and unwinds smoothly when it is wrapped around a fairly straight or spool-like portion of the work piece. If it is wrapped around beads or coves the uneven surface causes the rope to wind on top of itself.  If the design doesnít provide the ideal surface, I would start with a longer work piece, turn a spool-like portion on one end, and then cut it off when everything was completed.    

When operating a pole-lathe, the tools cut the work piece during the downward stroke of the treadle. When the treadle is released and the rotation changes, the normal procedure is to slightly withdraw the tool from the wood surface.   However, there are times when this isnít necessary because the tool does not catch the work piece during the reverse rotation   What I have found is that it quickly becomes natural to withdraw the tool when it should be withdrawn, and not withdraw it when it is unnecessary.   The lathe itself is a pretty good teacher.

A motorized lathe turns the work piece at speeds much higher than a foot-powered lathe.  With higher lathe speed the shavings are cut away more efficiently and the surface finish is improved.  There can be no argument that a motorized lathe excels in this area.  However, a very respectable surface finish can be produced on a pole-lathe and the additional sanding that might be required is not significant.  I have produced surfaces that needed very little sanding.  Even with slower lathe speed, I would venture to say that a skilled turner could produce turnings that would rival those produced on a motorized lathe.  Sometimes, there are advantages to foot-power and the slower speed.  It is the ultimate in variable speed and, in my learning process, slowing down in certain situations has definitely been an advantage.   

View showing bowl chuck    View showing bowl chuck


Bowl and bowl turning chuck   Bowl on pole lathe with faceplate tool rest clamped in place

 Cherry Bowl, bottom view    Cherry bowl, top view

Table turned on a Pole Lathe

Building and learning to use my pole-lathe has been a challenge, the results have been both unexpected and inspiring, and it has been a journey through time that has given me a better appreciation for the woodworkers of the past.  It served woodworkers well for hundreds of years and it can be, even today, a practical means of turning.  Anyone who might only turn something on rare occasions could find it to be a very adequate tool.  As a teaching tool, it would be a safe and captivating way to introduce a young son or daughter to woodworking.  Then there is the topic of exercise.  As many of you know, a stationary bicycle or a treadmill is boring.  Using a pole-lathe is a pleasure, time passes quickly, and in addition to producing something useful, Iíve lost five pounds.  You just canít beat that.  Years ago, an article in Fine Woodworking Magazine described an old fashion leg vice.  It included this bit of insight,  ďA day at a bench equipped with one and you begin to understand its previous popularity and question its present scarcity.Ē   I believe the same can be said about the pole-lathe.



Fine Woodworking Magazine
 Methods of Work, Leg Vice  #11, p16 -
 Ethiopian Bowl Turners         #21, p54, 55
 The Turned Bowl                    #32, p55
A Brief History of the Pole Lathe, Don Weber, American Woodturner, Mar 1992

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