By Camille Coy
A Brief History of Lathes
Woodturning using a human-powered lathe is one of the most ancient forms of woodworking. Perhaps not quite as old as whittling, which was practiced over 10,000 years ago after the last Ice Age, but the art of turning wood still dates back thousands of years. An early archeological record of woodturning with a lathe comes from a carving of two woodworkers using a strap lathe in an Egyptian tomb. Some sources date the carving at 300 BCE, which places it during the Macedonian and Ptolemic Kingdom, a Hellenistic kingdom based in Egypt that began after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and ended with the death of Cleopatra and the Roman conquest in 30 BCE. Woodworking helped build the ancient civilizations of the Middle East.
Egypt + Rome
But use of lathes in Egypt and Rome existed from much earlier. The two-person lathe was developed by Egyptians around 1300 BCE, during the New Kingdom period (1550-1077 BCE). However, the bow lathe is an improvement on this design since it required only one person to use. It is difficult to get a solid date because wood of course is prone to rot, and even in the dry climate of Egypt only a few wooden examples remain in good condition.
Bow lathes were developed and used in Egypt, Rome, China, and parts of the Middle East such as Persia. Early turners in Persia held their blade in place with their feet and powered the lathe with their hands, a painstaking method continued by artisans into the 20th century. There are also many parts of the world where people still use bow lathes. And that shouldn’t be too surprising to you, as you’re here no doubt with an interest in the art of woodworking using (in many cases) ancient methods and tools. More power to you, or less for that matter (hand tool joke).
Vikings + Medieval Europe
Skipping ahead to the Vikings (as hand tool woodworkers are wont to do), there is evidence of the use of a spring pole lathe in the ruins of a 9th century Norse settlement called Jórvik in modern day Yorkshire, England. Not to mention the pole lathe was in common use by medieval woodworkers. Since it was portable, a turner could go from town to town to set up shop—everyone needs bowls.
Since Vikings are exciting, and a version of the pole lathe seems to be the most common lathe used by unplugged woodturners in the US and Britain, that’s going to be our focus.
So, What’s a Pole Lathe?
A pole lathe uses a long pole as a return spring for a treadle, which is a mechanism that uses a pedal, much like an old sewing machine. The treadle converts reciprocal motion into rotational motion, allowing humans to power a machine without electricity. Pressing the pedal pulls the cord that is wrapped around the piece of wood that is being turned, just as it was in a strap lathe. In modern pole lathes, users often don’t use the spring pole at all, and have replaced it with an elastic bungee cord. The blade is held against the object being turned on the pole lathe, so it is advisable to use green wood, which I believe deserves its own section.
Green wood, also referred to as “unseasoned wood”, is wood that has either been recently felled (cut down), or wood that has been stored in water to maintain its natural moisture content. A natural pond or reservoir used for this purpose is called a log pond, and though not in common use today, log ponds were once a staple of industry in America. Saw mills were always built near a body of water to store and transport wood.
The reason green wood is an apt choice for working with a human-powered lathe is that it’s particularly soft. This makes green wood a good choice for hand tool users in general. As the moisture inevitably leaves the wood, it shrinks, ensuring tighter joints in your work without the use of adhesives. Whether or not hand tool users are “allowed” to use adhesives is really up to the individual. For the most part hand tool users seem to agree on working “unplugged”, so without power tools. But if you’re also interested in working without adhesives, strategically using green wood to create permanent joinery is a great option.
Overview: The Pole Lathe
This project is perfect for a hand tool woodworker at any level. If you’re wondering if this is a project for beginners, I’d say it’s a good fit for committed beginners. What I mean by “committed beginner” is someone who a decent amount of space (outdoor or a shop) to work in, owns a few tools now and knows their way around them.
It isn’t a particularly complex or detailed project, and it doesn’t require a refined look to work. But it’s still an attractive project for more advanced hand tool users because for one, it’s an interesting piece of woodworking/hand tool history and building one will allow to turn wood the same way the Vikings did. Another reason is it opens you up to a new type of woodworking. Working without power doesn’t mean you can’t turn wood, and who hasn’t wanted to dabble in this ancient, sculptural art form?
The pole lathe will take about two days of work, so set aside a weekend if you can.
Skills (you may already know these, or this could be an opportunity to learn them)
- Mortise and tenon joinery
- Precise sawing
- Working with a chisel
The pole lathe can be made with minimal tools. So, no need to get online and order elaborate specialist items that you’ll only need for this one project. You probably already own everything you need to make a pole lathe.
- Hand saw
- Workbench + vises
- Brace + bit (the hand drill for hand tool users)
- Hand plane
- Marking gauge (optional, but helpful)
- Marking knife
- Bungee cord
Safety first applies to every project you intend to undertake as a hand tool user. Just because there aren’t any power tools around doesn’t mean you don’t have to buy safety gear and pay just as much attention to carefully maintaining and storing your tools.
- Safety googles/glasses
- Full gloves
- Thumb guard
- The right tool for the right job. Especially if you’re new to woodworking, if you don’t have the right tool for the task at hand, it’s best to just wait until you do. Each tool has a purpose for a reason, and while there are many jacks-of-all-trades out there (like the jack plane and the chisel), it’s so important to always use the right tool. Follow your plans carefully.
You can turn with just a normal bench chisel, especially with a foot-powered pole lathe. There are also longer turning tools, which allow you to anchor the end of the tool in your hip.
- A roughing gouge also works well, it has flat sides that can be used for finishing cuts as well as the curved shape blade that turns.
- Turning tool sets are also a good option, they generally include gouges, rough gouges, and spindle gouges of various sizes.
- If you’re interested in exploring alternatives or the full range of turning tools, Wood by Wright has an excellent list of suggested tools for turning on a pole lathe
Links to Plans, instructions, and jumping off points.
Now that you’re on board with building a pole lathe, it’s time to choose a plan. There are a lot of different plans and designs out there to begin making your pole lathe. If you’re experienced, this is great research for putting together your own plan and design. If you’re a beginner, you can’t do too much research when it comes to taking on a new project, and it’s always best to consult multiple sources and watch videos.
I’ve scoured the internet and chosen the top 3 plans available.
Wood by Wright & Popular Woodworking
The top link is a five-part video series by Wood by Wright on making Roy Underhill’s Double Spring Pole Lathe from Issue #226 (August 2016) of Popular Woodworking. Wright makes a few modifications of his own, but his video series is extremely thorough, and really worth a watch if you’re interested in making a pole lathe using hand tools.
This is actually the plans for a double spring pole lathe, which is a version of the spring pole lathe that can be used indoors because the spring pole is beneath the lathe bed rather than a separate piece placed at a distance.
This Instructables is another example of an indoor pole lathe that is a little more compact than the traditional pole lathe. This plan uses nails rather than mortise and tenon joinery, but also includes demonstrations of mortise and tenon joinery. It has very detailed plans and instructions including video and photographs of a portable bench top spring pole lathe.
What kind of projects can you tackle with a pole lathe? Hand-turned pieces are beautiful, unique objects that any hand tool user will find joy in making. Not to mention they make incredible gifts.
Bowl gouge: These are gouge tools that have deep flutes that come in two standard shapes: the “v” and the “u”. The “v” can be used for either roughing or finishing. The “u” is shaped to gouge out and shape the deepest parts of the bowl.
Round turning tool: These are great for a smooth finish in general. Choose one with a cutter that’s a little less than an inch in diameter. The small tip is perfect for finishing any finicky concave spots in your piece.
Scraper: A scraper is a finishing tool that kind of works like a plane for your bowl, removing fine layers to finish a piece. A scraper with a round nose is used on the inside of a bowl, while a square nosed scraper is generally used to finish the outside.
Hook tools + knife: Hook tools are great for hollowing out your bowl or shaping the outside. A hook knife is also great for finishing work.
Axe: If you begin with an awkwardly shaped piece of wood, you can use an axe to get it to a good starting shape for your bowl. Think of a bowl but filled in and flat across the top.
Finish: If you’re planning on eating out of your wooden bowl, which you probably are, make sure you’re using a finish that’s food-safe. Just because a finish is labeled as “all natural” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s food safe. There are finishes made from nontoxic ingredients such as linseed oil and flax seed, but some companies add chemical additives, so be sure to read all of the ingredients before purchasing.
Making a Bowl
Making a bowl with a pole lathe is difficult work for sure. You only apply your blade on the downward stroke, as the pole lathe uses reciprocal motion, so the bowl you’re working on moves back and forth, and you only cut at one point in the turn. So, it’s slow, careful work. But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Because you enjoy the satisfaction of doing things the old-fashioned way, really the ancient way. When you’re eating a glorious dinner out of a handmade bowl, it’ll all feel worth it.
A mandrel is a round piece with holding pins (sometimes) protruding from it that mounts your bowl to the lathe, so it can be shaped against it. They’re a fairly simple cylindrical shape, so it should be fairly easy to whip one up yourself. There’s some good reference information here.h
For turning a bowl, you begin with a piece of wood called a blank, which is essentially a square of wood. You can also begin from freshly felled wood in a log, if you cut out a thick chunk or slice. You can also use a burl, which is a rounded tree growth, if you know where to get one. Due to their already round shape, burls work well for bowl turning.
However, if you’re a beginner, it’s best to start with a bowl blank of a soft wood, like soft maple or pine.
Preparing for the Lathe
Use an axe to get the wood to a basic bowls shape. Rounded, but filled in of course, and flat across the top. This may take some time on the workbench. Put your piece in a vise and use the axe, hand plane, and maybe the chisel with a mallet to get a rough shape together.
When you have the rounded part together, place the wood in a vise and use a hand plane to get a flat, smooth surface across the top. You can also use a hand plane to smooth out rough areas on the outside, concave parts of your bowl as well. Take the opportunity to make things as easy for yourself as possible before you put your piece on the lathe.
Watch + Learn
Here are some good video references, it always helps to watch people completing a task, or similar task before taking on a project yourself. It’s good to watch other woodworker turn bowls online, then you can sort of crowdsource your technique and find what you think is going to work best for you. Maybe one person works outside or holds their tools a certain way. Make sure you’re always safe and using your tools correctly.
h (This video also has a good reference for mandrels)
Attach your prepared bowl blank to the mandrel by placing the mandrel above the top filled in part (where you’ll be gouging out from), and hammering it in. Put your mandrel, wood attached, onto the pole lathe. You want to make sure that the mandrel is spinning on its center and not wobbling too much. It’s alright if the bowl isn’t perfectly centered, but the mandrel should be as good as you can get it.
For working wood with hand tools, you want to take your time, and begin with the heavier, rougher tools and move to the lighter, finer tools for finishing and smoothing things out. It’s a process for sure, and it’s all about patience. Pay attention to your piece as you work and try to get a sense of when it’s time to move from one tool to the next.
For example, with the roughing gouge (the tool you’ll begin with), though it’s slow-going, you want to make sure that you don’t remove too much and distort the shape of your bowl. You want to work through the exteriors and define the outlines of your piece. The good thing about working with hand tools is that you can really take the time to watch your piece transform. Going a little too long with the roughing gouge or a couple misplaced cuts won’t ruin the bowl. Because your pole lathe doesn’t move your piece with nearly as much speed as a powered lathe, you’ll be able to see everything you’re doing. So take your time and put on some good music.
So, begin with your roughing gouge, and just feel it out. This takes a while, and you have to get used to the motion of the lathe. Unlike a mechanical lathe that allows you to cut continuously, the bowl will move back and forth as the bungee (or however you’ve decided to build) spins the piece. The tools only cut on the “return” so to speak. This step takes about 3-4 hours of work.
You can also try using your hand plane at this point, it’s a little tricky to get the movements down, you’ll have to work the treadle while holding the hand plane. But if you find this works for you (while wearing gloves please), give it a try.
Once you’ve moved past the initial roughness of the bowl, you can switch to a hook tool if you prefer. Try different sizes if you purchased a wood turning toolkit, and see what you like best as you work, but save the scrapers for finishing.
Use the bowl gouge to feel out the shape of the bottom of your bowl. You could try to make more of a protruding “foot” sort of bottom or leave it relatively flat. Keep in mind your bowl will have to sit upright.
You can continue to use your bowl gouge, or if you have a set of turning tools, any diamond shaped or flat-edged tool would be a good choice. Carefully begin to efine the lip of your bowl. This is where you can get creative, so you can decide if you want to go with something a little square or round—it’s really up to you. Make it your own and bring back the roughing gouge for any hiccups. You can always flatten something back out if you decide you no longer want a rounded lip.
Okay, now it’s just about the grind. Stock removal—this is where your piece really starts to look like a bowl. Get your bowl gouge back out, hold it at an angle, using the side, that allows you to shave the most stock. This is sort of angled outward to get the point. Work inside out. Meaning, begin at the center of your bowl, near the mandrel, and slowly work your way out to the edge.
Begin smoothing things out as your bowl begins to take shape.
This is going to take a while, so I hope you took my advice earlier about that good music. I’d say put on a movie, but you don’t want to take your eyes off of that bowl of yours. When a tool is in your hand, that has to become the focus of your world.
Get your flat-edged, diamond turning tool (if you have one), or your bowl gouge held at an angle could work for this too, and begin cutting into the stock left at the center of your bowl. Bring the point there down to a point where it could be easily knocked off with a mallet. Less than an inch if you can.
Use your mallet to knock off what’s left from the mandrel. Now it’s really starting to look like a bowl.
If you need to and you have one, use a hook knife to get rid of some of the rougher parts you may have left over. Then, use some sand paper to give your bowl a smooth finish. This is also a bit of a design choice, it doesn’t have to be super polished, but it can be if you want. No shame in letting it look handmade though, this took hours and leaving the mark of your tools is a badge of honor.
As I said before—if you want to eat out of your wooden bowl, make sure you’re using a finish that’s food-safe! Not “all natural”—that doesn’t necessarily cut it. Even some of the finishes that claim to be nothing but boiled linseed oil can contain drying agents and other chemical additives. If you’re interested, there are a couple of recipes online for making your own finish online. This Fine Woodworking article has information on nontoxic finishes and a great recipe for a homemade mineral oil and beeswax finish.
Now that you’ve been inducted into the world of pole lathe turning—the sky is the limit! Having your own pole lathe really opens up the possibilities of what you can do without power tools, so have fun and get creative.