The Woodturner's Workshop

A brief history of woodturning


Information about woodturning before the 13th century AD is sparse. What information we have is derived from:
1) a single pictorial representation of a lathe from the 3rd century BC;
2) a few references to lathes and turning in Greek and Roman literature; and
3) a limited quantity of the physical remains of turned products and turned waste.

Because of the last of these we know that woodturning has been practised from at least the 6th century BC and possibly for several hundred years prior to that. Although the information on the early development of woodturning is sparse it is surprising how much it tells us when it is interpreted in the light of information from later periods. Our story will begin with the lathe.

Products of the lathe

Fig 1: The Mycenean Wooden Bowl
Circa 1200 BC
It has been seen that the first evidence of the lathe itself comes from the 3rd century BC but it is known that it was in use long before that. A flat wooden dish which stood on wooden legs was found in a pit grave at Mycenae dated at 1100 to 1400 BC. This dish has low side walks with a bead running around the top, which is typical of turned work. There is also a hole in the centre, which has been plugged. This suggests that it could have been turned on a mandrel held between centres in a lathe. Against this view must be set the fact that there is no sign of turned grooves on the piece.

Fig 2: Part of a bowl found at Corneto
Dated as from 700 BC
When we move forward in time a few hundred years we find clear evidence that the Etruscans (who lived in the region which is now northern Italy) possessed well developed techniques of turning. The earliest piece from that area was found at a site known as the "Tomb of the Warrior" at Corneto. This is a fragment of a wooden bowl, dated at around 700 BC, which shows "clear evidence of rounding and polishing on its outer surface and of hollow turning..." (Woodbury) Other Etruscan turned vessels were found on this site.

The next few generations of Etruscans must have continued to develop the skills of their forefathers. Examples of their work from the 6th century BC have been found in substantial quantities. These include turned ornaments for hairpins, amber beads and some turned wooden platters.

The Etruscans were not the only people to use the lathe in that period. Excavations of a mound grave in Asia Minor (now Turkey) revealed two flat wooden dishes with decorative turned rims. These have been dated as from the 7th century BC. A number of turned wooden boxes and bowls from the 5th century BC have been found in the Crimea. One of these is described by Woodbury as a "double box" made in one piece with a separate cover which "shows highly sophisticated skills in turning".

Fig 3: Bowl found at Uffing in Upper Bavaria
Dated as from 6th C. BC
The oldest complete turned artefact discovered was a bowl from about the 6th century BC that was found in the late 19th century by Julius Naue in a burial ground at Uffing in Upper Bavaria. Although the early turner's equipment was, of necessity, very primitive this does not mean that the turner was lacking in ability; this bowl provides strong evidence of very considerable skill. It is not simply a utilitarian piece, such as those, which were produced, in great quantity in England in Medieval times, but takes the form of a goblet with a stem and base. Not only was it decorated with beads but it also had a large captive ring around the stem. It was a very sophisticated article to have been produced by such primitive means.

How much more difficult was turning for him than it is for us; what kind of lathe did he use? This question provides a convenient link to the consideration of the history of the lathe itself, rather than at the objects that were made on it.

The history of the lathe

Types of lathe
(1) The strap lathe
(2) The bow lathe
(3) The pole lathe
(4) The great Wheel
(5) The treadle lathe
The list in the box on the left represents a very rough attempt to set out the chronological development of the lathe. It is imprecise because no-one knows exactly at what date any of them first came into existence. It should also be noted that the earlier lathes were not made obsolete as soon as a new type came into existence. Indeed, examples of all of them can be found in very modern times.

One aspect of the problem of dating is that no physical remains of the lathe itself have been found from before the 10th century AD, at the very earliest. The only evidence we have of the nature of early lathes is that of a documentary nature.

The strap lathe

Fig 4: Schematic diagram of a strap lathe
(tool rest not shown)

On these lathes the work-piece is held between two iron spikes supported by a crude wooden framework. The tool rest is formed by a long rod, which runs parallel to the axis. The motive power is transmitted by a strap which takes a couple of turns around the end of the work-piece; the strap is pulled backwards and forwards by the turner's assistant to provide a reciprocating motion. Usually, both the turner and his assistant had to sit on the ground to operate this device.

Fig 5: Depiction of turmer at work - 3rd C. BC
A turner from ancient Egypt

The earliest information on the lathe dates from the 3rd century BC. This is a bas-relief carving on the wall of the grave of an Egyptian called Petrosiris. This carving shows a craftsman and his assistant busy on a bow lathe very similar to those, which have been found in use in Egypt in modern times.

Fig 6: Indian turner at work - late 19th C.
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The image on the left which is taken from a book published in 1881 (Hand or Simple Turning - Principles and Practice by John Holtzapffel) portrays an Indian turner. The author states that "He commences by digging two holes in the ground at a distance suitable for the length of the work, and in these fixes two short wooden posts, securing them as firmly as he can by ramming earth and driving in wedges and stones around them. The centres, scarcely more then round nails or spikes, are driven through the posts at about eight inches from the ground, and a wooden rod for the support of the tools, is either nailed to the posts or tied to them by a piece of coir or coconut rope. The bar if long is additionally supported ... by one or two vertical sticks driven into the ground. During most of his mechanical operations the Indian workman is seated on the ground ... The boy, who gives motion to the work, sits or kneels on the other side of it holding the ends of cord wrapped around it in his hands, pulling them alternately ...". Notice that in this instance the turner is using his toes to steady the tool on the rest.

Fig 7a: The Ethiopian bowl turner
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A lathe of a very similar type was still in use in Ethiopia in the late 1960's when Nancy Boothby (an American teacher) took the photographs on the left showing the bowl turner at work. (Please note that the copyright to the images shown in Fig.s 7a to 7g is owned by Taunton Press. These images are reproduced here with its permission.) Fig 7a shows the work piece held between centres made by driving two 6 inch metal spikes into logs embedded in the ground. The end the tool rest support was placed on one of the metal centres and the tool rest itself was laid across that. the turner held the rest in place with his feet. The assistant pulled forward and back on a leather strap wrapped around the mandrel.

Fig 7b: Rough shaping the bowl
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The Ethiopian bowl maker did the shaping with a primitive axe/adze. This had three interchangeable socketed heads which fitted on a single crooked handle. the handle was made utilising the natural shape of a branch. This device was similar to those used by the ancient Egyptians. But the latter did not have a socketed head, instead the flat blade was lashed onto the handle with leather or sinew. However, it is thought that a socketed head was used in parts of Asia in the ancient world.

Fig 7c: The roughly shaped bowl
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Turning by these methods is very heavy work so to reduce the effort the blank is shaped as much as possible, inside as well as out, before it is turned. However, because the bowl is held between centres a spigot is left in the middle of the inside until the turning is completed. Similar roughouts, from the late Iron Age, have been found in Britain.

Fig 7d: Drilling for the mandrel
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With the roughout held between his feet the bowl turner drilled a hole in the centre of the bottom. The drill, which could hardly have been more primitive, was simply rolled between his hands.

Fig 7e: Attaching the mandrel
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The mandrel was then driven securely into the bottom of the roughout. The mandrel was a piece of branch wood with a tapered end sheathed in metal. The metal sheath is not essential but it speeds up the process - without it time would have to be spent making a mortise and tenon joint.

Fig 7f: Turning the inside
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The bowl was then turned. Local abrasive leaves, probably from the fig tree, were used for sanding. But little sanding was required because of the smoothness of the cuts. The knobs on the top and the bottom were finally removed with the adze and the rough areas smoothed over with the turning tool.

Fig 7g: Nearly finished
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The Bow Lathe

Fig 8: Schematic diagram of bow lathe
The bow lathe is very similar to the strap lathe but the motive power is supplied by a bow. The string of the bow is wrapped around the work piece and a reciprocating motion is created by moving the bow backwards and forwards. Whereas the strap lathe requires two people to work it the bow lathe requires only one. The drawback is that less power is available and the turner has only one hand with which to control the tool. In some cases the turner used his foot to help to steady the the tool. Because of these deficiencies only small work is done on the bow lathe.

Fig 9: Turning on the bow lathe in 1283
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Turning backgammon and chess pieces with a bow lathe.
From King Alonso X's Book of games of 1283

Fig 10: A Persian turner at work - late19th C.
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Fig 10 on the left shows a Persian turner at work on a bow lathe as described by Holtzapffel: "In his lathe the centres are made to pass through the the ends of an open box the edge of which serves as the support for the tool; they are raised or lowered to suit work of different diameters in a series of holes pieced in a vertical line. Small works are set in motion by the bow, both by the Persian and the Indian, for those of larger diameter, both use a cord pulled by an assistant

Fig 11: An Egyptian lathe - 1873
Fig 11 is based on a sketch made by Holtzapffel in a turner's shop in Cairo in 1873. Although this was crudely constructed it presented several improvements on the lathes of the Indian and the Persian turners shown above. It was more robust, self-contained, adjustable, and portable. Holtzapffel described the way it was used as follows: "The operator sits upon one heel, the toes of the foot going just under or upon the stretcher and he directs the tool, which he holds by a long handle, with the toes of the other foot .... Occasionally and for heavy work, both feet are advanced, placed close together, and press on the tool on the bar by the big toes, the other toes closely pressed around the tool and on the bar; while the latter is always pushed forward by the feet ..... . The bow presented a peculiarity in the hinged piece near the handle, employed to regulate the tension in the string; the string is wrapped once or twice around the work, after which it is twisted around the jointed piece, which is then folded back and held in the hand with the handle."

Fig 12: An Egyptian boy at work - 1960's
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There is evidence that a bow lathe very similar to that used by the ancient Egyptians was in use in the same area in the early 1960's. I have a book, which contains a photograph of an Egyptian boy working a bow lathe by himself: his right hand is working the bow, his left hand is manipulating the tool. It is not clear what he is making but whatever it is it is very small.

The pole lathe

Fig 13: Schematic diagram of a pole lathe
(The tool rest and other features are omitted)
The pole lathe was invented sometime before the 13th century AD. Although it represented a great advance the pole lathe was not that much more complicated than its predecessors. The differences consisted of a framework to raise the bed of the lathe clear of the ground, the addition of a pole and a treadle. The basic construction is shown in the diagram. It can be seen that the upper end of the driving cord is attached to the tip of a flexible pole and the other end is fastened to a simple treadle arrangement below the bed of the lathe. It should be noted that function of the pole is to act as a return spring and to keep the string taught - nothing more.

For its time this was a major technological breakthrough; it not only freed the turner from the need for an assistant but also enabled him to stand instead of having to sit on the ground. Together these factors gave him more control over the process; they made it possible for him to control the rhythm of work, to apply more power and to exercise greater freedom of movement. Many of these early lathes would have been portable enabling them to be set up near the raw material, or near the customer, whichever was the more convenient. Others, however, particularly those for turning bowls may have been fairly substantial constructions being heavy and rigid.

Fig 12: Stained glass window - 13th C
It is not known when or where the pole lathe first came into use. It has been suggested that its origins date back to at least to the Saxon period in Europe but this is speculation. The first clear evidence of its use comes from two sources in the 13th Century. One of these is a manuscript illumination of a nun turning a bowl and the other is a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral. As is to be expected the window does not provide a very clear picture but we know it shows a turner at work because it was donated to the Cathedral by the local Turner's Guild. It must depict a pole lathe because the cord can be seen running down the centre of the window.

Fig 15: Manuscript illumination - 13th C.
Fig. 15 shows a nun at work on what is clearly a pole lathe. The lathe appears to be of relatively light construction but this may be due to artistic licence. In common with many early illustrations of the lathe the tool rest is not shown.
Source: La Bible Moralisee

Fig 16: Pole lathe turner - 1395
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Fig. 16 shows a turner working on a pole lathe which is much more robust than that shown in Fig. 13. Here, again, the toolrest is not shown. It is not clear what the tuner is making but it could be the hub of a wheel.

Source: Mendelsches Bruderbuch 1395

Fig 17: Pole lathe turner - 1568
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Fig. 17 is interesting because it depicts some of the items that the turner had made. These include dishes, bowls, large spindle turnings, and what appear to be musical instruments (the latter are on the bench in the foreground on the left). The large sphere on which the turner is working is a puzzle: what is it and what would it have been used for? It does show that large, weighty, objects could be turned on the pole lathe.

Source: woodcut in the "Panoplia Omnium" by Hartman Schopper, published at Frankfort-on-the-main in 1568

Fig 18: Pole lathe turner - c1640
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Fig. 18 also shows some of the turner's products, namely a chair and a spinning wheel. The bowl perched on top of the headstock would have contained oil that the turner used to lubricate the metal points holding the work-piece. This lathe can be compared with the one shown in Fig.16 above. In the latter the the bed of the lathe is made by cutting a slot in a heavy board. In this lathe it is made from separate pieces of timber bolted onto posts - together these form the frame of the lathe.

On the shelf on the back wall are a number of objects which have been identified by Pinto as "three footwormers, a spice(?) box, a yoke, flour barrels, etc." Did the turner make these or was it just a convenient place to store them?

Source: copper engraving by the Dutch artist Jan Joris Van Vliet (born at Delft in 1610)

Fig 19: Joseph Moxon's lathe - 1678
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The illustration of a pole lather on the left is taken from Joseph Moxon's book "Mechanic Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works". This was published in 1678 and was the first English book to describe and illustrate the tools of various trades and the way they are used; in effect it was the first of a long line DIY manuals. Moxon's illustration are a little crude by today's standards because he not only had to prepare the drawings but engrave the plates himself.

Note the bar in the foreground which rests on two supports. Moxon tells us that it was called the Seat "not because it was so but because the Workman places the upper part of his Buttocks against it, that he may stand the steddier to his Work, and consequently guide his foot the firmer and exacter". The use of the seat by pole lathe tuners seems to have been a matter of personal preference. Some used it, others did not.

Fig 20: Pole lathe turner in 18th C
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Fig. 20 shows a turner making a large baluster. This illustration is from a book published nearly 90 years after Moxon's. The lathe is essentially the same as that used by the pole lathe turner in the 1395. (see Fig. 16)

Source: T. H. Coker and others, The Complete dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1764-6), Vol. III.

Fig 21: Schematic diagram of possible Roman lathe
The great wheel

There is some evidence from a detailed examination of bronze vessels that the Romans employed lathes using continuous motion. It has been suggested that the drive could have been provided by means of a pulley system utilising an independent "great wheel" as illustrated in Figure 21. (See Caroline Earwood - Domestic Wooden Artefacts in Britain and Ireland From Neolithic to Viking Times)

Fig 22: Great wheel in pewter turner' shop
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Fig. 22 shows a great wheel in use in a pewter turner's work-shop in the middle of the 16th century. The figure in the background appears to be sitting in front of a fire wielding a soldering iron. The similarities between this image and that in Fig 17 showing a pole lathe turner are striking.

Source: Book of Trades - Jost Amman - 1568

Fig 23: A great wheel in a wheelwright's shop
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A great wheel in a wheelwright's shop in modern times. Probably used for turning wheel hubs. Writing in 1881 Holtzapffel says that the great wheel (or as he calls it the hand fly wheel) "has been very generally supplanted by power, nevertheless is still remains in use for many industries, it is convenient for occasional purposes in all workshops, while it has the recommendation over most motors, of simplicity and almost impossibility of derangement. The largest and lightest handwheels are those used by the soft wood turners; these are made of wood with spokes very like the wheel of a carriage, and measure from six to eight feet in diameter."

Fig 24: Leonardo's lathe c1500.
The treadle, or foot wheel, lathe

This sketch (Fig. 24) by Leonardo de Vinci is the first known illustration of a treadle lathe.It is not known whether it is a drawing of a lathe he had seen or if it is another of his original concepts. Whichever it is it is not a practical machine because it would turn too slowly.

Fig 25: Treadle lathe turner - 17th C.
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Fig. 25 (Coker ibid) shows how the turning speed for a treadle lathe was increased by using a flywheel and belt to drive a small pully on the headstock. Note that the flywheel and the pulley are provided with a number of stepped grooves so that a variety of speed ranges could be obtained by moving the belt.

Fig 26: Treadle lathe - late17th C or early 18th C.
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The lathe shown in Fig. 26 is set up for ornamental turning. Ornamental turners are able to create patterns on the work and obtain forms which are not possible with hand turning. Ornamental turning has always been very much a minority hobby - in its early days it was practised by by members of the upper echelons of society, including royalty. It is still done today by enthusiasts, some of whom use antique machines similar to the one illustrated here. Good antique machines command very high prices. Examples of ornamental turnings can be seen on the website of The society of Ornamental Turners

Fig 27 Treadle lathe circa 1850
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The lathe shown if Fig. 27 is made entirely of metal and is a robust machine. Despite the existence of such machines the pole lathe was preferred by many hand turners and it lingered on well into the 20th century. To quote Holtzapffel again: "The exclusive or even general use of the footwheel for the lathe, was probably considerably retarded, first, by the very simple and economical nature of the pole lathe, and then, by imperfections in the construction and in the manner in which the employment of the wheel was first attempted.". After small electric motors became available treadle lathes became museum pieces


Fig 28 Lathe for turning locomotive wheels in mid-19th C.
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This image has been added to provide some perspective. Until the beginning of the 19th century the tools for turning both wood and metal were handheld. In the early years of the century Henry Maudsley developed the slide-rest lathe for turning metal. The tool was clamped in the rest which slid along an accurately machined bed and was moved by a leadscrew. With the implementation of steam power the metal cutting lathe developed rapidly. The lathe shown above was able to turn two steam locomotive wheels on their axle.
Source of image: A treatise on Lathes and Turning, W Henry Northcott, 1868