Old woodworking technology

The British craftsman bodger in his makeshift woodland hut, the Victorian home worker turning out chair-back spindles, table legs and banister supports, and all manner of wood turners traditionally used the pole lathe in their cottage industries.

At its simplest, the traditional lathe consists of a frame, a treadle and a long springy pole. The wood to be turned is fastened between two centres, which are turned by the operator using the treadle. The pole connects to the lathe's spindle by a length of rope, and gives a fine degree of control over the turning speed. The work is turned first one way to enable the turner to pare it into shape (the 'working stroke'), then during the 'return stroke' the pole acts as a return spring to wind the rope back. The whole contraption is designed to be knocked down into its component parts for ease of transport - many turning trades were seasonal, and the craftsmen itinerant.

Timber is usually turned on a pole lathe when "green" or fresh, because it is much easier to work with when the wood is soft. Because it hasn't had to undergo a long and expesive seasoning process, it is also cheaper to buy, not to mention healthier for the one working with it, as waste is removed as shavings rather than dry dust. It then dries out (seasons) whilst in its final shape. A cylindrical shape such as a rolling pin will dry to an oval cross section, this doesn’t usually matter. In the case of stretchers (rungs) of chairs and stools, this is a positive advantage. Turners using seasoned wood need to shape the ends (round tenons to fit into the round mortises in the chair legs) in a separate operation.

Modern pole lathes, whilst still 'low technology' dispense with the pole and use elastic 'bungie' ropes in a smaller frame, which enables use in smaller spaces - the traditional lathe designs needed a lot of room and were almost always situated out of doors! Many craftsmen still value this tool for its versatility and portability, and there are still working craftsmen all over the world who rely on it for their livelihoods. There are certainly societies in Britain and the US, which have attracted large memberships keen to preserve and use both the traditional and more modern designs.


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