Pole lathes

There’s been a revival of interest in pole lathes in recent years. Wooden pole lathes, at their most primitive, use a thin timber pole or a sapling to provide the motive power. The pole is bent over and a cord is stretched tight from the top, wound around the spindle of the lathe and attached to a treadle at the operator’s feet.

As the turner presses the treadle the cord turns the spindle in one direction; as it’s released, the pole springs back and turns the spindle in the opposite direction. This is called a reciprocating, or back-and-forth, movement: you can’t use the lathe when the treadle is released.

Pole lathes only work well with “green” or unseasoned timber, split along the grain. “Bodgers”, chairmakers who lived rough in the beech woods, used them to fashion intricate chair legs and stretchers (the horizontal rungs that stretch between the four legs to hold them rigid). And as the green woodworking movement has spread, they’ve attracted the interest of craft workers interested in reviving traditional skills in a low-energy, sustainable environment.

While the materials and the power source may have changed, a woodturner from the early middle ages probably wouldn’t have too much trouble recognising a 21st-century lathe.

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