A Brief History of Geometric Lathes
Tuesday, March 17, 2015

After reading our post on rose engine lathes, you were hooked; you needed to know more about ornamental turning and the machines that create decorative pieces. We have the information you’ve been craving with more on lathes that make tiny knick-knacks with embellishments. Rose engine lathes are used to create compact mirror cases, knobs, buttons and small boxes, among other things, but there are other decorative pieces that are created through ornamental turning. Hobbyists, dedicated woodworkers or those just wanting to learn more can all benefit from understanding what smaller lathes can create.

A rose engine lathe is a type of geometric lathe. Specifically, while rose engine lathes are used to make detailed, smaller items, it still falls under the category of a geometric lathe. As you may have guessed, a geometric lathe isn’t used to make heavy-duty machine parts and other tools. Rather, geometric lathes are used to make ornate patterns (does the word "geometric" ring any bells?) on a variety of items. Haven’t heard of this type of lathe? Perhaps you’ve heard it go by another regularly used moniker, a guilloché lathe.

Guilloché specifically refers to an engraving technique that has a repetitive design or pattern — oftentimes this pattern is overlapping spirals — mechanically engraved into an underlying material of some kind. While this term is used in reference to geometric lathes, it wasn’t always so; guilloché is a term generally used in architecture to describe similar spiral patterns that are seen on or in an edifice’s design. If the spelling wasn’t enough of a hint, the guilloché technique started in France during the 1700s. The commonly accepted history of this term comes from a French engineer, Guillot, who is said to have invented a turning machine to create such patterns. However, this story may not be one for the history books, because despite research, there is no first name attributed to this French engineer, nor any specific date for his invention. It looks like Guillché may join George Washington and his cherry tree in historic folklore.

Now that you have more of a basic understanding of what a geometric lathe is used for, it may be good to know what they can make (and have made). While lathes designed for ornamental turning can use wood, bone, ivory and metals to produce works, geometric lathes primarily use paper. Yes, the flimsy stuff essays are printed on, the paper towel used to wipe your hands in the restroom and what receipts that you discard almost immediately are made of, but they’re not meant for geometric lathes. This lathe uses paper as the underlying material for the guilloché technique in order to print patterns on bank notes and postage stamps. Why is there such a specific niche for geometric lathes? Well, as the history has it, during the nineteenth century, this machine was made to prevent forgery in postage stamps and bank notes in parts of Europe. Yes, apparently creating fake postage stamps was a rampant enough of a problem that swirled designs and complex patterns were incorporated into European countries’ postage stamps and currency so people couldn’t make forgeries easily.

While the thought that first comes to mind for most when picturing a lathe and its products tend to be those in industrial settings, that’s not always the case. Smaller lathes do exist and have been turning a variety of products for centuries. Ornamental turning may not be as widely popular for producing practical items, but this technique still creates many common objects. And each of those objects comes from a different lathe within the ornamental category. Though JF Berns Company specializes in machines and tools for metalworking, decorative pieces and the machines that make them are alive and “turning.”



 
 

Blog Categories

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    • 02/19/2019 - Lining Your Spindles for Bette
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    • 03/17/2015 - A Brief History of Geometric L
    • 02/10/2015 - 3-D: Not Just for Printers Any
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  • Historical Turning

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ABOUT JF BERNS

The J.F. Berns Company manufactures high quality CNC Lathe and Bar Feeding accessories to increase your machining productivity.  Products include spindle liners, bar chamfering machines, bar supports, spindle stops, draw tubes, draw bars, spindle extensions and special loaders and unloaders.

 

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