Bow Lathes Before Power
Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lathes have long been used as tools to perform various tasks and are used for industrial work today; they once were used to create games pieces and toys. That’s right; the same machinery that can produce tools for ships and aircraft can produce some tiny items as well. It all depends on what lathe you’re using.

One of the earliest forms of the lathe is the bow lathe. This tool can be dated all the way back to the Egyptians in 1300 B.C.  The earlier forms of bow lathes were also used and developed in European countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain. This type of lathe got its power from — you guessed it! — a bow. The string of the bow would be wrapped around the work piece and was moved backward and forward to create motion. The bow lathe was revolutionary for its time because unlike its predecessor the strap lathe, the bow lathe only required one person for it to function.

While it was a major advancement for its time, it still had limitations. Because of its size and its design, it was the norm for turners to use their feet to steady the tool so two hands would be available, but one needed to work the bow. But this didn’t stop people from creating new items with the bow lathe.

Materials such as small bone, pewter and wood could now be turned to make game pieces and toys. What exactly was made you may ask? For starters, chess pieces and boards, checkers, backgammon, cribbage and other popular games of the eras bow lathes were in use, as well as games popular to each region that used bow lathes. The cup-and-ball game, well known throughout centuries, was turned and possibly lacquered by a bow lathe. The Japanese version of the game, kendama, was also created by a lathe.

Bow lathes did have other uses besides creating toys. Bowls, bobbins and spheres were all created with the use of a bow lathe. But the creations don’t stop there. Many wooden toys and figurines, such as model airplanes, model ships and wooden dolls, were produced with the help of a bow lathe, and are still created with the help of some form of a lathe.

There are industrial needs for lathes to create equipment and other tools, but the tool itself had a humble beginning in the small form of a bow lathe. While the bow lathe seemed to be a break through from its predecessors, some of its attributes made the instrument difficult to use, leading way for improvements on the lathe. But before we had the instruments we have today, children were entertained by toys and games made from bow lathes.


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You guys have been great, providing super tubes in a timely manner. Have a great weekend.

Mike Kupstas, Applications Engineer / Moeller Aerospace



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