The History of Lathing: Ancient Turnings
Sunday, May 25, 2014

If you think of a lathe, the first things that probably come to your mind are massive metal machines, gears, motors, computer-guided controls, extreme precision and mass production.  Lathes have been instrumental in the fabrication of ornate decorations and precision parts for nearly 2,000 years, and only in more recent history have they developed into the behemoth contraptions used to facilitate efficient and exact mass production.  

The exact date of the first lathe is not known, but pieces have been found dating back as early as 1200 BCE, that were most likely produced by turning.  These pieces, ceremonial bowls, primarily, were most likely crafted on a table that supported bearings on which they could be rotated and cut by hand.  Later examples of turned pieces are more elaborate, and by the second and third centuries BCE, lathes were commonly found and used across Europe and the Near East. 

Early Lathes
In the Near East, turners would sit on the ground, driving the spindle by hand with a bow and chiseling the work-piece with the other hand, usually holding the lathe in place with one foot and guiding the point of the chisel with the other.  Some of these rudimentary lathes can still be seen in Asian bazaars.

Early Chinese lathes were more sophisticated by comparison: the spindle was driven by pedals the turner would alternately push down.  A cord ran between the pedals and was wrapped around the spindle, so that rocking the pedals spun the spindle.  In this way the turner could use both hands to carve the piece and guide the chisel, which made for cleaner, more precise cuts. 

In Europe, the technology was still more advanced, and turners only needed one foot to turn the spindle.  The Chinese method had the turner sitting at the lathe table, but the early European lathes allowed the turner to stand while working, which again increased precision and control. 

Over the years, improvements were made to the machine, namely constructing the frame of the lathe with heavy lumber to increase stability, as well as developing the slide-rest.  Leonardo da Vinci is credited with one of the major contributions to the development of lathe technology later in the 15th century.  

By the early 14th century, the Turners’ Guild of London was a well recognized organization of turners, protected from non-guild competition by the government, as most skilled trade workers were at the time.  The guild and others like it enforced quality standards, and required that turners have a registration mark by which their work could be identified. 

It was in the 15th century that da Vinci’s successor began making huge strides in lathe development.


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