Wood Lathe History: Common Types before the Industrial Revolution
Wednesday, June 17, 2015

For those in the machining and turning crafts, it’s common knowledge that the Industrial Revolution had a significant impact on the evolution of the lathe and additional machine tools. As humans began developing tools and technology, honing new skills, and began more efficient ways of production, different power sources started to become standard. Motors now required electricity, meaning the conventional way of operating machine tools by human touch was being phased out as more and more machinists were “turning” to automation. But before automation and metalworking became regular practices in the machining world, there was woodturning and thus, wood lathes.

The wood lathe is commonly the typical lathe that is widely known because of its ancient beginnings and continued use. But as many machinists know, these ancient machine tools also saw several developments, which caused them to differ from place to place and change over the centuries. However, a few manifestations of the wood lathe contributed more so to the lathe’s history than others did. Highlighted below are a couple of different wood lathes that played a part in wood lathe history.

•     Strap Lathe
An indicator of its name, the strap lathe used just that to turn objects into useable items and tools: a strap. Considered to be one of the earliest forms of the lathe, the strap lathe technically required two people to work it, who would have to be sitting down for this lathe to operate. The turner and the turner’s assistant worked in tandem to have the work piece become an item or a tool, such as a bowl. To power this wood lathe, between the turner and the assistant, one person had to pull the strap (typically made of leather) back and forth to provide a reciprocating motion that would create this lathe’s power. While the first person was controlling the strap, the other individual would do the actual carving of the wooden work piece to turn it into its final form. The first instance of people using the strap lathe was seen in ancient Egypt in roughly third century B.C.
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                                                                        A schematic diagram of a strap lathe without the tool rest.
                                                                                                 (Image: The Woodturner's Workshop)

•     Bow Lathe

Though similar to the strap lathe because of how it receives its motive power, the bow lathe is considered by many to be an improvement on the strap lathe. Another wood lathe that is described through its name, this particular one also had a similar design as the strap lathe, but it required a bow’s string to be wrapped around the work piece in order for any turning to be completed. The bow lathe is considered to be an improvement on the strap lathe because it only needed one person to work it. But now there is less motive power for the lathe and the turner only has one hand available to control the machine tool. This minor setback caused many people to steady the bow lathe with their feet. Though the bow lathe became a “foot tool,” multiple countries developed their own form of the bow lathe years after the strap lathe had been designed. The Romans are said to be the first society to create the bow lathe, with Germany, France, and Britain also creating similar wood lathe designs using a bow. And with each incarnation of the bow lathe, numerous items were created. But, because this machine tool oftentimes required a foot for operation, only small items, such as chess, backgammon, or other game pieces, could be produced on the bow lathe.

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                                                                         A turner working at a bow lathe, late 19th century.
                                                                                               (Image: The Woodturner's Workshop)

Contributing to the evolution of the lathe, these two varieties are “pivotal” to wood lathe history, as they are considered among some of the oldest of wood lathes, and lathes in general, in history. Because of the use and progression of wood lathes, machinists, hobbyists, and other people involved in the turning trade, can continue to produce tools, game pieces, toys, and countless other items the world has never seen before.

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Blog Categories

  • General Interest
  • Historical Turning
    • 09/18/2015 - Wood Lathe History: No, That’s
    • 08/10/2015 - Wood Lathe History: From the F
    • 07/16/2015 - Wood Lathe History: More Non-E
    • 06/17/2015 - Wood Lathe History: Common Typ

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