Wood Lathe History: From the Famous Inventor
Monday, August 10, 2015

You may think you know all there is to know about wood lathes, but after centuries of use, and machine tools constantly being improved upon with new(-er) technology, there is more to lathe history than you may think. Whether you know of the foot wheel lathe or the treadle lathe, one of the world’s most famous inventors even played a part in the “shaping” of this apparatus. Can’t guess who it is? Here’s a hint: He even had a novel and feature film use his name in the title.

Yes, Leonardo da Vinci — and we’re not talking about the ninja turtle — even contributed to lathe history. While people may best know da Vinci as an artist/painter/sculptor, he was also a scientist and engineer, who is sometimes known for one of the earliest forms of the treadle lathe.

Lathe, lathe history, treadle, treadle lathe, foot wheel lathe, Leonardo da Vinci, da Vinci, machine tool

The above sketch is Leonardo da Vinci’s treadle lathe, eventually also known as the foot wheel lathe. It may not look like much as you scroll down on your smartphone’s screen with the tap of a finger, but for its time, the creation of this machine tool was innovative. This sketch of a lathe, dated as early as 1480 by some historians, and other times as 1500 by others, was actually not a practical machine tool. Though da Vinci drew the treadle lathe with the flywheel, crank, and treadle that all provided the self-propelled continuous motion, as this lathe depended entirely on the speed of the turner’s foot pushing on the treadle to operate, it could not turn fast enough for its intended design.

Da Vinci may not have gone back to the drawing board for the treadle lathe (he was known to be a bit of a procrastinator at times and left some of his works unfinished), the use of a treadle in a lathe was an astonishing advancement for machine tools. You could even say, although da Vinci’s treadle lathe wasn’t a practical design and isn’t regularly used in the 21st century, it “turned” a page in wood lathe history. Centuries later, other great thinkers in the machine tool world would discover that the placement of the wheel would allow for more than just direct drive from this treadle lathe. Positioning the wheel so it is mounted on the floor, beneath the lathe bed was tinkered with, and thus, the foot wheel lathe was born. But that is a topic for another blog post day.

While Leonardo da Vinci is associated with innumerable inventions such as an early flying machine, it is still unclear if his sketches of lathes were original works, or da Vinci drew machine tools that he observed, looking for a way to improve upon them. Whatever the case may be, though da Vinci’s treadle lathe could only operate through direct drive, it left an impact on the turning world and machine tool industry; it was instrumental in the development of modern wood lathes. Though, to this day, many do not know if da Vinci’s late 15th-century sketch of the treadle lathe was meant for woodworking or metalworking.


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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