Wood Lathe History: No, That’s Not a Sewing Machine
Friday, September 18, 2015

The great wheel lathe. The foot wheel lathe. Though the design of the wood lathe continued to change and adapt while people were looking for more efficient ways to work, every design wasn’t perfect. Yes, one may have provided continuous motion, but it still needed an assistant in order to work. Sure, Leonardo da Vinci is credited with an early treadle lathe, but it wasn’t a practical machine tool. Notwithstanding, every incarnation of the wood lathe wasn’t perfect, however, each setback gave way for a new advancement.

Da Vinci’s sketch of an early treadle lathe, or foot wheel lathe, did contribute to lathe history — however, it probably wasn’t in the way da Vinci had hoped for. But after the famed engineer had sketched this wood lathe, the treadle lathe underwent a few more changes.

A treadle itself was used in other parts of lathe history: the pole lathe used a treadle, along with its namesake, to turn workpieces. But like many early inventions, the pole lathe had its own setbacks. Though it only required one person to operate it and the person could stand while working, it didn’t necessarily spin fast enough to turn pieces quickly. That’s where the (newer) foot wheel lathe comes in.

treadle lathe, lathe, wood lathe, lathe history, foot wheel lathe, turning
        A treadle lathe circa 1850.
   (Illustration courtesy of The Woodturner's Workshop)

From da Vinci’s sketch of a foot wheel lathe, turners of the era took the wheel and mounted it in a different location on the lathe’s frame. Mounting the wheel independent of the headstock, and then connecting the two pieces via a belt, cord, or strap allowed for another mechanism to be included in the treadle lathe’s design: stepped pulleys. Stepped pulleys were also added to this lathe, once people began to discover da Vinci’s lathe was designed in such a way that the speed of his foot wheel lathe relied entirely on the speed of the turner’s foot on the treadle.

How did stepped pulleys make the treadle lathe (or foot wheel lathe, depending on what histories you read) a more efficient machine tool? For starters, the turning speed was increased once the wheel was moved, and a flywheel was mounted independently from the headstock. Using a belt, cord, or strap for the pulleys also meant a large number of gear ratios were possible for a workpiece. When choosing a gear ratio, the drive belt (or cord or strap) could be easily moved from one stepped groove to another in either the wheel or the headstock pulley, or even both.

treadle lathe, lathe, wood lathe, lathe history, foot wheel lathe, turning
A foot-powered treadle lathe.

The treadle lathe / foot wheel lathe was a definitive point in wood lathe history. Once it was known that the position of the wheel could be changed, and it functioned more productively, a treadle lathe could produce more items than its predecessors, and the catalog of what could be produced on a wood lathe expanded. With improvements to the foot wheel lathe, turning was no longer a craft meant for those who worked in woodturning; aristocrats, nobles, and royalty alike were all fascinated with the treadle lathe’s capabilities. Thus, turning became a dignified hobby for members of upper society. However, the members of these classes were more akin to ornamental turning than what wood lathes and woodturning had to offer.

Think back to anything you made or created. Was the first design utterly perfect that it’s the design still being used today? Probably not. The same goes for countless other inventions (Does the wood lathe ring any bells?) over the course of time. In wood lathe history, each idea led individuals to develop wood lathes even further. While every change may not have been flawless, they kept ‘turning’ the page for better ones.


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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