(Skip this bit if you already know the basics.) A pole lathe is a simple wood turning lathe which is itself made of wood, and which uses no electricity. You donít buy one, you make it yourself. There are courses you can go on where you make your own pole lathe, learn how to turn on it, then take it away at the end. Alternately you should be able to make one by reading the bit below, and studying my drawing. A pole lathe is the most efficient way of increasing the value of timber - cut, or buy, a fresh log of hardwood, this is easy and cheap - then using your home made pole lathe literally turn it into money! A short list of possible products: Candlesticks, chair, stool and table legs, mushrooms - just decorative or for darning and bigger ones for mashing potatoes, spinning tops, light pulls, pegs for ďShaker railsĒ, rolling pins, rounders bats, cricket stumps and bails, and (all I have time for nowadays) tool handles. There are several advantages to using a pole lathe over an electric lathe: Obviously it can be used out in the woods or wherever, itís quiet, itís good exercise, and itís safe, so ideal for children. I have taught children as young as five to turn on a pole lathe. It also makes you turn using the proper techniques, that is cutting rather than scrapping. There are some things that can only be done on a pole lathe, this is because the work piece rotates first one way, and then the other. On an electric (or treadle) lathe it goes just one way all the time. On a pole lathe you can make a nest of bowls ( a whole stack of them from one lump of wood) and also items with a carved handle on one side.
Wood is usually turned on a pole lathe when fresh, or green (hence the term greenwood work) this is because itís much easier to cut when itís soft. Itís also cheaper to buy, and healthier for the person working it as waste is removed in the form of shavings rather than dry dust. It then dries out (seasons) whilst in itís final shape. A cylindrical shape such as a rolling pin will dry to an oval cross section, this doesnít usually matter. In the case of stretchers (rungs) of chairs and stools, this is a positive advantage. Turners using seasoned wood have to shape the ends (which are tenons to fit into round mortises in the chair legs) to an oval section in a separate operation.
So exciting, addictive and satisfying is the pole lathe, that a thriving club has sprung into being - but you can join the Association of pole lathe turners even if you havenít made a lathe yet. It costs just £10 a year, and members enjoy automatic public liability insurance, should you wish to demonstrate pole lathe turning at your local village fete or whatever. The newsletter, called The Bodgerís Gazette, comes out about four times a year. Members send in articles of interest mainly about greenwood work and related topics, thereís also free advertisements, tips and helpful hints, forthcoming events and opportunities. In addition hereís a huge annual party called the AGM, where you can meet probably about 100 other pole lathe turners, watch expert demonstrations, the famous ďlog to leg raceĒ, and there are competitions for chairs and other items made using a pole lathe. Hereís the secretaryís name and address to send your £10 to:
The Association has a list of people who run courses in making and using pole lathes and related crafts, just send the secretary a sae and you can have it, even if you are not a member. Thereís also a list of members who demonstrate Pole lathe turning if you are organising a show and would like one to come along. Send a sae to the secretary, as before. If you are looking for crafts people to demonstrate at your event - donít forget me! As a demonstrator of tool making I fit in nicely between the pole lathe turner (whoís tools I make) and the charcoal burner (whoís product I use as fuel.) In order to make a lathe of your own then refer to the diagram below. Itís quicker to use sawn wood from the timber yard, but wonderfully individual looking lathes can be made straight from a tree - if you have some greenwood working skills, and a tree.
The only bit which has to be cut accurately is the top and inside faces of the bed, these can be hewn with a side axe. Or, instead of the two piece bed in my drawing you could use a solid log and just cut a slot in the middle and this can be done with a chainsaw in the woods, or a bandsaw at home. In this case the legs can be very simple - just like giant milking stool legs, stuck into holes drilled in the solid bed. Thereís no need to have both poppets free to move, one can be fixed, so saving making the through tenon and wedge which holds it. If you are right handed have the left poppet fixed, and vice versa. I saw a lovely greenwood lathe which had the two pieces of the bed held to the uprights with huge dovetails, they just slid into place. Much quicker to assemble than using bolts, and nothing to get lost or forgotten. For this method the uprights have to be quite wide, at least at the top. If you are an historical reenactor the threaded rod with cranked handle is out of the question, so just have two spikes. Itís quite easy to do without the fine adjustments that the handle allows: when putting your work on the lathe, just pull the movable poppet over a little further than required, so itís not quite upright, then drive the bottom wedge through. As work progresses and everything loosens up, so the poppet can be brought more to an upright position by hitting the wedge a bit more. Some early lathes, specially those light ones designed just for turning slender work, didnít have spikes to hold the work. They had hollows, and the work was shaped to have pointed ends which fitted in. Iíve tried this, and found that the distance between the poppets is absolutely crucial. Too tight and the thing wonít turn (the cord just slips) too loose and itís rattling about and impossible to cut cleanly. If you make a lathe with hollows, Iís advise filling them with something hard and smooth to make a good bearing surface. A limpet shell works fine.
My drawing shows a lathe made from wood you can buy, the exact measurements donít matter much, but have the pieces which form the lathe bed 2Ē by at least 4Ē. The shape of the framework for the legs doesnít have to be an A shape, if itís not going to be moved they can be built in to the room; and if outside, dug into the ground. If you are going to move it, bolt the bed onto the legs then itíll come appart.
Many ďpole lathe turnersĒ nowadays are actually not using a pole. They are unwieldy to transport, and take up a lot of room. A piece of stretchy stuff (such as those hooked springies for attaching things to roof racks) is ideal, and can be mounted between posts as in the drawing. Or attach directly to the ceiling if indoors. If thereís not enough headroom, mount the bungie above and behind you, and have the cord run around a simple pulley (turn one on the lathe!) above the lathe bed. There are many other ways to ďpowerĒ a pole lathe (you are really the power) such as bows etc.. but Iíll not go into them here.
Not available at the timber yard, you need access to growing trees. They say larch is best, but really just about any species will do, the important thing is to get a long pole without side branches, not too thick at the bottom, or too thin at the top. It needs to bend, and it must reach right over the lathe. They last a little longer if cut and let dry for a few months, but find one, and youíve found a hundred, most people donít bother. If itís used a lot it may get used to being bent and so loose some of itís spring. For heavy work, youíll need a thicker pole and also stronger legs!
Hereís how the pole works: The pole acts as a spring to pull the cord back up at the end of every stroke. You press down with your foot, so turning the work around, then relax your foot, and the pole, trying to straighten itself, pulls the cord back up, and so turns the work around in the opposite direction. You canít do any work as itís coming back the other way. Itís surprisingly easy to get into the rhythm of cutting when you press your foot down, and then taking the tool just a millimetre off the work as your foot goes up and the work revolves the other way.
There are several ways to fasten the pole. Simplest is find a living sapling or coppice pole - however this is rarely convenient! The usual thing is to fix the fat end of the pole at ground level by tying it to wooden pegs driven into the ground, then arrange some sort of prop using other poles, forked if you can get them, to support the pole about one meter off the ground in front of the lathe. About half to two thirds of the pole is then waving about in the air with itís end above the centre of your lathe bed. With foresight you will have tied the cord onto it before putting it up. Try to get it high enough soís it doesnít bang you on the head on the down stroke. Thereís always a bit of fiddling about and adjusting to do with getting the pole just right. Depending on its length, the pole might be at about a 45 degree angle.
Itís possible to have the pole behind you, this is favoured by some people when demonstrating because it gets it out of the way. Sometimes you will want to put the cord in a particular place on the work, but getting it to stay there is a problem. First thing is move the treadle over, but on a long work piece this may not be enough. Itís usually easier to move the lathe than the pole. Easier still is to arrange the props for the pole to be in the form of what I can only describe as a ďhitching postĒ like in Cowboy films. The pole just rests on this bit of fence, and you can push it from side to side as you please.
Another way to hold the cord where you want it is to drill a row of holes in the far side of the lathe bed and put bits of dowel in them so it looks like a wooden rake head. Then you can trap the cord between them. This is not perfect because of all the rubbing, but I had to do it on a bow lathe, and it works.
If youíve ever used an electric lathe you may well think that youíre at an advantage here. Well Iím afraid youíll actually find it more difficult! Itís impossible to teach turning by just reading, but here goes...
Use green wood, and get it as near to a perfect cylinder before you put it on the lathe as you can. Adjust the tool rest as close as it can go, but without the work bumping into it. See in the drawing that Iíve made little stepped shaped bits of wood to wedge in behind the tool rest. Use them if the work is so wide that it bumps the tool rest. When not in use they can hang from bits of string from each poppet so theyíll not get lost.
Adjust the cranked handle so the work will turn freely. It will get looser as you go on because the pointed iron centres are effectively drilling into the ends, so tighten it up after a while. If itís loose the work might fly off altogether, but you will be warned of this by a rattling noise first.
Start work with a large gouge. With the hand that you donít write with, make a fist around the steel part a few cm from the sharp bit, your thumb is towards you. The other hand steadies the end of the handle, usually on top of it. (When I have time some photos might be a good idea!) Rest the tool on...the tool rest, and keep it pressed firmly down. You can learn to relax and have a light touch and so on later, this is just to get started. The Ďfistí hand should have the little finger pressed against the tool rest as well, this is a good firm grasp.
The angle of the tool depends on the height of the tool rest and the size of the work. Imagine a line running down the centre of the work, from one iron point to another, then point the tool to just above that line.
Donít try to take of much at a time, just little shavings. Roughing out is the most awkward stage of the work, itís a shame you have to do it first! Once the whole thing has been touched by the tool things get a lot smoother and you can start to think about technique. Have a go with the other tools, holding them in the same way. Aim each one just above the centre line of the work. Look in conventional turning books at the Library to see what can be done with the different tools, or just experiment yourself. A note on ďscrapersĒ (Iím not talking about cabinet scrapers, which are just flat pieces of sheet steel.) : in electric turning itís possible to scrape away at the dry wood as it whizzes round and therefore get some sort of a shape out of it. This is not real turning, and is scorned by professionals. Donít buy scraping tools for your pole lathe: they are no use on greenwood, or at low speeds.
If you get a ďdig-inĒ (youíll know if it happens!) try to use it as a learning experience, re-create in slow motion what you did in order to not do it again. The skew chisel is the worst for dig-ins. But when youíve got proficient itíll probably be your favourite tool. Practice. Change legs when one tires. Use sharp tools.
Try not to use sandpaper to smooth it off, itís tempting when faced with the beginners ďploughed fieldĒ, but much better to learn to use the tools properly and so get a better finish than any abrasive could give you. After the sharp edge of the tool cuts into the wood, the bevel should then rub against the newly cut surface, so compressing and polishing it. Try holding the tool at slightly different angles to get this effect. For straight flat things like a rolling pin a wide flat chisel is best, it works like a plane. The wider the chisel, the better it will be at just cutting off just the high points. For this manoeuvre hold the tool at a 45 degree angle to the lathe bed, and just use the bottom half of the blade.
An easy way to get a good shine on the finished work is to fill your hands with shavings from the ground and make fists around the work as you treadle like mad. Friction between the shavings and the work soon polishes it up. Careful not to burn your hands though. Lastly, if you are finding this really difficult, and not much wood is coming off - itís quite possible that youíve put the string on the wrong way around, and so are trying to cut as the work goes away from the tool. Happens to all of us. Once.