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JOEL Joel's Blog

Turning Down The House


Turned-Ivory Cup and Cover by Ferdinando de' Medici
Turned-Ivory Cup and Cover by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany 1681. The prince was 18 when he turned this cup and cover. His teacher was Filippo Sengher.

When I think of ornamental turning, I think of Holtzapffel, Evans and Victorian excess. An ornamental turning lathe is designed to allow the user to do all kinds of crazy stunts: turn off-center, turn slowly while the cutter traces an arbitrary shape, index spots on the work, etc. The extreme example at the top of this blog was made on a wooden framed ornamental lathe in a series of complicated steps and procedures. The premier material for ornamental turning was ivory; other popular materials included exotic rosewoods, ebonies, boxwood, and other insanely hard, mostly endangered woods. A recent, pre-pandemic, exhibit included an samples of ornamental turning long before the 19th century. The items in this show predate Victorian excess by 150 years. In 1701 Charles Plumier's book, the earliest book on turning, has pictures of lots of crazy gadgets that probably didn't work very well and by and large do not survive in any example. The gadgets Plumier describe are a window to how ornamental turning was done before precision ornamental lathes evolved in the 19th century. At best, these gadgets (if they worked at all) would have been a lot finickier than their 19th century successors.

The exhibit itself was a bit of a letdown. I would have been happier seeing more scientific gadgets and fewer knick-knacks, but the exhibit did include some amazing highlights. The first was a wire drawing machine covered in amazing marquetry. The second, and the inspiration for this blog entry, were examples of 17th and 18th century ornamental turning, complete with a copy of Plumier (a far nicer copy than mine, but disappointingly open to a pretty boring page). I came away thinking that the exhibit missed the point regarding many of the tools, but that isn't the focus of this post. Instead, I want to concentrate on ornamental turning.

L'Art de Tourner is the first book devoted to turning. The link above in the book title goes to an 1749 edition along with an English translation. About half the book is devoted to lathes and simple turning, but after the basics are established, the book includes some crazy designs for rose engines and other ornamental turning gizmos. It should be understood that modern turning is usually done under power, and the result is a cylinder and bowl of some sort. In the 18th century and earlier, a lathe that revolved the work was just one version of turning. Ornamental turning is mostly about indexing work mounted on centers, and scraping some sort of pattern in it.

How many of these machines in Plumier actually existed? Very few. In the 18th century, the milling machine hadn't been invented, and the engine lathe was truly in its infancy. Round metal parts were made on a lathe by scraping, much like we would now scrap hard wood. Milling was done by first forging to a general shape and then using metal cutting chisels or files to reach final dimension. Everything was done to fit. So Plumier's gadgets would have been made in minuscule numbers, which is why except for a few Rose engine lathes (that have real application in decoration for watchmaking), the gadgets listed didn't survive. From a functional standpoint, a 19th century ornamental lathe could do all these operations, so the 18th century versions were truly obsolete. The pages from the book below are from my 1701 edition.

The most interesting part of the exhibit to me was the ivory turned work from by young amateur students (see below for more examples) --the sons of the rich and powerful of the time. Apparently doing ornamental turning, unlike other crafts, wasn't socially beneath them. In fact, ornamental turning taught them good character and responsibility. Being colossally wealthy also helped sourcing some of the largest pieces of ivory I have ever seen. There are two points here that are worth mentioning:

1 - In the 17th and 18th century, rich nobles saw merit in teaching practical arts, not because they wanted their kids to become craftspeople, but because handwork build character. These are the richest parents in Europe at the time, the standard of work their kids did (even with help) is still high enough to show that the craft skill was taken seriously.

2 - Today, craft classes around the country have been destroyed because educators cannot see the point of teaching handwork. Young people are evidently supposed to aspire to be computer somethings, not handworkers. The idea that handwork builds dexterity, visual perception, design skill, discipline, a sense of creation and character has been totally lost on the modern mainstream educator. Nowadays Waldorf Schools still teach craft but very few other schools, whether public or private, do.

Turning Down The House 2
Turning Down The House 3
Turning Down The House 4
Ornamental turned ivory. Mostly 17th century student work
Ornamental turned ivory. Mostly 17th century student work

Rose-Engine Lathe. By Lambert Xhrouet
Rose-Engine Lathe. By Lambert Xhrouet, mid-18th century

Etched skew chisel for turning. German 1564
Etched skew chisel for turning. German 1564

Set of profile scrapers for turning. German 1560-1570
Set of profile scrapers for turning. German 1560-1570

Turning Down The House 9
Turning Down The House 10
By John William under instruction by Georg Steiner. Germany
By John William under instruction by Georg Steiner. Germany, 1688

By John William under instruction by Georg Steiner. Germany
By John William under instruction by Georg Steiner. Germany, 1688

Join the conversation
05/27/2020 Elaine
Joel, I don’t understand education being done today. My grandfather b.1890 had a 3rd grade education and knew more than most undergrads. We, as a society, have allowed the government to dictate what we need. I was born 70 years after my Grandfather. In Elementary school we had recess, lunch recess, and PE so schools were into obtaining the JFK Presidential Physical Fitness Award. We didn’t have the issues with ADD or ADHD. In Junior High, all students had eight weeks each of cooking, sewing, shop class; and we had to have one year of art. So I feel your angst about what’s taught when a HS grad can’t read a tape measure.

Ivory as it ages turns yellow , but the ivory in the pictures looked very white for their age. How did they clean them or it just the way the art lights are angled?
I obviously agree with you on the lack of manual arts training in modern schools. As for ivory Indian elephant ivory turns yellow with time. African elephant ivory doesn't. However in order for either ivory to be as white as possible it needs to be dried/cured slowly and properly. Holtzapffel wrote a lot about different qualities of ivory. The ivory color in the pictures is pretty accurate. It's very high quality ivory to begin with.
05/27/2020 Michael
In the Menshikov Palace in St Petersburg, Russia, there is a wood lathe and turning tools that were used by Czar Peter the Great. The lathe is incomplete and the tools are hard to see, in a display case far behind the rope. From what I could discern from the lathe, it was setup for elliptical turning. Sometimes very wealthy adults were interested in craft work. It wasn't average work though, that was an expensive lathe (lots of blacksmith work) and tools.
05/27/2020 Bob
WOW and I find simple furniture projectS, at times, difficult. Again, WOW great photos and the book looks amazing.
05/28/2020 Heike Childs
This posting was a nice surprise about ivory turning. Thank you for taking the time to share your finds.
05/28/2020 Michael Terry
I've been reading your columns for many years now, and I would offer that this is one of your best. As far as Victorian "excess", at the time, it would have been more commonly referenced as "too much is never enough" In our age it would be "too many is never enough" I have six handsaws, two of which are Disstons, but in the past 20 some years, I've only used a handsaw once.
05/28/2020 Wade
The French Museum of the Renaissance ( at Écouen has a room with, as I recall, a wave-forming machine that strongly resembles the wire-drawing machine shown above, along with sets of 16th or 17th century woodworking tools, including a set of turning tools very similar to the German tools shown in your post. A hard to get to museum (especially now) but really a must-see for renaissance decorative work.
05/28/2020 Wade
Joel - I looked a little closer at the text, and that _is_ the wire drawing machine from Écouen, and the turning tools as well.
05/29/2020 Bob Sheppard
Joel- did you know Frank Knox? He was an ornamental woodturner in Manhattan, and would show up at the NY Woodturners meetings that were held at the Crafts Students League at the WYCA. I was a member of that turning group, years ago. I have a copy of his book, Ornamental Turnery.
He did some beautiful work. I sometimes wonder what happened to his Holtzapffel lathe
I not only knew Frank Knox, I visited his shop once, took polariods of his setup, and to this day proudly own one of his pieces.
05/30/2020 Bob Sheppard
That's cool, Joel. I only got to see a couple of his pieces. But they were fascinating.
BTW- I'm currently a member of the North Jersey Woodworkers. Looking forward to seeing you again at a meeting, someday.
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