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JOEL Joel's Blog

Early Lathes and The Gramercy Tools Treadle Lathe - A Time To Turn


Egyptian turner using a Bow Lathe. From
Egyptian turner using a Bow Lathe. From "Turning Lathes (Home Made)" by J. J. Holtzapffel c.1870's

I don't know exactly when the earliest wooden lathes were invented. I do know there are turned things from ancient Egypt, and earlier. In Theophilus's "On Divers Arts" (c. 1100 CE), the earliest book on craft in Europe, there are many references to using lathes and even a description of building several lathes. Both are powered by assistants either cranking the spindle continuously or going back and forth with a strap.

The most primitive form of lathe, a bow lathe (above), is powered by a bow going back and forth on the work held between two pivots. This type of way is still being used in parts of the world for making beads and other small things. The movement of the work is intermittent, and backwards and forwards, but with sharp tools this type of lathe is remarkably efficient.

A nearly identical bow lathe to the one above

The next big technological advance in lathes was to replace the arm powered bow with something stronger. The pole lathe has retained popularity in England and the United States for greenwood turning. It works the same as the bow lathe only with bigger movements, with foot-power (rather than arm-power) pulling down on a strap that turns the wood between pivots. A springy pole pulls the strap up to return for the next stroke. The pole lathe was in professional use in England at least until the middle of the 20th century.

Pole Lathe - This lathe uses a bow for a spring return. From
Pole Lathe - This lathe uses a bow for a spring return. From "Turning Lathes (Home Made)" by J. J. Holtzapffel c.1870's

Pole Lathe - This lathe uses a springy lath for the return. From
Pole Lathe - This lathe uses a springy lath for the return. From "Turning Lathes (Home Made)" by J. J. Holtzapffel c.1870's

A Pole lathe in use

Bodgers, the people who went into the forests to make chair parts, would bring the base of a pole lathe with them to the forest and fashion the spring and a base from available trees. The reason they worked in the forest was that is was far more efficient to split out green lumber and turn it in the forest than it is to take greenwood logs to a factory and essentially do the same hand operation. When everything in or out of the forest had to be carried manually, it made a lot of sense to bring back finished chair parts rather than raw wood.

Not only can I not state when the bow lathe was invented, I also don't know when someone added a flywheel to to the lathe for continuous motion. Theophilus certainly describes lathes with cranked continuous action, but the inclusion of a treadle (for powering by foot) and a flywheel (to even out and provide continuous power) came later. Certainly by the 17th century, the treadle lathe was widely known. In the factories and mill towns that grew the Industrial Revolution, the turning of the lathe was done with water power, and then steam power, transmitted by series of belts and shafts. But for the smaller workshop, and certainly for amateurs, by the 19th century the treadle lathe exploded in popularity and became available in all shapes and sizes for both turning wood and metal.

Treadle lathe for home woodturners. Buck and Tyan catalog. London C.1930
Treadle lathe for home woodturners. Buck and Tyan catalog. London C.1930

By the 1930s, electric motors began to be introduced for power tools. This development, along with the Great Depression, marked the end of the treadle lathe.

There's a lot to be said for electric motors - the removal of pesky belts and better, easier control of the machine. From an amateur standpoint, you can have an electric lathe in your basement and can produce, as so many people do, fabulous stuff. But with the gain comes a loss. With an electric lathe, you only control the tool that shapes what you're making. You are operating a machine. A treadle lathe is basically a very large hand tool. And like riding a bicycle, you have a much more intimate connection with what you're doing. People who use pole lathes and treadle lathes today do so because it's so satisfying to do so.

About a decade ago we had a table at a Lie Nielsen show in Brooklyn and we brought along a pole lathe designed by Tim Corbett, our former designer, for the show. Everyone had a hell of a fun time using it. Lathes can be fun! There's also another benefit. Exercise. I'm not someone who likes to go out and run pointlessly to stay fit (although I should). I certainly understand the people who do this and they find the Zen and calm that they get from that type of exercise. The same thing with using an exercise bike. I find it impossible for me personally to focus and do it day after day. Exercise you get from the treadle lathe offers the benefit of movement but also has a conclusion. You make stuff! Our wooden pole lathe never evolved into a product but the remembrance of the fun kept the idea of some kind of lathe percolating on a (very) back burner.

Lathe work takes up a lot less space than cabinet making, but you still need a fair amount of room for a lathe. And while I actually think a treadle lathe is a fabulous, quiet tool to use in an apartment, very few people I think are prepared to devote living room space to the hobby. (And the concept of a spare room doesn't really exist here in New York City.) So when we decided to build a treadle lathe, we realized that it had to fold up for storage. There are other benefits for a folding lathe - they are less expensive to ship; there's something you can fold up and put in the trunk of a car and go someplace; and most importantly, you can put it away without having to take it apart.

And in the intervening time, as family members, friends and even I have gotten older, I've become mindful of another benefit of a treadle lathe - enhancing a sense of balance. With a treadle, you use one leg to exercise and the other to balance the rest of your body. One of the biggest causes of health issues in older people are falls. And once someone gets injured and loses mobility, frankly it's downhill from there. Preventing the loss of balance and falls seems like a great benefit to the lathe.

Put all of this together: we wanted to offer the first production treadle lathe. It needed to be full size, so you could produce substantial work on it. And it needed to fold up into something manageable.

We have succeeded in what we think is a pretty good machine. We've built a prototype, and we are working on production. Pictures will be available as soon, as we file paperwork for patents and other intellectual property protections.

If you're interested, please click here for a more specific description, and by adding your email by clicking the "Notify me when back in stock," we will keep you informed on what's happening. It's not a Kickstarter, but we do hope to offer an early bird special, and your indicating interest helps us get a sense of possible demand so we can gauge production size. Although the first production run will probably be pretty small, getting the tool into the hands of real people is very important.

Just as we have done with all the tools we've made, we spent a lot of time researching and examining the tools preceded our tool, and considering all the aspects of the design that could make a good product.

We had to go back to lots of old books, get a sense of literature, understand some of the pitfalls and figure out how to move forward.
The folks in the 19th century, which was the height of treadle lathe use, had the advantages of a large potential customer base and the ready availability of cast iron castings. We, on the other hand, have the advantage of knowing what they did, readily available ball bearings, and our new friend: aluminum.

In the coming weeks I want to write about the design and engineering that went into our treadle lathe.

Treadle lathe with overhead flywheel mechanism. From “The Art of the Turner” 1701 by Charles Plumier
Treadle lathe with overhead flywheel mechanism. From “The Art of the Turner” 1701 by Charles Plumier
Join the conversation
07/26/2023 Sarah
fascinating, thank you.
07/26/2023 Darin Omtvedt
I am looking forward to this, I have been on the fence for years about getting a lathe. My father in law has a giant PowerMatic, but I don't have the space or power for such a beast. There could be a great market in the turning world for the art show and farmers market turners. A portable human powered lathe could make a really interesting booth to pull people in and hopefully make more sales, and make more product when things are slow.
FABULOUS! I ~might~ not be a customer for your new treadle lathe product because I built my own and enjoy it tremendously. Everything you say about the joy of using a treadle lathe is dead on. The good news you bring is making it easier for people without one to have a treadle lathe without the labor of building one from scratch. Hurrah for the prospects of lots more treadle lathes in the world!
07/27/2023 Rob
Fantastic idea!

When you talked about adjusting the flywheel weight, it occurred to me that there are three ways to increase the rolling resistance (and therefore difficulty and energy storage): the weight of the flywheel, how close that weight is to the center, and the radius at which the belt is attached. So while you could switch flywheels, you could also stack them or make just one flywheel that is adjustable. I don't know how the cost of making and stocking multiple castings compares with making something more mechanically complex, but I thought I'd make the suggestion.

Also, what is your impression of a velocipede action (like the Barnes lathes)? Bike parts are readily available, and I'm a work-while-sitting-down kind of guy.

Finally, having standard MT tapers is a great idea, and opens up a world of possibilities.
working sitting down is easier but doesn't help with balance exercise. it would be fairly easy to convert the treadle to a velocipede action, just remove the crank and replace it with a bigger crank with pedals.

07/31/2023 Thomas Walter
There is a sketch by Leonardo DaVinci of a treadle lathe with a flywheel that dates to around 1480 CE. It's not known if this lathe was one of his own inventions or one made by someone else and drawn by him.
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