Today’s wood lathes almost exclusively rely on electric motors to generate turning power and for the most part all follow the same basic design. But prior to the industrial revolution wood was being turned for thousands of years on increasingly sophisticated man powered lathes.
People have been turning and carving wood since at least the sixth century BC and possibly earlier. Wood pieces that have characteristics that suggest that they might wave been produced by turning have been dated to 1400 BC which would make the art of wood turning over 3000 years old.
A wooden bowl found at Corneto and dated to 700 BC shows clear evidence of hollow turning. Artifacts found in the 6th century BC suggest that wood turning was becoming more common. Wood turned bowl and other ornaments from that period have been recovered. These pieces were produced by the Etruscan people.
Some of these early pieces demonstrate that their makers had a great degree of skill in working their tools. While the equipment may have been primitive they were capable of turning sophisticated decorative pieces.
What kind of lathes were used to turn these artifacts? There are several designs that were used at various times and places.
One of the earliest forms was the strap lathe. In this design a strap is wrapped around a piece of wood suspended between to centres. The strap is then pulled back and forth to turn the piece of wood. This results in a motion that is not continuous in speed or directions, but alternates back and forth. This sort of lathe was first used in early Egypt. It required one person to work the strap and a second to perform the carving.
An improvement on the strap lathe is the the bow lathe. This is exactly the same design except the strap is attached to a bow. The motion of the strap is the same except that by attaching it to a bow it can be used one handed. This allows for a skilled craftsman to work the lathe without assistance.
The same basic concept was again improved by the pole lathe. In this design you have the familiar strap wrapped around your blank but now it is attached to a pole and treadle system that allows the user to provide the turning force with his feet. This has the advantage of freeing up both hands for carving without requiring a second person to turn the lathe. This advance dates to the 12th century AD or earlier.
Another advancement was made with a great wheel lathe, a lathe powered by a hand turned pulley system. There is evidence of these being used by the Romans. This sort of tool would require an assistant to turn but can provide continuous motion in one direction.
The most important design of wood lathe prior to the invention of the powered lathe was made in the 17th century, the foot wheel lathe. Here the lathe is powered by a treadle at the users feet but now it is connected to a crank and pulley mechanism to allow for continuous direction turning. The addition of a flywheel makes this into a very powerful machine which can sustain constant high turning speeds.