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The Woodturning Lathe: A Brief History

The lathe is among humanity's oldest and most important machine tools. It can shape, drill, bore and grind. In Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, Vol. I , John Jacob Holtzapffel terms the lathe 'the engine of civilization'. He points out it is unique among machine tools in that not only is it the only machine capable of replicating itself, but it is also capable of manufacturing all other machine tools.

Ancient drilled beads The lathe most likely evolved from the potter's wheel and the bow drill, which may have been used to bore holes even before fire was discovered. In fact, fire may have been accidentally discovered by someone trying to drill a hole in a piece of wood. The presence of stone, shell, ivory and bone beads with what appear to be drilled holes suggests that the bow drill may have been used as early as the Late Stone Age.

Egyptian Lathe The Egyptians are believed to be the first to use lathes, as evidence of a round tenon joint was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun dating back to 1350 B.C. Moreover, the earliest known illustration of a lathe is a drawing in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 300 B.C. The drawing depicts one man holding a cutting tool while another uses a cord to rotate the workpiece back and forth. The Egyptians also developed the bow lathe which could be operated by one individual. Two pointed pieces of wood supported the workpiece and a bow with its string wrapped around the work was used to turn it. The turner used one hand to move the bow forward and backward, while his foot and other hand steadied the cutting tool. Cuts could only be made on one-half of the motion, when the wood was spinning counterclockwise toward the turner.

The bow lathe soon gave way to the spring-pole lathe, another type of lathe used by the ancient Egyptians. One end of a rope was fastened to the end of a tree branch, extending downward, making one turn around the workpiece. The lower end of the rope was then tied to a loop that served as a treadle that the turner pressed down with his foot to rotate the work. Although cuts could still only be made while the wood turned in a counterclockwise direction, the pole lathe was a definite improvement over the bow lathe. It afforded a more rapid rotation and the turner now had both hands free to hold the cutting tool.

da Vinci Lathe Pole lathes continued to be used almost unaltered from about 500 B.C. into the late Middle Ages, until the inefficiency of its reciprocal action led to the development of wheel-driven lathes. The wheel-driven lathe provided continuous, controlled rotation in one direction. This allowed constant cutting, permitting turners to be more precise and efficient and enabled the use of harder materials. Leonardo da Vinci was one of many to invent a continuous drive lathe, complete with treadle, large flywheel, crankshaft, and a tailstock with hand-cranked screw adjustment. Stuart King explains its operation in his article, Short History of the Lathe : "The crank, linked to the treadle provided constant rotation whilst the momentum of the large flywheel ensured the crank was carried over its 'dead spot'."

'Great Wheel' Lathe For heavy work the 'great wheel' was developed. The freestanding flywheels were often six feet or more in diameter and were usually located some distance away from the actual lathe. One or two men were employed in turning the wheel, driven by a large cranked handle, while the turner was left free to work. A connecting cord or belt turned smaller, often stepped pulleys at the lathe and could be moved to select from a number of available gear ratios.

In 1678 Joseph Moxon extolled the advantages of the wheel-driven lathe in Mechanick Exercises :

"Besides the commanding heavy Work about, the Wheel rids Work faster off than the Pole can do; because the springing up of the Pole makes an intermission in running about of the Work; but with the Wheel the Work runs always the same way; so that the Tool need never be off it, unless it be to examine the Work as it is doing."

Later versions of the wheel-driven lathe were powered by animals. A mule or horse was hitched to the end of a pole running out from a central shaft on an outdoor device. The animals walked around and around, rotating the main shaft. With a series of heavy gears, the central shaft greatly increased the speed while a smaller shaft brought the power out through a housing on the ground. The housing, connected to another heavy unit, caused a flywheel to spin at high speed. As long as the mules or horses pulled the pole, the pulley operated the device from a drive belt. If more power was required, another animal was added. Other wheel-driven lathes incorporated a water wheel rather than animals.

In 1769 Englishman James Watt sparked the Industrial Revolution with his improved version of the steam engine. A few years later, in 1774, another Englishman, John Wilkinson, modified the lathe and patented a precision cannon-boring machine which made efficient steam engines possible. The steam engine cylinder could not be manufactured until machine tools capable of producing accurate parts had been devised; the interior size of the cylinders had to be precise so steam could not leak between the cylinder and piston. Wilkinson's new boring machine provided the accuracy required for the detailed measurements crucial to Watt's design.

de Vaucanson Lathe In 1751, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson built an industrial lathe with an all-metal sliding tool carriage that was advanced by a long screw. In 1797 Henry Maudslay in England and David Wilkinson (no relation to John Wilkinson) in the U.S. almost simultaneously improved upon de Vaucanson's lathe by adding a sliding tool carriage geared to the spindle, enabling it to move at a constant speed in synchronicity with the spindle. This allowed the cutting of accurate and repetitive screw threads, permitting the production of identical parts necessary for mass production techniques, as well as standardization of screw threads and interchangeability of nuts and bolts.

Maudslay Steam Table Engine Maudslay further improved the lathe by incorporating the steam-powered engine. The steam engine allowed large metal pieces to be worked much more quickly and accurately. Patented in 1807, his compact steam table engine - named after the form of the frame that supported the cylinder - proved particularly useful in providing power to small workshops and factories, as it did not require a separate engine house. It was produced in large numbers in sizes varying from 1.5 to 40HP by a variety of manufacturers until around 1850.

Blanchard reproducing lathe In 1819 Thomas Blanchard developed a reproducing lathe for the mass production of rifle stocks. A large drum turned a friction wheel that traced the contours of a three-dimensional template and a cutting wheel that followed the movements of the friction wheel to make an exact replica of the pattern in wood. The lathe enabled an unskilled workman to turn very complex and highly detailed shapes extremely quickly, and to easily produce identical irregular shapes.

The first successful internal combustion engine was patented in 1860 by Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir of Belgium, and by the turn of the nineteenth century 'oil engines' were manufactured in small units of adequate power to be used in small factories and woodworking shops. As engines improved and became more reliable, compact and affordable, they grew in popularity with individual woodturners with small workshops.

Oneway 2016 Lathe By the middle of the 20th century self-contained lathes with integral electric motors were developed, making woodturning more accessible to the hobby turner. Today models with variable-speed motors are common, enabling speed changes without having to manually move the drive belt onto different pulleys. In addition, production lathes have evolved into computer-controlled machines of extreme precision, capable of producing thousands of identical items a day in materials ranging from balsa wood to titanium steel.

Despite continued advancements in technology throughout the centuries, however, the techniques used to shape the wood remain the same. Consequently, the human elements of skill and talent are still required to create wooden spindles, bowls, vessels, figures, ornaments and other accessories.

Editors Note: Perhaps the most recent major innovation in woodturning is Craig Jackson's development of his new Easy Wood Tools , which greatly simplify how turning tools are used.

About the author: A former staff member at Highland Woodworking, Elena enjoys woodturning and was the first editor of Highland's Wood News Online newsletter.

This article first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Wood News Online .

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