A History of Woodturning

The earliest hints of the Art of Woodturning probably lie in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, to be found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. There, pictographs depicting a primitive bow-driven hand drill can be seen.

Though this is not actually a lathe, it is the first indication of the use of the bow as a means of spinning a tool. The bow became, as far as we can tell, the earliest form of lathe engine. Still, today, in some Arabic countries, this form of bow-driven lathe can be found in use. It is, by its nature, a difficult machine to use. The small bow used to spin wooden stock which is mounted between two centres, is the same in principal as an archer’s weapon. However, the bowstring is wrapped once or twice around the wood to be turned. On either the push or the pull stroke the wood turns toward the artisan. On the other stroke, the bow returns to its starting position while turning the wood in the opposite direction, in other words, in the wrong direction, at least in terms of being useful for shaping the wood with the turning chisels. Since the less dominant hand is occupied in driving the bow, it is not available to hold the chisels. Thus, the artisan must manipulate these with the dominant hand and a foot. In some cases, the lathe itself is merely two logs or branches, partially driven into the ground, in an upright manner. A metal spike is inserted horizontally through each of these logs and these act as the centres for this simple lathe. In other types of bow-driven lathes, the machine is a wooden frame of rectangular shape, adjustable in length and set on the ground. The turner sits on part of this frame, keeping it relatively firm in its place while bowing and manipulating the chisels as previously described.

Though somewhat elaborate work can be done on these bow lathes, in Europe, at least, a development took place which increased the lathe’s usefulness. We probably get our English Language word lathe from this lath type turning engine. Lath, in this case, was probably a flexible tree limb to which was tied one end of the driving cord. This cord took the place of the earlier bowstring. The cord would be wrapped around the wood stock to be turned and would then hang down, being connected to a crude treadle or sometimes just tied into a loop. Where before the Turner would have to drive his bow with one hand, he could now depress this treadle and cord with one foot, freeing this hand to assist in the manipulation of the chisels. This simple arrangement was nearly as portable as the bow lathe, requiring only a handy branch for its location. This lead to a more permanent arrangement by the time of Europe’s Middle Ages.

By this time, formal furniture making and thereby woodturning came back into being, along with so many other classical arts and trades. The Turner’s shop became a relatively common occurrence in medieval Europe. These artisans became well appreciated by the noble classes, especially by the fifteenth century when woodturning, along with woodcarving, became the main forms of architectural and furniture ornamentation in the halls of the privileged. It became common to employ a Turner, a Joiner, and a Carver in many a castle, to perform the specialized arts required to create the fancy chairs that were becoming more and more popular among the growing merchant classes; these early Middle Class folk relished every opportunity to `show-up’ the nobility.

If you have the opportunity to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or the Museum of Fine Arts (both in Boston, Massachusetts) you will be able to appreciate exquisite examples of European and seventeenth century American turned furniture.

Not only were furniture parts created on the lathe. Turned architectural elements began to appear in Europe during the Renaissance. By the time of the English colonization of the Massachusetts Bay, finials, drop-finials, balusters, newels, and other building elements were designed and turned by woodturners. The most elaborate furniture elements produced by this means appear between the late sixteenth century in England and Germany through the mid nineteenth century in England, Canada, and the United States. In terms of architectural detailing, the late Federal Period in the USA through the late Victorian Period saw the fanciest of woodturned elements. Probably some of the finest of these turnings can still be found in Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Wherever Victorian framed houses are the norm, look for intriguing porch columns, balusters, newels, and finials. Also, in the Back Bay and in the South End of Boston look in the hundreds of brick town houses for interior stairways of the most intricate detail.

From the Renaissance through the demise of the great monarchies during the nineteenth century, intricate turning became the hobby of many noblemen. Where noblewomen obsessed in delicate tapestries, their male counterparts lost themselves in creating elaborate turnings in Ivory, Blackwood, and Ebony using machines produced by the Holtzapffel family, especially during the nineteenth century. It is said that Henry the Eighth of England was a Gentleman Turner. It may be hard for us to imagine this man, who has come down in History as being of (at the very least) dubious nature, could have been so creative, but then, he was also adept at playing the harpsichord. The Love of Art is, after all, universal to our species, even among our greatest tyrants.

The lathes used by woodturners up till the application of water power and, later, steam power, were propelled by a foot treadle, such as can still be found on older sewing machines. This produced a rotary action, making it possible for the chisels to continuously engage the stock, without the interruptions of reciprocating action. Worthy of mention also is the so-called Great Wheel which required its cranking, usually by an apprentice. It was simply a large wheel which, by means of a connecting cord or belt, turned the smaller pulleys at the lathe. Whether propelled by hand or foot, the pulleys and spinning mandrel on the lathe became known as the head. Consequently, the other opposite center became known as the tail. Today, the tailstock is usually free spinning, with internal bearings and is often called a live centre or live tailstock.

With the advent of cast iron and forged steel machinery during the late nineteenth century, so-called faceplate turning became more feasible. Bowls and radial mouldings could be hand turned on the lathe, utilizing only the headstock. Hobbyist turners and too many Art turners have become notorious for producing bowls ad nauseum. But the bowl is by no means the only vessel form which can be made on a lathe. Tazza and Goblet shaped Chalices, round boxes and urns, and a variety of other vessels have been created by woodturners over the centuries. For a rather complete description of items made on the lathe during the Victorian Period please refer to John Jacob Holtzapffel’s most complete book on the subject.

In our age of mass-production, the lathe has developed into a Computer controlled machine of extreme precision, turning out thousands of identical items a day in everything from Balsa wood to Titanium steel. Still, there is room for the one-of-a-kind Art piece. I hope this very brief History is informative and useful. My thanks also to you for your interest in my Art-form.

Michael Tracy Hofius – May, 1997