The history of woodturning

The history of woodturning is long. It reaches back to ancient times. Until quite recently it remained a hand craft, in which hand-held tools cut wood spinning in a lathe. The lathe has moved on from the simplest hand powered machines. Now they are powerful, fast and accurate. Industrial lathes are automatic, often with computer control. In parallel, the cutting tools developed too. From the earliest (which may have been flint), through steel, high speed steel and now tungsten carbide, enabling ever-greater speed and efficiency.

But the turning process changed little through the history of woodturning until modern automatic machinery came into use. Through the years, although the tools and equipment have become much more capable, it has remained a skilled manual craft. People named ‘Turner’ are probably descended from someone who made their living by it. The turners’ skills have remained largely the same, though different styles of turning come and go. The growth in hobby woodturning brought new tools, or sometimes the rediscovery of old ones. The interest in turned objects as art has pushed skill boundaries in some areas. In others, some older skills have declined. Even the earliest turners could happily work with modern equipment if brought back to life. Modern ones could, less happily, get along with primitive gear.

The Egyptians first developed a two-person lathe around 1300 BC. One provided the power by pulling a cord, while the other cut shapes in the wood. The Romans used a lathe powered with a bow. This resembled an archers’ bow, with a loose string that could be wrapped round the work piece. Pushing and pulling the bow made the wood spin, and this could be done by a single person. They would have powered the lathe with one hand and held the tool with the other. A similar principle was used to make fire and it seems likely that one use may have inspired the other.

The Middle Ages brought pedal power. The pedal connected to a springy pole above the lathe, with a cord that wrapped around the work piece. Pushing the pedal down makes the cord spin the wood by a few revolutions. The pole would rewind the work piece and raise the pedal ready for the next push. Pole lathes were still in common use into the early 20th century. You can now see them at country fairs, demonstrating to the public. Work now produced in this way is usually extremely poor in quality. Pole lathe turners often worked out in the beech woods. They camped for months at a time while they converted logs to chair legs and spindles. Though skilled, they were known as ‘bodgers’.

Around the same time, the new “Great Lathe” allowed a piece to turn continuously. An assistant turned a crank attached to a large pulley wheel. A drive belt ran to the work piece, spinning it rapidly while the turner cut it to shape. One of the pair must have thought it a great invention.

Later, the treadle lathe came into use. Like the Great Lathe, this was approaching modern lathes in operation. The turner used one leg to work the treadle, cranking the large pulley wheel, that in turn drove the spinning wood. Early sewing machines used the same principle.

During the industrial revolution, factories began to make use of water power, then later steam power. Overhead shafting carried the power to many lathes and other machines. Modern lathes are much more powerful and can spin the wood at high speed, making the turning easier and faster. New cutting tools had greater wear resistance that let them cut for longer without constant re-sharpening.

Automatic lathes soon came into use. They could produce thousands of identical parts, such as tool handles, very quickly and cheaply. In a further development in the history of woodturning, computers now control industrial lathes. These automatic machines are excellent at mass production, though with limitations. Their tools and cutting action are different to hand turning, and they are not so good at crisp detailing, nor can they use difficult ‘showy’ timbers. There is still a demand for hand turning.

Hand turning has developed greatly as a hobby over the past thirty or forty years. New tools allow new working methods and many publications cater to enthusiasts.

Recently in the history of woodturning, hand turning has moved further away from production of everyday items. Many turners focus more on artistic work, made for show. They carve and colour their pieces, incorporate other materials, and make objects that have no practical function. As a turner, I appreciate the beauty of some of this work, and admire the care and skill that goes into it. Most of my turnings are functional, but I make them with an eye for appearance as well as use. Form, and function too.