The pole lathe is ancient device which can be used to turn all manner of items. It works by having a length of cord wrapped around the work attached to a foot-pedal beneath it and a source of springiness above it (traditionally a long thin tree sapling (pole), but these days most people use bungee cord).
When the foot-pedal is pressed the work rotates towards the tool allowing a cut to be taken with the tool, when I carefully release the foot-pedal, the tool is withdrawn, and the bungee returns the work to the original position.
Over history lathes started to be driven by flywheels and eventually by electric motors and when turning I often get asked why I still use the original reciprocating lathe. The answer is that it is cheap to build & maintain (more on that later) requiring materials easily obtained (mostly wood). It is also portable and possible to set up anywhere thus allowing my workshop to be in a beautiful outdoors location and also for me to do demonstrations to woodland groups directly in their woodlands. This ability to work in the elements also negates the need for a noisy extraction set-up as the wind does the job perfectly well. The pole lathe is also perfect for learning to present turning tools including for aspiring power lathe turners. This is because it is very safe with an instant auto-stop feature (stop moving your foot!) and in order to turn quickly you have to learn to be very efficient with your cuts. You therefore also gain a quick understanding of how important it is to sharpen often. A blunt tool with incorrect presentation to the wood makes the job very slow. Finally there is a rhythm to it that is so enjoyable and students invariably also comment positively about this feeling.
There are a few different types that seem to be built these days. The Mike Abbott lathe2000 is a great design for a teaching workshop as the height of the lathe can be easily adjusted based on the height of your student. The double-bed lathes are very simple to build and sturdy so good if you want to turn bowls as well as spindles (thinner cylinders like chair legs and rolling pins). The viking lathes use no metal except for their centres, and so are popular for re-enactment lathes. They are also generally very heavy and stable and so are used a lot for bowl turning. A final word about bow lathes which are a very old design and something I would like to have a go at making & using in the future.
If you want to build your own lathe there are various plans on the internet or in book form, which are listed later in this article. The only decisions are at what height the centres are placed and which type of lathe you want to make. Typically you want the centres to be about chest height or just below, this gives room for the legs to pedal comfortably under the bed. When choosing which type you need to decide what you are going to turn spindles, bowls, or cups. Spindles lathes do well with the Lathe 2000 design or the double bed design as it is easy to fashion a tool-rest that can be close to the work plus the work can be quickly removed and replaced with the turnable centre. For bowls it is best to have a heavier lathe so either a double-bed or a viking lathe. For cups it is useful to have a curved centre like on the viking lathe as it allows easy access for the tool when hollowing. My first lathe was a double bed lathe with 2 sets of centres on it, one for spindle-turning and above that a set for bowl-turning and cups.
Lathe 2000 plan: ‘Living Wood’ by Mike Abbot & Harry Rogers on youtube (‘Rapid pole lathe build‘)
Leather Drive Straps: Contact Lee Burton @ Milkwood Project.
Spindle lathe centres: The Woodsmith
Pole Lathe Tools: Ashley Iles (various stockists online).
More info on pole lathes: Heritage crafts website, Association of pole lathe turners and green woodworkers (APTGW)