What is a pole-lathe?

A pole-lathe is a wood-turning lathe that is operated manually. Pressing on a foot treadle pulls on a cord that is wrapped around the piece of wood (blank) being turned. Traditionally, the other end of the cord reaches up to the end of a long pole which acts as a return spring. As the cord is reciprocating, the work piece rotates in one direction and then back the other way. Turning is only carried out on the down stroke of the treadle, the spring only being sufficient to return the treadle to the raised position ready for the next down stroke. Modern pole-lathes often replace the springpole with an elastic bungee cord or other means, as a springpole made from a sapling may be 5 metres or longer and space is often an issue.


Whilst the action of the pole-lathe and the skills required are similar to those employed on a power lathe, timber used on a pole-lathe is generally freshly felled and unseasoned (greenwood). The angles at which the cutting edges of the tools are ground are closer to those of carpenters’ chisels than those of power lathe tools and the tools are usually made from high carbon steel which retains its edge better than the modern High Speed Steel alloys which are used for power lathes because of the high temperatures created when turning at high speed. Using power lathe tools on a pole-lathe is safe, but hard work. Using a pole-lathe chisel, gouge or scraper on a power lathe risks serious injury, since the forces are such that the blade is likely to break.


The pole-lathe’s origin is lost in antiquity. However, we know that Vikings used them from the archaeological finds at Jórvík, the Viking settlement discovered beneath the modern city of York in England.

The Roman historian Pliny records that a lathe was invented by Samos in 740 B.C. However, it is probable that this lathe would have been operated by wrapping a strap around the workpiece and using two helpers to pull the strap backwards and forwards.

Later lathes would use a bow instead, which could be operated by one helper. Such lathes may still be seen in operation in India.

A reference to pole lathes is included in an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and may be viewed here.

The use of pole-lathes almost died out in England after World War II. They have made a comeback through the increased interest in greenwood work, although the majority of practitioners are at the hobby rather than professional level. Around Britain there are regular workshops for learning the art of pole-lathe turning and associated skills.

The picture below shows a short-pole lathe designed and built by BodgerJohn. The advantages of this design are that the lathe occupies a smaller foot-print than if using a conventional long springpole; whilst providing a very similar action. A relatively short deflection of the bow-like pole is magnified through the use of a lever system suspended above the lathe; providing about 1.5 metres of travel of the drive cord for each press of the treadle. One issue with using a transverse lever is that the drive cord tends to ‘hunt’ along the axis of the work-piece because of the arc prescribed by the end of the arm. This issue has been solved on this lathe by the introduction of an adjustable shuttle which can be moved to the required position and keeps the drive cord vertical. The lathe is seen here being used by Peter – the Secretary of the APT&GW Dorset Group.

Short-pole lathe

The picture below shows another lathe designed and built by BodgerJohn. The lathe bed, puppets (headstock and tailstock) and legs are based on Mike Abbott’s ‘Pole Lathe 2000’ design with some minor customisations. This lathe incorporates the same principles as the lathe above, but uses a novel spring and pulley arrangement to return the treadle, instead of using the lever system of the lathe shown above.

Why turn wood on a pole-lathe?

Pole-lathes are:

  • Cheaper, quieter and safer than powered machines
  • They use no electricity and produce no pollution
  • They can be set up anywhere, even in the woodlands themselves
  • They give gentle, healthy exercise
  • They are great fun!