A Carriage in Every Mews and a Lathe in Every Parlour
Woodturning was once the hobby of kings. From Roman Emperor Maximilian to Peter the Great, royalty and the aristocracy have long enjoyed the spinning of a lathe. An ancient skill with evidence found in Egyptian wall paintings, lathes and woodturning were the property of the lower working class for centuries. While participating in the manual arts was considered gauche, somehow woodturning escaped this stigma and became the favorite pastime of many a noble blooded despot. Later in the Victorian era with the birth of the middle class a greater percentage of the population had free time to pursue hobbies and woodturning experienced a great surge in popularity. Paired with the thriving industrial revolution and the invention of mass production, tool companies began producing lathes en mass to meet the need. It seems as if Queen Victoria had promised her people that there would be a carriage in every barn and a lathe in every parlour. Or at least a scroll saw if not a lathe, but that’s a topic for another post.
I have spent a lot of time researching early lathes and I have found the machines produced in the late 19th century to be among the most fascinating. This was the birth of the modern laser/ipod dock bells and whistles era where functionality in a tool was trumped by after market options and color coordination. The lady of house who dabbled in woodturning will want her lathe to match the decor of her parlour of course. Don’t laugh until you think about that amazing, fold away for easy storage, exercise machine in the corner of your living room.
Beyond the socio-economic influences, these machines reflect a society fascinated by iron and industry. The great medium of wood that built civilization was now obsolete and relegated to a mere distraction to be turned into knick knacks and delicate fretwork ornaments. The machines that allowed us to do this were wonders of our “progress” resplendent in their clockwork gears, chains, bearings, and heavy iron castings. We would dominate the natural world through the weight of iron and steel. In many ways the woodturning hobby perfectly symbolized the sentiment of the day by locking the hapless twig between iron pikes while is is spun by an iron flywheel and shaped to our will with steel cutting tools. Rejoice, for the future is here!
But enough of my historical reflections fueled by my recent re-reading of Sinclair’s “The Jungle”. The lathe pictured is a late 1800s model that could have sat in the parlour of any Victorian home or possibly in the traveling kit of the road salesman ready to demonstrate to the wanting masses. It sits in cold storage at The Steppingstone Museum gathering dust. Given the rags to riches history of woodturning, this seems somehow criminal to me. I will be restoring it to working order and we have the spare parts laying about amongst a literal mound of old tools. It needs a lot of work but a good cleaning will go a long way. This lathe is elegant in its weight and shape and features everything the Victorian enthusiast would want to shape the wood then buff it to a high shine with the outboard buffing wheel. This same wheel could be swapped for a grind stone to maintain the turning tools as well. The treadle isn’t pictured but it is what we would now call a sewing machine pedal style with intricate iron scrollwork. The tiny flywheel is solid iron and carries with it a fair amount of momentum to effortlessly power the work especially when you consider that the centers only have 3″ of clearance. I can’t wait to get her running again and see how it works. It will make an excellent hands on exhibit at the Steppingstone Museum for everyone to give it a try.
No royal blood required here. This is my new bourgeois revolution…literally!