Foot Powered Wood Turning

Ever since my first trip to Colonial Williamsburg I have been fascinated with foot powered lathes. This is where all those hybrid woodworkers and power tool guys roll your eyes and click away to something else.

I have been pouring over examples of meat powered lathes in books and online, taking field trips all over the east coast to examine and photograph them, and spending every free minute turning on the Barnes lathe we have at the Steppingstone Museum. So it is with great excitement that I announce I’ll be building both a Spring Pole Lathe and a Treadle Lathe for The Hand Tool School semester 5. Actually the spring pole lathe is already built and I’ll be sharing quite a bit of that build here for free. Hand Tool School members will get the more detailed version but in essence that is a bonus build for Semester 5 since the treadle lathe is the real focus. In my research I have seen some pretty cool lathes and there is so much fuel for my own design. I’m discovering that lathes are a lot like workbenches. So many variables that are personal in nature and so much inspiration that it can be hard to get started on your own design. So to muddy your own waters a little more I present some of the lathes that have inspired me and the elements that will go into my own design.

Great Wheel Lathe at the Wheelwright Shop in Williamsburg

great wheel latheIf only I had an apprentice to turn the great wheel this would be the way to go. However considering I’m not exactly in marathon running form anymore, powering my own lathe is probably a good idea. I like the timber framed, beefy nature of this lathe. You won’t get any vibration on this beast. I like the solid head and tail stocks and the massive pulley on the headstock for greater surface area to grab the belt. It is hard to see in this picture but the pulley is also stepped for variable speed assistance. This is necessary for turning large hub stocks from square to round over a variety of wheel sizes.

Gunsmith’s Lathe in Williamsburg

Treadle lathe WilliamsburgThis is a smaller version of the Wheelwright lathe. In this version the stepped pulley remains and a massive flywheel retains a lot of the momentum as a compromise for not having the great wheel. The axle and offset crank is intriguing providing great stability without the need for a third leg to support the flywheel. The half leg that receives the axle also makes a handy tool rest and it did not get in the way while turning at all. Granted I only turned on this lathe for about 5 minutes.

Hybrid Great Wheel from the Brown’s Tool Auction

Hybrid Great Wheel LatheOut of the 20 or 30 lathes I have looked at in person this is unique. It incorporates a spring pole like lever arm and a large diameter wheel to achieve great speed with a low treadle frequency. It would be nice to make the wheel more solid to impart greater momentum but at such a large size, this would be tricky and involve a lot of stock. Unfortunately this design takes up way too much space and just isn’t possible in my shop but I do really like the added tool well on the ways. This additional workspace would be helpful for keeping tools and accessories close at hand. Though I imagine everything will very quickly get covered in shavings. I don’t relish sifting through shavings for sharp object, let alone what green shavings could do to steel tools buried in them. The work surface is reminiscent of Stephen Shepherd’s lathe.

Barnes Lathe

Victorian Pedal LatheThis design steps forward in time a century and therefore should be expected to be more efficient in many ways. The cast iron flywheel weighs over 300 lbs and really hums when you get it turning. Once up to speed, there is very little effort to maintain it. Plus the bicycle style pedals mean you can use both feet and sit comfortably while working. The drawbacks here is with so many iron parts, this design is out of the reach of the average woodworker. Though the inclusion of some more modern parts reminds me how much I like modern drive centers and live centers. I will be sure to include ways to use my existing lathe accessories not only to save money but to increase the functionality and effectiveness of my design.

Of course there are many more I have seen and worked on (including both of Roy Underhill’s designs) but none of them really add anything majorly different from what I have shown. Roy’s older lathe does incorporate a 3rd leg to support the flywheel on both sides which is a definite bonus in my opinion over his “Lathe from a Loft” design and this will absolutely make it into my design. On the whole, building a treadle lathe is one of those things where you just have to take the leap and figure out some things along the way. Inevitably there will be some things I will want to change but ideally if I can build a strong chassis, I can make changes without having to rebuild the entire lathe. Yet again another similarity to workbenches. I’m really excited about this build and after turning on 8 different lathes and examining photos or visiting at least 25 more, I feel I have a great design that incorporates a little of each. Of course then I get to begin the comparisons between the treadle and spring pole lathes. The lumber is bought and acclimating in my shop, now I just need to finish 20 or 30 other things on the to do list first.

Your Turn

Would you ever build a foot powered lathe? Treadle or Spring pole? What elements are important to you?
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

11 Responses to “Foot Powered Wood Turning”

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  1. Jamie Bacon says:

    Great post Shannon! I’m excited to hear more about your spring pole lathe. I have plans to build one in the near future. I acquired the wood (timbers) about a month ago. Some 4 x 6 beams from an old barn that came down in a storm. I’m really looking forward to finding the time to get going on it. My design will be largely based on Peter Follansbee’s lathe at Plimoth Plantation. A bit of overkill probably, but that’s the style I like. And I doubt vibration will be an issue. :) I think having a lathe is going to open up all sorts of new possibilities.

    • Shannon says:

      Jamie, I really like this design for a spring pole since you don’t need any moving parts on the lathe itself. Unfortunately I don’t really have the headroom in my shop and the spring back would beat on my ceiling which is right below by master bedroom. Somehow I don’t think my wife would be happy with that. I can see someday building one in the back yard however and just tie the cord to my Japanese Maple.

  2. Mark Nelson says:

    I recently finished my own Roy Underhill-style spring pole lathe, but I find that I’m enjoying it as a sash saw more than I am as a lathe. It’s just a case of turning not being my cup of tea, though: it functions just as well as a lathe as it does as a saw.

  3. Dave says:

    Food for thought, if you have a copy of Woodworking in Estonia, look at illustrations nr. 205-208, and 215. I wonder if your wife would have a problem with mounting what is in illustration nr. 208 on your roof for a power source?

  4. Bert Bleckwenn says:

    Great Project! I’ve got a fair amount of experience having built a treadle lathe 20 years ago, recently teamed up with another local turning club member to build a rustic spring pole lathe for use at our local county fair turning club demonstration tent and also have made use of a portable great wheel lathe at the fair as well. The great wheel lathe was always a lot of fun at the fair in getting the young kids to be the apprentice and turn the wheel. The most successful was getting a young teenage boy with his girl friend watching to do the turning as they like to show off!

    Perhaps we could plan a Chesapeake SAPFM meeting around a theme of “Turning for Furniture Makers” and include your planned treadle lathe and Jamie’s planned Pole Lathe as part of the demonstration program.

    Here’s a few experiencal comments that you might find of value:
    1. Having built both types of lathes, owning two powered lathes and extensive turning experience, I would definitley go with a treadle lathe as it offers more versatility and will be more functional. A spring pole lathe is interesting and is much simpler to build if you just want to play around, but 50% less productive (you can only cut on the down stroke).
    2. Pay particular attention to the flywheel/drive wheel ratio for ease of turning. I made a fixed ratio om my treadle wheel and found that I would create a pool of sweat after jut a few minutes of turning. I’ve salvaged parts from my old treadle lathe for use in eventually building a new one and plan to buld a multi-step pulley arrangement so I can change ratios and speed.
    3. Get your drive belt first so you can build your wheels around them – I was able to purchase a 1-1/2″x 3/16″ leather drive belt along with the special leather connectors from an old motor supply house that serviced the hatting industry in Connecticut 25 years ago, but not sure whre to source them from today. Plan to include an “idler” or tensioning pulley as well so maintain sufficient belt tension and friction to avoid slippage.
    4. Invest in getting 1-1/4″x8TPI threaded and hollow head stock and tail stock shafts with #2 morse tapers so you can use standard turning accessories such as drive centers, live centers, face plates and chucks. I had originally used old Sears slip-on drive inserts which limits you to just basic spindle turning. Invest in bearings as well to minimize friction and headstock thrust.
    5. Construct your flywheel with as much mass and as large as possible. This improves the turning speed consistency.
    6. Make sure you spend some time designing and fabricating the flywheel drive shaft and offset. The shaft reaaly needs to be firmly attached to the flywheel as there is a lot of torque produced. The shaft needs to have the righht amount of offset and freedom of movement with the connecting arm to the treadle so it can be driven by the treadle without having to lift your leg too high when pumping it.
    7. Make it so you can easily assemble and dis-assemble it so you can use it for demonstrations outside your shop.
    8. I was intrigued by your comination lathe example as I continue to toy with the idea of building a new treadle lathe that could be driven by all three modes:
    1) Treadle, 2) Spring Pole style with Spring Pole or Bungee Cord or Bow with twisted cord propulsion, and 3) Great Wheel.

    I may have to sign up for your school for the semester that you are focusing on the treadle lathe!!! Let me know when you will be featuring the lathe.

    • Shannon says:

      Thanks for the thought Bert. I do will definitely bring my treadle lathe to a chapter meeting when it is done. If for no other reason than to show off the figured Sapele I’m building it with. Now to your points:
      1. Agreed, I built the springpole for fun and to be able to accurately compare and contrast the two styles. It is fun to use and will eventually end up living in my back yard a lot but also very mobile to take places. When it comes to furniture work, I like the size and speed of the treadle.
      2. I like the stepped pulley and wheel set up as shown in the lathe from the Gunsmith shop. I’m going to play with that but in the end I’m not shooting for the RPMs I get with my powered lathes so a smaller pulley and a 2′ diameter flywheel will generate good speed.
      3. I already have my belt. It is a wide 3″ model recommended to me by one of the craftsmen at Williamsburg. I’m going to omit the idler at first after seeing Bob Easton’s success lately with his lathe, but it will be a simple matter to add one later if need be.
      4. I have struggled with this and went so far as to purchase a replacement spindle for a Jet lathe to use in my headstock. In the end, it complicates the design when compared to a solid rod. I have found many attachments that allow me to attach my chucks and drive centers via a threaded adapter. I will not have a female morse on the head stock but I have found everything from drive centers to jacobs chucks and mandrels that will accept a threaded input.
      5. No problem here. Solid Sapele at 4.5lbs/board foot will yield a beast of a wheel.
      6. I have several ideas here and have been working with a blacksmith friend too in order to create a simple and strong axle/crank.
      7. I don’t plan on moving this around much but it will be knock down-able mainly because it will be too heavy to move when all together.

      Lot’s to think about with this build and I’m excited to get started.

  5. Joe says:

    Another interesting idea. A bit crude but…

  6. Sylvain says:

    You said hereabove:
    “It would be nice to make the wheel more solid to impart greater momentum but at such a large size, this would be tricky and involve a lot of stock”.

    The inertia J= M(R1²+R2²) where M is the mass with M=rho h (R2²-R1²)
    rho is the mass by volume of the material
    h is the height of the cylinder or width of the Wheel here
    R1 is the inner radius
    R2 is the outer radius
    This tell us that
    1) for a same total mass M, the inertia grows with the square of the radiuses.
    2) material near the center does nearly not contribute to the inertia. (= waste of material)
    3) for a same mass M, the more R1 is equal to R2 the better the result.
    In conclusion, to have a biggest inertia
    -increase R1 and R2 as much as possible and then
    -increase the width h to increase the mass and
    – choose a high density material (higher rho) to increase the mass for a same width h.

  7. Sylvain says:

    the correct formula is

    J=1/2 M (R2²+R1²)
    but it does not change the conclusions.

  8. Raymond penn says:

    I just purchased an old Singer Treddle sewing machine base at a yard sale. . My plan is to turn it into a treadle lathe. Has anyone converted a treadle sewing machine into a treddle lathe?

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