I received a great comment from Charles on my previous post about the Gunsmith Lathe at Colonial Williamsburg. Charles is thinking about building a treadle lathe using modern bicycle parts and wondered if the lathe had to be made from traditional materials.
I like hand tools and history but I don’t really think of myself as a purist or traditionalist zealot. I will be building my treadle lathe out of wood not because it wouldn’t be authentic otherwise, but because wood is the medium I know how to work. Only recently did I even dabble in brass when I built a few panel gauges.
Regardless, Charles’ question about using bicycle parts brought to light an oversight on my part. When I volunteer at the Steppingstone Museum I have used this Victorian Pedal driven lathe on many ocassions. It is a dream to operate (hey you get to sit down) and the bicycle style pedals immediately brought it to mind when Charles submitted his comment. I’m surprised I have not written about it up until now.
The lathe dates from around 1883 but we are not sure as there are several dates on the machine on different parts. We believe that the lathe was actually more of a prototype or possibly a sales model used for demonstrations that never really made it into widespread production. The entire undercarriage is made of cast iron with a massively heavy flywheel that is chain driven by the pedal assembly that stretches across the bottom. There are 3 pedals so the operator can move down the length of the lathe and still keep centered over the pedal stroke. A leather belt connects the flywheel to the headstock. The whole apparatus is very smooth and requires no more effort than a Sunday pedal around the neighborhood on flat terrain.
The ways are made from a dense hardwood that is probably a type of Rosewood. The patina of the years has made it tough to identify. There is a bit of decorative filigree on the side as well that shows someone cared very much about this tool. The rest of the lathe is much the same as a modern lathe. The tailstock and tool rest move up and down the ways and are secured with a turning wheel underneath. Adjustments are a mite slower than modern cam action quick releases but they hold firmly and steadily.
On the whole this is a dream to operate and I would rather have this lathe in my shop than any modern behemoth with all the bells and whistles. The 12″ swing means I can turn 24″ diameter pieces which is way more than I ever turn since I’m mostly a spindle turner for furniture parts. I do wish there was a wider tool rest but an after market model could be added easily. Most importantly the sheer mass of the lath is excellent and it doesn’t vibrate in the slightest with the cast iron base. The continuous spinning motion of the pedals is consistent with the spinning of the wood so it is not major reach of personal coordination to operate. In general treadle work can be a tough adjustment for the modern woodworker akin to patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It’s not really that hard but it can take some getting used to. Consider it harder than walking and chewing gum at the same time, but easier than conducting 3/4 time in the left hand and 4/4 time in the right hand.
Indeed this would be a great lathe to have in my shop. So now I just have to learn how to work with cast iron.