Victorian Pedal Lathe

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.

Victorian Pedal LatheI 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.

Victorian Lathe PedalsThe 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.

Victorian Pedal Lathe FlywheelThe 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.

9 Responses to “Victorian Pedal Lathe”

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  1. Bob Easton says:

    Thanks Shannon!
    Seeing this lathe is a treat. Gives me thoughts about adapting a pedal and chain drove to the lathe I started building last year (set aside, but not forgotten).

    Actually, I wonder if you have more pictures of the gun smith’s lathe, pictures that show more of the treadle / drive connection. It too is an intriguing piece.

    Thanks again.

    • Shannon says:

      Unfortunately I don’t Bob, that was about the best angle I could get on it from behind the velvet rope. I think I have some video and I’ll check it again, but I’m pretty sure that is the only angle. I’ll send a note to the guys in the shop and see if I can encourage them to do a blog post on it.

  2. Jeremy Kriewaldt (Muddleheaded WW) says:

    How about finding an early electric powered lathe and use the headstock, tailstock ways and tool rest from it but add a bike power mechanism?

    • Shannon says:

      that would work well, but I don’t think I would be happy with it. Something appeals to me about the traditional wooden design. I guess I’m a woodworking romantic.

  3. Adam says:

    Shannon, have you seen this treadle lathe from the The Unplugged Woodshop? It looks similar, but made from wood and also has a small foot-print.

    • Shannon says:

      Adam, I have seen that model. I actually have a frame saw from CME toolworks and I do like his treadle lathe. I actually think I could make mine even a little bigger than that but this is a great small footprint solution.

  4. jHop says:

    One other area to check out in building lathes, albeit not traditional or replica styles, is While this might be better for the original thought – using bicycle parts to build a lathe – it will not be very applicable to the reproduction builders. One of the reasons I haunt that website is for design ideas. Another is to see how some people have overcome difficulties, like not being able to work cast iron. (Have you considered dry powdered mortar mix, poured into a form, as the base?)

  5. Steve says:

    The lathe pictured is a Barnes #3 wood .lathe, in production for several years. The ways are maple, not rosewood. It is not a sales model. You can find out more by googling “barnes #3 lathe”.

    • Shannon says:

      Steve, thanks for your comment. You have reminded me to go back and update this post or write another. I too have done some research into Barnes tools and uncovered a lot of the same information since I first wrote this post. I shared it with my colleagues at the museum too. These are such great tools to work on.

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