Spin Machine: History of Lathes

The history of how the lathe turned out to shape our world.

Unlike power saws, drills and routers, the lathe is not considered a DIYer’s shop necessity. After all, you can buy turned spindles and knobs to complete any project. So you might not guess that this specialty tool was essential not only to daily life but also to industrial progress.

Artifacts dating from 600 B.C. show that lathes have been used for thousands of years to make a head-spinning array of objects: dishes, spindles, furniture legs, wheels, machine parts, tool handles, screws, candlesticks, buttons, beads, bells, toys, musical instruments and much more. Imagine trying to hand-carve a perfectly round wheel and you can feel the necessity that birthed this invention.

The most rudimentary lathes consisted of two stakes driven into the ground (or supported by a wood framework) with a tool rest nailed or tied to the stakes. Nails driven through the stakes held the workpiece, which rotated when an assistant pulled a cord wrapped around it. This portable strap lathe was convenient for turners who needed to set up shop near a supply of wood or customers, but it required two people (sitting on the ground) to operate. A similar machine, the bow lathe, replaced the cord — and the assistant — with a bow; the bow’s string wrapped around the workpiece, and the turner pulled the bow back and forth to rotate it. Though this enabled a turner to work alone, it left him only one hand to control the tool and provided less power.

The next technological advance was the pole lathe, first illustrated in the 13th century. This machine featured a framework that elevated the lathe so the turner could operate it while standing. The cord that wrapped around the workpiece was attached at the top to a flexible pole (which acted as a spring) and at the bottom to a foot treadle that the operator pumped to rotate the workpiece. This machine provided more power and freedom of movement, but it shared a major drawback with its predecessors: The workpiece rotated back and forth rather than spinning continuously, so the turner had to stop cutting while the workpiece spun backward. (Nevertheless, modern-day turning enthusiasts still build and use these machines, with beautiful results.)

Incorporating a wheel was a huge step forward in lathes’ efficiency. The first known depiction of a wheel-driven lathe was a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci from 1480 (though some evidence suggests ancient Romans used this technology). This lathe incorporated a flywheel, crank and treadle mechanism that continuously rotated the workpiece in the same direction, but only as fast as the turner could pump the treadle. Other improvements included adding stepped pulleys for variable speeds and freestanding “great wheels” (6 ft. dia. or bigger) cranked by one or two assistants for turning large workpieces. However, not everyone approved of this technological progress: In the late 1500s, guilds in urban areas reportedly had power-driven lathes destroyed and their inventors imprisoned for violating restrictions designed to protect craftsmen’s jobs.

During the following centuries lathes would become more refined to accommodate the aristocracy’s interest in ornamental turning as a hobby. In 1797 John Jacob Holtzapffel created the rose engine lathe, which featured a treadle-powered system of pulleys, belts and a shaped cutter that made elaborate decorations. His family business continued developing ornamental-turning lathes until 1913.

In the meantime, the industrial revolution demanded high-output lathes, both to meet the everyday needs of exploding city populations and to make parts for machines. Lathes evolved to harness power sources such as water, steam, oil and electricity and to perform a wide variety of special jobs. Today’s models include tiny jewelers’ and watchmakers’ lathes, powerful computer-controlled metalworking lathes, glass-working lathes, cue lathes (for cutting and refinishing billiard cues), reducing lathes (for making coins), rotary lathes (for peeling wood to make veneer) and of course, home-shop lathes — all descended from the strap lathe, a simple machine that intricately shaped the world.

The photo above shows how incorporating a flywheel into lathe design allowed for continuous rotation of the workpiece with consistent speed and torque.