A Short History of Woodturning with the Pole-lathe

by Brian G. Howarth

Not easy to determine when man started producing cylindrical objects from wood. Little evidence is left because wood decays very easily. However logic dictates that once man had discovered the advantage of rolling motion instead of sliding – wheels instead of sledges – then his desire for round objects would grow. In all probability this would indicate a date of 3500BC – 3000BC the time the Sumerians invented the wheel.

First evidence of a round joint was found in the tomb of Tutankhamune in Egypt. No knowledge of how joint was produced.

In his book 'The Tribes of Britain' David Miles states the earliest recorded wheel in Britain was found at Flag Fen, nr. Peterborough and can be dated at 1300BC (though wheels could have arrived 2000 years earlier). D.M. was Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage from 1999- 2004.


Earliest representation of woodturning is also in an Egyptian tomb and depicts two men operating a lathe, one rotating the work-piece, the other holding the cutting tool.

Late Iron Age. Kimmerbridge shale was turned into 'Dorset Coal Money'. Shale discs may be seen in the British Museum along with stub ends showing centres.

Could turn both wood and stone. Examples at Vindolanda.

Were good wood-turners, they had to be because they were poor potters, about 400 years behind the Romans in technique. Good example at Jorvic, York.

Middle Ages.
1189 – Many thousands of wooden cups and platters required for coronation banquet of Richard the Lion Heart. 1284 – Re-stocking of a manor with 2350 platters and bowls.
1254 – Marriage of Edward I to Eleanor of Castile, 400 cups and 1500 dishes. Ample supply, so was this the reason for the slow developments in pottery?

Lathe depicted in stained glass window Chartres, France.

London Guild formed – The London Company of Turners. Unfortunately records were destroyed in the Great Fire.

Water powered sawmill at Ausburg, Germany.

Illustration of Monk turning Rosary Beads, rotating wood with fiddle bow – Nuremburg, Germany.

Leonardo da Vinci invented a treadle lathe with a crank mechanism – continuous rotary motion. Poor bearings and alignment produced high friction and resulted in little power for rotating the work-piece.

1500 – 1600
First decline in demand for turned wooden pieces as a result of the introduction of PEWTER .

Wood turners establish Guild Hall in London along with apprenticeships. Members made, measures, shovels, scoops, bowls, trays, pails, chairs and spinning wheels.

Water powered turneries arrive on the scene, few in number and always located close to a source of both timber and water.

Etching showing Dutch turner making chair legs. Lathe had bowl attached to poppet.

Painting by Vann Ostade depicts stool with round sockets.

1678 – 1680.
Joseph Moxon wrote, Mechanick Exercises – The Art of Turning.

First record of the term Windsor Chair – it referred to a garden seat.

London Guild of Wood-turners had 40 members. A total of 28 being in the City of London records. Sixteen were Master Turners, but only one described as chair-maker / turner / joiner.

A gentleman named Ingrams bought six 'forest chairs' at six shilling each plus six pence carriage from Windsor.
Also several more references by Defoe around this time.

Advert. For Sale – All sorts of Windsor chairs painted green or 'in the wood' – John Brown at his shop ' The Sign of Three Chairs and Walnut Tree' in St.Paul's Churchyard.

Decline in bowl tuning caused by cheap imports of crockery and glass. Further decline after the introduction of tin-plate and enamel ware.
Other trades – wheelwrights – became involved in production of chairs.
Edwin Lascelles and Sir John Ingliby reported that chairs were being made in all parts of England.

1779 –1783.
A Mr.Longridge of Gateshead bought six Windsor Chairs. Delivered on the packet Vulcan under Capt.Hawkes. Carriage charge unknown.

Census of Buckinghamshire recorded 58 chair-makers in and around High Wycombe. Mayes reported 'some work done outside chair-shop'. BODGING!!!!
Chairs were being distributed on wagons piled high to factory towns in the Midlands.

1801 – 1831.
Population of London doubled and that of Lancashire rose from 674000 to 1.4m.
Changing situation – bowl turning in decline, chair making on the increase. Bowl lathes were heavy and fixed, spindle lathes – pole lathes were light and portable.

Spindle lathes – pole lathes, increased in number to over 100 in the Chilterns, but records are few because bodgers were always on the move.
By 1930 number down to 9 and 1950 down further to1.

Earliest record of bodgers pay. They received five shillings for producing 252 parts when twelve shillings and six pence per week was considered a modest wage. They had to produce 630 parts a week for a modest wage!!
Owen & George Dean worked the woods until 1950's and claimed they could turn 10 to 12doz. Parts a day.
Sam Rockwell bodger and chair maker worked until 1960, though he used a treadle lathe.

An odd situation existed. Though bowl turning declined earlier it provided the best records from the Lailey family – three generations.

In 1826 William Lailey built a workshop at Turners Green in Bucklebury, Berkshire, some 8km NW of Newbury. His son George and grandson George William worked there over the years until GW retired in 1958 at the age of 88. They used neither power nor artificial light though both became available in 1937.

They had two Saxon type lathes on which the produced bowls and ladles from seasoned elm up to 20 inches diameter.

1916 prices – 6 in. 6d., 9in. 1/6d., 12in. 2/-., 15in. 3/-

Their survival and that of other bowl turners was due to the Arts and Craft Movement and specialized use ie., dairy, gunpowder manufacture, Royal Mint, washing of silver and porcelain and Harrods. All bowls were hand signed.

Contemporaries were:
James Davies, Abercuch (see "Wood-turning Traditions of the Davies Brothers" by Gareth Jones).
? Hughes, Armargh and Robert Jordan, Wellington.

At his death in 1958 George W. Lailey left the sum of £1204, having built in 1946 'an excellent brick bungalow'

The lathe built by GW's grandfather may be seen to-day in the Museum of Rural Life at Reading University..

1998? Article in "The Northumbrian" mentioned a pole-lathe operating during the 1930's in the Beamish Valley. It was reported in association with mole catching and a type of trap produced on it.

© 2001 and 2009 by Brian G.Howarth.

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