This page is a record of making a foot-powered lathe - which is used to make round
shapes such as furniture legs, candlesticks, handles etc.. The basic pole-lathe design
goes back many hundreds of years, and it would probably have been made entirely with
hand tools. However, this one uses pre sawn and planed 3 x 2 and 4 x 2 inch wood from
a DIY store, making construction much easier.The design generally follows a plan available
from the Association of Polelathe Turners & Greenwood Workers web site.
The lathe needs to be customised to the size of the user and for it's intended
use, so most dimensions are not included here (note 1 inch = 2.54 cm or 25.4 mm).
"Furniture grade" wood was recommended for the frame, but I used cheap softwood
- which probably isn't so durable.
Lathe Bed and Legs
These are shown above bolted together. The base lengths are shown from the
underside - the countersunk screws (100 x 7 mm) are to be fitted into the bottom of
the legs. If it's intended to dismantle and assemble the lathe much, using lengths
of threaded rod and nuts is recommended for durability rather than screws (this makes
assembly slightly harder).
The tops of the side braces should be cut to fit the lathe bed and leg (that's the
The bottom of a brace is shaped into a tenon, which fits into a mortice cut into the
horizontal base (yes, really).
The base has been screwed to the leg, and two diagonal braces are held in
place by compression. The braces are located by mortice and tenon joints at the bottom
- and by friction to the bed and leg at the top. Only 4 nuts/bolts and 2 screws hold
this frame and bed together.
Stocks or poppets
Hardwood is recommended for these, but I used spare wood from the frame (3
x 2 ins) to make them.
The stocks are held firmly to the lathe bed by tapered wedges - these are about
2.5 ins high at the widest and taper by about 2-3 degrees over the length (approx.
A work piece centre is shown fitted on the head stock (top left). This is an 8mm
bolt which has been filed to a point at about 45 degrees. However 10 or 12mm bolts
or threaded rod could be used, or maybe a nail, or hard wood peg ...
Note: The construction is simpler than that recommended in the
plans, but has worked well. Part of the stocks shown in the photos on the left and
below have since been cut away to mount the tool rest on.
To hold the work in the lathe at the correct tension one of the centres needs to be
adjustable. Here, a threaded 8mm rod has been fitted to the tail stock. I found that
pre-drilling 7mm diameter holes in the stocks was necessary.The handle design is up
to you - I had these pieces to hand (proving it pays to never throw anything away!).
This is a simple rest consisting of a length of rounded molding sitting on
the modified stocks such that the top is level with work-piece centre. The tool rest
is held in place with string loops, and has spacers to cater for different diameter
The pieces of wood shown inside the stocks can be used to vary the rest position,
but are only needed for large diameter work.
... will probably develop over time - but perhaps adding an electric motor will be
frowned upon. Here a treadle is attached to a flat base by nylon strap "hinges"
(leather is recommended). Now you need a suitably springy pole to rewind the drive
Drive Cord Rewinding
As the lathe name suggests a pole can be used to rewind the drive cord after each
cutting stroke. This could be a living small tree or branch, or more generally some
springy cut wood. This may need some experimentation - a length of ash about 12 feet
(3.6m) long works well, and should last some years if kept off the ground. The photo
below left shows one setup - the angle of the pole is usually set lower than this,
depends on what's convenient. Some other mechanisms include a bow suspended above
the lathe (below right), and a system of suspended bungee cords (strictly not a "pole"
lathe in these cases). Here, the bow is a length of recently cut rowan (mountain ash)
with a cord attached, suspended on lengths of hazel.
Bowl Turning Trial
A mandrel is required for turning bowls using a pole
lathe. This one was turned to make a smaller diameter part for the drive cord to run
in. Then a section (on right) was cut off and drilled to embed three 2 inch nails.
Finally wood glue was applied to the cut surfaces, and it was held together using
a central screw.
A special design of lathe is recommended for turning bowls, but
as an experiment I tried adapting this lathe to turn small bowls. Adaptations are
the use of a mandrel - In the photo (above left) one has been hammered into the bottom
of the bowl blank, and supporting the tool rest at a skewed angle using a piece of
wood fixed to the tail stock (lower right). I have had some success with shaping the
outside with this set up, but not much with hollowing the inside - so more work is
needed there. The bowl blank needs to be cut to an approximate shape first, which
can be time consuming - but saves hard work on the lathe.
Health and Safety
Protective eye glasses or a face shield are recommended for bowl turning
(also advisable when turning spindles as the wood may chip or break). For bowl turning,
bowl gouges and chisels are required which are longer and sturdier than spindle tools.
It's necessary to regularly check the tension of the blank in the lathe centres -
otherwise it can detach at a velocity dependent on your leg strength!
| Green Woodworking Pages
The Association of Polelathe
Turners & Greenwood Workers (website)
The Encyclopedia of Green Woodworking (book) - Ray
Tabor, eco-logic books, 2000
Tools for Self Reliance UK (or in Wales TFSR
Cymru) - High quality refurbished tools