Spring pole lathe. Why would anyone want to build one?


75-Amb-2-317b-83-r.tifWell that is the question?  Why would anyone at age sixty-three and supposedly in his right mind want to build a springpole lathe and actually use it to turn something?  Well there are several obvious answers:

1. Should a nuclear halocaust, extraordinary civil unrest or the arrival of space invaders disrupt the power supply, I could still work on the lathe;

2.  I could get a fair amount of low impact, anaerobic excercise while I was turning;

3.  I could demonstrate how turning used to be done;

4.  I could replicate 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century furniture and architectural pieces with complete authencity.

Well number 4 was the real deciding factor.  But the others certainly came into the decision making process and don’t be fooled, thinking that I was just having some fun with you about number 1….hey, you just never know.

So I began an exhaustive search for all of the information about springpole lathes on the internet.  Surprisingly, there’s a lot of information out there. 

First, what is a springpole lathe?  Well, it’s a reciprocating lathe, meaning that there is a cutting or down stroke and a return stroke.  The power for the cutting stroke is furnished by the turner depressing a treadle.  The power for the return stroke comes from the “springpole” which has been energized during the cutting stroke.  A line is used to connect the treadle and the springpole.  Right between the treadle and springpole sits the workpiece, with the slacked line wrapped aroung, waiting to be trimmed to size, so to speak. 

Springpole lathes come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and configurations.  Just Google any of the words highlighted in the text and you’ll see what I mean.  But it’s interesting that the actual technology employed certainly predates recorded history.  And springpole lathes were used commercially much more recently than you might think.  Bodgers (chair parts makers) took them to the woodlots in England where they turned parts and left the shorts and chips on the forest floor well into the period just before World War II.

Historic re-inactors, restorers and ancient industries devotees are renewing the interest in this simplest of woodworking tools.  And, it’s important to note that some of the most ornate and technically challenging turnings ever made were produced before the discovery of electricity on springpole (reciprocal), continuous (treadle & flywheel) or great wheel (turned by your apprentice) lathes.  Some of these turnings have never been duplicated on modern power lathes. 

Some noteworthy contemporary springpole turners are Peter Follansbee, Don Weber, Roy Underhill, Drew Langsner and Robin Wood. Much more information on springpole lathes is to be found at The Association of Springpole Turners. And for more general history on the art and craft of Woodturning, be sure to visit the Worshipful Company of Turners of London.


Chapter 2 is all about what style of springpole lathe did I want to build?  So I set about creating some parameters for my decision making process.  First, this was a lathe that I wanted to use in the shop.  I had no visions of tramping through the woods with this thing strapped to my back.  Second, I wanted to be able to turn 48″ between centers as I invisioned doing some formal bannister back chairs.  Third, I wanted enough swing that I could do some bowl turning (after seeing Robin Wood turning bowls at his home in England).

Ultimately, I settled on a design that Roy Underhill has used for a number of years, with a few modifications, of course.  The lathe is a double springpole design.  This simply means that there is a primary and secondary springpole linked to one another by means of a bridle device.  This design offers infinitely variable torque and resistance control.  The springpole is linked to an overhead crossarm via a connecting rod (1/4″ hot rolled steel rod).  The line connects the crossarm to the treadle.IMG_1530

Roy’s lathe seemed a little small for my purposes.  So I set about to build a large, heavier duty unit.  Also, it seemed that the work height was quite low.  So I designed a lathe with a 20″ swing, 52″ center width and a 44″ working height (at 6’3″ and with a bad back, I need the height).  The ways and stretchers were beefed up considerably to create a very stable platform.  Lastly, I found that I just wasn’t as lithe as Roy and decided to build a full treadle that would allow me to use either foot at any workpiece position to power the lathe.  This has paid huge dividends, although it has caused me to redesign the primary springpole.  The original springpole, prior to the addition of the permanent treadle, was 1″ diameter yellow pine.  But after the placement of the treadle, it was necessary to go to something stiffer and more durable.  Option 1 was to increase the diameter of the springpole which would have been easy enough.  But I opted to make a laminated springpole by simply gluing two pieces of hickory together then rounding them on my shavehorse.


For the frame of the lathe I selected Yellow Pine.  My northern friends might say why in the world would you choose pine, it’s so soft.  Well my friends, yellow pine ain’t soft, no way, no how.  Yellow pine was the most popular framing lumber in the eastern half of the US for generations, prior to the advent of the pneumatic nailer.  Yellow pine is prone to splitting unless the craftsman takes precautions to prevent the nailed fastner from acting like a wedge, splitting occurs.  One only need imagine an enthusiastic young carpenter shooting nail after nail after nail into a YP 2×4 and it becomes clear why beautiful, strong, stable yellow pine has been replaced by “white wood”.  In any event YP was available, it was cost effective, strong and, doggone it….that’s what Roy built his lathe from- enough said.The cross arm is white oak (scrap), treadle is ash and YP and, parts of the toolrest are cherry and, as I mention earlier, the springpoles are hickory.

The torque and subsequent energy requirement to operate the lathe are infinitely adjustable due to the variable connection between springpole and crossarm, bridle adjustment between springpoles and extendable treadle arm which allows for increase in rotational stroke.




Another consideration was the toolrest.  Due to my height, I tend to work “over center”, a lot.  So I wanted a toolrest that would allow for some vertical adjustment.  Also I wanted to be able to angle the rest in relationship to the ways.  What I came up with was, essentially, a wooden banjo.  The toolrest has a steel wear strip.  All in all, the banjo and rest work great and I’ve had numerous compliments stating that the rest looks sculpted.  Pretty? maybe…but it works and works well.


Centers were simply made from 1/2 x 3 1/2″ carriage bolts, ground to a conical end.  Weld nuts and handle nuts were used to support and clamp the centers tight.  Both are available from McMaster.



When all is said and done, this is what it’s all about, legs for a joynt stool.  But, to those of you who are already proficient turners, making four duplicates of anything on a springpole lathe will test your skill.  But make no mistake, you’ll be a better turner for your tribulations.


If you have any more questions about why anyone would want to build and use a springpole lathe,  just look at the picture of the guy at the beginning of this post.  Is there any question as to why SOCCER (futbol) is the most popular sport in Europe?  Just look at that guy’s calves.  But then…take a look at that face – is that a happy craftsman?

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19 Comments on “Spring pole lathe. Why would anyone want to build one?”

  1. Bruce Schafer Says:

    Dennis, Thanks for taking the time last weekend to show me your spring pole lathe. It is very cool and it was fun trying it out. I am seriously considering building one. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and inspiration. BRUCE SCHAFER

  2. […] the meantime, my long-awaited plans to build a spring pole lathe are coming together.  I found a kindred spirit who has built a beautiful version and posted it […]

  3. tamirichards Says:

    This is a beautiful lathe.

  4. Matt Sullenbrand Says:

    Dear Dennis,

    Thanks so much for this post and for sharing pictures of your lathe. For a while now, I have been trying to formulate plans for a lathe based on Roy’s design. Your’s seems to have everything I am looking for. If at all possible, I would love to speak with you further about your design, if you had a few minutes to share. Feel free to email me if you like. Thanks again!


  5. Hi Dennis.

    I have to say what a lovely Spring pole lathe you made. Like Matt, I have been looking at making pole lathe but had thought about a “normal” pole lathe or bungee operated one. That is until I found your article.
    Do you have working drawings/dimensions I could use to make one?
    I have just finished making a shave-horse which I will be posting my experiences about on my blog sometime soon, when I can get the photos uploaded !!

    Thanks for sharing

    Kind regards


    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Hello Gervase,

      I’ll put up some general dimensions on the spring pole lathe as soon as I can. I’ve been caught up in the process of making big screws for the past couple of weeks, so I haven’t written anything for the blog. There are quite a few pictures of the details of the lathe, so be sure to check them all out. It’s a wonderful lathe to use and for spindle work it is every bit as fast as my power lathe. The only difference is that you have to contend with torque instead of speed. I’m convinced that anyone who works on a reciprocating lathe will become a better turner, as you must really become a student of tool geometry to do your best work. Stay in touch.


  6. Matthew Miller Says:

    Stunning work!

  7. Roy Davi Says:

    a very interesting set of musings which strike a cord with me. I have been pole lathe turning for over 14 years and have turned a hobby into a passion. Your well built lathe is a work of the heart which I acknowledge must give you immence satisfaction, but why all the elaborate effort when a sturdy simple design will work just as well?
    This is not a criticism just a general comment. Over the years of doing displays for reenactments and markets here in Australia, I find that people a gob smacked at how a simple rustic device can be used to achieve a great finished product with minimal effort.
    Unless you have a lot of time just keep it simple and let the lathe doits work.
    All comments meant in good faith as this is the first time I have shared my thoughts onthe matter in a public forum.
    If interested google The Leura Bodger to see my rustic lathe made from scrap woodonce destined for the fire, but rescued after I saw a pole lethe demonstration in1997. The lathe has travelled a few thousand kilometers to different events and still survives to work another day!
    enjoyed reading your work
    all the best

    • D.B. Laney Says:


      Just watched one of your videos. Very nice, very nice, indeed. I agree that a “greenwood” lathe will do everything, in terms of spindle work associated with chairmaking. And certainly, Robin Wood has proven, time and again, that a strong, simple lathe works well for bowl turning. When I built this particular lathe I had several thoughts in mind. First, I was interested in “shop lathes” from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But I wanted something that would offer me a good size swing as well as being able to center 60″ (for Bannister back chairs). The German/Moravian type proved to be a good choice. It’s very stable, has good swing and length, while having a reasonably compact footprint. Another consideration was that I ultimately wanted to be able to run some secondary apparatuses like threading boxes and eliptical gear. as well as conventional drive spools, etc. (for stuff like pencil post bed posts). All that said, guys like Pete Follansbee seem to do just fine with a little more “straight forward” design. And there’s a guy in Southwestern France who uses a big part of a tree crotch for his bed and his lathe is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The one I have is very similar to a reciprocating lathe that Roy Underhill uses. However, mine is significantly bigger and much more heavily constructed.

      For the past several years, I’ve been toying with the idea of building a large “sidewinder” lathe. It’s a continuous rotation type with a large flywheel that sits parallel to the bed. I was thinking about a variable speed drive. There’s a couple of posts on the blog about the proposed design. But after fifty years of this stuff, I may just concentrate on building the furniture that I’ve been promising my wife for all these years.

      Also I agree that folks here in Ohio get all “gobsmacked” when they see what you can do on a pole lathe, especially when I’m “running” a skew. They never get over being impressed by the finish that I get without sanding (then I start preaching about the importance of sharp tools).

      Thanks for your interest. It’d be great to stay in touch. BTW, one of your countrymen has got a great blog, http://www.pegsandtails.wordpress.com . It’s incredibly informative and entertaining. And check out http://www.pfollansbee.wordpress.com . If you’re not already familiar with Pete.

      It’s great to hear from you. It’s good to know that plenty of other folks have a sense of stewardship about tradional craftsmanship. Of course, it’s a fair bit of “craic”, as they say in the old country.

      Best regards,
      Dennis Laney

  8. Mike Says:

    Just come across your page whilst searching pole lathe plans (I recently moved to a farm with 65 acres of mixed woodland and I’m interested i green woodworking) you have a beautiful lathe, please, tell me, how is it operating three years on?

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      It’s holding up very well. Have replaced the long spring rod with one of hickory and ash (hickory/ash/hickory). Keeps the diameter down while increasing the stiffness/return speed. All in all, it’s a wonderful tool to use.

  9. Rachael Says:

    well I am putting the finishing touches on the lathe I am buliding. I printed all your pix and did some revsvise engeining to bulid my springpole lathe.also I mite add that I bulit it all old school (no power tools). I will putting up pixs and a vid of the bulid, on youtube. BTW your lathe was the best one I could find on the internet. good job

  10. Rob Says:

    Hi I loved reading this and would love to make a pole lathe the same. I’m the bodger on a English civil war living history site so I play with a pole lathe a lot, I have three of my own. Hope to hear from you soon, many thanks, rob

  11. Your lathe looks great! I am in the process of building one myself and it helps to have another reference. I loved what you did with the tool rest. I have a different reason for building mine; I am enamored with traditional methods and believe process is as important as product. There is nothing quite like turning on a spring pole and electric machines lack that intangible and wonderful connection to the work that hand tools offer. Thanks for the post,

  12. Rob Thornton Says:

    Dennis, beautiful job on the lathe! Given its age of 5+ years does it continue to hold up well. I spent a day last week with Roy U. “Practicing” on his spring pole and really enjoyed it. As he and you point out there is a bit of a learning curve but that is the case with anything worth doing. I like your bigger/heavier size, do you have numbers available. Would you tolerate a visit from an NC spring pole turner wanna be?

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Thanks. The lathe is actually in its seventh year. The only maintenance that’s been required was that I replaced the main spring pole with one made of laminated ash (just quarter sawn, ripped and epoxied back together to stiffen it up, given the cross arm weight). As I’m incredibly short of space, I gave the lathe to a friend of mine last year. He and his adult children are into “early industries” in a big way, so they’re all turning on the lathe. It found a good home. I’m still thinking about building another continuous lathe, based on the Nordic “sidewinder” patterns. There are a couple of posts on the blog about ideas on this model. If you’re in the NW Ohio area, I’ll see if I can arrange a “visitation”. Just a last thought – weight is a good thing when turning, especially if you’re going to be doing larger work, offset work or things like bowls. Little more money up front but well worth the investment.

  13. Michael Ellyt Holm Says:

    Thank you for your nice article about the great pole lathe.
    I would like to have all the measurements in cm. I am not used to inches.
    Pleace if you have the time to translate to the metric system and send me the drawings on your Lathe.
    Lokking forward to hear from you.

    My name is Michael Ellyt Holm.

    Mail. holm995@gmail.com

    I am living in Denmark 🇩🇰

    My hobby is being a Viking and I am at the moment carving bowls by hand.
    I want to make a good Lathe for the Viking markets…. 😊


    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Hello Michael. Unfortunately, I don’t have drawings for the lathe. I built it “from my head” after seeing a similar one that Roy Underhill built. However, I can give you the basic dimensions: Center to center – 154.2 cm, center to top of rail – 25.4 cm (50.8 cm “swing”), floor to center – 107 cm. There are a number of posts about the lathe which include many details. This lathe represents a design used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a wonderful lathe to work on. If you want something that would be more correct for the Viking period, you might take a look at Robin Woods site http://www.robin-wood.co.uk .

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