When I first became interested in spring pole lathes I assumed that I would simply use the same tools that I used everyday on my powered lathe.  I remember reading that a spring pole lathe was “safer” than a powered lathe due to its lower operating speed.  Well, it turns out that due to amount of torque generated and the fact that a spring pole lathe is a reciprocating tool, I’ve re-thought my tool selection.  Perhaps I can save some novice pole turners some frustration by sharing a few thoughts about some tools that I find useful when using my lathe. 


My little "Pride and Joy"

 Understanding the “Catch” 

Most  turners  use the word “catch” to describe the moment in which a shearing tool, more often than not the skew chisel, decides to take off, seemingly of its own accord, and leave a deep diagonal line across the face of the work.  This, invariably, happens when the surface is nearly complete, necessitating an unexpected “design change”.  This phenomena might better be referred to as a “chase” or “skate” as it is created when the cutting edge has an insufficient clearance angle.  The workpiece literally drives the tool which acts like a threadchaser.  Due to the high torque of the spring pole lathe, a “skate” can happen very easily. 

The classic skew "skate"

 Rolling Beads 

Rolling beads with a skew is the mark of a skilled turner.  That said, the fact that you are presenting a cutting edge that is diagonally positioned to the rotation of the work is “flirting with disaster”.  The skew chisel will remain the best finishing tool, bar none.  However, when rolling beads on a high torque, reciprocating lathe, there may be other options that will make life a little easier.  The first is the beading and parting tool.  It is simply a narrow, double-edged chisel.  It is simply presented perpendicular to the workpiece axis, then rolled in either direction to form the bead.  The finish left by the tool is quite good as the double bevel burnishes the surface as the cut is made. 

The Beading and Parting tool - note the perpindicular presentation

 A second option for rolling beads is the bedan.  It is similar in size to the beading tool.  However, it is a single bevel tool.  This means that the cutting edge is ground at a steeper angle than the beading tool.  “Bedan afficinados” will typically work the bedan in an “upside down” manner, meaning bevel up.  I becomes a very agressive shaping tool when used in this manner.  The surface finish created when using the bedan in this manner is rather “open” and may required a little additional burnishing or sanding.  Using the bedan with the bevel down yields a nicely burnished finish.  The steeper cutting angle will require some adjustment.  The turner may find that a “bevel down” bedan offers a somewhat better finish when turning figured workpieces. 

Running the Bedan with the bevel up

Gouges – Shallow is good 

For me, a shallow gouge and a perpendicular presentation seem to work best on the spring pole lathe for creating longer or varying radius curves.  The classic “English” grind or a shallow “Ladyfinger” work especially well.  That said, I’ll frequently use a very exaggerated detail gouge for rolling convex, as well as concave surfaces.  With gouges, like straight or skewed chisels, the turner must be aware of the cutting and presentation angles.  

"English" grind shallow gouge

"Ladyfinger" shallow gouge

Sharp tools, understanding cutting geometries and practice = Great results
Practice, practice, practice.  And, when you get a little discouraged, just remember that some of most complicated turning ever accomplished was done on a spring pole lathe, well before the discovery of electricity.
“It’s a poor workman who blames his tools”
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  1. Have you found any need to use a different steel with a lower rpm, high torque lathe? I recently saw a retailer offering O1 turning tools claiming they offer an edge over HSS since they can be honed to a sharper edge? So far my HSS and carbide “modern” tools are working well, but my lower turning skill also makes for more clean up anyway.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Sharp tools are “the name of the game”, no matter what speed you’re turning. O1 tools can be honed, with very little effort, to a razor edge. The slower speed on a reciprocating lathe doesn’t cause a lot of heating, so the O1 holds up just fine. I’ve thought about buying a set of Isle’s springpole tools. Everything they make is great, as far as I can see. Personally I use my tools on either lathe. But, again, I keep them very sharp. I’d have to say that my favorite springpole tools are a P&N 1/2″ skew, a Sorby 3/4″ continental (forged) spindle gouge, a Sorby beading/parting tool, an old Sorby 2″ double bevel straight chisel (many people call this a straight skew, kind of a conflict of terms) and a Hamlet “hook” shape, diamond parting tool for gaging. Remember, keep those tools sharp. I’ve always got a little diamond file in my apron, when I’m turning. It’s a good habit to get into.

      • Update many months on. I picked up some of those O1 tools to experiement and I can’t honestly tell a difference. Yes I can hone them much faster especially on the fly with a diamond paddle so I suppose that is a difference, but as you say sharp is sharp so both HSS and O1 perform well in practice as long as they are sharp.

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