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History and Origin of Woodturning

Oct 31, 2007
If you refer to your dictionary, you will find it defines "turnery" as the art of shaping wood or ivory by means of a lathe, and that a lathe is a machine for shaping wood or ivory, and that is just about right; but I think perhaps a little more explanation would make the whole business of lathes and woodturning much more interesting.

For centuries man has made things of wood, but perhaps the lathe alone has been responsible for more beautiful things in the home and in places of worship, than any other single woodworking tool. Articles of furniture found in Ancient Egypt, show quite clearly that the lathe was in use in the years before Christianity.

One of the earliest types of lathe can still be found in use in the Far East, particularly in India. This consists of two conveniently placed tree trunks each holding a pointed centre. Between these two centers a length of wood is placed with a length of cord wound around it and the ends are held by an assistant, who causes the wood to spin in a to and fro action. The turner, who sits on a stool, holds his cutting tools between his feet and manipulates the cutting action by means of his hands.

One of the earliest lathes to be found in Britain was the bow lathe. Here the wood was worked in a to and fro action, by means of a cord wound around the work and attached by both ends to a springy piece of wood to form a bow. This bow was then pushed backwards and forwards by an assistant causing the work to rotate in a to and fro movement. The turner cut the wood whenever the work rotated towards him.

There were other types of lathes in use in bygone days, but the method of operation was very similar to those mentioned, and the to and fro action remained until quite recent years.

All the types of lathe mentioned were made entirely of wood, except for the headstock bearings. It was not until the machine age that the main parts of a lathe, that is the headstock, tailstock and tool rest, were made of metal, to withstand continuous running conditions, although the bed of the lathe was still made of wood. This consisted of two lengths of 10 in. x 2 in. boards, placed 2 in. apart, on edge.

Today the woodturning lathe, which the amateur is likely to use, is made entirely of metal, with bearings which will stand continuous high speed running, and we do not have to find a very patient assistant to keep the thing running, whilst he is showered with wood dust and shavings as of old. If you are wondering what type of work was carried out on these early lathes, just take a look around the antique shops and museums and you will see many fine examples of turning which were done on the old lathes.

Also, you can find very ornate bowls and plates from the Orient, which were turned on very crude lathes indeed, and are still being made by such methods.

The art of woodturning is certainly very fascinating. Every day you can see something which is an example of the woodturner's art. It may be a simple door knob, a William and Mary table with beautifully turned legs or perhaps those old skittles down at the local public house.

This is a fascinating hobby which you can practice for profit or for the sheer love of it throughout your entire life.
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