Green Woodworking: making a Pole - Lathe
Making a Pole Lathe

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.

pole lathe construction

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).

pole lathe construction


pole lathe construction
The tops of the side braces should be cut to fit the lathe bed and leg (that's the theory!)


pole lathe construction
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.

pole lathe construction

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. 5 ins)

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.

pole lathe construction

Stocks Fitted
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!).

pole lathe construction

Tool Rest
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 of work-piece.

The pieces of wood shown inside the stocks can be used to vary the rest position, but are only needed for large diameter work.

pole lathe construction

Completed ...
... 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 cord ....

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.

Pole Lathe set up     lathe with bow cord rewind


Bowl Turning Trial

pole lathe construction

pole lathe construction

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
pole lathe construction
pole lathe construction
pole lathe construction
Making a Pole Lathe


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

Home | Old Industrial Sites | Environment | Green Woodworking | Dry Stone Walling | Photo Gallery | Country Guitar
Site Info | Site Map | Donate | Contact