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

This is a record of making a leg & 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.

Please note that this is one of a many designs, and is not the simplest. The mortice and tenon joints of the base & diagonal braces, and bevels on the top ends of the latter, can be difficult to get right. Over about 10 years it has been necessary to add shims and make adjustments to keep the lathe in shape, probably the case with other designs to varying degrees.

pole lathe construction

Lathe Bed and Legs
These are shown held together with 4x M10 / 10mm diameter bolts and nuts. It's advisable to make the holes of one of the lathe bed slightly oversized, say 11mm. This is so that the fixing bolts can be loosened and re-tightened to correct for any length variations of the two bed sections.

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 diagonal 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.

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

(Below) a later photo of the stocks with cut-outs of the lower sections (nearest operator) where the tool rest sits.


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 (right). 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 can be held in place with string loops for example, 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 - an ash or hazel pole about 12 feet (3.6m) long should work . 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. The mandrel has been hammered into the bottom of the bowl blank (photo above left). The tool rest has been positioned at a skewed angle using a piece of wood fixed to the tail stock (lower right of photo). The bowl blank needs to be cut to an approximate shape first, saving hard work on the lathe. I had some success with shaping the outside with this set up, but not much with hollowing the inside.

I probably need some tuition and bowl turning tools to be successful. I understand that there are more dangers involved with bowl turning, particularly if a chisel "catches" in the wood. I found this You Tube video demonstrating what can go wrong when a chisel "catches" both a spindle and bowl. A powered lathe is used, but it's the same principle for a pole lathe.

Health and Safety
A couple of the many points, not least of which is taking care with sharp tools of course.

Protective spectacles 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 turning tools; and can be hazardous if they "catch" the wood for example.

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. Keeping an area clear in front of the lathe is advisable.

(Repetitive) stress injury: to my cost I ignored a pain in my wrist area when roughing out a blank, This was probably due to vibrations impacting my hand at the end of the chisel handle. So from now on I'm going to wear shock absorbing support on my hand(s), and take more care how I hold chisel handles.

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

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