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.
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).
The tops of the diagonal side braces should be cut to fit the lathe bed and leg (that's
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.
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.
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.
(Below) a later photo of the stocks with cut-outs of the lower sections
(nearest operator) where the tool rest sits.
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
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.
... 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
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.
Bowl Turning Trial
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
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