Green Woodworking: Turning on a pole lathe
Turning on a pole lathe

A few small products ...

OK, I'm working on the painting skills ....


pole lathe tunings
Turnings from a cherry log - candlestick, drumsticks, garden dibbers, gavels.

pole lathe tunings
a selection of whistles - including twig (left, not turned), and
combined rattles and cup & ball (centre).

pole lathe tunings
Garden dibbers with "owl" handle


How ladybirds are made (click for larger image). This is not biologically accurate!


pole lathe tunings
Traditional rattles

pole lathe tunings
Cup and ball toy

pole lathe tunings

Mason's mallets

Chair legs

cupball and rattle
Combined cup and ball / rattle

items turned from ash log         darning egg

There are more items on this page (carved/cleft)

Far left: one of the uses of an 18 x 5 inch log: to make a pie former (or something), darning aids, handles, garden dibber (click for larger image).
Left: my attempt to mend a sock using the darning egg (not too neat, but it worked).

Wood Preparation
(for spindle shapes) The work piece (termed a "billet") needs to be prepared for the lathe. This usually involves splitting a log into sections - quarters in this example.

An axe or billhook can be used to cut the wood into an approximate round shape. I find it easier to shape a cross-section with an even number of sides first, but this can waste wood.

A draw knife can then be used in conjunction with a shave horse to smooth out the billet so that it is as round as possible. >

pole lathe tunings

> Preparing the billet well should reduce the effort required on the lathe, and wear to tool edges.

Next, the billet can be put on the pole lathe and a roughing gouge used to form an approximate shape of the spindle. This has been done on the billet shown at bottom of photo, but it has not yet been smoothed using a skew chisel.

It's important to bear in mind the effect of seasoning (changing moisture content) on dimension changes of the wood, especially if parts are to be joined.

pole lathe tunings . pole lathe tunings

Shaping and Decoration
After making into an approximate shape with a roughing gouge, the billet can be shaped with smaller gouges and chisels (typically skew and parting types).

To get a smooth finish a skew chisel may produce best results, but sandpaper is useful especially if wood is on the dry side. Beeswax is traditionally used to give a protective finish.

Some typical shapes (bead, cove, taper) are shown on these test pieces of sycamore (left), and beech (far left).




For turning: Special tools are needed - including gouges, skew chisels and preferably a parting chisel. There are wide varieties of styles and prices, and some good second hand tools can be found. If tools require re-shaping a bench grinder may be needed, otherwise honing on a sharpening stone should be sufficient. The photo below shows the tools I used for making items on these pages. The 5 chisels with light handles were a cheap set costing about £12, but they worked and could be sharpened. This set would not be suitable for use on a powered lathe or for turning bowls, where sturdier types are required.

my turning tools

From the bottom the chisels comprise: 3/4", 1/2", 3/8" gouges, 1/2" skew, 5/16" skew (for captive rings), 1/2" parting, standard wood chisel for final parting and tidying up. Not shown are drill brace and bits. Of course cutting tools are useless for working on wood unless they are sharp ...

sharpening stuff

Some sharpening tools include a flat file for "dressing" or correcting flaws in chisels etc. (top). Triangular files and saw-set for older saws; many modern ones can't be easily sharpened because the metal is too hard, but the teeth might be settable. Sharpening stones (bottom): the one on the left has fine and medium coarse sides, and is the main one used for the chisels in the photo above. After a while the stone becomes worn and needs to be made flat again. One method is to use a diamond stone (bottom right). This one is a cheaper type (about £12), and has fine (1000 grit), and medium (400 grit) faces. It can be used to sharpen tools made from harder or stainless steel.

For preparation: useful or even essential tools include a saw, billhook, axe, wedges (I use wooden ones). A froe isn't essential if just splitting logs, billhooks and wedges can work fine. A new addition (2019) is a side axe, ground down from a cheap hatchet (photo on the right). Obviously it's not as good as a "real" one, but it works well and can be sharpened with a stone. A lot of metal was ground away from one side of the small splitting axe to make it as level as possible.. This is shaped for right handed use; the other side (top in photo) needs to be flat for left handed use,

Side axe
Splits. warps, distorted spindles ...
The tendency of fashioned wooden items to crack and split must have many factors. I can only say what was successful for me. Items made "in the round" are more likely to develop splits than those made from sections of a log because of shrinkage around the rings. Splitting a log in two will probably prevent splitting. For turning I usually use quarters or eighths of split down logs. These may become oval in cross section, but not split. I leave the wood to season for a while after felling, and if accurately sized items are needed (e.g. including tenons) the piece is left to season for a while at stages during work (in an oversized state). The piece can then be turned or worked again, reducing any distortion due to shrinkage. Not subjecting the wood to large or fast changes in temperature and humidity is important..

An experiment - what happens if a spindle (below left) is turned from a slightly bent, whole willow branch?
This isn't considered the best material. and was a pruning off a goat willow or similar (approx 1 3/4 ins diameter). The wood wasn't straight (approx 0.5 ins out over 18 ins) - and was left for 10 days before turning. It tended to chip first, but eventually turned fairly smoothly and easily. The bat and rattle in the photo (below right) were also turned from a small, whole willow branch (termed "in the round"), four weeks after pruning.
After 2 weeks (stored in house) - no cracking, spindle about 0.25 ins out of true (as expected)
After 3 months (stored in house) - same condition
After 24 months (stored in house at between about 15-25C) - condition unchanged
These items haven't been used, and are probably not so durable as harder woods, but it was interesting to see what could be made from humble pieces of willow.

willow leg              willow items

Video (3 minute slide show)

Green Woodworking Pages
Turning on a Pole Lathe


The Association of Pole Lathe Turners & Greenwood Workers (web site)
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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