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).



Special tools are needed for turning - 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.

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. I usually use quarters or eighths of split down logs. I leave the wood to season for a while after felling, and at stages during work, which can reduce long term warping and distortion of cross sections. Not subjecting the wood to fast changes in temperature and humidity is important. Some wood types I've found to be the most stable include ash, beech, sycamore and cherry - as long as the log doesn't have much in the way of defects to start with.

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

On you Tube ...

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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