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The homestead workshop: Make a woodland spring pole lathe.

Spring pole lathes have been around since early Greek and Roman times, probably even earlier. Many designs have been created over the years but the original concept remains the same--a reciprocal turning device that uses no power except that of the user, and allows green wood (unseasoned) to be turned.

While I have built many versions of this most useful tool, the version I find most satisfying to use is the one I built directly in the forest from found materials.

This spring pole lathe was designed for use in the forest, although of course it can be used anywhere. It can be made on-site with only the most basic of tools--a saw, axe, auger or drill, froe or wedges and chisels. In my case, I use it to turn the legs for milking stools, an item that sells well at local farmers' markets and craft fairs, but I know of some old wheelwrights who use one to turn wheel spokes for making wagon wheels.

The advantage of working in the forest is that I only have to carry out the legs I have turned rather than extra wood (and weight) that will just be turned off and wasted. Even the lathe remains in the forest after I have finished with it (I only remove the steel bolts and spikes and leave the remaining pieces to decompose naturally).

It was designed to be cut from a single log of between 6" and 10" in diameter.

The separate log pieces can be jointed with either wooden dowel pegs or bolts (if available). The metal pieces used for holding the work are lengths of studding (pre-threaded bar)ground to sharp points at one end, one of which is held by two nuts (one in front and one behind) and the other with two 90-degree bends (in the form of a handle) which allows the handle to be screwed into the work to hold it in place.

No specific sizes are given here as this project will vary from log to log.

The diagrams shown here are just a basic guide to how it should look. Sometimes I have been able to bury the two uprights in the ground obviating the need for feet on the base. Other times this has not been possible. I do use a chainsaw to prep the logs but that's only to save time and energy. When demonstrating the method in woodcraft skills classes, I use a bow-saw blade in a homemade frame. I mainly get the students to do the sawing though, as I'm not completely stupid.

The method of construction

Using a saw, cut the felled or windblown tree into pieces as follows. Two pieces as tall as your belly button (feet to belly-button). These are for the upright supports. One piece from ground to your shoulder. This is the bed or base for the other bits to rest on. Two pieces from ground to just above your knee. These will be used for the head-stock and tail-stock. Apart from four wedges, that's about all the timber you'll need. (Maybe a split log for the feet and some bracing pieces if the uprights are not to be sunk.)

You need to cut a flat on the bed log (for the head and tail stocks to rest on). To do this either slice a bit off with the chainsaw, or make a number of cuts into the log, all to the same depth and chop off the excess with either an axe, or an adze. Once you have the bed roughly flat, you need to cut the log down the middle. This can be done with a chainsaw for ease, or split with a froe and mallet if the grain looks fairly straight. A bow-saw will do the job if the blade can be turned sideways (which is why I use a homemade bow-saw frame).

Next, four tennons have to be cut. Two on the uprights and two on the head and tail stocks. The dimensions are one third of the diameter of the log. So, if you have a log, say, six inches in diameter, you need to cut two inches away from either side (six inches deep) leaving a two inch tennon in the middle. On the upright pieces, the bed-stock pieces are attached on either side of the tennons making a bed with a two inch (or whatever size you're using) gap down the middle.

With the uprights and bed in position, drill through in a couple of places on each leg making the holes appropriate to the fixing method being employed. If using wooden pegs, three quarters of an inch diameter holes would be appropriate. Then cut some three quarter inch dowel (or whittle some from found material if you have plenty of time and want to take the purist approach) slightly longer than the upright tennon width plus the two bed pieces. Cut a slot in the end of each dowel piece and use wedges to jam the dowels into place once in position. Alternatively, drill a three-eighths inch hole right through and use some studding of the same diameter (pre threaded bar). A washer and a nut on either side will take up the tension nicely.

Next, figure how you want the lathe to stand up. It may be necessary to fit feet, so either cut a couple of slots as in the diagram, or mortice and tennon the uprights onto a split log and use bracing pieces as in the photograph of one I made a couple of years ago (and still use for demos). If you wish to bury the uprights, make them longer than belly-button high and bury the remainder. Use wedges rammed into the holes to provide added stability.

By now you should have a contraption consisting of a couple of uprights with two bed rails, one attached to either side. Next comes the head and tail stocks and the bits that hold the work to be turned. These are cut in the same manner as the tennons on the uprights except that the tennon length is greater than the depth of the bed rail. This is to allow for tightening wedges to be hammered home to secure the stocks while working. This method allows flexibility in work length otherwise the stocks could simply be bolted or pegged in place. I prefer the extra effort needed to make the wedged version as I sometimes make stools with a back to them and I therefore have to turn short legs and longer legs. This would not be possible if the stocks were fixed in place permanently.

Once the head and tail stocks have been shaped, cut the holes for the wedges. To do this, fit the stock into the slot in the bed rail. Mark underneath where the stock comes through the slot and cut a square hole half an inch above the mark you made and two inches below it. This will ensure a tight fit when you bang the wedges in. Do this on both pieces. To cut a square hole, you can drill a number of small holes inside the area marked and chop out the rest of the waste wood with a chisel.

Your pole lathe is nearly completed at this stage. All that remains is the spikes that hold the work. There are many methods of doing this. In the old days, a couple of hammered out bits of wrought iron or steel bar would be wedged into a pre-drilled hole on the inside edge of each stock. The work would be fitted between the points and the tail-stock wedged fast. I prefer the convenience of a tightening handle to make the fitting and removal of work faster and easier. I do this by using studding. I have a piece with two 90-degree bends and use this as a handle to screw the point into the end of the work to hold it in place. To avoid blisters when turning the pre-threaded studding, I use an old piece of garden hose over the handle part.

Drill a hole, the same diameter as your studding, through the head and tail stocks. Try to get the holes aligned as it allows better turning. On the tail-stock, fit the studding with about an inch of the point protruding, and fix in place with appropriately sized nuts backed with washers (to stop the nut biting into the wood). On the head-stock, fit the handle (a slightly smaller drill or auger bit will ensure a tight fit) and back this up with a nut and washer on the inside end to act as a lock nut when the work is in place. To work properly, the handle needs to be tight in the head-stock hole, so the only way of getting it in is by turning the handle and cutting a thread in the wood in the process.


The lathe is now ready for some work to be fitted. Find a piece of wood approximately roundish in shape and of an appropriate length. A log can be split in four with a froe and mallet and roughly shaped on a shave horse with a draw knife (that's another article in itself). A couple of holes about a quarter inch deep are made in either end of the work-piece and some fat (goose-grease is good) is applied to the hole. This increases the lubrication and helps the work turn easier.

Once the work-piece is fitted, screw up the handle so it just holds the work without it wobbling, but is not too tight either, and lock off with the locknut on the inside of the handle (this may not be necessary if the handle is a really tight fit in the stock). So, what's missing? A means of turning the work, that's what!

To turn the work you need to find a springy pole. The way it works is this: A springy pole above the work has a piece of cord or strip of leather attached, which wraps around one end of the work-piece two or three times and continues down to a foot plate below your right foot. The foot plate is hinged so the springy pole trying to straighten out, pulls one end of the footplate up when you take your foot off. So, when you press down on the footplate, the cord causes the work-piece to spin in a forward direction and spin in the reverse direction when you release your foot.

Instead of a springy pole, it is possible to use a piece of bungee cord, the inner tube off a bicycle tire, even a recurve bow hung from a branch above. Anything will do so long as it pulls the cord up when the foot plate is released and provides sufficient tension to turn the work.

Once that is set up, you can begin. You will have to fashion some kind of tool rest and that can be as simple as a short piece of wood supported on the bed for the turning chisel to rest on. It should be made so it comes half way up the work, in other words, the same height (or slightly below) the centering spikes. It must be able to move back and forwards to accommodate work of different diameters. A couple of wooden pegs on the head and tail stocks with a length of wood between could work, but some experimentation will be needed here to suit your own style. I also use an armrest for my left elbow. As I am effectively balancing on one foot, while using the other to operate the lathe, I find it easier to rest my elbow on a armrest. This is simply a piece of smoothed off wood wedged into a hole in the side of the head stock.


To use the lathe, you only cut on the down stroke. Normal turning chisels are fine, but I like to make my own from old broken leaf springs. Many of my tools are made from old broken leaf springs from a Land Rover. You can turn your own chisel handles on the spot and use a bit of cut off pipe to reinforce the end of the handle while you hammer the chisel blade in.

That's it then. Give it a try. All it should cost you is a bit of time and effort. If you already have the basic tools and can get free access to windblown trees, it shouldn't cost you anything.

Discuss the finer points of welding

Whether you're a novice or a pro, Hobart Welders' interactive web site provides an outlet for people to ask questions and offer tips.

The mix of people acessing the chat site include farmers, do-it-yourselfers, auto body and repair shop mechanics, and maintenance operators.

Of course, you can also order spec sheets and locate the nearest Hobart service provider.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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