Spring Pole Lathe-Part 1

I have always been fascinated by the lathe.  There is something mesmerizing about watching the shapes appear from the spinning wood.  As much as I like the lathe, I never planned on adding one to my shop.  There’s a whole list of excuses why and I had taken the lathe off of my to-do list and penciled it in on my some-day list.

Through a strange series of events however, things have changed.  There’s a big long story that explains all of it, but I’ll just cut to the gist.  I was recently given several turning tools.  How awesome is that?  There is a mixed bag of Craftsman, Buck Brothers and Vermont American.  I think all of the basic profiles are here.  A few gouges, a skew, a parting tool, thumbnail, ect.  They are in need of a little love, but should get me more than started.

So now it seems silly not to delve into lathe work.  Of course I need a lathe first.

The basic types of human-powered (I have no interest in electric) lathes are spring and treadle.  Each has its pros and cons.  The spring type lathes are simplest to build, are portable but work with a reciprocating action.  Treadle lathes are a little more complex to build, are generally too heavy to be easily portable but have the benefit of constant rotation.  So why choose one over the other?

Portability seems to play a big role in the decision process.  Even still, there are several examples of historical shops with permanently installed spring pole lathes.  So maybe personal preference has always played a part.  For me, the combination of simple to build and portability is hard to ignore.

Roy Underhill’s version of a German spring pole lathe is a design that is hard to beat.  It’s a self-contained, reasonably light and portable lathe.  The only issue I have found with Roy’s version is that it seems a little short.  In most of the videos I’ve watched, including The Woodwright’s Shop, Roy and others look stooped over while using this lathe.  My suspicion is that the low height is a function of the novelty of building the lathe frame from a single 2″x12″x12′.  That’s just my personal guess though.  Anyway, I think I’ll have a go at building and using Roy’s version of the spring pole lathe but, I’ll build it a little taller.

Plans for the lathe can be found in a few places.  One source is Roy’s book, “By Wedge and Edge“.  Most recently, PWW magazine (August 2016) ran an article by Roy on the building of the lathe.  Or (if you have the time and money) you could attend a class and learn to build this lathe directly from Roy.

As you may know, I like to work with proportions. Short of that I prefer metric.  All of the plans for Roy’s lathe are based on imperial dimensions though.  So I did a little CAD work, converted the plans to metric and tweaked a few of the details.  My version will raise the work a few inches/centimeters, it will be a bit longer to ensure that I can work with table-length legs and I’m changing the decorative elements as well.  No surprise there.

I’m building the lathe out of SYP and purchased a couple of 2x boards and will be utilizing the pieces left over from the recent table builds as well.

Step one was to break that lumber down into the required components and layout the joinery.

I then cut the large mortises that will receive the rails.  I used an auger to remove the bulk of the waste and then used a chisel to finish off each mortise.  The “spring” part of this lathe design is supplied by two wooden rods.  These rods are contained in three holes and one slot.  The slot allows the end of one rod to travel up and down creating the spring action.  The three holes I simply bored through.  To create the slot I bored a hole at the extents of the slot and used my turning saw to cut out the bulk of the waste.  Finally cleaning up the walls of the slot with a wide chisel.

Stay tuned.

Greg Merritt Part 2

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21 Responses to Spring Pole Lathe-Part 1

  1. Salko Safic says:

    This will be a great project I’ll be following with great interest Greg. Height is important in my opinion, mine comes up to my chest with the work inserted. My preference goes out to treadle lathes so the work rotates a full 360, I believe after using a spring pole for a while and then trying out a treadle you’ll feel the same. Just makes sure the centres are dead accurate, there is no room for error here mate.
    Those tools you got are all you need and you’re very lucky in getting them and that skew chisel is perfect, master that and you’ll do 90% of your work with it. Lastly hone all your tools on the stones and then strop them, don’t just use it off the grinder like most people do. You’ll see a remarkable difference in work quality and you’ll turn pine just as easy as hardwood. Good luck!

    • Greg Merritt says:

      There is little doubt that a treadle lathe would be more intuitive and easier to use. In the end, portability was the deciding factor.

      I’ll be using MT1 dead centers. The trick will be getting them lined up.

      Most information that I have found echoes what you say. Sharpen the tools like all your other edge tools.

  2. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about building some kind of lathe. Not that I have the space for it, but … Looking forward to seeing how yours comes out. Maybe it’ll give me some ideas for a mini vise-mounted version.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I looked really hard at a bench mounted lathe of some kind. The English Woodworker has a bungee lathe setup like this. Again, portability won out in my decision. I can take it outside under a shade tree in the summer or into the basement during the winter.

  3. Sydney Smith says:

    Beautiful, as are all your builds! I modified my spring pole lathe to make it a bit more user friendly. Let me know if you want details. One thing I also want to improve, the drive line. I notice the bodgers online seem to use some kind of sash cord or nylon line, or a leather strap. The leather cord I use now wears out pretty quickly.
    It’s hard to walk by it without stopping and turning on something for a few minutes, even if you are supposed to be another mission. And then you will need some hook tools…another wabbit hole. Fun!

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Sydney. I would be greatful for any insight that you can add. You can post them here or send me an email (there is a link at the top right of this page).

      Drive cord seems to be a perpetual problem with spring pole lathes. As per the article, I’ll be trying the leather sewing machine belt material first. We shall see how it goes.

  4. Derek Long says:

    Wow, gifted some turning tools! You know they say once you buy a lathe, the real money spending comes after (with buying the tools.)

    • Greg Merritt says:

      That is exactly why I had not planned on building a lathe…I would have to buy tools. But with tools in hand, it was an easy decision to spend a few dollars and build a lathe. Hopefully I can get the lathe working and learn how to use it and the tools.

  5. bpholcombe says:

    This is very exciting!

  6. I’m looking forward to this. Planning to build one from the same plans but with a longer bed.
    Have you read the piece at A Woodworker’s Musings?

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Yes I did read that. He built a very nice version.

      I have added about 5″ to the bed length and raised the height of the work about 5″. The extra length should allow me to mount a 36″ blank.

  7. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    Bring it on!!!

  8. Bob Easton says:

    What a great looking start. You’re already havin’ fun.

    You’re right about rethinking height. I built my lathe to the height specified in the plans and ended up adding blocks to the feet to get it up to a comfortable height. My comfort point is having the center line exactly at the bottom of my elbows.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Bob. That is exactly where I have raised the height to, After looking at lots of photos and videos of folks using lathes, elbow height intuitively seemed like the correct height. Both for comfort and tool control. This was a guess on my part since I have never actually used a lathe. It is nice to have confirmation of my findings.

      Thanks again for the extra info.

  9. Pingback: Spring Pole Lathe-Part 2 | HILLBILLY DAIKU

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