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September 7th – Pole lathe turning – Steve Read

11 September, 2009

7 September Steve Reed, Pole lathe turning – Write up by David Gibbard

The demo this evening was about turning in the traditional manner by club member Steve Reed. The force to turn the lathe comes from a springy pole attached to which is a cord wrapped around part of the workpiece. The most common form of pole lathe was for spindle work as used by bodgers to produce spindles for chair making. Bodgers worked in the woods turning legs for chairs from green wood, usually ash. The pole was originally staked in the ground or use was made of a growing sapling. Not wishing to make a hole in the dance floor, Steve had modified the method to use a bungee stretched between 2 vertical poles at either end of the lathe bed.

Steve showed how the wood is split and roughly shaped using a side axe
Steve axe
and then refined with a draw knife on a shaving horse before putting on the lathe.
Steve shave

The chair leg is mounted on spikes between centres which are fixed in adjustable blocks of wood on the wooden lathe bed. The cord is pulled via a wooden lever operated by the turner’s foot causing a reciprocating movement of the spindle. The cutting tools are similar to the modern gouges though more open and chisels but of course they only cut in one direction of rotation. Nonetheless a good bodger who would have been self employed would expect to turn 2 ½ gross of legs in a week!
Steve lathe
The legs would be bought for assembly into chairs at a factory and allowed to dry for a short while. The chairs were usually of the Windsor type and were made in large numbers as utility items.
The derogatory use of the word bodger to describe someone who does a poor, unfinished job is thought to stem from the fact that bodgers left the end of the legs unfinished. They would need to be trued-up after drying anyway and would be trimmed after installation in a chair by a bottomer.

Nothing was drawn up. The measurements for the legs and the positions of the coves etc would have all been marked on a single strip of wood, a valuable item in the bodger’s tool box.
Steve referred anyone wishing to read more about this fascinating glimpse into the past to a book called “the English Regional Chair”. The author is Prof W. Cotton.
Pole lathes were also used for bowls but these were more massive affairs often set up in a factory. The drive would be via a spindle attached to the bowl. The power for multiple lathes sometimes came from a flywheel which was manually driven though water power eventually took over. No doubt when they had worn out all the lads who worked the flywheels. Hook tools would have been used for the hollowing. You can see more about this on
After all that history, Brian Hannam brought us up to date with a thoughtful critique on the gallery. A much larger display of work this month as you can see on the HWA website.

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