The lathe has been in use since ancient times. Over the millennia there have been many changes in the craft of woodturning. Until quite recently it remained what is essentially a hand craft, in which hand-held tools cut wood while it is spinning in a lathe. Its history involves development of the lathe itself from the simplest hand powered machines to powerful, fast and accurate automatic machines. In parallel, the cutting tools developed from the earliest (which may have been stone), through bronze, steel, high speed steel and now tungsten carbide, enabling ever-greater speed and efficiency.
But the turning process changed little until modern automatic machinery came into industrial use. Through the years, although the tools and equipment have become much more capable, it has remained a skilled manual craft. The turners' skills have remained largely the same, though different styles of turning come and go, leading to changes in technique. The growth in hobby woodturning has brought about the development of new tools and accessories, or in some cases the rediscovery of old ones. The interest in turned objects as a form of art has pushed skill boundaries in some areas, while some older skills have declined. It is probable that the earliest turners could happily work with modern equipment if they were brought back to life, and modern ones could, less happily, get along with primitive gear.
The Egyptians first developed a two-person lathe around 1300 BC. One person provided the power by pulling a cord, while the other cut shapes in the wood. The Romans used a lathe powered with a bow. This resembled an archers' bow, with a loose string that could be wrapped round the workpiece. Pushing and pulling the bow made the wood spin, and this could be done by a single person, powering with one hand and holding the tool with the other. A similar principle was used to make fire. It seems likely that one use may have inspired the other.
In the Middle Ages, pedal operation was introduced, allowing the worker to use both hands to hold the woodturning tools. The pedal was connected to a springy pole above the lathe, by means of a cord that wrapped around the workpiece. Pushing the pedal down makes the cord spin the wood by a few revolutions. The function of the pole was to rewind the workpiece and raise the pedal ready for the next push. Pole lathes were still in common use into the early 20th century, and can now be seen at country fairs etc demonstrating to the public, though it has to be said the quality of work produced in this way is usually extremely poor. Pole lathe turners often worked out in the beechwoods, camping for months at a time while they converted logs to furniture parts, particularly chair legs and spindles. Though skilled, they were known as 'bodgers'.
Around the same time, the so-called "great lathe" was developed, allowed a piece to turn continuously. An assistant turned a crank attached to a large pulley wheel, from which a drive belt or cord ran to the workpiece, spinning it rapidly while the turner cut it to shape.
Later, the treadle lathe came into use. Like the Great Lathe, this was approaching modern power lathes in operation. The turner used one leg to work the treadle, cranking the large pulley wheel, that in turn drove the spinning wood. The same principle was used in early sewing machines.
During the industrial revolution, factories were built to make use of first water power, then later steam power. Overhead shafting carried the power to large numbers of lathes and other machines.
When electric motors came into use, they were soon fitted to lathes, no doubt to the operators' great relief. Modern lathes are much more powerful and can spin the wood at high speed, making the turning easier and faster. This made the development of special cutting tools important as their much greater wear resistance let them cut for longer without constant re-sharpening.
Automatic lathes soon came into use. They could produce thousands of identical parts, such as tool handles, very quickly and cheaply. In a further development, industrial lathes are now computer controlled. These automatic machines are excellent at mass production, though with limitations. Their tools and cutting action are different to hand turning, and they are not so good at crisp detailing, nor can they use difficult 'showy' timbers. There is still a demand for hand turning.
Hand turning has developed greatly as a hobby over the past thirty or forty years. New tools that allow new working methods have been introduced and numerous publications cover woodturning.
In this time, hand turning has moved away from production of everyday items. Many turners focus more on artistic work, made for show. They carve and colour their pieces, incorporate other materials, and make objects that have no practical function. As a turner, I appreciate the beauty of some of this work, and the care and skill that goes into it. Most of my turnings are functional, but made with an eye for appearance as well as use. Form, and function too.