Let’s sit down and think about this.
See Photo 1.
Facing up to seated turning/sitting down
There are few limitations on what you can turn when seated. It may be that colossal turnings might be more difficult, but they require considerable adaptation for anyone and most of us don’t turn those anyway. I turn seated, and have made things—19 ½” (500mm) diameter and 47” (1200mm) long—though not both at the same time! It’s just about adapting to your environment, tools and techniques.
Just because it’s easier for you to sit down to do some things doesn’t mean that should limit what you can do with a lathe. The lathe is just one tool we have at our disposal, and the hobby of producing turned items is far broader. I sometimes spend more time working on a piece off the lathe—designing, making jigs, embellishing, carving, decorating and finishing it. I enjoy the whole process. Okay, sanding not so much.
So let’s make our time at the lathe more comfortable and productive.
How low can you go?
Short or tall standing turners will approach a standard height lathe and have little difficulty using it, even if it’s not their ideal height, though some might grumble a bit. Seated turners can use a standard height lathe, however, if you have upper limb issues, or would simply rather be kind to your shoulder, it’s a good idea to mount the lathe at the most comfortable height. This is generally elbow height when seated. This will pay dividends in the long-run with comfort and control.
See Photo 2.
Lathe lowering options include lowering it, tilting the lathe, or both.
You don’t need to be an armchair turner.
Seat options include a low perch seat (which facilitates sliding), low stool or chair, a seat with castors, or a wheelchair. All are viable options dependent on your needs.
For information on using high seats and standard height lathes standing or perched, see I can’t stand turning!
Lathe Ergonomics - Knees Under?
See Photo 3.
Many people assume that a seated turner's knees need to fit under the lathe so that they can get closer to the machine, though this may not be the best solution. Smaller lathes often have a motor under the bed restricting access, and as lathes get larger, the bed becomes a more substantial obstacle. Once you add the center height, the lathe would be way above the ideal elbow height. This results in a very unnatural and uncomfortable turning position holding your arms unnaturally high, which I certainly couldn't tolerate. And I suspect it wouldn't do anyone's shoulders any good if attempted for any significant amount of time. It may work for some people with small lathes who only intend to produce small items. Bear in mind that even when turning small items, if the lathe is mounted too high on a bench, the center line height may make turning very uncomfortable.
Some form of lower stand is the best option.
The ideal lathe height is generally with the center line near elbow height.
Some have attempted to address turning seated by making 'sit-down' lathes. This involves tilting the lathe forward so it is angled or even horizontal rather than vertical. There are some commercial options and DIY plans for tilting and lowering a lathe. Each have some benefits but also limitations.
While tilting can make some space for feet/knees to get your body closer to the center line of the lathe, it can also bring the workpiece closer to the knees than I would feel comfortable with for the variety of turnings I undertake. It is also looks all too easy for the banjo to slide uncontrollably towards your knees when released on an inclined bed.
Tilting the bed, say 30 degrees to 45 degrees, and using the standard banjo and toolrest arrangement, has the effect of rotating everything about the lathe axis. This means that the angle the tool is presented to the wood is significantly different from the user’s perspective, and some people appear to lean back to compensate. This difference in lathe angle makes it less easy to directly interpret information and advice gleaned from others (demonstrations, videos, classes, etc.) regarding the all-important subject of tool presentation to the workpiece.
You must also consider that the toolrest is tilted 30 to 45 degrees. When you are trying to face off a blank or hollow a bowl, your tool is going up or down that sloping toolrest. Is this possible? Yes, but I can see things going downhill fast for some!
I like to keep things as standard as possible.
Tilting the lathe to 90 degrees requires a banjo extension to place the toolrest in a conventional position in relation to the work. However, the locking levers are more difficult to reach because they are behind the work. This configuration also places the locking levers in the same space as your knees. There is the possible risk of releasing the heavy extended banjo and toolrest assembly and hitting your knees.
Stay Safe: Vulnerability of knees/legs is a particular concern for people with limited or no feeling as they may not have full control or the typical pain reflex. Significant damage may not be obvious until later when it’s much more serious.
Tilting also effectively means you can’t use a swiveling headstock which many use to provide a more comfortable turning position for creating hollow forms, etc.
In addition to the concerns given above, when tilting the lathe, it is also necessary to lower the lathe to achieve a comfortable working position when seated.
Getting the Lowdown
See Photo 4.
So, how about just lowering the lathe?
Lowering the lathe enables us to achieve a comfortable turning height with the center line at or close to elbow height with the added benefit that it is much easier to use the bed for jigs when the lathe is vertical.
An adjustable stand can help determine the right height, although you can always make a short bench taller by adding riser blocks. In any case ensure that there is room under your lathe for your feet.
Lowering the lathe allows greater flexibility and provides an experience closer to turning when standing in relation to arm height. Although you still can’t get quite as close to the work when approaching a lowered lathe straight on, approaching the lathe at an angle helps get your body closer to the workpiece.
Use standard tools and techniques where possible and adapt when necessary.
If you observe standing turners, their body is often at an angle rather than straight on to the lathe and this can be replicated when seated. I typically turn with my chair at an angle to the lathe, and move around as necessary to turn the wide variety of things I make. Okay, sometimes I still need to reach forward, and being seated means you can’t often lock the handle of the tool to your hip, but there are alternate support options. I often place my tailstock conveniently so that I can use it to support my elbow. I also use a specific grip on the toolrest stem that provides me with additional support and control.
Workshop Tip: Just because you turn seated doesn’t mean that you can’t move around to obtain the best turning position. It just takes a few seconds longer.
See Photos 5 and 6.
Stay Safe: If you use the toolpost stem grip illustrated in Photo 6, check carefully for clearance before starting your lathe, and slide your fingers in and out while maintaining contact with the toolrest at all times to avoid contact with the wood.
However you sit at the lathe, assess whether it enables you to turn comfortably and reach everything you need. Make changes as necessary, including perhaps using a remote lathe control (on/off switch) that can be placed within easy reach without stretching across spinning turnings.
Summary of Options
There are three options to consider (excluding struggling on regardless and giving up):
- Use a standard height lathe and high stool or perch seat
- Lower the lathe/seat and use adapted techniques
- Tilt the lathe/seat and use adapted techniques
Just choose which one suits you best bearing in mind your turning aspirations and the issues that each solution throws up. Our objective should be:
Comfort = Relaxed = Control = Enjoying Turning
Choice of lathe
Choose the lathe primarily based on the features you require for your planned range of turning, but also consider the height of the bed and any protrusions underneath together with stand options, especially if you are going to try to get your knees under it. Consider the possibility of a custom-made stand if you need to set your lathe at a particular height to suit you.
Chair choice: The advantages and disadvantages of wheels.
Seats with wheels seem like a good option until small wheels meet shavings and workshop debris. Larger wheels are less prone to sudden jamming. I have seen seats on rails which obviously require a greater investment in setting up, but apparently they work well for some. If you are able, using your feet/legs to steady and position yourself when using a mobile seat brings significant additional benefits.
See Photo 7.
The choice for me was easy as I already use a wheelchair. How mobile you need to be depends on what you want to make. Smaller items like pens and bottle stoppers can more readily be made with your body in one position, whereas a bowl or hollow form of any size requires you to approach it from a number of directions.
Stay Safe: Take care with any adaptation or change to your environment that you do not inadvertently create additional hazards that may impact on your safety. Keep a phone within reach—which might be when you’re on the floor. Control clothing/hair etc, if you’re closer than usual to the lathe spindle.
Adapting our Approach
Short tools can help, and no, I’m not referring to ones worn down to a nub, but rather, to tools in modular handles so that you can control the tool shaft projection. This helps get around the fact that your torso will sometimes get in the way of a sweeping cut.
See Photo 8.
Every person is going to be a little different, but the objective is the same—making a nice smooth controlled curve in wood. Locking the tool handle in to your hip can be impractical when seated, so I simply swing my arms to create the cut. Sometimes I have to take two cuts where other turners use one, and sometimes I use two tools ground slightly different like a bowl and spindle gouge.
Workshop Tip: Before starting the cut, offer the tool up at the staring position, and again at the ending position to make sure you can reach comfortably. Reposition as appropriate before turning the lathe on.
I use all the support I can get. My elbow or forearm is often found on top of my tailstock positioned appropriately to give me additional support. Alternatively, I may use the lathe bed. Needing to have better tool control is not a hardship, actually it's a benefit, as this will make you a better, more confident turner and improve the finish you get off your tools. Choose the most appropriate tool for the job, and keep them sharp to minimize the effort required to use them.
Support = Control - Leading to Better Shapes and Finish
When you use wheels you will quickly find out about the equal and opposite reaction discovered by Sir Isaac Newton. Often you’re taking a cut and it’s going really well, but you’re disappearing backward while trying to push the gouge forward. You need something to temporarily restrict backward motion. Brakes, chocks, or a batten on the floor are all possibilities, though some can be restrictive or more of a hazard. Where possible, and safe, I use a couple of fingers around the stem of the toolrest to anchor myself to the lathe. This provides for greater tool control. See above.
See Photo 9.
Sometimes I use a spindle gouge in preference to a bowl gouge. Similarly, when undertaking spindle work, I may use a bowl gouge. The different geometry of the tools enables a slightly different, more comfortable approach. I ensure that whatever I do, I can do safely and with sufficient control to be effective, but my primary reason is to achieve a more comfortable and natural stance for me with good support and ensuring that my arms are not over-extended making control difficult.
Use whatever tool enables you to achieve your goal, provided it’s safe.
However you turn, ensure you don’t slump or slouch, and try to minimize repetitive actions as this can lead to other repetitive strain issues. Regularly change your arm/body position, grip, or approach to add variety. Developing muscle memory is a good thing, but not at the expense of causing any repetitive strain injury.
Use jigs when possible to complete your project.
I use jigs to make life easier. Toolrests that partially extend into the turning, possibly with a pin or yoke to control movement, can facilitate tool control. I use these aids when needed, not necessarily all the time.
See Photo 10.
Working at the lathe is only one part of our hobby. To complete a turning may require planning up front or on the fly as “design opportunities” present themselves. Jigs can be made to ease the making process. And, decorating or embellishment is a whole other area of potentially rewarding exploration.
Another approach is to adapt what you make in size, scale or complexity. This need not be limiting; it can open up wonderful new opportunities you haven’t explored before.
See related articles containing complimentary information:
If you can contribute to this bank of knowledge for turners with physical challenges, please get in touch via [email protected], alternatively participate in the "Woodturning Health & Safety" section of the AAW Forum to ask questions and discuss ideas. (You will need to set up an account to access and participate in the AAW Forum, click here.)
You can contact Chris at [email protected] or see his website www.NotJustRound.com.