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Turning Between Centers 

Spindles for furniture, chairs, spinning wheels and stair rails

by Ernie Conover

The lathe is amongst the oldest of machines. At its simplest, all that is required is a set of centers, a sharp tool, and some means of revolving the work. A piece of twine can do the revolving part. While most turners today envision wrapping the twine around the work and tying a bowline into which the turner inserts his foot, it was actually attached to a long stick that greatly multiplied the short stroke possible with the foot alone. Once at the bottom of the stroke, a spring pulls the twine back to the starting position. A readily available spring is a tree branch, either still on the tree or mounted above (or in some cases below) the lathe in the shop, hence the name “spring pole lathe.” By medieval times the pole was often replaced by a longbow with halves of the string going through off-center holes in a spool. The rigging was aranged so that turning the spool compressed the bow. When the force was eased the bow would turn the spool in the opposite direction to the starting place. The whole affair worked much like a modern window shade without click stops.

Early turners did not have the luxury of a table saw or band saw, so had to reduce their billets by splitting the wood from a clear log of suitable length—a process called riving. The turner first pounds wedges into the end of the log, to split it into usable segments, and then further rives these pieces with a froe before further reducing the riven piece to something approaching round with a drawknife. A great advantage to riven stock is that all grain fibers are parallel, so a very strong finished turning results. The dainty proportions of Windsor chairs are the results of riving. The entire process, bucking the log, riving, and turning, are done with the wood green. The wood works much easier green and as long as a complete annular ring is not encompassed in the billet, checking will not be a problem. Once dry the turning will be slightly oval due to the differences in tangential and radial shrinkage but not noticeably so to the eye. Ovalness can only be discerned by touch or mechanical measurement.


16th century: The turner in his workshop, in a Medieval woodcut from Holland. Note the rack of tools on the wall, and the work-inprogress in the background.


21st century: A Moroccan artisan demonstrated spindle turning during a conference in Germany. He sits on a low stool, powers his lathe with a strung bow, and guides the tool with one hand and the opposite foot. Photo by Terry Martin.


I have turned a fair amount on a pole lathe and the exercise brings much understanding of turning itself. First and foremost your tools have to be razor sharp or you do not get much work done. Since one or the other foot has to be treadling, you have to stand on the other leg, but your hands are in contact with the tool rest, either directly or through the tool. Because of the hand contact, I find balance not to be a problem though I do switch feet frequently. Most who know a little about human powered lathes will tell you that you have to back the tool away on the reverse stroke. In fact, on normal cuts with a gouge or a planing cut with a skew, you do not. For other cuts, such as incising a groove with the toe of a skew chisel, you do. You do not really withdraw the tool so much as ease up the pressure. It is a matter of timing and once you set up a rhythm it becomes second nature.

A second type of lathe was the great wheel lathe where an assistant (likely a serf in Europe or a slave in southern America) turned the wheel, which delivers constant rotary motion. I have turned on the great wheel lathe at Colonial Williamsburg with volunteers from the audience providing the locomotion, and there is no essential difference from turning on a modern lathe. A nicety of the Williamsburg great wheel is a sort of bench connected to the lathe frame just behind the turner. You sit or lean on it and it is a very comfortable way to turn. I have wondered if this would be a good scheme for a modern lathe, especially if the turner possessed physical handicaps. You take some of the weight off your feet and you can slide readily left or right to control the tool.

The treadle lathe also provides constant rotary motion at the spindle but lacks much power. Therefore treadles were the province of metal and ornamental lathes, where diameters were small. Ornamental turning is a cross between metal turning and woodturning and dates to the 17th century, becoming a well-established hobby for the wealthy aristocrat during the 18th century. Ornamental turning is a whole subculture of turning and one can devote a lifetime to this fascinating pastime.

A well established trade

An important thing for the modern turner to realize is that by 1600 turning was a well established trade. By this time turning lathes (and their accoutrements) were quitesophisticated. Lathes with live spindles are documented in Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, published in numerous editions between 1627 and 1700. Various ornamental lathes with advancing spindles and eccentrics to actuate them, are also detailed. The art of hand-chasing threads in the lathe had been perfected. Turners worked extensively with materials other than wood, including bone, ivory, horn, tortoise shell, and brass. This is all to say that turning was completely figured out by 1750, and Charles Plumier’s The Art of Turning, published in 1749, has more information than most modern turning books.

Even with crude lathes, the turner’s output was very sophisticated. Mannerist furniture of the 1600s was heavily embellished with turnings of robust proportions and great variation in diameter. Turned elements included complicated legs, bun feet, supporting columns, and split turnings. Interestingly split turnings appear to have been done by paper-joining the two halves to a thin strip of wood. The reason for this was probably that the turner could chuck the resulting glue-up between dead centers without the paper joint prematurely splitting. Many of these decorative half-turnings were ebonized black to increase their visual impact. While today we tend to think of 17th century furniture as shoe-polish brownit was actually highly colorful, but the colors were highly fugitive.

17th century: Conover helped make a reproduction of this court cupboard during the 2007 Williamsburg Furniture Conference. “Getting solid stock large enough for the two columns was a chore. The halfturnings were done with an eighth-inch strip between the two halves, making them less than half.” 1820's This Empire chest of drawers from the Yale University Furniture Study is the epitome of the style with fine dovetails that come to a point (called Empire dovetails) and turned half-columns that are fluted and carved.


The next style of furniture was William and Mary. Although William and Mary reigned from 1689 to 1702 (jointly until Mary’s death from smallpox in 1694) the style lasted until about 1725, and probably longer here in the Colonies. William and Mary furniture is characterized by heavy, bulbous turned legs ending in ball feet. Since America was an English colony, taste in furnture emanated from London. Furniture became more refined during the 18th century. Georgian furniture in all its permutations, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Adam (Federal) and Sheraton, employed turning extensively. All the vogue in the early years of the new republic, Federal style is noted for turnings of fine proportion, often reeded or fluted, and hardly the work of yokels.

18th century: The popular Windsor chair consists of turned parts socketed into a slab seat. Parts commonly were stockpiled and assembled to order. This contemporary example was made by Michael Dunbar of Portsmouth, NH.



The Windsor chair was America’s first affordable seating, selling for a Yankee dollar when that was a day’s wages. It employed many the turner full time, both in the Colonies and in England. The last decade of the 18th century saw the birth of the Empire style, which feastured turned elements in the legs and, in a throwback to the previous century, split turnings as embellishments.

One product that incorporated a lot of turning and was always in high demand throughout the Colonial period and late into the 19th century was the spinning wheel. Early in the Colonial period textiles were imported. In fact, the Crown forbade the export of weaving equipment from England. But the need for textiles was huge, so a thriving black market sprang up for looms and spinning wheels. Most looms were crafted by timber framers in between house and barn raisings. Spinning wheels were a product of cabinet shops and talented woodworker/farmers—in this era few people made their entire income from a single pursuit.


Conover built this great wheel for his wife, Susan, “in an intensive fortnight. The four-foot diameter wheel has Timken needle bearings hidden in the hub. The bat on the floor gives the spinner extra reach, allowing a longer draw before reversing the wheel to wind on the freshly spun yarn."

The accelerator head for the great wheel is complicated, with pulleys that give a 40-to-1 ratio.


Both the great (or wool) wheel and the Saxony (or double band) wheel are principally constructed of turnings. The great wheel I made for my wife Susan some years ago incorporates thirty-seven turnings, all socketed into one another or into the plank table. I know of one Canadian wheel in which the table itself was a large diameter turning, making the whole affair look much like a praying mantis. A four-foot diameter wheel, usually of twelve spokes, powered the great wheel. Always standing, the spinner powered the great wheel with one hand and drew the wool with the other. Once a length of fiber had been spun, she had to reverse the wheel to wind the thread onto the spindle.

Most commonly used for flax, the smaller Saxony wheel was powered by foot treadles, leaving the spinner seated with both hands to draw fiber. The double drive band of the Saxony rotated the bobbin at a higher speed than the flyer. After a length of flax had been spun, the spinner simply eased tension for it to be immediately taken up onto the bobbin. The eldest daughter was responsible for spinning until her marriage. The term spinster comes from women who chose a life sentence of spinning instead of a life sentence of marriage.


The trade fades away

The 19th century saw human-power lathes gradually fade away (although they were used into the 20th century in some rural areas). Water power, the steam engine, and the gas engine provided undreamed of power and spindles that turned in one direction. I have often theorized that the Victorians used turnings so extensively in furniture simply because they could. After the Revolution just about every public, and a good many private, buildings were made in the Greek Revival style. This neoclassical style spoke to the egalitarian values of the new republic and turned Greek columns are its hallmark. Usually coopered, columns provided lots of work for 19th century turning shops. If you think your Oneway lathe is big, you should see the behemoths that resided in Victorian shops. I have a photo of the turner Burt Thompson, his brother, and his father lying inside a column that they turned in their shop in Mississauga, Ontario, in the early 20th century.

Victorian turning shops also turned a lot of ivory into a wide range of useful items. A mainstay was sewing items such as thimbles, lace bobbins, pincushions, and handles for tools of every kind. They turned ivory measured droppers, tubes with a shoulder to accept a cork that were used for anything from dispensing hair tonic to mixing medicine. All billiard balls were handturned from ivory until just after World War I. Just like wood, ivory shrinks as it dries. Therefore, a billiard ball was turned rough and allowed to dry for six months. It was then refined and allowed to age a further six months before it could be trued to perfect and sold.

The second half of the 19th century saw the advent of the copy lathe, the death knell for hand turning. Although people still eke out an existence from hand turning, today the craft is being kept alive in the basements and garage workshops of America. The majority of interest is in faceplate turning—almost all bowls. I often get a student who is keen to start a business turning bowls. Since you are competing against bowls made in the Third World that retail for as little as $35, this is a tough row to hoe. I always reply, “Why ruin a perfectly good hobby?” Oddly enough, custom spindle turning is one specialty where one might make a decent living. There is a ongoing demand for replacement spindles for furniture and architectural columns, balusters, and newel posts. Since a newel post in oak turned on an automatic lathe costs about $125, a client will think nothing of paying $175 for a custom-turned one that perfectly matches an existing staircase. While the buyer of a bowl will want it bigger, smaller, or from a different species of wood, the architect or homeowner will simply ask how soon you can have it done. I can turn one in about a half hour—less time than preparing the billet and sweeping up the mess afterward.

Ernie Conover, a founding member of the AAW, was its first treasurer. He has written seven books about woodturning and woodworking.







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