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Raw timber pole lathe - header

Green woodwork project: building a pole lathe in raw timber

By Matt Taylor & J Peggy Taylor @ OakTreesStudio.wordpress.com

We became interested in green woodworking when we saw a demonstration of this old country craft at a festival a couple of Summers ago. Green woodworking means literally working with wood that has been freshly (or fairly freshly) cut from the tree, rather than dried and seasoned.

After initially building an experimental pole lathe, powered by a 4 foot bundle bow, Matt decided he wanted to build a larger pole lathe so that he could begin to learn wood turning. The lathe project has taken a number of months to complete as we chose to build a Viking-style lathe from raw timber. We looked around the internet for ideas of how we would approach this project and took our inspiration from raw timber pole lathes that we saw in use, including the one being expertly used in this video by green woodworker and tool maker, Ben Orford, as he demonstrates bowl turning.

To make his new pole lathe, Matt hewed and shaped each piece by hand, learning the various woodworking skills needed as we progressed. My job was supervisor and general labourer rolled into one!

This is Matt’s illustrated description of the lathe-building process:


Some of the tools used
Some of the tools used

The tools we used to build the lathe were: a hand saw, hatchet, general purpose knife, (cheap) 12mm and 18mm joinery chisels, wooden mallet, spirit level, pliers, Dremel multitool, power drill with wood bits and an angle grinder [thanks Dad 😉 ].

Almost all of the lathe is built with locally sourced timber, mainly sycamore.


Sawing the log for the lathe bed
Sawing the log for the lathe bed

Building the bed was pretty simple but took a while because of all the sawing. We started by cutting the 7 inch diameter log to length (43 inches) and flattening the sides with a hatchet.
Sketch plan of removing the lathe slot
Sketch plan of removing the lathe slot

We drilled a series of holes at the grey circles to give access for the saw, then cut out the white area.
Starting to remove the slot in the lathe bed
Starting to remove the slot in the lathe bed

Lathe slot and poppet tenon
The lathe slot is complete – now checking if the first poppet tenon will fit through it

It was important to make sure the top face of the lathe bed was as flat as possible, around the slot, so that the poppets sat steadily and didn’t rock from side to side. A little extra paring with the chisel was later needed to make sure this happened.

Several thousand years later(!), when the slot was finally sawn out, we moved on to making the poppets. Making the poppets was probably the part that took longest.

Sketch plan of poppet tenon preparation
Sketch plan of poppet tenon preparation

The grey lines on the above sketch represent saw cuts made to improve controllability when I chiselled the sides off the lower part of the poppet to make the tenon. It took a long time to finish the tenons because after removing the larger chunks, I was shaving the wood rather than chipping it since the width of the tenons had to be fairly precise to fit through the lathe slot properly. The poppets need to be repositionable inside the slot for lathing different lengths of wood.
Paring down the poppet tenon with the chisel
Paring down the poppet tenon with the chisel

Each poppet has a square peg hole in the tenon, positioned just at the point the tenon exits the bottom of the lathe bed.
Making poppet peg hole
Chiselling out a peg hole in the poppet – the pencil line marks the point where the tenon exits the lathe bed

Completed poppet peg hole
Completed poppet peg hole

I made a couple of suitably-sized pegs that are driven into place in the poppet peg holes using the mallet. The pegs keep the poppets fixed in place when the lathe is in use.
Poppet pegs in holding the poppets in place on the lathe
Poppet pegs holding the poppets in place on the lathe

The spigots fit into the poppets and hold the workpiece in place at either end for it to be worked on. Mine are made from short lengths (approx 2 inches) of threaded 10mm steel rod with the ends ground down to a point. Making them was simple but took a while. First the steel rod was cut to size with an angle grinder. Then I began the laborious task of grinding down one end of the spigot using a Dremel multitool. It was slow but effective.

Action shot of using Dremel to shape spigot spigot
Fuzzy action shot of using the Dremel to shape the end of the spigot – that’s the other spigot in the background waiting to be shaped

Preparing the spigots
You can see the spigot gradually taking shape

Making the spigots was the easy part! Next we needed to fit the spigots into the poppets so the workpiece would be held exactly horizontal. This was the only part of the lathe building project where absolute precision was essential. If the spigots didn’t line up exactly opposite each other, the turning workpiece would not turn true. Lots of careful measuring was done and a small area on the facing sides of the poppets was shaved using the knife and chisel. More careful measuring was done and the points marked for the spigots, including using a scrap of planed timber and the spirit level to check for horizontal accuracy. This part had to be done carefully to make sure the spigots stuck out at the right angle – which wasn’t quite a literal right angle due to the general variations introduced by the hand hewn lathe bed and poppets. The two holes were drilled using a 9mm wood bit – i.e. one millimetre less than the diameter of the steel rod, to make sure the spigots could be very tightly fitted. To avoid damaging the threads on the steel rod when inserting the spigots into the poppets, I wrapped a scrap of leather around the threads and held the spigot tightly with pliers for this stage.

Inserting the spigot into the poppet
Inserting the spigot into the prepared place on the poppet

The poles that take the bungee cord are 65 inches long and around 3 inches in diameter, with about 54 inches of the pole protruding above the lathe.

Shaping the pole tenon with the hatchet
Shaping the pole tenon

The poles are just straight lengths of ash with a square tenoned section at the bottom and a shallow notch at the top to stop the bungee slipping down.
Pole notch to hold bungee in place
Pole notch to hold bungee in place

Making sockets for the poles was fairly easy. I chiselled a hole through each end of the bed then gradually expanded them to fit the square sections of the poles.
Chiselling the pole socket
Chiselling the pole socket – a 1″ hole was drilled through to make this a bit easier

The completed pole socket
The completed pole socket

The bungee mechanism attaches near the top of the poles. This started out as a recycled cycle inner tube and when that gave out we adopted a short elastic bungee cord that we’d found lying in the road one day and added some cord extensions to make it fit between the poles.

The cord that drives the work piece is made from a length of polypropylene washing line. When we made the experimental lathe back in 2012, the lathe cord was one of the parts we experimented with. We tried cotton string, jute string and paracord but we found none of them lasted as long as the washing line. The lathe cord is attached to the bungee via a small karabiner.

Annotated image - cord to bungee and poles connection
Here in my improvised workspace you can see how the cord attaches via a karabiner to the bungee and the bungee attaches to the two poles


Annotated image - lathe treadle
The captions explain the treadle details

I made the treadle in 2012 for my first lathe. It’s 3 planks of rough sawn pine. The T-shape on the bottom provides stability and is hinged to the actual treadle board which has a scrap of 2″x2″ timber added on the free end. There’s a hole drilled vertically through the 2″x2″ timber, close to the end, with a screw on the underside to hook the cord onto the treadle.

Lathe set up showing cord from treadle to bungee
Lathe set up showing cord from treadle to bungee

Treadle showing lathe cord attached
Treadle showing lathe cord attached

Annotated image - Cord to treadle connection
Cord to treadle connection

Although they are not currently in use, the lathe also has removable legs. The legs are simple 2 inch diameter poles with tapered tenons at one end that fit into round mortices, drilled at a slight angle on the underside of the lathe bed. When fitted, the legs splay out a bit to give stability to the whole lathe structure when the poles are in place.

Mortice and tenon for legs
Mortice and tenon for legs


Testing the pole lathe
Testing the pole lathe

The pole lathe is now completed and is working well. Matt has begun practising his wood turning skills, learning to use the various turning chisels and gouges.

Turned wood candlesticks
Turned wood candlesticks made on the pole lathe

I am sure you will be hearing more about our green woodworking projects in future posts 🙂

Matt & J Peggy Taylor