For anyone that loves restoring early machinery or antique tools, restoring an antique wood lathe could be a dream come true. A relatively simple mechanical tool that has a specific function, you can send yourself back to your high school wood shop class by taking a look at these workhorses of the carpentry trade.
A Woodworker's Favorite Tool: The Wood Lathe
In its simplest description, a wood lathe consists of two posts fixed in an upright position, each holding a fixed pin. The wooden stock to be turned is revolved with the help of an assistant. The assistant pulls each end of a cord wrapped around the stock in alternating directions. The craftsperson, or cutter, works with his cutting tool to shape the wooden stock.
The Earliest Wood Lathe
Lathes have been in existence for thousands of years. On the wall of the tomb of Petosiris in Egypt, carved in stone, is the earliest illustration of a lathe that is known to exist, dating from approximately 300 B.C.
Technological Advances That Changed the Wood Lathe
As centuries passed, wood lathes evolved into machines that were wheel driven, and the earliest pictures of a wheel driven lathe date from the 1400s. The following century saw a great technological change; Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1480, show an early treadle wheel lathe. The sketches clearly show a crank, treadle and flywheel.
Wood turners and inventors continued developing the foot-powered lathe as they also perfected wood lathes run by water wheels and water turbines. By the late 19th century, wood working lathes were run by steam engines followed later by engines powered by oil, electricity, and then complex motors.
Restoring an Antique Wood Lathe
Some of the wood lathes restored today are treadle operated lathes from the late 19th century and early 20th century. These lathes are a beautiful combination of wood and cast iron designs, showing the craftsmanship in producing the lathe itself. These functional, yet beautiful, treadle machines often had decorative pin striping and other artwork applied when they were manufactured.
Quick Tips for Restoring an Antique Wood Lathe at Home
Though you're much more likely to find vintage electric wood lathes for sale in antique stores, online, and lying around old farms, there are still a number of those from a 100 to 200 years ago that can be up and running with a little TLC. These early manual wood lathes are much easier to work on than mechanized (or converted into mechanized) ones are, since they require fewer pieces and blueprint knowledge of how they were constructed.
If you're restoring an antique treadle wood lathe and you have any familiarity with treadle sewing machines, you're in luck. A lot of the adjustments that can be made to these treadle wood lathes can be made to treadle sewing machine since they function in basically the same way. Here are a couple of steps to take to a do a low-grade restoration on an antique treadle wood lathe:
- Account for the parts - Without the main parts, you're not likely to restore a lathe at all. Thus, you want to see that there's a lathe bed, tool rest, headstock, banjo (piece that holds the tool rest), inboard side, tool stock, and treadle. You should also see a few wheels along the edge of the lathe with a belt running between the wheels and the headstock of the lathe.
- Carefully remove the belt - If the rubber belt appears to be frayed or broken (as it's likely to do over time), carefully remove it from the belt. Most likely, it's not salvageable, so you should measure its length and look online for a replacement belt (modern belts will work fine).
- Scrape away the accumulated grease and grime - Over hundreds of years, your antique wood lathe is sure to have accumulated a ton of grime. Using a mixture of dish soap and warm water, gently soak the parts that are particularly dirty and use a scraper tool or steel wool to scrape away at the grime. Follow-up with WD-40 or a similar product to remove extra build-up.
- Wipe down with old rags - After you've gone about cleaning off your lathe, you want to wipe it back down with rags to make sure all of that moisture has been removed from the metal machinery.
- Lubricate the machine - In order to get this machine running in tip-top shape, you should lubricate the parts of the lathe that might've gotten stuck; for instance, you can remove the quill inside the tailstock and rub lubricant in there, as well as the remove the nuts and lubricate the screws, as well as wheels themselves. You don't want to over lubricate as a little goes a long way!
- Put the belt back on and test it out - The only way to really know if your at-home restoration did its job or if you need something more specialized fixed on your machine is to test it out. Put your parts together, add a piece of wood, and get to treadling.
Restoration Resources to Reference
As it was said, Jesus was a carpenter, meaning that carpentry has been around for thousands of years, and there's a ton of resources in both print and on the internet about wood lathes that you can take advantage of.
Here's just a smattering of the many online resources out there that focus on historic wood lathes:
- A pictorial journey of the restoration of a Sheldon wood lathe.
- Sawmill Creek Woodworkers Forum has a lot of interesting conversations and user submissions about working with old wood lathes.
- Rosini Kingdom Restorations has an excellent supply of restoration supplies.
- On the Union Hill Antique Tools website, there's a section that describes books on tools and tool collecting. Of interest to anyone that wants to learn about or restore wood lathes are the following:
When it comes to books and trade publications that focus on wood lathes, these are a few of the best ones out there:
- Restoring, Tuning and Using Classic Woodworking Tools by Michael Dunbar
- Lathe Work by Paul Nooncree Hasluck
- A Treatise on Lathes and Turning by W Henry Northcott
- Woodworking Machineryby Manfred Powis Bell
- The Art of Fine Toolsby Sandor Nagyszalanczy
- Tools: Working Wood in the Eighteenth Century by James Gaynor and Nancy Hagedorn
Familiarize Yourself With These Antique Wood Lathes
If you're new to woodworking as a trade or a hobby, one of the best ways to learn about the machinery that you're using is to view pictures of them. The more that you familiarize yourself with the tools of the past, the better prepared you to use them in the future. These are a few antique wood lathes to get you started:
- Photographs of Leonardo Da Vinci's wood lathe reconstructed by Stuart King, who was commissioned to build it from Da Vinci's sketches.
- Baldwin Treadle Lathe circa 1869
- A. J. Wilkenson cast iron treadle lathe from the 19th century
- Multiple F.E. Wells & Son wood lathes from the early 20th century
- A reproduction of a Medieval spring wood lathe
Breathe Life Back Into an Antique Wood Lathe
Before you can breathe life into whatever piece of wood you're working on, you've got to make sure to bring your tools back to life as well. If you're curious how well historic tools worked and if you could learn to love them, take a crack at restoring an antique wood lathe sometime.