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What Is a Hand Lathe?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 17, 2024
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A hand lathe is a woodworking appliance that spins a stock to enable a craftsman to chisel and create products with perfect radial symmetry. Examples of such products include baseball bats and candlestick holders. The term is generalized to any machine that does not employ a computer to control with numeric coordinates the movement of the chisel or other tools. Most modern lathes for individual hobbyists turn the wood stock with variable speed electric motors. While there are lathes for metalworking and other material, most hobbyists work with less demanding material such as wood and bone.

A piece of wood is secured at both ends of the appliance; this defines the axis of rotation. The tailstock end freely spins, while the headstock end is a spindle whose rotation can be controlled. A tool rest, usually on tracks running parallel to the spinning wood, allows the craftsman to hold a sharp chisel or gouge with a steady hand as he removes material along its length according to the desired shape. Sanding, drilling, and other tasks aided by rotation are also performed with the lathe.

Prior to electric motors, steam engines, and water wheels, lathes were operated manually. At a centralized industrial scale, the hand lathe was normally operated by two people. The master would cut, while an apprentice would crank the spindle by hand. There is evidence that such devices were in use in ancient Egypt.

At the distributed scale of craftsmanship, the hand lathe was adapted to be operable by a single individual with various mechanisms enabling the spindle to turn. One early method was to twist the string of a bow around the spindle’s end such that a reciprocating back and forth motion of the bow correspondingly rotated the spindle in alternating fashion. An improvement to this was the spring pole lathe. The string wrapped around the spindle was connected overhead to a tautly bent pole and below to a foot treadle. By pumping the pedal, thus turning the spindle, both hands were free to work the wood.

There are hobbyists, notably those interested in antique reproductions and historical reenactment, who build true hand lathes. Most hobbyists will buy the type powered by an electric motor. They are available as portable workbench models as well as free-standing models.

Among the hand lathes available, there are several specialized types, as well as some notable common techniques. Most appliances are adaptable to faceplate turning in which the wood is attached only to the spinning headstock and, rather than cutting perpendicular to its rotation, forms such as cups and serving bowls are cut axially to rotation. Forms that are not uniformly radially symmetric can also be created by eccentric turning — re-mounting and working a single piece with multiple axial rotations. A double-spindled hand lathe can trace and reproduce a master form not unlike the way copies of door keys are made.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Oct 07, 2014

I'm not much of a woodworker, but my grandfather was, and he had a foot-driven hand lathe. He used to make beautiful things with it. He always had some kind of jig, or model, which he worked from when he turned something on the lathe to make the design.

I only got to watch him work a few times, but it was a treat to see a real hand craftsman make something from wood that might last a lifetime because it was so well made. I didn’t know what a privilege it was at the time, but I understand it now.

By Grivusangel — On Oct 06, 2014

I have seen both foot-driven and motor driven hand lathes on woodworking shows on PBS. I would have thought the foot-driven would have been more of an actual hand lathe, but turns out, it's a hand lathe if the worker doesn't use a computer to turn out the part.

Watching someone like Norm Abrams turn a chair or table leg on a lathe is absolutely fascinating. I don't know how they do the designs in such a precise way, but they are wonderful, and so much fun to watch.

My dad and I used to watch these guys use hand lathes and would marvel at the exacting nature of their craft, and how well they did it.

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