A modern build of a medieval spring pole lathe

I study medieval woodworking a lot, and I've always wanted to try out the medieval style lathe. The major difference between this type, and the modern lathe is that the motion is reciprocal, rather than continuous circular motion. That, and the fact that it is totally human powered. The back and forth motion of a "spring pole" type lathe has been used well past the 1600's era that I study, and in many places is still in use today.

The whole idea behind a Spring Pole lathe is that you would pinch a piece of wood between two points, wrap a cord around the wood, and pump down on a treadle while putting your cutting tool to the wood. On release, the springy pole attached to the top of the rope would pull up, spinning the wood backwards, and making it ready to be pushed down again and cut.

Here is my build process as posted in my woodworking blog:

-- Badger
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Step 1: Beginning the project

It’s begun! Something I’ve been wanting to work on for a while now. I want to build a spring pole lathe, modelled after the medieval reciprocating lathe design that was used for hundreds of years to do lathe turning.

The pictured chunks of wood are the two uprights, that will hold two lengths of 2×4 Pine (might updgrade that later, but I have some in the shop right now) I’ve had these 4×4 posts sitting around for a long time, always waiting for a project. I finally decided to get started. At first I had visions of making a flywheel lathe, but it’s a lot more complicated, so I decided to start out with a more period design anyway. I’m hoping to make it portable enough to take to events and do demos with. We shall see.

I cut the notched by hand, instead of using a bunch of power tools. Somehow it just seems fitting.

Steps so far:

1. Cut the posts to 44″ lengths. This should give me 38″-39″ of leg room underneath to power the lathe.
2. Marked the depth of the cuts with my Rosewood Cutting Gauge that I got at Woodcraft a while back. It’s a thing of beauty. I measured it so that I would be able to fit a width of 2×4 down between the two cross bars. I’ll be using 2×4 to construct the “poppets”, sort of a free floating head and tail stock.
3. Marked the width, and clamped it in my vise. (I want a bench vise. Reallllly badly.)
4. Using my Japanese pull saw, I cut the notch sides, and the two more paralell cuts down to the marked lines. This makes chiselling out the waste easier.
5. Using a 1″ bench chisel I cut out the waste with taps of a hammer
6. Cleaned up a little it with a wood rasp, but for the most part the chisel did the heavy lifting.

Notes: Easier than I thought it would be. I thought it’d be lots of work, but it was pretty easy. I got the technique from watching the Woodwrights Shop. Best show on TV for woodworking. Bar none.

I did crimp and break my japanese pull saw blade though, this makes me sad. I went in a little crooked, and it bent. Ugh. I love this saw, it’s probably been the best tool in my shop for a while. It makes nice thin cuts, easier and cleaner than a standard american style “push” saw. Fortunatly, I can buy replacement blades. It’s the one marked B in the photo below.

I think that saw has partially changed the way I do wood working, I kid you not. Time to get my butt down to Woodcraft to get a couple more blades. Going to buy a backup, just in case.

Next step, the cross bars, drilling holes and mounting lag bolts, and building the head/tail stock “poppets”. Then all it needs is tool rest, and some kind of “spring pole” to power it. I’m thinking bungie cord. Not very period, but it allows me to adjust it to find the right amount of “spring” and find a springy pole these days is a bit harder than wandering out in the back woods and cutting one. Not so much on the back woods these days…. Pity.
flamesami3 years ago
are you turning/going to turn seasoned or green wood on this lathe? It would definitely be easier to turn green wood, but is that just part of the challenge?
meddler8 years ago
I am trying to build a medievil staff sling (trebuchet on a stick) and can only get it to throw a short distance. Anybody out there build any, got any advice?
A hoopack? Ask Tasselhoff.
Don't Tassel the Hoff.
you need to attach a sling to the end of the staff where the loop on the sling is glue that on then tie a loop in the other end of the sling then slot that over the end of the staff
CanDo meddler8 years ago
Just come on over to 's forums and we'll give you plenty of advice :)
wizworm3 years ago
Look into traditional bowmaking for your spring pole (think the top half of a bow), I'd find a straight grained red oak 1x2 and sand it down to a taper testing its springyness along the way. There's lots of 'ibles about bowmaking that can help
Dumchicken3 years ago
(comment was removed by a seal)
throwapot3 years ago
you could also make it like a sewing machine where the pedal operates a rod attached to a flywheel. I don't know if they used such devices in the middle ages for lathes, but off center wheel and rod technology has been around for a long time.
The idea of a spring pole lathe always intrigued me -- I was wondering what it would be like to scavange a spare bicycle rear axle/cassette and take advantage of the pawl mechanism to get a spring pole lathe that didn't reverse direction every time you lift your foot. Hrmmm. Then add some spinning weight to help carry momentum. Might really make it even easier to use.
Great idea! I was also wondering if it would be helpful to add some kind of gear or pulley system that would increase the number of revolutions with each step on the treadle.
omg r2d2
It would have been very interesting to see a video of this lathe in motion.
Thanks for sharing.
DaboJones5 years ago
Do you have some more detailed pics of the treadle mechanics? We're looking to make an automaton powered by treadle, but now that I see this I want my own lathe...:) Thanks for the instructable.
this looks great! how does it turn?
Broom6 years ago
Hiya, Badger! For a second there, I thought you were my old friend Sir Baldwin (aka Badger), and was surprised he had taken up woodworking so fervently!

Not to steal any of your thunder, but did you happen to see the reciprocal lathe that Avery Austringer set up in front of Midrealm Royal 5-or-so years back?

I've been needing some bedposts turned, since I'm too cheap to buy the damn things premade. Would be WAY cool to do them "right" - do you think that would take an insane amount of effort for a piece that big?
Oooo, I'm all famous and stuff. Actually, I got here looking for ideas on how to upgrade my lathe for this coming Pennsic One tip I have for anybody thinking about doing this: go to (or any other site that sells stuff for metal lathes) and get a pair of carbon steel dead centers. For $10 or so you can get yourself a pair of #3 Morse taper centers that are well machined and will give you lots of bearing surface.
duck-lemon6 years ago
Oooh canmy medieval group you add this to
I saw a smaller human powered lathe on a travel show a while ago. i think they where in morocco. the work piece was turned with a bow drill... like you might use for starting a fire. the lathe was low down, and you used it sitting on the ground (good, because then you can use your feet to help hold your tools.
Very nice creation. I watched one in use at Plimoth Plantation in MA. Very cool to see in action. The chips really fly! Theirs used a sapling mounted to the ceiling as the rebound spring.
badger (author)  red_metallic7 years ago
Thanks. I would love to see the one you've seen. I need to make it out there one of these days. The bungie cord is my sapling. I don't have room in my garage or access to saplings, so I made do. :)
static7 years ago
I understand where I'm viewing this instructable nearly one year after it's posting. thing will change. To see the "build process" we are instructed to navigate away from the instructable to . However that URL results in an error message from wordpress, is there another source for viewing your build process? TNX...
badger (author)  static7 years ago
Sorry, I had to move my sites to a new host, and never got around to rebuilding that blog. I'll look at it, maybe I can get it up later. I think most of my notes are here in this page though, so it should be complete. Thanks for checking out my build.
HamO7 years ago
I see you have the same workshop decorator I use. Nice instructable and pix.
phinch8 years ago
do you have any pictures of any turnings?
badger (author)  phinch8 years ago
Not that I've turned on this lathe. I use my motorized modern lathe all the time. I'm still learning how to use this one, it requires different techniques. Plus I haven't had time the garage for a while now.
mrmath8 years ago
Quite the cool project. I think it's a little ironic, however, to build a midieval tool using modern technology.
badger (author)  mrmath8 years ago
The irony is not lost on me. :) badger