Introduction: Building a Viking Pole Lathe Without Using Power

About: I'm the kind of person who's mind doesn't stop. Literally, I take medication to fix that just so I can sleep at night. I have an unhealthy obsession with making things and believe, firmly, in sharing what I le…

I've always had an affinity for traditional craft, and when I saw the 'hand tools only' contest I knew it was time to break out the wood working gear and make something I've wanted build for a long time. With this project, I figured I'd take it a step further. There are many people that don't claim a well equipped shop, or like me, would choose a hand saw over a table saw any day, so this is for them. Essentially, the entirety of this project was created, solely, using hand tools, and was built out of 100% recycled material.

Now I've used many electric lathes, and even had an opportunity to use a 'viking' pole lathe in the past. This lathe is based loosely on that design, with some modern tweaks added in, so to speak. My research into pole lathes turned up an abundance of information on different variations, but interestingly, there's little historical context available. Museums claim bits and pieces, but no complete pole lathe, to date, has ever been found. This wasn't a problem as, although the styles may vary, their principals are essentially the same.

A pole lathe, unlike its modern counterpart, relies on the use of 'green' wood, which basically means freshly felled pieces. It also uses a different array of chisels, and although modern variants will work, they are infinitely more difficult to work with. I do have a full assortment of modern chisels, but intend on making some for use with this lathe so stay tuned for that instructable, in the future.

As usual, I won't be giving a specific parts list since you may not have the same material, on hand, that I do. I will, however give some fundamental design specs with suggested materials and lengths.

Step 1: Tools and Suggested Supplies


  • Hand Saw
  • woodworkers axe
  • woodworking plane
  • Brace and Bit drill with bits
  • Hammer
  • file and rasp
  • draw knife or spoke shave
  • chisel
  • Combination Square

Suggested Supplies;

  • Various nails, 1.5"-4" straight and spiral
  • 2x6" boards - approx 12'
  • 2x4" boards - approx 8'
  • 2x3" boards - approx 70'
  • 1x3" boards - approx 8'
  • 20" threaded rod
  • Bicycle tire tube or bungee cord
  • rope - 10'

Step 2: The Lathe Bed and Spindle

The lathe bed is a simple design of two horizontal 2x4's or 2x6's with a 2x6"vertical post that acts as the headstock and a spacer board at the opposite end. The actual length of the bed and headstock are up to you, and depend on what you intend on turning with your lathe. For my application, I plan on turning bowls up to 12" in diameter and the occasional table leg, so I created a bed that is 48" long, with a usable gap of 36" and a headstock that is 14" tall. The spacer board can be made flush with the bed, however I added an additional 6" with a bevel for a future tool rest.

Assembly can be done in several ways. I used some antique 4" nails that I purchased online to attach the bed and stock, however you can use bolts if preferred. If a more traditional style is what you're going for, I'd suggest mortise and tenon which I'll demonstrate later in this instructable.


For the spindle, cut 3" off of your threaded rod and either hammer, or grind down one end to a taper. The other end you want to create a point as well, but with a much steeper angle. Drill a hole , in your headstock, slightly smaller than your spindle, 1.5" from the top and hammer it in using a scrap piece of board as a buffer so that you don't damage your pointed end. If you do dull your point, you can use a file to sharpen it again. It's important to note that the point doesn't need to be particularly 'sharp', as you don't want it to bite to deeply into your workpiece.

Step 3: The Legs and Base

The legs are built entirely out of rough cut 2x3" boards and are all nailed together. Each leg is constructed with two vertical posts that straddle the lathe bed, a 36-48" base, two 21" boards with 45 degree cuts to act as width structural support and two more 21" boards to act as length structural support. Between each set of legs is a beam cut to 48". Now due to spacing differences, mostly caused by the different thicknesses of the raw cut 2x3" boards and the milled boards of the lathe bed, I had a difficult time getting the structural boards lined up properly, so as you can see, I compensated by nailing them to the outside, of the verticals, then attaching them to a short 7" board that sits on the cross brace. It's a bit off of standard, but worked pretty well and ended up pretty stable. Finally, I cut a couple of 2x3x7" pieces and nailed them under the lathe bed for additional support.

Step 4: The Tool Rest Support

The tool rest support is a beam that extends from the headstock and provides a place for the tool rest to lay on. It's length, again depends on the type of project you intend on turning, however you need to consider it's strength as you will be leaning on it, occasionally as you work. For mine, I used a piece of 2x3" raw board cut to 20", leaving 16" usable as a tool rest and 4 inches to be mortised and pinned on the other side.

To start I set my support on the shaving horse, and tapered the last 4.5", then I drilled a 1" hole at the end. I then marked out the mortise on the headstock, where I wanted the support to sit. For mine, I knew I would be using a tool rest that was 3" thick, so I set the mortise 3" below the spindle. I then used my brace and bit drill with a hole saw to remove the brunt of the material, then a sharp chisel and hammer to square it off.

**A bit of a note here; Using a hole saw in a brace and bit is difficult but there is a technique. You need to keep changing your angle in all 4 compass directions as you drill in order to get it to cut properly. If you simply apply pressure and try to drill straight through, you will be expending a lot more energy to get the job done.

Finally, I hammered the support into the mortise until it was snug, and pinned it into place.

Step 5: The Footstock

The footstock is a board that slides along the lathe bed and is adjustable to the size of your work piece. It incorporates a mortise and tenon joint to hold it to the lathe bed and a winding spindle or 'quill' that's used to provide fine adjustments. Your footstock should be the same height as your headstock, from the lathe bed, and extend below to provide room for the mortise and tenon locking mechanism.

For my footstock, I used a 2x6" that was 22" tall. I cut another 14" piece and attached it to the back side, and another 12" piece and attached it to the front. I left the front shorter because that's where your tool rest will pivot from and provides a stable platform. I highly recommend planing down your footstock where it glides between the two boards of your bed. It should glide freely between them, but not be loose and wobbly.

My mortise and tenon was created in an identical fashion to the tool rest support, however the tenon is a block of wood that has been tapered 5 degrees so that it can lock into the mortise with just a few hammer taps.

**It's important to note that when you create your mortise, it needs to be 1/4" higher than the base of the lathe bed. If you were to make it level with the bottom of the bed, it wouldn't lock into place properly and your footstock would constantly move on you.

For the spindle, I took a piece of threaded rod and cut it to 18". I then sharpened one end with my file and put two bends in the other at 4.5" increments to create a handle. I then drilled a hole, slightly smaller than the size of my threaded rod, straight through the footstock, at the same height as my headstock spindle and wound my new footstock spindle in place.

You can now test your setup by inserting a blank piece of wood between the two spindles on your lathe, gently tapping the footstock into place then using your crank to tighten the tail spindle. If you accidentally inserted one of your spindles in crooked, don't worry. Since it's the wood that spins, and not the spindles, you should hardly notice. There's lots of room for error in this old design.

Step 6: The Tool Rest

The tool rest is, as it says, a rest for your tools as you work, and should be somewhat robust. I used a 2x2" board that was 40" long. I cut one of the corners at one end and using a 4" straight nail, I attached it to the top of the short board on the footstock. This gave me my pivot. I initially left my tool rest 1" short of the spindles as I was planning modular tool rests (with different angles and thicknesses) however I simply decided to cut a 1x1" and attach it to the top. If you notice, the top board is off angle to the main tool rest providing me a straighter edge to my work.

Step 7: The Spring

A traditional pole lathe incorporates a 12' flexible pole that acts as a spring and rotates the spindle. Our setup uses a bit of modern technology to help reduce the space needed to operate our pole lathe, while maintaining the traditional aspect of it.

For our design, we attach two 8' long 2x3" boards at either end of our lathe. At the top we notch out a groove for our spring (tire tube) to rest. The tire tube is stretched between the two vertical boards to create our spring.

Another design I've seen uses only one board that is attached to the headstock end, with a pivoting board set 90 degrees, at 8" from its top. The spring (tire tube) is attached to the vertical pole, stretched over top and attached part way down the length of the pivoting board. The string, for the lathe is then tied to a notch cut into the end of the pivoting board. The advantage of this design is that it is more compact, however a big disadvantage is that it creates the issue of string tracking problems. If you need space, it would be a good modification, however I'd recommend the method as shown.

Step 8: The Treadle and the String

The treadle is the foot peddle used to actuate the lathe. It is a long 'Y' shaped board that extends beyond the lathe bed and draws the string into an 'L' shape.

For mine, I used a 1x3" board cut to 48" long, and another cut to 36" that attaches to it at an angle. I cut two smaller pieces to act as bracing and as a foot rest. For the pivot, I used a 2x6" cut to 36" and two 2x3" cut to 4" as the pivots themselves. The 2x3" boards are nailed to the 2x6" then a 3" straight nail is hammered through pinning the ends of the 1x3" boards between them, as seen in the third pic.

The string is then loosely tied to one of the strands of the tire tube and extended until it reaches the floor. a large loop is created in the bottom end and it is placed over the protruding end of the treadle. I'd suggest this method over attaching it to your treadle as it will give you some adjustment in your peddle. The closer to the pivot, the more draw you'll get, but will require more force, while the farther means less work, but less draw. You can notch out 1" increments on the end of your treadle for a string rest so that it doesn't slip.

**One issue I didn't plan on was that, on smaller pieces, my treadle would hit the angled supports on the base of the lathe, closest to the headstock. Eventually I decided that length support, on one side would be sufficient and end up removing two of the support boards.

Step 9: The Bowl Making Spindle

The bowl making spindle is simply an extension for your string to wrap around when fabricating bowls. It's generally 3-4" thick by 8-10" long. There are four nails tapped into one end with their heads cut off and the ends sharpened. I intend on making an instructable, in the future, on how to make a bowl on the pole lathe and will go into further detail on the spindle's use.

Step 10: Finished

That's it. It's a large but very rewarding project that can be done with nothing more than hand tools and recycled material. The pole lathe is a fantastic piece of historical equipment that is very versatile and can open a lot of doors to some beautiful craft and creation.

As usual, I hope you enjoyed the instructable and thanks for following.

Hand Tools Only Contest

First Prize in the
Hand Tools Only Contest

Epilog Challenge VI

Runner Up in the
Epilog Challenge VI

Teach It! Contest Sponsored by Dremel

Participated in the
Teach It! Contest Sponsored by Dremel