A Historical Look at Woodturning

A Historical Look at Woodturning

Traditionally, it was thought that the ancient Egyptians introduced lathe turning. Perhaps as much as 4,000 years ago. Despite a lack of hard evidence, it was assumed that a civilization as advanced as Egypt’s—known to develop the potter’s wheel and bow drill—possessed the technical know-how and skill to have made the invention of the lathe inevitable. Instead, scholars now believe that the lathe was invented later, around a thousand years B.C., and that its development may have occurred simultaneously among the Etruscans in Italy, the Celts in Great Britain, and the inhabitants of the Crimea. By the second century B.C., the lathe was known to most of the peoples of the Near East and Europe.

One of the reasons that lathe turning of wood was thought to be an older craft was the assumption that it represented only a slight modification of either the bow drill or, more significantly, the potter’s wheel. Although we know that the potter’s wheel was invented more than a millennium before the lathe, there are nonetheless strong affinities between the two crafts that have always had relevance to working craftspeople.

Both are based on the working of a piece of material that is shaped while revolving on a fixed point or points. Originally, the lathe was vertically oriented, like the potter’s wheel. With both devices the form of the material can change shape with great speed. Indeed, speed and regularity were the primary advantages that each apparatus offered. With both techniques additional work is necessary to prepare the finished product.

The interchangeable use of the terms “thrown” and “turned” to describe turned chairs up until the eighteenth century demonstrates the traditional association of the two crafts; in fact, the words “turner” and “thrower” mean exactly the same thing. One definition of the verb “to throw” offered by the Oxford English Dictionary is “to form or fashion by means of a rotary or twisting motion. To turn (wood, etc.) in a lathe.” As Victor Chinnery recently pointed out, the word “turner” is from the Latin, a southern European term, while “thrower” is from Old German and northern Europe. “Throwing a pot” refers not to the physical action of forming clay on the wheel but, rather, to the revolving action of the wheel, as well as the counter-force applied by the craftsman to the spin. Both actions also clearly apply to the woodturning lathe.

Ancient turning

It is not known for certain what the earliest lathes looked like. Not until the third century B.C. is there a representation of a lathe. An Egyptian papyrus painting shows a vertical lathe being operated by two men. An assistant, who pulls on a cord to revolve the piece, being shaped by the turner. Pulling alternately with each hand rotates the work clockwise, then counterclockwise; cutting is done in only one of these directions. Eastern cultures craftsmen traditionally sat on the ground (as many still do), while most Western societies adopted an erect sitting posture. In the case of turning, the lathe was eventually mounted on a table frame, to be used mainly in a standing position. But because of the dearth of representations of turning, it is not clear when this change occurred.

Virtually all early lathes were powered by cord and required that a helper assist the craftsman. The early turners made bowls, platters, beads, among other things, and in the case of Etruscans and later Roman turners, furniture parts. Legs and stiles for couches or thrones were often turned from wood or ivory.

The turned bowl or platter became the most common turned object. Any type of similar metal implement did not supplant it—at least among the lower classes—for nearly two thousand years.

Medieval times

By the early Middle Ages, the turner had apparently become an accepted independent craftsman. Around 1150 a significant improvement was made by introducing the pole lathe . Although still driven by a cord, the new lathe used the tension of a bent tree branch or cut pole to provide a stronger and more convenient way of turning.

Coordinated with the pole was a treadle, which pulled down on the cord wrapped around the work itself, or on a spindle attached to the work. The treadle regulated the speed at which the piece turned. This arrangement dispensed with the need for an assistant. The pole lathe was one of the major technological innovations of medieval times; it remained the dominant type of lathe well into the nineteenth century .

The one troublesome feature of early lathes that the pole-and-treadle system did not address was the need for continuous motion. With these lathes, the craftsman could still work only when the work turned in one direction. It was necessary to wait until the piece revolved back and started turning in the correct direction before again applying tool to wood.

The Renaissance period

The search for a lathe that would turn in only one direction probably ended in the fifteenth century, when craftsmen began to make use of lathes powered by cranked flywheels and giant wheels powered by hand, foot, horse, and even water. The result was that turners could be more precise in their craft, that work could be speedier, and that turning on harder woods and even metals became practical. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the many inventors who designed an early continuous-drive lathe Nonetheless, most turners making objects for daily use continued to employ reciprocal, pole-and-treadle lathes.

The fifteenth century also marked the beginning of the rise of the turner’s trade. In 1478 an English Association of Turners was approved. This culminated in 1604 in the establishment of the Worshipful Company of Turners of the City of London. During these years turned furniture became common in Scandinavia (where it had been made as early as the thirteenth century) and in England, where the turner’s art continued to gain popularity well into the seventeenth century.


The craft of woodturning enjoyed its greatest period from the mid-sixteenth until the end of the seventeenth century when continuous-drive lathes became more popular. Although turning later became popular as a hobby among the aristocracy of Europe, the most elaborately turned European objects date from the period 1550 to 1800. Naturally, in America the great period of the turner came later, from the mid-seventeenth until the early eighteenth century.

Although the history of wood-turning is usually discussed in terms of the history of turning technology—i.e., of the lathe it is also true that the use of turning in furniture, architecture, household objects, and decorative elements was mainly dictated by style or fashion—in other words, by aesthetic decision rather that technological evolution.

From the mid-sixteenth until the early eighteenth century, the styles of Mannerism and Baroque influenced both sophisticated and folk objects. Although turned elements could exist in objects designed under classical influence, the restless spirit and experimentation of Mannerism, and the dynamism and complexity of the Baroque, provided a more sympathetic background for the flourishing of exuberant turnings.

Typical of the elaborately turned objects of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were the great turned chairs of England. Designed with either three or four legs, these massive throne like chairs were often made entirely of turned elements. The most common were the imposing high-back, four-legged chairs. Greatest elaboration was lavished upon chair backs and arms, especially the smaller decorative elements that spanned the structural members. The seventeenth century equivalent in terms of robustness and complexity were the great turned beds of Spain and Portugal. In these beds, head and baseboards were developed into elaborate decorative screens.

Similar elaborate Baroque spiral turning was also seen in somewhat simpler objects such as candle stands made from a single piece of turned wood. Despite the proliferation of these marvels of turning, the most common turned objects remained the simplest: bowls, platters, and handles on everyday domestic objects.

Ornamental turning

The use of turning as a decorative device would never again be as popular as it had been in seventeenth-century Europe. However, beginning in 1700 the craft of ornamental turning was seized upon by the aristocracy as the latest fad. Turning as a hobby was not new, but in the eighteenth-century leading aristocrats sponsored books for amateur turners (known as turning manuals). These books helped to further the popularity of the craft.

Ornamental turning consists of intricate surface decoration on either flat or rounded surfaces, as well as the production of elaborately shaped objects in their own right. Often, the two aspects of ornamental turning are combined in single objects. Complicated turning can be accomplished on traditional lathes of great precision; but the unique surfaces and shapes of what is usually described as ornamental turning require special lathes that allow both cutting tool and object to revolve independently and at the same time. These unusual lathes allow the cutting tool to move in almost any direction.

The Hapsburg emperors of Austro-Hungary, beginning with Maximilian I (ruled in 1493—1519) were among the earliest to adopt turning as a royal hobby. Two of his successors, Charles VI (ruled 1711—40) and Joseph II (ruled 1765—90) were both proud possessors of royal lathes.

It was in France, however, that the hobby of ornamental turning reached its apogee. In 1701, Charles Pluier published L’Art du Tourneur, the first manual on lathes and turning. Every type of lathe, tool, and project is described in greatest detail. The main topic of this “how-to” book for upper-class gentlemen was ornamental turning. It is more than likely that France’s most famous turner, Louis XVI (ruled 1174—92), used the text. Unfortunately for French turners, the coming of the Revolution meant the end of royal sponsorship. Along with many of the French aristocracy, the vogue for ornamental turning was transferred to England, which became the center both for amateur ornamental turning and for the transformation of turning from a craft into an industry.

Nineteenth-century England

Credit for the interest in ornamental turning in England was due not only to the importation of a Continental passion but also to a firm of lathe-makers founded in London in the 1780s by John Jacob Holtzapffel. Holtzapffel’s firm remained in business until 1914, producing about twenty ornamental lathes per year. These exceedingly fine, expensive machines were prized by turners and they remain sought after today. In addition to their lathes, the Holtzapffel family gave the world of turning five out of six projected volumes in the series Turning and Mechanical Manipulation—an encyclopedic treatment of ornamental turning covering such minutiae as how to turn eggshell, stone, or jewels. In England, turning attracted not only aristocratic men but also middle-class hobbyists (who could not afford Holtzapffel lathes) and women (some of whom could). The first woman to acquire a Holtzapffel lathe was the Marchioness Townsend, who registered her lathe at the Guildhall Library in London on December 21, 1798.


While nineteenth-century England provided the arena for the continuation of the century-old hobby of ornamental turning, it was also the place of the industrialization of turning. The leading figure in this development was Henry Maudsley. Since Maudsley was mainly concerned with the precision turning of metal, his story cannot be told here. What is significant, however, is that by the early nineteenth century the technical aspects of the craft of woodturning were largely fixed in place Although certain innovations, such as large-scale turning using steam engines for power, would not become common until almost the twentieth century, the technology and expertise for virtually all types of craft woodturning are largely the same today as they were more than a century ago.

The United States

The history of woodturning in the U.S. begins in the seventeenth century with the emigration of wood-workers from Holland and England. Turning in the U.S. never quite achieved the bravura quality of sixteenth-century England or later Spain, but everything from chairs to bookstands was made with elaborately turned parts beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century. One unusual aspect of turning in America was the use of so-called split turnings, which were cut in half lengthwise and applied to the front of chests. More characteristic were the simpler turnings on eighteenth-century ladder-back chairs, bowls, pestles and mortars, boxes, and even toys. All these objects were made in the traditional manner well into the nineteenth century.

Although complexity and elaboration were most often looked to for demonstrations of the turner’s art, no examples of woodturning are more beautiful than the quiet, refined turnings of the Shakers. The versatility and mastery of woodturning achieved by this famous religious community are demonstrated both in the wide range of turned objects they produced—from the tiniest bobbins and pegs to larger pieces of furniture—and the subtle variation in turned shapes (best seen by comparing their unique chairs).


The use of turnings in architecture has a long history in Western, Eastern, and African countries alike. Arabic windows and decorative screens have, for centuries, made use of small and delicate turned pieces all joined together in elaborate compositions. Heavier turnings used in doorways to churches and houses appeared in Scandinavia from Romanesque times. Ships have long been fitted with turned elements. As with stable architecture, seagoing vessels contained functional elements such as rails and balusters, as well as decorative features including sculptures and finials. In the U.S. products of the turner’s shop became common in houses beginning in the 1720s, when turned balusters and newel posts began to appear with greater frequency.

The period that saw the most prolific use of turned elements in architecture was the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in the U.S. Detailing in Victorian architecture (what is sometimes called “gingerbread”) was distinguished by the use of elements that were mainly cut out on a jig saw or turned on a lathe. In these houses—both free-standing country houses and urban row houses—turned elements were used not only on staircases (certainly the most common use) but also on the exterior, for structural columns, post, and even architectural screens.

African and Eastern countries

The origins of lathe turning were in the Near East, yet it was apparently unknown in continental Africa until colonial times. The only tradition of turning in Africa—one that continues today—is that of the itinerant craftsman who carries a portable lathe and generally makes bowls. The turned lacquer bowls and platters of Japan are well known, although they are usually discussed and exhibited because of their lacquer finishes, the fact that they are turned being rarely mentioned. The origins of lathe turning in Japan probably date to the ninth century. At that time, highly organized groups of nomadic wood-workers—the lathe workers called rokuroshi—traveled the country carrying portable lathes and making use of local forests for necessary materials. Their work consisted mainly of small objects intended for domestic or ceremonial use.

Although little has been written on the subject, the English turner Holtzapffel visited turners in India, Persia, and Arabia in the nineteenth century. Indian turners were itinerant and, like the African turners, made their lathes by driving stakes into the ground. Persian turners used an open box as a frame for turning while Arab turners had more complete and adjustable lathes (still portable), with which they produced ornamental woodwork used for screens and oriel windows with elaborate latticework. All these craftsmen worked sitting on the ground.


Parts Excerpted from “The Art of Woodturning”, 1983 ACC Show at The American Craft Museum, David Schneider