A Brief history of Woodturning


pole_latheThe history of turning wood can be traced back many thousands of years. The earliest machines operated on the basis of the timber stock being rotated in a reciprocal motion on primitive strap, bow and pole lathes. These simple machines are believed by many to be the first machine tools. The artisans who worked in the woods using a pole lathe came to be known as ‘bodgers’, the origins of this word is uncertain, but one firmly held belief is that it was derived from ‘bőtticher’ an old German word for a Cooper. During the 19th Century hundreds of bodgers set up lathes in the woods around High Wycombe where they would turn legs and stretcher rails for chairs from green timber. Chair-bodgers were also to be found in many other areas of England and Wales, but were most prevalent in Buckinghamshire. The common day usage of the word ‘bodger’ to describe someone who starts a job and does not complete it could be explained by the fact that the original bodgers only produced the turned parts and not the whole chair. There is no doubt that the bodgers were highly skilled, but the items they could produce were limited by their equipment.

Turned wooden items have been of major importance to the development of mankind from the production of simple domestic utensils, farm implements, maritime articles e.g. pulleys for blocks & tackle, joinery such as staircase parts, furniture, musical instruments, sports equipment, measuring and drinking vessels etc. It is recorded that in 1347 the Turners were instructed by the Mayor and Alderman of the City of London to ensure that their measuring vessels of turned wood conformed to the City standards. Further, each turner was to have his mark placed on the bottom of such measures for identification when they were examined.

The first record of a mechanical continuous revolution lathe is in the form of a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, C.1480. It depicts a treadle lathe with a crankshaft and a rather large flywheel constructed substantially from wood. There is no evidence to suggest that it was one of his many inventions, in fact it may well be his sketch of an established piece of equipment that he had seen and interested his inventive mind. This and similar machines was the predecessor of the lathes, both wood and metal that we have today.

The advent of the industrial revolution, together with the explosion in the population in the towns and cities, led to the manufacture of high output machines to meet the ever increasing demand for turned wooden items. This was without doubt the beginning of main stream industrial wood turning with many companies specialising to meet the ever increasing demands of the industrial users such as the cotton spinning mills in Lancashire. It could be argued that without the mechanical wood lathe the industrial revolution could not have taken place.

Wood turning was not always the domain of the artisan craftsman. In the 19th century, following the publication of Holtzapffel’s reference work on ‘Turning & Mechanical Manipulation’ it became the principal hobby of the mechanically-minded English gentry who produced a wide range of complex ornamental turnings.

The range of machines and equipment available today is wider than at any other time in the history of wood turning. Whilst the hand lathes used by turners for samples and small runs are very similar to their predecessors, the manufacturers of the modern high output machines offer many differing solutions to the method of turning, each having benefits and restrictions. It is for this reason that many of the members of the British Wood Turners Association have a range of machines.

Today many of the items which were traditionally turned from wood are no longer required or are made from synthetic materials. However, the skills to produce them from wood remain strong and will continue for as long as there are those discerning people who appreciate the many practical and aesthetic properties of a turned wooden item


R. Pugh, former Secretary.