Improve Your Turning – Try a Pole Lathe

Let me preface this post by saying that my lathe work is definitely nothing to write home about. I have been turning for about 10 years, but not frequently enough to get really good at it. I turn a spindle here and there for furniture parts and occasionally for tools and appliances for the shop. I haven’t done any face plate/chuck turning (bowls, platters, etc.) up to this point.

Over the years, I have turned on spring pole lathes, flywheel treadle lathes, great wheel lathes, and electric lathes. By far, the most challenging lathe for me to turn on has been the spring pole lathe. The reciprocal action of the lathe is probably the reason most people who have not used one would  give for this difficulty.  But believe it or not, the reciprocal action is probably the easiest thing to get used to.  It can be a challenge on really small, fine, detailed work to place the bevel and edge in precisely the right spot on each down stroke after relieving the contact on the up stroke.  But with practice, the in and out movement of the chisel becomes so small that it becomes more a release of pressure than a complete disengagement of the cutting edge. The bigger challenge becomes getting a clean, precise, consistent cut at such a low speed.

Pole Lathe Turning

This is the last spindle that I turned on my old spring pole lathe before donating the lathe to the museum that I used to volunteer at. Notice the significant amount of tearout that resulted from an improper cut with the gouge.

With so few RPMs on a pole lathe, it becomes incredibly important to use tools that are surgical sharp. Using tools right from the grinder like you might with an electric lathe is just not going to work. The tools have to be honed with stones just like paring and carving chisels. Using a lathe with so much power but such low speed also teaches you to slice correctly, and not scrape. Regardless of the type of tool, and how sharp it is, a scraping cut is simply not going to work well on a pole lathe. You can see in the picture above where I got the tool handle a bit too perpendicular to the work and scraped a bit too much. Not what you want to do.

The shaving coming off of the roughing gouge above is what you are striving for. The surface to the right of the shaving, where the tearout is, is not. That surface is the result of scraping with a tool that needs sharpening. In this case, because I was just roughing out the cylinder, I wasn’t too concerned with the tearout. I was leaving the cylinder over sized to be brought to final size with a razor sharp planing chisel later on.

Another thing I tend to try and avoid on a pole lathe is sanding. The tearout above could potentially be sanded out on the pole lathe, but it will take ages, some really coarse paper, and it will never look really good. It’s much better to plane the surface with a sharp, wide, straight chisel. I use a 2″ single bevel straight chisel to smooth and level the surface. After that is done, only very light sanding with 180 or 220 grit paper is required (good turners require no sanding…but like I said, I’m not that good). Planing with a chisel, held at a skew, makes a very clean slicing cut and leaves a glass smooth surface behind, just like using a really sharp smoothing plane on a flat board.

Turned Box Stool Leg

The legs for this reproduction box stool were turned on my new electric lathe. However, the practice and experience I gained using my old pole lathe enabled me to turn these legs much more cleanly on the electric lathe, and helped to minimize the amount of sanding needed.

The upside to all of this careful practice at the slow speeds of the pole lathe is that it makes you more attentive and improves your turning on pretty much every other kind of lathe. These days, I can no longer work on a pole lathe for very long. Doing so tends to aggravate an old knee injury that I sustained while playing hockey in college. Therefore, I donated my old pole lathe to the museum that I used to volunteer at before we moved from NJ. However, when I recently purchased a new electric lathe and did my first turning in the four years since moving to VA, I was surprised how little practice I needed to pick it right back up. I also noticed that learning to use the tools properly on the pole lathe forced me to practice better technique and make sure I’m not letting my tools get too dull. As a result, my work on my new electric lathe was greatly improved from the last time I had used one and the legs that I was turning required very little sanding.

So, even if you have no intention or desire to regularly work on a pole lathe, I encourage you to try one out for a bit, or at least slow your electric lathe way down, and practice making clean slicing cuts with very sharp tools. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the improvement you see in your electric lathe work.

Posted in Skills, Turning and tagged , .

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