Heritage Crafts

Pole lathe turning

The turning of wooden items on a foot-powered pole lathe. See the separate entry for wood turning.
Currently viable
Craft category
Historic area of significance
High Wycombe area for the making of turned components for the assembly of Windsor style chairs
Area practiced currently
Origin in the UK
Early Medieval


The Iron Age inhabitants of the English lake village at Glastonbury (c.100 BC) have been shown to be very competent wood turners. Excavations show these English West Country Celts to have produced some quite sizeable turned artifacts such as spokes and hubs for wooden wheels. Mallets, bowls, tool handles as well as smaller items like stoppers for jars are amongst items recovered by amateur archaeologist Arthur Bulleid (1862 to 1951) and Harold St George Gray (1872 to 1963) over a century ago. There has been much discussion as to the type of lathe used by these Celtic wood turners as it appeared that no archeological evidence of a lathe had survived. It is likely that strap and bow lathes were used for the smaller artifacts. It is certain that pole lathes were used, and evidence for this has been found within the original detailed drawings of Arthur Bulleid.

That the Romans were familiar with the lathe is testified by the wealth of both the exquisite turned treasures and the humble domestic artifacts recovered from all over Europe, they were particularly adept at metal spinning as is evidenced by many of their finely worked silver bowls and the bowls of silver spoons. Again we have the artifactual evidence but frustratingly not the lathes themselves. It is certain that the Romans possessed a great understanding of the principles of lathe technology and probably engaged all the disciplines noted so far. It is very likely that they also used the principle of continuous rotation; they were certainly familiar with the concept as is evidenced by their water-mill technology.

When the Roman influence diminished the Anglo Saxons reverted to making much of their domestic utensils from wood. The exquisitely turned walnut vessels from the Sutton Hoo ship burial c. 625 AD (British Museum) show us that they were very accomplished wood turners.

Archaeological excavations at York (Viking Jorvic) uncovered overwhelming evidence that woodturning played a significant role in daily life during the Viking period (9th to 11th century) of occupation. The Vikings were great artisans and natural woodworkers, like the Saxons they had a great affinity with the material and most every-day domestic items were fashioned from wood. It seems everyone used wooden bowls and goblets in Jorvic; these were turned in small timber buildings behind the houses fronting the streets.

Apart from complete bowls many ‘cores’, the waste centre pieces remaining after being turned on a pole lathe, were found. These cores and the discovery of what appears to be part of an adjustable tool rest provide enough clues as to what the lathe would have looked like and how it functioned.

Pole Lathe Bowl Turning 

This craft fell out of favour with the Industrial revolution, and died out completely with the death of George Lailey of Turners Green, Bucklebury, Berkshire in 1958. Lailey was reputed to be the ‘last bowl turner in England’. Lailey’s lathe and tools are housed at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading. The craft of pole-lathe bowl turning was revived in the 1990s by Robin Wood.


A pole lathe uses the elasticity within a long pole as a return spring for a treadle. Pressing the treadle pulls on a cord that is usually wrapped around the piece of wood or billet being turned. The other end of the cord reaches up to the end of a long springy pole. As the action is reciprocating, the work rotates in one direction and then back the other way. Cutting is only carried out on the downstroke of the treadle, the spring of the pole only being sufficient to return the treadle to the raised position ready for the next downstroke.


  • Pole lathe bowl turning
  • Bow lathe turning
  • Strap lathe turning
  • Chair bodging

Issues affecting the viability

Market issues: There is a demand for hand-turned items but the need to charge relatively high prices to make a living suppresses this demand.

Skills issues: It takes a long time to develop the skills to produce items of a saleable quality. A lot of people have a go but very few have the time or inclination to stick at it for the necessary years.

Support organisations

Training organisations


Craftspeople currently known

There are over 1,000 members of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Greenwood Workers; most of these are leisure makers.

Pole Lathe Bowl Makers

A fair number of members of the APTGW turn bowls, and there is a good level of interest in this, with the skills being shared.

Robin Wood, Edale, Derbyshire
Owen Thomas, Hereford, and also teaches the craft
Sharif Adams, Devon, and also teaches the craft
Adrian Lloyd, Cumbria
Yoav Elkyam
Amy Leake
Florence Hamer
Matt Whittaker

Other information

Status: The craft of bowl turning on a pole lathe died out in England in 1958 with the death of George Lailey. It was revived in the 1990s by Robin Wood and today is popular among green wood workers and pole lathe turners.

Pole lathe bowl turning has been gaining in popularity over the past few years with an increasing number of practitioners making bowls, turning tools and teaching. For this reason it has now been moved from ‘endangered’ to ‘viable’.



National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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