Turning a Bowl on a Pole Lathe
26 April 2023
Mike had arrived early at the Hall to set up his pole lathe on which he was going to demonstrate the Art of Turning a Bowl in the traditional manner. He said his usual pole lathe had split when he was dismantling it for transport the previous evening, and so had spent half the night and morning it ‘bodging it up’ so he could do today’s demo. He therefore apologised for the odd appearance for those used to pole lathes as some parts of it were made with decking boards.
Mike told us a bit about his background and about the 11 acres of woodland he tends and coppiced to source his wood. He tries to find a use for all the wood he harvests and to let the wood dictate what he does with it. He had recently started using a mechanical lathe more, merely to keep up with the supply of wood from his property. He has sold his creations at galleries, fairs and other events to which he was invited. His pole turned lathes were very popular with Re-enactment Societies who wanted everything original, and the very ancient craft of pole lathing certainly provided that. He had brought samples of the various methods he uses to produce his bowls.
Mike was turning a piece of sycamore that was about 12months since felling. He explained which part of the tree he used to make the blank. He had rounded it off to disc and mounted it on a wooden mandrel via a hole drilled in the base and banged onto the mandrel to make a tight friction fit. This he mounted on his lathe and started to shape the outside of the piece. He rotated the lathe by pressing down on his left foot while standing on a disc of wood with his right. This gave him more traction and revolved the bowl about 2.5 times with each push of his leg. This small number of revolutions with each leg push resulted in short shavings. Turning this way is very hard work. Mike had a step monitor on his phone and said it took about 9000 steps per bowl! Adjustments to the procedure were done with a sharp bang from his wooden mallet.
Mike only used two hook chisels made by a specialist which he had mounted on basic hazel handles. The chisel had the cutting angle facing either up or down, the down used for quicker removal of wood. As they looked very similar, he had marked them ‘up; and ‘down’. Using the wrong one was asking for a catch. Mike explained how, unlike mechanical turning, you always worked below the centre and had to adjust the angle of the chisel to find the ‘sweet’ spot. He flattened off the bottom of the bowl leaving the central hold point for reversal. His chisels needed regular sharpening on a wet stone working on the outer edge and then removing the burr with a small round needle file.
While turning Mike kept up engaging conversation about types of wood, different cuts, the time left between turning and finishing, (usually 4-5 days depending on the thickness of the bowl, and types of finishers. He used oxygenated flax oil, but his supply came from Ukraine, and it was at present unavailable. He was trying other oils including rape seed oil. His bowls were designed to be used and he considered all wood safe to use in this way as long as the finish was appropriate.
Once happy with the outside shape, Mike reversed the bowl and commenced turning the inside shape of the bowl with the same chisels regularly feeling for the thickness of the bowl which needed to be thin to prevent cracking but not too thin to risk perforation. Time did not allow him to complete the inside, so he then produced ‘one he had prepared already’ to demonstrate how to finish a bowl. This involved gasping the mandrel and breaking off the core with brute force. This would occasionally take the bottom out of the bowl but luckily it did not on this occasion.
Mike then sat on a chair and carved out the base of the core and tidied up the base of the bowl with a curved double-edged knife moving it towards his hand. These knives were expensive but lasted for ever. After 10 minutes with the knife the bowl was finished.
He stated that broken cores had been found in abundance in York which proved that the fundamentals of pole turning were known centuries ago and were basically unchanged, as was the physical energy and strength needed to manage it!
The Chairman thanked Mike for his excellent presentation especially as he had had to rebuild his lathe the preceding night!
Report by Julian Birch