Improve Your Turning: Try a Pole Lathe

Let me preface this post by saying that my lathe work is just north of horrid. I have been turning for a few years, but not frequently enough to get really good at it. I turn a spindle here and there for tools and appliances for the shop, and very occasionally for furniture parts.  I don’t turn bowls. At least I haven’t up to this point. With that said, I have seen continuous improvement with each item that I have turned, and that is always the point.


Over the years, I have turned on spring pole lathes, flywheel treadle lathes, great wheel lathes, and ‘lectric lathes. By far, the most challenging lathe for me to turn on has been the spring pole lathe. I suppose there is some irony in this considering it is the simplest lathe to build (and consequently the one I built and currently have in my shop). 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 fine, small 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.


With so few RPMs on a pole lathe, it becomes incredibly important to use tools that are surgical sharp. Going from the grinder right to the lathe 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 make sure you are slicing correctly, and not scraping. 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.

The shaving coming off of the roughing gouge above is what you are striving for. The surface to the right, 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 for the bench screw I’m turning, 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 the pole lathe is sanding. That tearout above could potentially be sanded out, 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 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 pole lathe turners require no sanding…but like I said, I’m not 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.

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. I notice when I use the flywheel lathe or great wheel lathe at the museum, I tend to get better results than I used to because the pole lathe has forced me to improve my technique and make sure I’m not letting my tools get too dull. My work on electric lathes is similarly improved.

So even if you have no intention or desire to work on a pole lathe, I encourage you to at least 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. You might be surprised at the improvement you might see in your regular lathe work.