Ornamental Turning History

Egyptian tombs contain turned artifacts, and some turners in today's third- world countries still turn wood using the techniques supposed to be used back in the dim dawn on woodturning history. This technique is essentially pulling a cord wrapped around work (supported between two fixed centers) back and forth, thereby rotating the work so a sharp-edged cutter could be applied. This was often a two-man operation.

From Egypt, woodturning spread to other Mediterranean countries, especially Greece and Rome. Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, credits Theodorus (560 B.C.) of Samos Island (near Turkey) as the inventor of turning, but with today's archaeological evidence we know it is much older. In Greece and Rome, the geometric symmetry of turned work was truly appealing, and examples abound extent today. From these great civilizations, the art of turning spread to other European countries, and somewhere along the line the turners tired of sitting on the ground to get their work done. They decided to raise the work off the ground so that they could stand as they turned (no doubt to keep a better eye out for Viking invaders). In addition, the standing position leaves both hands free to control the cutter. Before 1700, pole lathes and tree lathes were in use throughout Europe. The word lathe derives from the word lath, or pole.

The father of machinery, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), experimented with several lathe forms, actually progressing beyond the pole lathe to try flywheel, crank, and treadle lathes. His work in this area, like so many others, seemed to be too revolutionary for his brethren, and turners did not widely benefit from his knowledge at the time. But, remnants from the Renaissance did make their way over the Alps and up the Rhine valley. In France, turners began to see the great energy storage potential of the flywheel (or great wheel). The French scholar Diderot shows pictures of a great wheel lathe in a work published in 1771, and even American turners by this time had come round to using the great wheel. In Germany, early horologists began turning parts for their clocks and watches on lathes.

Much of this plain turned work was, and current work still is, decorated by hand carving. This, while very decorative, is not OT, since it is not carried out entirely on a machine. Ornamental turning cannot be accomplished on a plain lathe (that is, one with just a headstock, tailstock, and tool or slide rest), so more advanced lathe equipment needed to be invented. Before the 18th century cutting tools were generally hand-held, the slide rest being a later invention. (The slide rest was known as early as c. 1650; a primitive form of it was illustrated in 1740 by Johann Martin Teuber and an improved design was later used by French turners. However, the English slide rest of this period was both simpler and more efficient in design.) It is clear from the few surviving examples of early work that the skill of some turners of this era was highly developed, particularly in rose-engine and swash work. One very fine example is a rose- engine turned box presented to Queen Elizabeth I by Archbishop Parker in 1560. This piece may be seen today int he Victoria and Albert Museum of London.

It is about or just before 1525 that OT begins to emerge on the scene. Starting most probably in Augsberg or Nuremburg in Bavaria, it then consisted of what is called rosework, being done by bringing into play a template or cam (called a rosette) mounted on the lathe spindle, By allowing the headstock to rock, under tension of a spring, the spindle could follow the template and create patterns reminiscient of rose petals. Also, by allowing the spindle to more to and fro along the lathe axis, oblique or wavy lines were produced on the work, and this is known as swashwork.

The craft of OT thrived in some German territories, reaching high levels before the Frenchman Plumier completed his seminal work on the subject in 1701. Much work of extraordinary character was achieved. It attracted the attention of the wealthy and great in Europe, such as Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725), Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, Friedrich-Wilhelm I of Prussia, Louis XVI of France (1754-1793), Queen Sophie-Magdalene of Denmark, George III of England (1738- 1820), and many others. Peter the Great employed master turners from all over Europe in his imperial workshops and he engaged the great Russian engineer, A. K. Nartov, to build several special lathes, most of which, while not strictly OT lathes since they did not generate patterns, were outstanding examples of 18th century invention in copying mechanisms. Such mechanisms, used for copying medals, gave rise to the medallion work of the 18th century and later, of which the French and Swiss were the great masters. The Nartov machines are now stored in the French Museum of Arts and Sciences.

The earliest trade manual to describe in English the art of rose and swash turning was Mechanick Exercises by Joseph Moxon, published in England in 1678. However, this work lacked the dpeth of detail given in the two great French inspirational works of the 18th century, L'Art de Tourneur, by Plumier (1701) and Manual de Tourner by Bergeron (1796). Meanwhile, turning technology was being developed in England; the practice of arresting the work from point to point by a division plate (indexing) and applying a revolving cutter to it was the first technique to be described as ornamental turning, and is referred to by Bergeron, in his 3rd edition of 1843 as La tour Anglaise (English turning). With this start, OT innovations jumped the English channel and lodged themselves into the British psyche so firmly that today, when we think of OT, the British spring foremost to mind.

This is in no small part due to the labors and imaginations of the great Holtzapffel family, manufacturers of OT lathes extraordinaire, among the finest the world has ever seen. Towards the end of the 18th century, Emgland had taken the lead in developing the technology and when John Jacob Holtzapffel left Strasbourg, Alsace (France) to set up a lathe manufactory in London in 1794, there was a ready market for him to exploit. He soon acquired the reputation of a maker of high class lathes and tools, and his lathes enjoyed a great prominence amongst the wealthy scientific amateurs and royalty of both England and the continent. Some of these included Wilhelm III King of the Netherlands, Prince Augustus Saxe Coberg, a cousin of Queen Victoria, Archduke Otto Von Habsburg of Austria, and Queen Victoria herself. There is an interesting table of improtant Holtapffel-era dates created by Warren Ogden that helps provide an overall perspective on when important OT events happened (Premier area access only).

Many other makers of fine OT lathes existed during OT's heyday, including Birch, Bower, Britton, Buck, Evans, Fieldhouse, Gill, Goyen, Hines, Kennen, Lukin, Milnes, Muckle, Munro, Overton, Paterson, Sibley, Smith, and Wilson, to name a few. The longest standing and most productive of these, the Evans family firm, started in 1810 and closed in the early years of the 20th century. Ultimately, as the spread of the automobile (ironically made possible by the lathe) increased, nobility and commoners journeyed out to see more of the world. They turned their mechanical attentions toward keeping the car running, leaving their fine turning machinery to gather dust. In 1928, outlasting most of its competitors, the great Holtzapffel company shipped its last OT lathe, after having produced 2557 numbered lathes.

Today only a relative handful of these mechanical wonders still exist, hardly any of which are complete with all their original parts and accessories. Many were lost to metal and machinery drives during the world wars, others just wore out and were scrapped. Another good quantity survive in museums, notably the British Science Museum in South Kensington, London. Some still no doubt exist in the back corner of an attic or workshop, dusty and unrecognized, awaiting discovery by modern treasure hunters. However, the hobby is kept alive by a small band of enthusiasts who try to carry on both the machines and the knowledge of their use by forming clubs, such as England's SOT, dedicated to the furtherment of the grand art and craft. A few are even bringing the hobby into the 21st century by building computer-controlled OT lathes. Still more bring in pocket change, and sometimes considerably more, by selling the produce from their lathes at art and craft fairs and galleries.

I hardily recommend purchasing a copy of A Bibliography of The Art of Turning and Lathe and Machine Tool History by Abell, Leggat, and Ogden (ISBN 0-942325-00-1) for further leads.

I wish to acknowledge the help Roger Davies and John Edwards provided in this section. They provided more detail than I started off knowing, and corrected several of my early mistakes. Much of this section is in their more elegant and educated words.

Author - Dennis Daudelin