A Medieval Spring Bow Lathe Crafted by Luke Goembel
On display today (23 April 2011) at the Walter’s Art Gallery in Baltimore, MD was an unusual find: a hand crafted medieval-style lathe accompanied by its architect: Luke Goembel. While modern lathes make turning wood accessible for even the beginner woodworker, Goembel’s creation takes us back to a time when a man had to design and build the tool himself if he wanted to produce fancy table legs, drapery rods, or finials to adorn his home.
Goembel teaches a young visitor at the Walters how to use the lathe.
Goembel’s lathe is based on a drawing of a spring pole lathe from the “Mendel Housebook” (German, c. 1436) and his preference for tool support and a bow rather than a pole for the spring mechanism. (You can see the drawing that inspired Goembel’s creation over at Blood and Saw Dust’s Renaissance Lathe page, a great resource for spring pole lathe history).
According to Goembel, spring pole lathes were used by wood turners throughout the middle ages. There are many turned wooden artifacts from the period. Although some parts of lathes from pre-1500 have been found, notably a Viking age tool rest support unearthed at York, no complete lathes from before 1500 have survived. Some drawings do exist, however. Most notable in the surviving prints is the Mendel Housebook drawing of c. 1436, on which this lathe is based.
Goembel used maple for the bed of the lathe, pine for the head and tail of the lathe, and mild steel for the centers. Oak dowels are used to attach the tool-rest supports to the head and tail, and rough-sawn maple for the bed of the lathe. While Goembel would have preferred to use hand-split and hewn oak for the sake of appearance and workability, he had the seasoned maple on hand and decided it would work well for his first attempt at a medieval lathe. According to Goembel, maple is period-correct for the lathe, although it would have been European maple as opposed to the American maple he incorporated.
The mortises of the lathe bed were rough-cut by machine (hole saw and circular saw) and completed by hand (rasp and chisel). The head and tail of the lathe were made from pressure treated pine 6″x6″. Here too, Goembel would have preferred some hand hewn period-appropriate wood, but for the sake of getting this first attempt at a pole lathe finished, he chose seasoned wood he had on hand. As with the lathe bed, the head nad tail were rough cut with machine tools and completed with hand tools.
The pine parts were also treated with boiled linseed oil to prevent further splitting. (Goembel noted he was not sure what wood treatments were used in medieval times). Tool rest supports (in maple) are attached to the head and the tail of the lathe. The supports are attached with commercially-manufactured oak dowels driven through machine-drilled tenons. According to Goembel, in medieval times the tenons would have been made by hand and the tenons would have been drilled with brace and spoon bit (drill). The legs that attach to the lathe bed are maple that have been turned at one end to fit in the lathe bed mortise. Goembel turned the legs on a motor-driven lathe. To be more authentic, green wood legs would have been turned on another pole lathe or draw shaved round.
According to Goembel, the most controversial aspect of his interpretation of the 15th century lathe is the use of a tool rest support just behind the turning wood. His research indicates that tool rests probably did not appear on lathes until the end of the 15th or early 16th century. Notably, the Mendel Housebook picture on which Goembel’s lathe is based did not show the tool rest.
Pictures of Goembel’s Lathe
Goembel demonstrates the tool in action. You can also see the bow at the top has been temporarily substituted with a piece of PVC after the initial wood bow snapped.
The left 6×6 block can move to accommodate various lengths of wood, from about 8 to 36 inches. You can see the device that holds the left block in place.
Nearby the lathe, Goembel uses a medieval scraping/planing tool to prepare wood for turning. The tool allows the operator to “round” wood from square blocks before turning it.
Video Clip of Goembel’s Lathe
Here’s a quick video clip of the lathe in action. Goembel is using one of the many scraping knives to route the edge of the wood. Apologies in advance for the audio quality. There’s a good bit of background noise and we omitted narration for the clip.
Interested in More Information?
Luke Goembel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please, no spam!