This section is from the book "Lathe Design, Construction And Operation, With Practical Examples Of The Lathe Work", by Oscar E. Perrigo. Also available from Amazon: Lathe Design: Construction And Operation.
We read that:
"Wood-turners in some of the Asiatic countries go into the deep forests with axes, and with a few rude turning tools and hair ropes build their lathes and turn out objects of beauty and grace, says the Wood Worker. Two trees are selected which stand the proper distance apart near a springy sapling. With his ax the turner cuts out his centers and drives them opposite each other into the trees, which serve as standards. From one tree to the other he places a stick of wood for a tool-rest. With his ax he trims the branches from the sapling, fastens his hair rope to the little tree, gives the rope a turn around one end of the block of wood he desires to turn into shape, and fastens the free end of the rope to a stick which he uses as a foot treadle. When he presses down on the treadle the wood he is turning revolves, and the spring of the sapling lifts the treadle so that it can be used again."
The next form of lathe to which these crude efforts seem to have led was one in which the flexible limb, though in another form, was used, but the device became very nearly a self-contained machine. A piece of wood formed a bed for the lathe and to this was fixed the blocks forming the centers, which have since become the head and tail stocks of the lathe. The machine appears to have been used in doors, as the flexible limb of the tree had been replaced by a flexible strip or pole, "fastened overhead" and called a "lath" from which circumstance some writers think that the name "lathe" was derived. The driving cord was still wound around the piece to be turned. No mention is made of the method of supporting the tool, but it is probable that a strip of wood was fastened to the "bed" for that purpose.
The next improvement in developing the lathe brings its form within the memory of the older mechanics and is shown in Fig. 2. In this case there is a rude form of head-stock B, and tail-stock E; both constructed at first of wood, and the tail-stock continuing to be so constructed for many years. In this form of lathe the head spindle is first found, having in the earlier examples a plain "spool" around which the driving cord D was wound, and later on a cone pulley constructed as shown in Fig. 3, by which a faster speed was possible with the same movement of the foot. The lower end of the driving cord was fastened to a strip of wood F, the farther end of which was pivoted to the rear leg, in the later examples of the "spring-pole lathe," as it was then called, the bed having been mounted upon legs as shown.
The bed A, was formed of two pieces of timber set on edge and a short distance apart, properly secured at the ends. This afforded a space down through which passed a long tennon formed upon a wooden block answering for a tail-stock E. This was held in any desired position by a wooden key, passing through it under the bed.
Fig. 2. - The "Spring-Pole" Lathe.
What was the early form of rests for this lathe does not seem to be known, but somewhat later the rest was constructed of cast iron and very much as in an ordinary hand lathe of the pattern-maker or wood-turner of the present day, and as shown in Fig. 2.
This lathe was used for both wood and metal, the tools being held in the hand as the slide rest had not yet been invented, as will be seen later on in this chapter.
In the use of the spring pole and cord in connection with the cone pulley, as shown in Fig. 3, some workman discovered, probably by turning a heavy piece, that its forward motion would continue when the foot was raised, provided the tool was withdrawn from contact with the work. It was but natural to make the cone pulley of heavier material, as of cast iron, or to weight it with pieces of iron or with lead plugs cast into it, and thus make it serve the office of a balance-wheel and so keep up the forward revolution of the work as long as it was given the proper impetus by the downward strokes of the foot.
Another style of lathe that was used mostly for small work, generally metal work, was called a "fiddle-bow lathe," on account of the method of driving it. In this lathe, which is shown in Fig. 4, the same idea of propulsion is used as in the former examples, that of a cord passing around either the piece to be turned or a rotating part of the mechanism by which the piece was revolved. In this case, however, instead of the resistance of the flexible limb of a tree or of a "spring pole" acting to keep the driving cord taut, it is held in that condition by the flexible bow F, which is bent to the form shown by the driving cord D. The engraving is an exact reproduction of a lathe, the bed A of which was about twelve inches long and it had a capacity of about two inches swing, that was made by an older brother for the use of the author when he was nine years old, and in the use of which he became quite a boyish expert in turning wood and metals. The head-stock B, and rest C, were formed of bent pieces of wrought iron, and the "spur center" was formed upon the main spindle, the point being used as a center for metal work.
Fig. 4. -The "Fiddle-Bow" Lathe.
Lathes driven in this manner are still in use by watchmakers and jewelers and a great deal of very fine hand work is performed with them.
The main features in all these lathes were, first, to suspend the work to be done, or the piece to be operated upon, between two fixed pivots or centers; second, to revolve it by means of a cord wrapped around it, or some part of the machine fixed to it, and kept tightly strained by means of some kind of a spring, as an elastic piece of wood; and third, to reduce the piece to be operated upon by means of a tool having a cutting edge which was held tightly against the material to be operated upon, thus reducing it to the circular form required; fourth, that to accomplish this it was necessary to revolve the piece to be operated upon, first towards the cutting tool for a certain number of revolutions, then by a reverse motion of the taut cord to reverse the circular motion, at the same time withdrawing the cutting-tool for an equal number of revolutions. By this method one half the time was lost, as no cutting could be done while the work was running backward.