This section is from the "The New Student's Reference Work Volume 5: How And Why Stories" by Elinor Atkinson.
Have you a wooden top to spin? As it spins, it stands upright on its tip. But the first time your top spun was when it was made. It was held between two pivots and whirled side ways. Spinning wheels are used in shaping rounded articles of wood, just as they are used in shaping clay. The clay worker's whirling table is called the potter's wheel, but the wood worker's spinning wheel is called a lathe. In every house are examples of the wood turner's work— in chair and table legs, in the spindles of stair and porch railings, and in the supporting columns of arches and mantels; yes, and in croquet balls and mallets and tenpins.
The very first lathe that men made was like a top in one thing. It was kept spinning with a string. One end of the string was fastened to a pole near the ceiling. The other end was wrapped around the block of wood that was to be shaped, and tied to a treadle. The treadle was kept going by the workman's foot, just as your mama runs her sewing machine. The block of wood to be turned was clamped between two pivots and whirled with the wheel. As the block whirled toward him the workman pressed the sharp blade of a chisel against it and cut the wood away.
The very simplest of old wood turning hand machines were called lathes. We do not know whether the word came from lath, the light pole that held the string, or from an old word that meant frame to hold things, or from lade, "to load;" for the lathe is a frame, and it carries the load or the weight of the wood that is being shaped. The machine lathe of today, operated by steam power and working automatically, or self-regulatingly, is made on the same principles as the treadle spinners of the earliest woodworkers.
The pole and the wheel and string are gone, of course. In their place are cone-shaped pulleys and flying leather belts. Cone-shaped pulleys are several wheels, each one smaller than the last, welded together into one, and making a stepped cone. By shifting the belt from one wheel of the pulley to another, the workman can turn on slow or rapid power to suit the hard or soft wood he is carving, and the easy or difficult pattern that is to be cut. The frame that holds the block or bar of wood between the pivots can be shortened and lengthened by a sliding bar in the bed of the lathe.
Automatic or self-regulating lathes are called "copying" lathes, because they copy patterns set for them, making millions of chair legs and stair spindles exactly alike. They work very much as the keys of a piano player are moved, by little knobs catching in the holes in the long paper rolls. You know you could play one tune over and over until the roll was worn out. Of course the carving chisel is held and moved by machinery too.
All that the "turner" workman has to do today is to feed the machine with the wood blocks and shift the belt from one wheel to another. This is true in all kinds of factories. Less and less skill is needed in the workman and machines do the work of dozens and hundreds of men. Of course this gives us more things to use, but hand-made furniture and shoes and clothing and pottery is still the best. Beside lathes for turning rounded articles, there are lathes for boring holes and for making pegs by which parts of furniture are held together. There are lathes for cutting grooves, and for " dovetailing," or tooth-notching the ends of boards that are to be joined to form boxes and bureau drawers.
In woodworking shops a very important tool is the planer for smoothing sawed planks. A carpenter lays a plank on a bench and uses a hand-plane or a draw-knife to peel off long, white, sweet-smelling curly shavings. In the factory the bench is a travelling table that carries the board under the chisel-blade of the planer. Then, as a carpenter sandpapers a board that must be made very smooth, so there is a machine for sandpapering. It is a broad travelling belt or drum coated with emery, or steel dust. It whirls over the planks and leaves them as smooth as satin.
The very first tool that a tree makes acquaintance with when it is to be turned into lumber, is just a woodman's axe, and then a cross-cut saw, both worked by hand. A man who knows, from the look of a tree, whether it will make good lumber or not, goes through a forest that is to be cut over, and marks the trees that should come down by cutting a chip from the trunk. After him come the sawyers and choppers. In our big American forests lumber camps are set up in the winter, with an army of men and horses. There is a man cook for the camp, and a blacksmith, and there are sledges and derricks and an armory of saws, axes and iron chains.
After the marker come the sawyers with long, cross-cut saws that are pulled back and forth across the tree by two men. They saw part way through. Then choppers cut from the other side of the tree. A tree falls on the cut side with a crash. The choppers have to jump, sometimes. The trimmers follow to chop away the branches, big and little, and to cut off the slender top. At last there lies a mighty log, fifty, one hundred or more feet long. It may have taken it a century or longer to grow. It lies on the earth often as heavy as iron. Sometimes, as it lies there, it has to be sawed into two or three logs before it can be moved. The logs are lifted with derricks onto the low broad sledges and hauled to the nearest river.