Man Power

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Blog entry by DannyBoy posted 03-12-2008 05:53 PM 2767 reads 0 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch

A few days ago it jumped back into my head that I would love to learn how to use a wood lathe. I have seen plenty of examples of great craftsmanship using these tools and the principal is infinitely simple (yet the mastering of the technique I’m told takes almost more than a lifetime). So I’m considering taking a dive into it along with all the other junk going on. Considering that I don’t have a lot of money I’m weary about shelling out hundreds (if not thousands) for a new tool.

So I searched around a bit and found a couple of examples of home made jobs. What really interested me where the manual powered ones. Most, like this example, had a large fly wheel attached to a foot powered board at the bottom. The idea is that they would get the momentum built up in the wheel so that the craftsman could work without exerting much force. Freakin’ great, right?

So, now that begs the question for me: What about other tools? (My wife, the environmentalist, will love this part.) When it comes to large bench or floor type power tools, what do they all have in common (other than a motor)? Answer: They hall use some sort of spinning action to create the motion need to make the cut(s) or mill work.

Therefore, can’t we apply this same technique from the manual lathe to almost any power tool? I can imagine the table saw or even a planer/sander being fairly easy to rig for this sort of thing considering the spinning action goes perpendicular to the ground. Just build a frame to support the wheel and you could belt drive to your tool. What I want to figure out, though, would be doing a drill press.

With a drill press, the spinning action is parallel to the ground rather than perpendicular. Because of that, either we would need a fly wheel situated in the same manner or some gearing system (easily enough done with modern techniques) to angle the motion. Another issue that would present itself with this would be the reversing the motion of the chuck. Without really doing a lot of studying of the design for the lathe I’m assuming that it is set up to be best used working in one particular direction. So, a gear box would work for that as well, but one could also attempt to simply reverse the belt drive (flip the belt on one pulley) to solve that problem.

At this point I feel like I’m rambling on about this. However, I would love to give this a try with a few tool examples. Heck, I bet if I look around hard enough I will find where someone else thought of it first. Still, if my wife’s predictions of peak oil come true, then having a man powered way of completing wood projects is available it might keep a few woodworkers in a job.


-- He said wood...

15 comments so far

View HallTree's profile


5664 posts in 3796 days

#1 posted 03-12-2008 06:41 PM

It seems to me that many years ago I saw some plans on how to make a lathe like this in a copy of an old ‘Fine Woodworking’ magazine. Maybe someone out there can dig the magazine up. Or there might be a web site out there that you could check on. By the way, sounds like your wife is really supportive of your woodworking. Maybe you could get her to operate the foot powered fllywheel while you operate the lathe or another tool in the shop. Then it would be a joint effort of ‘man power and woman power’. Just kidding.

-- "Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life" Solomon

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4017 days

#2 posted 03-12-2008 06:46 PM

It’s usually called a treadle lathe, and you can find all kinds of information on them on Google.

Here is a free plan:

Good luck.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View DannyBoy's profile


521 posts in 3894 days

#3 posted 03-12-2008 06:49 PM

Wow! That is a great link. Thanks, Gary!

-- He said wood...

View aaronmolloy's profile


123 posts in 3809 days

#4 posted 03-12-2008 07:47 PM

Good woodworking on the lathe is fun check out the stuff i made

-- A. Molloy

View Mario's profile


902 posts in 4080 days

#5 posted 03-12-2008 07:57 PM

If you want to go all out look into the old water powered shops that used a paddle wheel on a small river and the shaft of the wheel had belts that ran all of the tools. There are some still around and it might be fun to look into something like that.

It would be fun to find one and rebuild it but wold be very expensive and time consuming.

-- Hope Never fails

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 4275 days

#6 posted 03-12-2008 09:25 PM

No matter how you go treadle or a new jet you’re right turning is fun and you are only limited by your imagination. Good luck. mike

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3968 days

#7 posted 03-12-2008 10:29 PM

You want hand tools, check this out: The Woodwright’s Shop on PBS

-- Working at Woodworking

View Dadoo's profile


1789 posts in 4019 days

#8 posted 03-12-2008 11:12 PM

I wanted to suggest The Woodwrights Shop as well. In his videos, he demonstrates all the old tools…all of them human powered. Google “Bow Lathe” for yet another version. There’s also a Treadle lathe that uses a bow.

He also did a tour of a water powered mill/woodshop not too far from here in NY. All those tools (saws, gangsaws, lathes, drill, mills, etc.) were powered by (quickly) slipping a large leather belt over an even larger, spinning pulley, then jumping clear so as not to become “one with the machine”, all the while remembering that there are 50 more spinning, lashing, grinding, tearing, man eating pulleys and belts everywhere! This is definately why OSHA was formed! There were exposed blades, bits, saws and pinch points everywhere! Truely an excellent show!

Even better, I found the show! Click on Russel’s link and go to show #2612.

-- Bob Vila would be so proud of you!

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3968 days

#9 posted 03-12-2008 11:57 PM

It’s a great show and thanks to Tivo I get to watch him regularly. It is worth remembering the ingenuity and learning the skills of those pre-electric woodworkers.

-- Working at Woodworking

View Dan Lyke's profile

Dan Lyke

1520 posts in 4154 days

#10 posted 03-13-2008 12:25 AM

Treadle direction is easily reversed (just depends on what direction you spin it when you first start kicking it), so you don’t have to worry about gearing for that. For the drill press problem, you can either use a belt or bevel gears to get your 90°, albeit with some loss of efficiency, or you could set up a way to hold your workpieces on edge and use your bit horizontally. In fact, it might be easier to clamp your workpiece to some sort of moveable dolly and keep the bit stationary, rather than moving the bit as you do in a traditional drill press.

As others have pointed out, there are lots of resources for how woodworking was done and furniture was made before electricity, and a lot of gorgeous furniture came out of those eras, but I’m an unrepentant power tool user…

-- Dan Lyke, Petaluma California,

View Pretzel's profile


93 posts in 3774 days

#11 posted 03-13-2008 12:35 AM

Goggle treadle saw they also have a universal woodworker listed

-- Pretzel L8agn

View mjlauro's profile


244 posts in 3790 days

#12 posted 03-13-2008 01:48 AM

I also would like to build a lathe like this also, to use outdoors during nice weather.

View Peter Oxley's profile

Peter Oxley

1426 posts in 3903 days

#13 posted 03-13-2008 01:52 AM

I’ve seen some treadle scroll saws … I’d love to have a cabin in the mountains full of manual powered tools.

-- -- --

View cajunpen's profile


14575 posts in 4095 days

#14 posted 03-13-2008 05:28 AM

Several years ago – in Dollywood – I had the pleasure of watching a craftsman turning spindles on a treadle lathe. He was far more proficient that I am on my fancy Nova lathe. It’s not what you use for equipment, it’s the knowledge that you have to use the tool. So that treadle lathe may be all you need – go for it.

-- Bill - "Suit yourself and let the rest be pleased."

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 4328 days

#15 posted 03-13-2008 12:25 PM

I hate to throw sand in your gears, but you could make yourself an electric powered lathe.

This one may not cost you any more than the treadle lathe.

But with his type of lathe, you wouldn’t get much exercise. ;o)

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

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