Mr. Warren Mickley using his Roubo lathe (in 1982 – see the socks in the top left as proof)
I’m stepping into the big time blogging world with this post; an interview with a woodworking master. My pleas for help on woodworking forums have connected me to a few highly knowledgeable, experienced, and big name woodworkers. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that woodworkers who need no introduction such as Don McConnell, Don Williams, Peter Follansbee, Joel Moskowitz, Bob Rozaieski, and Gary Roberts have all been quick to respond with advice and information, but this post is not about them.
This post is about a professional woodworker and his experiences with the Roubo lathe that he built 33 years ago. He may be unfamiliar to you since he hasn’t written any books (though he should) or been featured in any magazine articles (which is a shame), but he has a wealth of experience and knowledge about working with wood. I’d like to introduce you to Warren Mickley. I virtually “met” Mr. Mickley through a woodworking forum and he has been kind enough to answer many questions about turning wood. With his permission, I am sharing some of my questions and his answers here to the benefit of all who read it. Even if you have no interest in Roubo lathes, I think you will find his insights helpful to practicing the craft of turning wood.
Mr. Mickley, for those of us who know nothing about you, what is the basis of your experience with woodworking?
“I am a professional woodworker in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, working with only hand tools. I have been researching historic methods since 1970… I have turned without sanding since 1978.”
Turned without sanding? Now, that has my attention. These are samples of Mr. Mickley’s turning without sanding or applying finish. It sure looks nice, doesn’t it?
Where did you learn so much about spring pole lathes? Did you train under someone else?
“I learned to use the pole lathe by reading books about turning and discarding those techniques which were ineffective on the pole lathe. I also examined lots of 18th century turnings, which being unsanded, are littered with the evidence of how they were turned.”
Do you think spring pole lathes are good for beginning turners? I’ve read that they are more difficult to learn since your driving the lathe with your legs.
“Here (above) is a picture of a turning by a young fellow his second day at the lathe. He had never turned anything before. The turning in this image was not sanded. I think it is a lot easier to learn sophisticated turning skills on the pole lathe than any other lathe. In 35 years I have never seen electric lathe turning that matched 18th century standards.”
What prompted you to build your first spring pole lathe (as opposed to other types of lathes)?
“I had turned on a 1804 treadle lathe at a historic site before building the pole lathe 33 years ago. That historic treadle lathe had minor problems with the pulley and the bearings. Making one would require a lot of specialized hardware. The pole lathe had very simple hardware requirements. The 20th century commentators were all very dismissive of the pole lathe, but none of those writers knew how to use it.”
You’ve told me of your preference for spring pole lathes over other types, but have you built spring pole lathes of different designs? If so, which type do you prefer and why?
“Roubo’s plate said “propre aux ebenistes” [appropriate for cabinetmakers] and had the best scale drawings of the historic texts I was familiar with. The lathe exceded all expectations and exposed the ignorance of the 20th century writers. I have not built any other lathes, but I have tried similar lathes like a portable lathe with a little pole built into the frame and one with a bungee cord. Those were like toys compared to a lathe like is pictured in Roubo with a robust pole… I would not recommend this type of lathe [small and portable] unless you need something that can be put in the back of a van and set up very quickly.”
I’m curious about the durability of these lathes. Is the lathe you built 30 years ago still in use today, or have you needed to build replacements?
“I am still using the same lathe and same pole from 1981. The only wear is that the pikes can loosen over time. I have inlaid new wood around the pikes a few times. One can turn very nicely even if the pikes are wobbly, but for very highest quality work you want them solid.”
For someone who likes the basic Roubo lathe design, but is not concerned with historical reproductions, are there any modifications to the images in Roubo that you would recommend for someone building a lathe today? Modifications could include modern inventions such as live centers and Jacob’s chucks or simply changing the proportions of the drawings.
“I would use hardware as close to the 18th century styles as possible. The lack of moving parts increases the efficiency. I had intended to make the diagonal leg braces on the lathe but started using it before making them and then never bothered. I might now omit the brace on the left front because I sometimes straddle that leg for small turnings.”
Roubo briefly describes the pole to be used. Do you have any preference there to share?
“I use a 13 foot pole. I have seen 14 feet mentioned in the literature. A skimpy pole will not be firm enough for good turning. ”
I have to ask. What type of wood did you use to build your lathe?
“Red Oak 4×4 timbers. I think beech and oak are probably recommended woods. They both absorb vibration well.”
Many thanks to Mr. Mickley for taking the time to respond to all of my questions. Maybe someone will be able to convince him to write more about turning on a pole lathe. I think there is certainly enough interest out there today. ***HINT*** Lost of comments (from you 4 regular readers) may encourage him to write more on the topic!!!