Roubo lathe in use today

Warren-1982

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.”

Warren-Samples

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.”

Warren-Student_sample

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!!!

Bob Jones

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17 thoughts on “Roubo lathe in use today

  1. Alaska Woodworker

    Hey, I used to wear socks like that! Warren is a wealth of knowledge, I had opportunity to meet him and briefly talk with him at WoodWorking in America several years ago. Good luck with the lathe.

    Reply
  2. Travis

    I’m working on a flywheel lathe based on Steven Shepherd’s plans. I wish I had the head room to build a pole lathe. Love these Roubo lathe posts Bob. If Mr. Mickley is listening, I would love to hear more thoughts on using these lathes. We need people with your experience with these lathes.

    Reply
    1. W Mickley

      I think the most striking thing about the pole lathe is the feeling of power you have. With a treadle and flywheel, your treadling effort is spread over over the whole treadle cycle, but with the pole lathe the same effort is concentrated in powerful bursts while treadling. The feedback you get from the treadle is more direct and more noticeable, giving a sharper image of what is happening. You do not need a lot of headroom. The tip of my pole is 80 inches off the floor, but you could get away with about 70.

      Reply
  3. Shannon Rogers (@RenaissanceWW)

    The pole lathe is easily dismissed in favor of a flywheel lathe. I know because I was one of the people doing it. I decided to build some pole lathes just so I could dismiss it from an informed position. Well that plan didn’t work out too well considering I have now built 3 poles lathes and actually prefer turning on them over my flywheel design. There is very little written about turning on a pole lathe (and even a flywheel lathe) because it is really hard to convey the technique. A lot of it is feel and rhythm and responding in the moment to the wood. Certainly at Mr. Mickley states above you can read books on turning to understand some basic tool handling and how the tools cut, but the rest comes from time at the lathe. Believe me I have tried to figure out ways to quantify this and put it in writing and in video for my site but in the end it comes down to sound and feel while at the lathe. The good news is that you get a lot more of this tactile and aural feedback with a foot powered lathe and while the learning curve may seem steep at first, it is amazing how this additional feedback speeds you up that curve in no time.

    Reply
    1. Bob Jones Post author

      Thanks for sharing. I agree that there is no substitute for just getting to the work, but for those of us with more free minutes away from the shop than in it, the more I can read and prepare, the more use I get out of my precious little shop time.

      Reply
  4. Adam R. Maxwell (@maxwellarm)

    Bob, I just finished rebuilding my pole lathe, since I’d been using it without proper skids for the last couple of years. Thanks to your Roubo translation, I also have a Roubo-style toolrest on it, which is better than my previous home-growed solutions!

    Thanks for posting this, and the pictures of turned work. I think Warren is wrong to dismiss all bungee lathes as toys, though; mine is too heavy to be portable (skids, posts, and puppets are doug fir 4×6), but those of us who rent homes are limited in how we can modify our garages with poles. Still, after using the pole lathe for a couple years, I no longer want a treadle lathe for wood…though I wouldn’t mind having a Barnes lathe for metal.

    If Warren is inclined to write more, I’d be interested in more pictures, and possibly notes on what tools were used to turn various details. General notes on skew sizes and bevels would be interesting; the skew is my best friend and worst enemy, at the same time. Are the finished turnings burnished at all with shavings, or shown straight off the tool?

    Reply
    1. W Mickley

      The reason I don’t like the bungee cord is that over the course of a 20 inch treadling or so it quickly goes from kind of weak to rather firm. So at the beginning of the stroke it is a bit like planing on a shaky bench. With a long pole there is a longer steadier tension on the cord. For many years I used a 1 1/2 skew, a 3/4 skew and occasionally a 1/4 in tight quarters. Last year I bought an early 19th century skew, 1 1/4, which may replace the large one as it is only 1/8 thick. I use 1/4 and 1/2 coving gouges, I might enjoy a few more sizes, but I don’t know how to get the old style gouges any more. The maple turnings are burnished; I have to say I did not know they were as clean and crisp as they were until I saw these pictures blown up last week.

      Reply
      1. Bob Jones Post author

        I think proper tool descriptions, bevel angles, and such would be more than enough information to justify another complete post. Let me know if you would consider it.

      2. Adam R. Maxwell (@maxwellarm)

        Thanks! I do agree that the varying response of the bungee is unfortunate, and I suspect it’s also more sluggish to respond. I’d like to try an actual pole someday, but I might have to move outdoors (not this time of year) or buy a place with my own shop. The so-called bodger’s muddle and Roy Underhill’s contraption are options, but I’m not motivated towards complexity.

        I’ve been doing most of my work with a 1-3/4″ fingernail gouge and 2″ skew, both NOS Buck Bros; I’d guess late 19th or early 20th c, and they came with very shallow bevel (maybe 20˚ or so). I’ve also got a set of smaller, cheap carbon steel tools. Being self-taught from experimentation and older books, my technique needs more work, and I’m impressed by your student’s turning. I suspect I should use the smaller tools more often.

        Picture of my current setup here:

        https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Bc7ExxYCMAAJwA0.jpg:large

        and part of the old toolrest:

      3. W Mickley

        Adam, we usually first make a pulley or a cove on the right , then turn the work around and run the cord in that pulley on the left. That way we have smoother turning for the rest of the roughing. Often we will have a pulley at each end, but always run it on the left hand side. The worm gear that Bob showed had three pulleys: one at each end and one between the two gears for making the last tenon on the end. Also note that you can have several toolrest boards of slightly different heights, for use with different diameter turnings. I don’t have a camera but will look for an opportunity to have some tools photographed.

    1. Adam R. Maxwell (@maxwellarm)

      Yes, I turned a 5/8″ maple dowel and threaded it with a German wood threader (the only good one I have). The knobs were turned out of an old cherry branch and are…utilitarian. Actually, moving the centers nearer the working side of the puppets made the biggest difference; they were centered in my old setup, so I’d gone down the road of moving the toolrest towards the center of the lathe. I owe you one for that, too, Bob!

      Reply
  5. Stephen S. Martin

    Adam’s comment re: Roy Underhill’s contraption reminded me that it is similar to a pole lathe in the wood shop at Old Salem, NC which, supposedly, is an accurate remake of a lathe used by the original settlers.

    Reply

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