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The Best of Ask Joan of Art: The History of Woodturning and Lathes
December 21, 2010

This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: The Best of Ask Joan of Art. Begun in 1993, Ask Joan of Art is the longest-running arts-based electronic reference service in the country. The real Joan is Kathleen Adrian or one of her co-workers from the museum’s Research and Scholars Center. These experts answer the public's questions about art. Earlier this year, Kathleen began posting questions on Twitter and made the answers available on our Web site.


Rude Osolnik, Five Candlesticks, 1988, mascassar ebony, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Fleur and Charles Bresler in honor of Kenneth R. Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery (1995--2003)

Question: I am interested in the history of woodturning and the use of lathes in early American colonies.

Answer: In the colonies, virgin timber grew in abundance, making woodenware, or treenware, an important part of daily colonial life. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "obtained or made from a tree," the term "treen" usually describes small wooden objects used in household tasks, farm chores or the work of other common trades. Most treenware, usually one-piece items, was produced by woodturners.

The first groups of American colonists settled in three localities: the Virginia colonists arrived in Jamestown in 1607; the New England settlers landed at Plymouth in 1620; and the Quakers, led by William Penn, established Philadelphia in 1683. The woodenware made in New England and Virginia was sturdy, crude and simple, often performing multiple functions, while treen from Pennsylvania was a little more refined and frequently decorated with carving or painting.

Woodenware was made by experienced local craftsmen. The type of work produced in the Colonies varied little from that made in England because the early American pieces were copies of existing turned objects. Another reason was that colonial woodturners learned their craft either in England or from a fellow colonist who had been trained there.

Most of the ordinary domestic articles were simple but attractive in design. Bowls and plates used for eating were called "turner's ware" because they were produced on a lathe. The turners who made them were respected craftsmen, the peers of coopers, chair makers, carvers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, wheelwrights and spindle turners who also worked on a lathe to fashion parts for chairs, beds and other furniture.

The "pole lathe" was the first type of lathe used in the Colonies. A cord attached to a slender sapling, fixed horizontally overhead, was wrapped once or twice around the wood to be turned and its end fastened to a treadle. When the treadle was pressed down, the wood, supported between centers, was rotated through several revolutions, permitting the turner to shape its surface with a turning chisel. Releasing the treadle caused the pole to spring back, rotating the turned wood in reverse and raising the treadle in preparation for another cut. Although the work was tedious and tiring, the process was far superior to hollowing a bowl by burning out its interior or laboriously forming a wooden vessel by scraping with crude bone, stone or shell tools

The "mandrel lathe" was used in the later 17th and 18th centuries. Turned by a treadle and powered by water, man or beast, this lathe had continuous rotating action. A hand-held chisel formed the piece as it rotated, and the objects produced were said to be 'hand-turned,' as distinguished from machine-made items produced later in factories. Refined by engineering advances, the mandrel lathe is still in use today.

If talk of woodturning and lathes interests you, take a look at contemporary woodturning in our exhibition A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection now up at the Renwick until January 31, 2011.


Posted by Jeff on December 21, 2010 in Ask Joan of Art


Nice these candlesticks.

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