TURNED WOOD USUALLY conjures up images of chair legs and banisters: sticks of wood that have been rotated by a machine while a human holds a cutting tool at a precise angle and depth. But in the hands of an artisan, simple chair legs give way to objects of surpassing beauty and occasional practicality--bowls, boxes and sculpture.
The history of the lathe is shrouded in early mist. According to Frank Cummings, a lathe artist who also teaches at California State University, Fullerton, the Egyptians used a kind of lathe, but they may not have invented it. These first lathes were primitive bow-like devices that required two people to operate. Later came the one-person pole lathe, which used a flexible pole and a treadle to create alternate tension. A string, attached to the lathe and the object, pulled one way and then the other, made the object turn forward and back (but not revolve). The pole lathe was in use until about 1900, Cummings says. A variation called the strap lathe required two people to operate, but it was faster.
With modern lathes, a block of material is fastened to the machine at one end (at both ends if you're doing chair legs). The machine is turned on and the wood spins at about 600 to 800 revolutions per minute. The carpenter or artist then, according to a predetermined pattern, holds, in sequence, various cutting tools along the length of the object. (Metal lathes, an essential piece of equipment in many factories, turn out everything from propeller shafts to screws and operate on the same principle as wood lathes--but turn much faster and more accurately.)