Ornamental Turning Today


Ornamental turning lathe

The following is an article discussing the rebirth of popularity of ornamental turning:


CREATIVITY is the word that best applies to ornamental turning.

The craft challenges the craftsman to take a plain-turned piece of wood and embellish or ornament it to create a totally new object of art.

To choose a piece of rare wood with great natural beauty and embellish it by accentuating the wood’s inherent beauty, to create a patterned texture on the surface of the wood to enhance the color and grain pattern, to combine two or more pieces of attractive wood, blending them together through the addition of ornamental decoration — all these possibilities should be made available to more craftsmen.

When the industrial revolution reduced much of the incentive for the individual to create a complete piece of work himself, ornamental turning was one of the crafts that suffered.

Now it is regaining some of its former recognition as one of the techniques that, over the centuries, produced some of the most beautiful, interesting, and sometimes baffling pieces in the creative arts.

Crafts in general are enjoying a tremendous resurgence.

Individual creativity and, simultaneously, a greater appreciation of the traditional art- and-craft forms of the Renaissance and Victorian periods are possibly reactions against the extremes of the avant-garde contemporary art forms of the twentieth century.

In this resurgence ornamental turning seeks a place, but the would-be ornamental turner encounters the obstacle of not being able to find the necessary lathe on which to do the work.

Although Holtzapffel made more than 2,500 lathes and others made lesser numbers, they are not to be found today other than by rarest chance or by spending considerable sums of money when one comes on the auction market from old estates or is found in piles of discarded machinery.

Making ornamental turning available to the modern turner requires that some machine toolmaker produce the relatively small number of attachments to the modern lathe that make ornamental work possible.

One large machine-tool company, on being approached with this proposal, immediately countered with the question “How many could we sell?”

Not having made a market survey, I was, of course, unable to answer, and they immediately lost interest.

But, after practicing the craft for some twenty years, I have had a tremendous amount of correspondence as well as visits to my shop to see the work being done, and the question “Where can I get a lathe?” is always asked.

The success of the modern reprints of volumes 4 and 5 of Holtzapffel’s classic Turning and Mechanical Manipulation indicates a considerable and growing interest in the craft.

Ornamental lathes coming on the market in recent years, few as they are, have sold for many thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, even at those prices, many such lathes come to the buyer with essential parts missing or in a condition requiring major repair work to make them operative, thus adding to the cost.

Giving the modern lathe ornamental capabilities would be no great job for a toolmaker.

It is my opinion that the market would justify the effort with considerable profit. What would be necessary?

First, of course, would be a plain lathe, of which there are thousands in use.

Then attachments would have to be made to fit the lathe.

The first of these is a slide rest. This slide rest, although similar in function to the slide rest on most metalworking lathes, has some essential differences.

First, it is much more flexible and has a lateral capability of 13 inches rather than the 5 or 6 inches common to most metalworking lathes.

Second, it is much lighter in weight, which is important because the rest must be removed and then replaced on the lathe, sometimes four or five times in the creation of a single piece.

The tool box on the slide rest must be capable of strict depth control but also be freed for continuous but controlled change of depth in cut for curvilinear work.

Some members of the Society of Ornamental Turners have adapted the metal slide to do ornamental work, but it places restrictions not present with the true ornamental slide rest.

Effective ornamental turning requires the more flexible slide rest.

Fastening the rest to the lathe bed would require consideration of the variety of shapes and dimensions of the bearers on modern lathes.

It is probable, however, that the manufacturers of lathes would want to take advantage of the ornamental market by making saddles to fit their lathe bearers that would accept the standard ornamental rest.

This should be no problem.

The second attachment would be the overhead drive, which activates the rotating cutters.

The overhead on the Munro lathe is the type most commonly encountered, either as shown or adapted in some way.

However, the type of overhead drive on my lathe (which is certainly not the original overhead), is, in my opinion, much more efficient and would be easier to construct and to attach to the modern lathe.

Making this overhead drive should fall within the capability of many hobbyists with a modicum of industrial arts training.

The next attachment to consider would be the cutting frames, which fit in the tool box on the slide rest and hold the cutters.

Only three of these are needed for the turner to cut a wide variety of patterns.

The universal holder would be important, since it serves for both horizontal or vertical cutting patterns as well as angled cutting through 180 degrees of position.

The second would be the drill holder.

The eccentric holder cutting frame is an original Holtzapffel model but has been counterbalanced to diminish vibration.

This is an important tool holder and is used in circular cutting patterns which are integral to a great many cuts.

The fourth attachment, the indexing plate, is extremely important. This is used in a majority of cutting patterns and guarantees the correct spacing of the cuts.

On the standard ornamental lathe, it was made integral to the headstock.

This poses a problem on the modern lathe, on which the headstock is normally enclosed with no place to attach an indexing plate.

However, a solution could be in making a faceplate to go on the mandrel nose, as do all the other chucks, and putting the indexing holes in this faceplate.

The faceplate, in turn, would carry an auxiliary mandrel nose to accept another chuck holding the work.

This would guarantee concentricity of the index holes, an absolute necessity in ornamental turning.

This leads to the cutters themselves. Holtzapffel made beautiful mahogany boxes with sloping tops and drawers in which could be placed as many as five or six hundred cutters.

The number of cutters with any given lathe varied in the beginning and varied even more with the passage of time.

One modern turner obtained a lathe, but when it was delivered, he found exactly one cutter — something like an automobile with a pint of gasoline.

On the other hand, a collection of more than 800 cutters came on the market in a recent auction.

For the modern turner, 25 or 30 cutters would make possible a good number of cutting patterns, and about 150 would give him an essential range of sizes and shapes.

The cutters would present no problem to the modern toolmaker.

Thus, the toolmaker would be faced with making the slide rest, the overhead drive, three cutting frames, the indexing plate or chuck, and the cutters themselves.

With modern machine tool capabilities, this should present no great problem, the only missing link being the manufacturer with vision to see the market.

No one today is making ornamental attachments for the modern lathe.

True, some are making attachments to hold a router on the lathe bed to move laterally with a lead screw, making possible flutes and spiral cuts within rather limited ranges.

This is probably suitable to the industrial turner who makes chair and stair spindles in quantity.

For the amateur turner who is turning as a hobby, this arrangement is quite cumbersome and will not produce the many exotic cuts that constitute ornamental turning.

Some amateurs have adapted the metalworking lathe to do limited ornamental cuts but it is an arduous and time-consuming task with limited results.

It is time for ornamental turning to come back into its own as a creative and rewarding hobby and take its rightful place in the field of craftsmanship.

There are thousands of turners working today, many with very high degrees of skill.

There are thousands, even millions, of persons who badly need a creative hobby to fill their time.

Isn’t it time for some capable company or individual to start the wheels rolling to bring ornamental turning to these people?

The shades of the ornamental turners of the nineteenth century would probably smile and say, “It’s about time!”


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