Join 3,561 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Battle of the Turners
December 23, 2012 6:44 PM   Subscribe

In the summer of 1545, the Mary Rose, one of Henry VIII's most powerful warships, was sunk in the English Channel while preparing for battle with the French fleet. But this post is not about her, it is about a 'face-off' between a man running an electric lathe and one using a foot-powered type, to see who can produce the best quality wooden bowl in the shortest time. How are these two events connected?

The hulk of the Mary Rose was recovered in 1982. More than 22,000 artefacts were found on board, among which were many of the personal items used by the crew, including the bowls from which they ate. English craftsman Robin Wood had the opportunity to study these, and began making replicas, using nothing but the same technology and materials that were used to make the originals - a foot-powered lathe. His YouTube channel includes many interesting videos of his work, but begin with this one, which is perhaps the best introduction to what he is doing.

As for the 'battle of the lathes', I won't spoil it for you here, but can simply direct you to the video of the event.
posted by woodblock100 (26 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
Although it has been covered on Metafilter before, I should perhaps include a link here to the Mary Rose site itself, which is fascinating too ...
posted by woodblock100 at 6:47 PM on December 23, 2012


Epony-awesome!
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:53 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Of note: continuous motion flywheel-based lathes did exist in the medieval period, but perhaps owing to guild monopolies they seem to have only been used by metal workers and gem cutters.
posted by jedicus at 6:57 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


perhaps owing to guild monopolies they seem to have only been used by metal workers and gem cutters.

Or perhaps the woodsmen thought them newfangled and suspicious, suitable for city folk, like. Olde wayes is the best wayes
posted by IndigoJones at 7:07 PM on December 23, 2012


The very last shot comparing the two bowls is excellent.
posted by unSane at 7:07 PM on December 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Admirable craftsmanship and an equally admirable way to make a living and live a life.
Thanks woodblock100!
posted by islander at 7:14 PM on December 23, 2012


I love the bowels and plates on his website. Based on this comment: "I use them for every day eating and find meal times are more peaceful without the chink of cutlery on china." I now want a set of plates.
posted by arcticseal at 7:17 PM on December 23, 2012


The first paragraph of this post is straight out of the James Burke playbook.
posted by thecjm at 7:20 PM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


This fellow was on the local news some years ago, showing him turning a nest of bowls. He's half way between craftsman and crank, turning out great work but with nothing more than a foot-driven lathe. And he lives in Edale, which is nothing short of wonderful itself.
posted by Jehan at 7:26 PM on December 23, 2012


Mr. Wood, eh?
posted by thomaspark at 7:39 PM on December 23, 2012


straight out of the James Burke playbook

Hah! I guess so ... I hadn't thought of it that way. But looking up now at the bookshelf over my desk, I see his original 'Connections' book (from the late '70s) sitting there, so perhaps there was a subliminal influence.
posted by woodblock100 at 8:38 PM on December 23, 2012


The thing about the reciprocating lathe is that you only need two precise bits to make one (the two centers), and since early turners tended to do their work with green wood in the field, they would have had to haul a lot of extra gear with them to have a flywheel and framework enough to keep the drive band between it and the headstock or work piece tight and the crank, flywheel and pedal in the right geometry. Or you could eliminate all that with a piece of rope and a stick. Having turned with a modern electric lathe and a DIY reciprocating lathe (yeah, that's me) I can honestly say that the rope and the stick aren't that much more work than the fully modern power tool.

The other thing worth noting is that the race isn't really a race between the electric and man powered machine. It's a race between the bowl gouge and Wood's custom core cutting tool.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:43 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


The nice thing about the Mary Rose, if you're interested in medieval woodworking, is not so much the wooden bowls, mugs and plates that went down with the ship (as we have a lot of those from other sources). It's that the ship's carpenter's cabin wound up on the downward side when she went down and so all the wooden things that aren't normally preserved from that period (e.g. wooden plane bodies, braces, marking gauges) were.

If this is the sort of thing you're into I heartily reccomend "Before the Mast" and "The Medieval Household" as being well worth a look.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:11 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love the bowels and plates on his website.

That's probably not quite what you meant to write ... :-)
posted by woodblock100 at 10:21 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is so cool. I love watching people do work like this that obviously takes years and years to perfect, much like... Okay, so, as I go to search for this post, I notice that it is also woodblock100's, and everything in the world begins to make sense. Guess I'll just sit on his livestream page and wait for that to start.
posted by cthuljew at 12:30 AM on December 24, 2012


The very last shot comparing the two bowls is excellent.

Yeah, that's really the money shot. I'm really curious what it says about the art; is it a difference of skill between the two craftsmen? Is it some aspect of their chosen techniques? Or some sort of inherent difference in the two working methods done at that speed? Because no matter how you look at it, Wood's is more beautiful and elegant. I guess we don't really know anything about the other guy, though.
posted by cthuljew at 4:45 AM on December 24, 2012


no matter how you look at it, Wood's is more beautiful and elegant

I got the impression from the video that the bowl on the modern lathe broke away from its mounting at the end there, giving the guy no chance to finish it properly. He clearly says, "That's it. Spoiled it ..." [2:41] as the audience groans in sympathy. Perhaps this is why the cross-section of his bowl is so ungainly.
posted by woodblock100 at 4:58 AM on December 24, 2012


Woodturning is one of those processes where hogging off a lot of wood to get an ugly looking chunk that is almost the shape you want takes up a lot of your time, with the rest spent getting the piece you actually want. This is why it doesn't so much matter how strong a motor you put on a wood lathe (or how hard you want to pedal) you can only cut so fast before you're putting enough pressure on your work to rip it out from between the centers, off it's faceplate or however you're mounting your work (some methods are stronger than others, but it also depends on what you're trying to make). That's kind of what screwed the guy with the electric lathe in the video. He was converting everything to chips and using a kind of finessey mounting technique while Wood could save all that energy (and maybe wood) by removing Much of the core as a singe piece. There' a modern version of this that takes a knife thin slice out from between your core and your work, complete with an optional laser targeting device. It's not cheap but if you're a serious turner working in the pricier woods, it might make sense to you.

Turning anything really thin, like lace bobbins on a pole lathe is really tough because eventually your workpiece gets so thin that the pull of the cord will snap your work in half before it overcomes the friction of spinning it on the centers.

Cthuljew - you could be doing this sort of thing in weeks, not years. Your production rate would be low to begin with, and to start with you'd have vicious tear our right when you wanted it least and have to start over, but if you're not super picky about what species you're turning, cheap stock is just a matter of waiting for a thunderstorm and then driving around town listening for a chain saw.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:43 AM on December 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was pretty impressed until I read this, and then I was really impressed:

Like the old turners I use no sandpaper relying entirely on the sharpness of my tools to get a good finish.
posted by enn at 6:31 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seconding the delights of Before the Mast -- it's got detailed specialist reports of every single class of object found on the ship. Also, you can use it to kill a horse, it is HUGE. I love it. The Mary Rose Trust has been very good about regularly publishing books on various aspects of the ship, it's small finds, the archaeology, the conservation, etc. They're not cheap, but they're more than worth it.
posted by kalimac at 6:48 AM on December 24, 2012


Re: Before the Mast: If only it were possible to find a copy for less than several hundred dollars.
posted by jedicus at 9:14 AM on December 24, 2012


That's probably not quite what you meant to write ... :-)

Damn you autocorrect! My kingdom for a 24 hour edit window.
posted by arcticseal at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2012


This is very cool. I also like his outlook of not wanting a job doing something he doesn't like and that he can explain it to his kids or anyone and they understand. It sometimes takes me three minutes to explain what I do.

And what a sweet studio/barn.
posted by shoesietart at 10:10 AM on December 24, 2012


jedicus: Of note: continuous motion flywheel-based lathes did exist in the medieval period, but perhaps owing to guild monopolies they seem to have only been used by metal workers and gem cutters.
I'd more likely believe it to have been a capital-resources issue. Woodworkers - especially those making such mundane* items as bowls - were low-end craftsmen. Compared with metal workers and gem cutters, they were at the skint end of the trades.

A pole-lathe can be built by hand and transported literally anywhere by a minimally-competent woodworker. Not so much a waterwheel-powered lathe.

*No pun intended, reenactors.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:47 PM on December 24, 2012


Jehan: This fellow was on the local news some years ago, showing him turning a nest of bowls. He's half way between craftsman and crank, turning out great work but with nothing more than a foot-driven lathe.
I object strongly to this categorization. Is Roy Underhill a crank?

There are things you cannot achieve with power tools. Conversely, it is often true that handworking a medium allows you to learn material manipulation methods faster, and thus hone skills higher - at least, this is what experts who blow glass, enamel, forge, sew, and work leather, wood and bone tell me.

Do not confuse a passion for historical methods of craftsmanship with a "failure" to see the "clear" advantages of mechanization. Not every cook's goal is Campbell's canned soup.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:06 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also many of the people working this way are just as concerned with the journey as the goal.

Scraping almost always gives a better finish than sand paper; it's just labour intensive.
posted by Mitheral at 10:24 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older December 21st came and went and somehow humanity's...  |  "Edlinger began to climb. As t... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments