Most modern-day woodworking shops make use of a variety of electrically powered tools, such as lathes, saws and drill presses.
The availability of such tools provides for the manufacturing of high-quality products with relative ease and speed. However, for workshops that get their power from solar panels or wind-powered generators, the amount of electricity required to operate these convenient tools is often in excess of the energy available. The typical 110 volt wood-turning lathe pulls between 6 and 20 amps, while a 220 volt table saw can draw upwards of 20 amps. If you have a dedicated power source for your workshop, you might get away with it, but if you need to rely on your generator or solar panels for other things, such as refrigeration, lights and electronics, then these tools may be more energy costly than they’re worth.
There are, however, alternatives that won’t use any of your precious electrical power. In fact, people were using alternatively-powered “power” tools for centuries before electricity was harnessed. A quick look back in time reveals that even Medieval-era craftsmen had access to lathes and other devices that made woodworking or metal working relatively easy.
Treadle-operated lathes were known to exist as far back as the Roman Empire. They were also very common throughout much of Europe as early as the 4th Century. So taking a page from history, today’s workshops can take advantage of ancient technology to provide human-powered lathes and saws that can be surprisingly efficient.
Essentially, any stationary power tool or device that uses a circular motion to perform its work can be operated by a foot-powered treadle device. This includes lathes, table saws, band saws and drill presses. But don’t limit this to tools in the workshop. Women have been using treadles to turn sewing machines and spinning wheels for centuries.
There are two primary types of treadle-power systems: the spring pole and the flywheel. The spring-pole variety has probably been around the longest and it is without doubt the simpler of the two devices to create and use. The flywheel appeared later as ancient engineers discovered how to apply laws of physics to their machines.
1. The Spring Pole
Attend any Renaissance fair that includes a Medieval “living” village, and you’ll run across someone using a spring pole to power some type of equipment. Using the lathe as an example of such a tool, the spring pole system employs three primary parts: the treadle, a length of wood or metal suspended horizontally over the tool and operator (the spring pole), and a rope which connects the two together. The rope runs from the treadle, up around the spindle of the lathe, and then to the spring pole. As the operator steps on the treadle, it pulls down on the rope which turns the spindle. As the spindle turns, the rope pulls down on the spring pole. When the treadle has reached the end of its travel downward, the operator releases it and the spring pole pulls up on the rope and, ultimately, returns the treadle to its top position. The operator again steps down on the treadle and the sequence repeats. The speed of the lathe is essentially a function of how fast the operator can press down on the treadle. The spring pole itself most likely started out as a tree branch. The lathe operator simply placed his lathe under the tree, attached the rope to the end of the limb, and began working on his project.
Anyone who has operated a lathe will immediately note that this type of power source employs a reciprocating motion. The lathe will turn in the cutting direction for a moment, and then reverse as the spring pole is lifting up on the rope. However, with a little practice, one can learn to turn very nice pieces on such a lathe. The only real limitation is how long the operator can keep the treadle moving. One should be able to see how this type of system can be employed with any circular or oscillating tool.
2. The Flywheel
For anyone who wants to avoid the obvious wasteful efforts and time that the reciprocating spring pole consumes, the flywheel offers a reasonable solution. Early engineers learned that the centrifugal force of a spinning wheel could keep machines turning in the same direction. A treadle could be fixed to a heavy stone wheel and, as the operator pushed downward, the wheel would begin to spin. Working much like a cam in a modern-day piston engine, the motion of the wheel would return the treadle to the upper position and the operator would again press downward, adding additional speed and momentum to the wheel. A rope or belt would connect to the lathe or other ‘power’ tool. This type of system allows the work piece to spin continuously in the same direction, even though the actual source of the movement was discontinuous. Many old-school farmers have used this type of system for operating wheel grinders for sharpening hoes and axe heads.
The biggest drawback to the flywheel-driven tool is finding a round stone with a hole directly in the center. However, even the average do-it-yourselfer can build a mold in which to pour cement to form such a wheel. As long as the wheel is reasonably well-balanced, it should spin true enough to provide the energy necessary to operate the tool. The axle for the flywheel requires some sort of bearing on which to spin, although ancient craftsman used tallow or some other lubricant to keep the flywheel spinning freely. The work capacity of the tool would be limited by the size of the flywheel as well as the sturdiness of the tool itself.
While this article is only an introduction to the concept of man-operated power tools, it should help you envision some of the other possibilities available to you. After you’ve started using your first spring pole or flywheel operated tool, you’ll quickly begin to see other applications for these types of devices. You don’t need to be a Medievalist to appreciate the benefits of having power tools that operate independently of your home-generated electricity.