A wood turner's workshop

Wood was the standard material for tableware such as cups, bowls and plates in early medieval ('Anglo-Saxon') England, as discussed in another article. These items would have been made by turning, in which the wood being worked is rotated and a sharp-edged cutting tool used to cut the desired shape. This naturally produces circular items. Nowadays a power lathe is used, in which the wood is mounted on a spindle driven by an electric motor and rotated continuously. The early English also produced circular wooden items on a lathe, but not an electric one. How was it done?

The pole lathe

Sizeable wooden items such as bowls were probably made using a machine called a pole lathe. Regia Anglorum's site has a drawing of this ingenious machine (scroll down to the bottom of the page). A rope is wound around the lathe, and connected at its lower end to a foot treadle and at its upper end to a springy pole. The craftsman presses down on the foot treadle, causing the lathe and the object mounted on it to spin against the cutting tool, and bending the pole down. Then he lifts the tool clear, releases the treadle, and the elasticity of the pole causes it to spring back up. The pole pulls on the rope, the rope rotates the lathe backwards, and the work returns to its original position ready for another cutting stroke. Repeat, a great many times, until the object has been turned to the desired shape.

Because a pole lathe requires the object to be accelerated from rest to cutting speed and back again at every stroke, it is far less efficient in time and power than a continuously rotating lathe. However, it can be made from simple and readily available materials, and in skilled hands it can be surprisingly effective (see Robin Wood's Battle of the Bowls video on his website). A pole lathe leaves characteristic discrete spiral tool marks on the item being made, and requires long-handled cutting tools (Leahy 2003). A fragment of a tool rest from a pole lathe was found at Coppergate (York), and long-handled hooked cutting tools consistent with use on a pole lathe have been found at Coppergate and in a pit dated to the ninth century at Portchester Castle, Hampshire (Leahy 2003).

A wood turner's workshop

Remarkably, the pole lathe used in Anglo-Saxon England remained in use until the early twentieth century. It was most commonly used by the "bodgers", itinerant woodworkers who made small components such as chair legs in the beech forests of the Chiltern Hills for use in the furniture industry. But a few craftsmen still used it to make larger objects such as wooden bowls. One such was a man named George Laidley, who worked as a bowl turner using a pole lathe in a workshop on Bucklebury Common near Reading. In 1959, after his death the previous year, his lathe and workshop were acquired by the Museum of English Rural Life at nearby Reading University, and described in detail in a book by Philip Dixon (Dixon 1994).

George Laidley's grandfather had built the workshop in 1826. The floor area was dug out to form a rectangular pit around three feet deep. Six stout timber posts formed the main structural elements of the walls, one in each corner and one in the middle of each of the long sides. Cladding of some type, probably split or sawn boards (later replaced with corrugated iron), was fixed between the posts to form the walls. The roof may have been thatched (later replaced by a tiled roof). Two pole lathes, one large and one small, were placed on the floor of the pit, so that the craftsman and any visitors stepped down to enter the workshop. The pit gradually filled up with a hundred years' worth of wood shavings, to such an extent that part of one lathe rotted away among the shavings and had to be replaced.

If this sounds familiar, it's because George Laidley's workshop bears a remarkable resemblance to the sunken-featured buildings (SFBs, also known as sunken-floored buildings or in German Grubenhauser) identified in archaeological excavations of early English settlements. At first it was thought that people lived in the bottom of the pit, which would have been cramped, squalid and uncomfortable. For this reason alone I've always been sceptical that SFBs were used as routine living accommodation. People 1500 years ago were just as bright and inventive as today, even if they had access to less (or at least different) technology, and they would surely have made themselves as comfortable as circumstances allowed. This isn't to say that no-one ever lived in a SFB. If SFBs were used mainly as workshops, they could still have been used as overflow accommodation or for low-status individuals, much as medieval servants slept in the kitchens or apprentices slept at the back of the workshop, and I daresay it wasn't unheard of for a drunken husband reeling home after one too many to be banished to the shed by his annoyed wife. (At least the thick layer of wood shavings in the wood turner's workshop might have provided reasonably comfortable padding and insulation).

If you want to imagine how an Anglo-Saxon SFB might have looked and how it might have been used, you could do much worse than look at George Laidley's wood turning workshop.


Dixon PH. The Reading lathe. Cross Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-873295-65-0.
Leahy K. Anglo-Saxon crafts. Tempus Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7524-2904-3.