I'm interested in building a traditional bow-lathe, specifically of the type still used in parts of North Africa, a few videos of which can be found on YouTube.

The problem is that I can't really figure out how the mechanism for moving the two centers closer together works, aside from it seeming to use wedges in some capacity.

If anyone has any information it would be greatly appreciated.

to further clarify what im talking about, i'll link some pictures and videos below.

https://youtu.be/wnv0DAR_gWA https://youtu.be/RMQrz1gJy9M

these videos, both from Morocco, show these devices in action, and are rather impressive in my opinion, but the details of the lathe itself are somewhat obscured by chips and the turner's themselves. Here are some of the best close-up images ive been able to find of a similar lathes.





The wedges I was referring to can be seen in the last image, but this is a somewhat different design.

  • Hi, welcome to StackExchange. There's a long tradition of these from Europe (and the US) as well and the build details of these could be easier for you to copy since they seem to be largely built from standard boards, AKA dimensional lumber. The wedges are just used as locks, to fix head and tailstocks once slid into position along the bed. Using wedges in this way is also something with a long tradition in Europe and subsequently in America, as well as in other woodworking traditions.
    – Graphus
    Mar 3, 2022 at 2:10
  • What are your goals with this lathe? If you want to do more than fairly basic turning in green wood perhaps something else would be a better route for you to explore.
    – Graphus
    Mar 3, 2022 at 2:11
  • 1
    Link to videos you have watched? I searched on YouTube, found only one and it had no wedges!!
    – Volfram K
    Mar 3, 2022 at 5:54
  • Having not watched any videos (except, perhaps an episode or two of The Woodwright's Shop on PBS 25+ years ago) on bow-lathes, I'd venture to say the tail stock slides in a long, loose dovetail so it can be moved into position, then is held there by driving a wedge to jam it into position. Note that you can find episodes of TWS on-line today. I'm not sure if any of the bow-lathe episodes are there, but it may be worth a search, as Roy usually described how the tools worked in addition to showing them in use.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 3, 2022 at 14:05
  • 1
    For mains-powered drills (also @Graphus, who may have come across these before) it's possible to use an external speed controller and a fixed speed drill. This is the same as a dimmer switch for incandescent lighting, though slightly heavier duty. If making a drill-powered lathe I'd build one of those into it somewhere, and also fit a suitably-rated footswitch (I've got the latter for my drill press that takes a normal drill - and has the dial/lock combination Graphus mentions)
    – Chris H
    Apr 27, 2022 at 13:37

1 Answer 1


In the video, it looks like one center is fixed (headstock) and the other center is adjustable (tailstock). I would guess there's some friction in the tailstock (it probably has a tenon that fits snugly in the slot), but the turner appears to be also holding it in position with his left foot. There shouldn't be much force on the tailstock, so he probably doesn't need to do much with his foot.

I'm sure some people use wedges to hold the centers securely rather than having yet another thing to tend to. On my pole late my "poppets" (tailstock and headstock) have tenons that descend beneath the bed. A mortise runs through them under the bed, and a wedge can be hammered in to pull the poppet tight against the bed. You can find many pictures online, such as https://www.reddit.com/r/turning/comments/coaqga/i_reworked_the_poppets_on_my_pole_lathe_details/.

For this lathe though, that would mean raising the lathe up off the floor a bit, which would make it harder to operate with your feet. I think your last picture shows the solution, which is that the bed runs through the tailstock, and so those wedges pull the bottom of the tailstock mortise up against the bed, providing friction.

  • +1 Thanks for the valuable insights. Did you read through the Comments? I tried to steer the OP against this idea towards something more practical (and SO much easier in terms of body mechanics!) if the goal is actually the turned items, rather than mainly or entirely to investigate the technology.
    – Graphus
    Apr 11, 2022 at 18:50
  • It would be nice of you to edit your answer to include a couple of pics of your lathe (overview and details) to make it easier for everyone.
    – FreeMan
    Apr 12, 2022 at 15:53
  • 1
    a few weeks after originally posting this I acquired a pair of metal-lathe steadyrests which were being thrown away, which i simply bolt through the dog holes on my bench, one holding a live-center and the other a drill with a drive spur in it. I initially tried this with a second live center (also saved from the dumpster) and a bow, and @Graphus has a point, motors are pretty useful things. Apr 28, 2022 at 21:37

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