I was looking for a simple way to describe woodworking and I found myself glancing the wiki page for it. The pictures on the side were intriguing. Particularly one showing one (two?) gentlemen turning some wood.


The caption I did not find particularly helpful as it more described what they were making more than how they were doing it.

Damascene woodworkers turning wood for mashrabia and hookahs, 19th century.

We can see the turner using his left hand and foot to hold the blade against some sort of tool rest (or the frame of the turning box). It appears his right hand is holding something like a bow which I will assume is what is literally turning the wood.

The other man is supervising as best I can tell.

What are the tools being used to turn here? Does the process have a special name in this context or is it simply a form of traditional turning?

  • 1
    I agree with your analysis; I can't add anything except to point out that it's interesting to compare this to the European treadle lathe, which uses a foot for power and a springy branch for the return stroke.
    – keshlam
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 2:22

1 Answer 1


It appears his right hand is holding something like a bow which I will assume is what is literally turning the wood.

Yes, he's using a bow lathe, a turning method that goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt and still in wide use by craftsmen in the Middle East, as well as in Africa and across Asia.

The photo in the Question is a bit murky, easier to see the way it works in this one:

Bow lathe in use

Source: Bow lathes by Gale Wollenberg

And here's a YouTube video showing one in use in Morocco, link.

Although in most bow lathes historically and today the workpiece itself is acted on by the bow, with the wood held between two dead centres, the same principle can be used to power a lathe more conventionally with the rotation transmitted to the work via a drive centre. Having the workpiece untethered allows use of smaller pieces of material which obviously can be very useful.

Modern or later bow lathe

Source: Lathe design, construction and operation by Oscar E. Perrigo, available to download for free from Archive.org

Although this is old technology and might seem a little crude here it is in use in watchmaking!

Bow lathe in watchmaking


  • That video of the Moroccan guy turning the chess piece is what my mind immediately jumped to when I saw this. Makes me feel like a whiner when I can't turn something using the 15+ lathe tools I have and this guy is doing captive rings with his feet and a skew chisel.
    – grfrazee
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 13:11
  • @grfrazee, I was going to say something about the video being a good lesson for us pampered Western woodworkers with all our tools showing what can be done with just one skew chisel! On top of that I'm still trying to get my head around using a foot for accurate work like this o_O
    – Graphus
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 20:29
  • Practice. Lots and lots of practice.
    – grfrazee
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 21:01
  • @grfrazee, yup, that'll do it.
    – Graphus
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 6:27

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