The Emergence of Ornamental Turning

By John Wetherall

From the time of the Renaissance, a series of craftsmen developed a proficiency for working in ivory on a machine known as a lathe. The lathe spun the ivory around in place as the craftsman applied a chisel to its surface to create shapes, sometimes of extreme beauty and sometimes of queer and bizarre forms. Then, removing the basic form from the lathe, the craftsman applied hand held chisels and files to decorate and embellish the surface of the piece further.


This was not the earliest use of a lathe to help form ornamented objects. It is reported that Phidias, before the fifth century B. C.,at times used the lathe for the primary shaping of materials and then, with consummate skill, added additional decoration and embellishment to create some of the artistic pieces for which he became famous. From the earliest use of the lathe, however, until the nineteenth century, the basic means of embellishing a turned piece did not change: surface embellishment could not be applied while the work was on the revolving lathe; the piece had to be removed and decorated by hand. Not until the Holtzapffels perfected the ornamental turning lathe in the nineteenth century could the ornamentally decorated pieces be completed while still in the lathe.

Ornamental turnery is the decoration or embellishment of plain-turned objects, usually of wood or ivory, with designs that elevate them from merely utilitarian objects to bring them into the realm of the decorative arts. Decorative arts have traditionally been created in such media as glass and ceramics, which lend themselves to surface embellishment during the formation of an object. Although many materials may be used for ornamental turning, including metal, some types of rock, and plastic, the two primary materials used are wood and ivory. Neither of these is as malleable as such materials as blown glass or clay and therefore do not easily allow surface decoration during the forming or turning process. Therefore, some technique for applying surface decoration during the turning process had to be developed.

The problem was overcome with the development of the ornamental-turning lathe, with its supplement of complex subsidiary tools and apparatuses. A plate, chalice, vase, candlestick, or other object may be turned on an ordinary lathe and become a thing of beauty by virtue of its material, form, and craftsmanship, despite its plain shape. The same object, turned on an ornamental lathe, may become even more beautiful by virtue of the surface decoration imparted by the equipment and tools.

In the nineteenth century, ornamental turning matured with the innovations perfected by the Holtzapffel family and others. With the production of more than 2,000 greatly improved lathes, this was the golden age of ornamental turnery.

The Holtzapffel Firm

Image Ornamental turning latheThe beginnings of true ornamental turnery are found in the story of John Jacob Holtzapffel, an Alsatian engineer who settled in London in 1792, while George III was king of England. From the first his main objective seems to have been producing lathes and related tools. In 1795, he delivered the first Holtzapffel lathe to a Mr. Crisp. By the end of 1803, he had made and sold no fewer than 358 lathes.

Prior to Holtzapffel’s work, ornamental turnery really did not exist in the technical sense, as most of the ornamentation had to be applied by hand after the piece was plain-turned. Holtzapffel developed the overhead drive, which operates much like the modern dentist’s drill. He also designed a myriad of revolving cutters that operate in the slide rest to produce the ornamentation that previously had been done by hand. Each lathe came with a complete set of cutters with no duplicates. Holtzapffel made special mahogany boxes with drawers and hinged covers to hold the cutters. The boxes themselves are collector’s items. Along with the cutters came special handles into which the cutter can be inserted and fastened with a brass thumbscrew. These handles allowed the turner to transform ornamental-turning tools into plain-cutting tools. Holtzapffel even included a special pair or tweezers for plucking the cutters from their nests.

In 1827 Charles Holtzapffel, John Jacob’s son, joined the firm. Charles was a distinguished engineer in his own right, even through he was only twenty-one when he joined the firm. John Jacob Holtzapffel died in 1835. The firm was carried on by Charles, who published his father’s first volume of Turning and Mechanical Manipulation in 1843. The second volume was brought out in 1846.

Charles Holtzapffel established himself as a make of mechanical apparatuses for amateurs and continued his father’s work in developing the machinery and various attachments for ornamental turnery, as well investing other devices. Charles developed machinery for printing banknotes, a tool for cutting rosettes for ornamental turning, a dividing engine for the graduation of drawing scales, and an apparatus for tracing geometrical figures on glass. It was said that he probably never put his hand to a machine that he did not improve in some manner or other.

Image Ornamental lathe

Acknowledgment; ORNAMENTAL TURNERY by Frank M Knox.

David Thomas Memorial Trophy

Image of David Thomas Memorial TrophyDavid joined the Woodturners Society of Queensland in 1986 and quickly became a vocal and hard-working member. He came on to the Management Committee as Secretary in 1988 and served almost continuously in several Committee positions until 2003. He was President in 1991.

He worked tirelessly to find and negotiate a permanent meeting place for the Society, which culminated in a long term lease of the Greenslopes premises. Most of the subsequent development of the building was due to his drive and his ability to find solutions to problems.

He was made a Life Member in 1993.

David was skilled in many aspects of woodwork, and recently, with several other members became involved in Ornamental Turning.

It is fitting that David should be remembered by a perpetual trophy for Ornamental Turning  because of his motivation that inspired us all.

David passed away peacefully on the morning of Thursday 11 September 2003.

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