The Restoration of a Holtzapfell Ornamental Lathe

Back in the 1980’s and – 90’s I had the pleasure of working at my dream job. In Jerusalem, Israel, building incredibly detailed and very fancy ornamental pieces for a discerning clientel. I should tell you that I was not the owner; but I was one of only two employees, and I got to do lots and lots of really challenging jobs.

Holtz 001The owner met with the clients, made sketches and passed them on to me with some details the owner expected to see. I then drew up the technical drawings and worked with him and our resident silversmith/goldsmith to coordinate our efforts.

We worked in ornamental woods, abalone, Mother-of-Pearl, legal ivory (stripped from old piano keys, believe it or not) and silver and gold to produce some truly stunning work.

Most of the exotic hardwoods were imported from South Africa, where an old friend of the owner ran an export business selling – you guessed it – exotic hardwoods.  I had a ball. For someone who loved working in wood, that really was a dream job. Truth to tell, I spent many nights thinking about the piece I was working on and how I could improve it. I woke up in the mornings and could not wait to get to work.

One morning, when I unlocked the shop door, I found several crates in the middle of the sales floor with lots of metal bits scattered about. When the owner arrived he told me his friend had picked it up at a yard sale in Capetown, South Africa, the remainder from an estate sale nobody knew what to do with. So, it was to be sold to a recycling company to be melted down. Until my bosses friend showed up and purchased it as scrap metal. And that is how an extremely rare Holtzapffel Ornamental Lathe was shipped into israel – as several crates of junk.

The cast iron was covered in rust and corrosion had turned the brass green. The Cuban Mahogany wooden chests and drawers were intact, but filthy from years of neglect. Yes, Real honest to goodness Cuban Mahogany. Does not exist any more. But there it was, along with one of the most beautiful lathes ever built. In pieces, all over the sales floor.

He was smiling and shaking his head. I was giggling like a school girl. I had a set of John Jacob Holtzapffel’s books right beside my workbench, in the loft above our heads. And right there on the shop floor, in many, many pieces, was the lathe itself. “Can we keep it?” I asked.

“Can you fix it?” He asked. “How long, and how much?”

“Two months of steady work to clean it all up, build a stand for it and maybe some repairs to whatever’s broken or missing. Wn’t know about that for a week, maybe.” I replied.

That flywheel weighs 90 lbs and required nearly a week to clean, polish and paint. One of the interesting facts about that era and these lathes you may not know. Bearings were not common, and there are NO bearings on these lathes (this lathe was manufactured in 1865). Instead, mirror-polished cones were matched up with receptacles and light oil was added through a small cup. These mating points were adjustable to keep things spinning along smoothly. Brilliant. Truly brilliant. Who needs computers, anyway.

While working through the assortedd bits and pieces that came with the lathe, we learned that sadly many of the chucks that should be in the tool chest were missing. Replacing them would be nearly impossible, and if they could be found would cost an arm and a leg.

So, we would be getting along with what we had. Which, considering that we now had an ornamental lathe, would be absolutley stuuning compared to not having anornamental lathe.

Building the bench to hold the lathe took about a week. I took the time to fashion mortice and tennon joints for strength. That flywheel had me concerned and I did not want any imballance showing up and shking hings to bits. Our in-house smith fashioned some lovely brass corner covers for the bench, which abssolutley set everything off very well

My boss and I had a brief discussion about motorizing the lathe. I wanted the treadle and he wanted the electric motor. I explained that I would be using it far more than he would, so he agreed tot he treadle for completeness’ sake. I knew the day I left his employee (right about the time hell was planning to freeze over) he would have a motor put on. He could do that; it was his lathe, after all (darn it!).

What you see int hephoto below is one of the most fascinating features of the Holtzapffel Lathe. That dividing head is used when you need to space elements around an object. Dividing heads are not uncommon today, so its existence is not surprising. What is surprising is that this dividing head has, along the outer rim of that brass plate, 360 stops bored into it. One for every degree of the circle. THAT is unheard of, even today.

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There enough afficianados of ornamental turning that some small manufacturers are producing chucks and other parts and fitting to turn a ‘normal’ lathe into an ornamental lathe, and even one or two who build ornamental laths for the market.

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What you see in the photo above is the drive band running from the flywheel to the overhead transfer drum and then down to the pully on the cutter bar mounted on the bed of the lathe. Just behind that pulley is one of the chucks mounted on the headstock. Each chuck also has a small dividing head attached on its rear face.

Holtz4 001

The photo above shows the serial number of this machine, located on the back face of the headstock. Mounted on the left side of the headstock is the detent, used to lock the dividing head into place as you work on a facet of your project. Note, too that the detent can be adjusted up or down to perfectly center your workpiece (preferably before you actually do anything).

Holtz12Restored 001

John Jacob Holtzapffel built a truly wonderous machine, and sold them to the crowned heads of Europe in the years before the First World War. He aimed for perfection in his work, and he achieved it. That allowed his clientel to achieve perfection (or at least to dream of achieving perfection) in their work, as well.

In all truth, that just about all we can hope to do, isn’t it.


About Gary Showalter

Gary Showalter was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He lived in Aruba, Florida and the Panama Canal Zone before joining the U.S. Army during the 1960s. Following his discharge from the Army, Mr. Showalter picked cotton in East Texas, baled hay in Ardmore Oklahoma, sold light bulbs in Los Angeles, California, and built cattle pens in Fallon, Nevada (during a blizzard, of course). After settling in Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Showalter worked as a professional gardener before turning his hand to furniture making. In 1981, he moved to Israel, married, and raised four children while working as a furniture maker, silversmith, goldsmith, and ornamental wood turner. He served in the Israel Defense Forces Reserves for sixteen years, and when not on active duty he worked in government and private security. He has also served in senior management positions in two software development companies in Israel. During his time in Israel, Mr. Showalter published articles dealing with international terror and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Jerusalem Post, Israel national News and several political science web sites. Mr. Showalter returned to the United States in the fall of 2003, to care for an elderly parent. He published his first novel, “The Big Bend”, in the fall of 2008. His second novel, “Hog Valley”, is now in print. Mr. Showalter's third novel, “Twisted Key”, was published in the fall of 2011, and his fourth novel, "Lonesome Cove" is now available in Kindle format and should be published in paper near the end of 2012. Those words were written a few years ago. Frankly speaking, the literary well has dried up. I now live in Dunnellon, Fl, where I amworking as the caretaker on a horse farm and looking to build a workshop here on the property where I can get back to building furniture. With any luck I will be sinking piers some time early in November and hope to have the floor joists ready for flooring by the end of the month. I'll get back to you on that.
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