Treadle Power Woodworking Tools

Written by john willis
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Woodworking machines preceded electricity and steam power. Early woodshops were sometimes built next to a creek using waterwheels to power a series of belts to power machines. Even before this kind of mechanisation, simple treadles powered woodworking machines. A treadle is a foot pedal. It is rocked back and forth to create rotation to power the machine. The operator actuates the treadle while working, just like antique foot-powered sewing machines.


A lathe is well-suited to treadle power. It spins wood on a single axis to be turned and shaped into items, such as chair spindles and legs. A lathe spins on a horizontal axis. The treadle wheel turns on a horizontal axis. A lathe requires only a simple belt. The belt connects the treadle wheel to a wheel that drives the lathe chuck. Originally, treadle lathes would have used leather drive belts.

Drill Press

A drill press is used to drill mechanically precise, perpendicular holes. There is an extra challenge in making a treadle-powered drill press. The axis of the treadle is not parallel to the axis of the drill. It is perpendicular. With a perpendicular axis, the drive must change directions. So, the treadle wheel drives a primary gear. The primary gear is connected to a secondary gear that changes the drive axis 45 degrees. The secondary gear, in turn, drives the drill chuck.

Scroll Saw

A scroll saw is a fine reciprocating saw. The mechanism to power the saw, like treadle-powered sewing machines, doesn't spin the saw blade, but moves it up and down. This is done by offsetting the blade connection to the final drive gear. Because the connection is offset, as the gear turns an armature moves up and down. The design is also seen in the final drive gears of steam locomotives. It remains a good system of powering scroll saws because the operator can go slowly for intricate, detailed work and easily slow the speed and stop when needed.

Table Saw

Table saws are the workhorse of most woodworking shops. They have a cutting table and a rotating blade into which wood is fed, usually along a fence or guide. The table saw's treadle is positioned in front of the saw. The drive wheel is connected to the blade by a drive axles. Table saws where powered by treadles out of necessity. However, it is no longer a good choice for table saws as they tend to require more power than other tools.

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