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For all the girls I’ve maimed before: I’m sorry.

Though I have fairly good hand skills, my feet skills on the dance floor are murderous. When I dance, most people look for a wooden spoon in order to help me through my grand mal seizure.

So it should come as no surprise that woodworking machines powered by feet should be a challenge for me. I first started working on treadle machines when I took a chairmaking class in Canada. We turned all the spindles on a springpole lathe. And it took me an entire day to get the rhythm to actually work a chunk of ash into something round.

This week I went to visit Roy Underhill and he let me work on two of his foot-powered machines: a Graves treadle-powered table saw and a treadle grindstone.

The saw is something special. I want one, though it’s doubtful I’d ever be able to get my feets on one. You pump the treadle, which turns a flywheel, which spins the blade. You adjust the height of the blade by raising and lowering the table. You make crosscuts with a miter gauge in a miter slot.

Rips are a little different. One person turns a crank (included!) to spin the blade. A second person guides the stuff through the blade. There is a rip fence that locks into a second slot.

Roy Underhill had no problem crosscutting stuff time after time. The blade never slowed. The cuts were clean. His rhythm was slow and steady.

For me, it was like a spastic weasel pumping a Nordic Trac. Too fast. And then the thing stalled. After a few tries…¦ it got worse.

Underhill kept saying, “It took me a whole day to get the hang of it.”


Then we went out and played with his treadle-powered grindstone. Underhill sharpened a chisel in about a minute. Then he let me try , in front of the entire hamlet of Pittsboro, N.C. Again, my feet kept getting tangled up in themselves. I couldn’t get more than two seconds of grinding before my legs looked like something at the Auntie Anne’s pretzel counter.

Underhill kept saying, “I need to tighten up those pedals. That would make it easier.”

Again, Underhill is an excellent liar.

I think I should stick with hand tools. Foot tools are just beyond me.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 24 comments
  • John F

    Thanks for taking the time to say hello during your photo shoot in Pitsboro. Sounds like my wife and I left before the real fun began. I too am struggling to learn the spring pole so I can completely understand. I am going to have a good look at that treadle lathe and jigsaw. If I ever stop making tools I might be able to get to all those projects on the list!
    Keep up the great blog!


  • Jeff M

    Chris C – that would be the October 2000 issue. Roy was on the cover with his ‘Colonial Combo Tool’, a foot-powered lathe and scroll saw.

  • Tom

    When my kids were small, we took them to Williamsburg. We were fortunate to encounter Mr Underhill at the Carpenter’s Yard. He put the kids to work with a 2-kid saw, slicing a foot or so off the end of a white oak log. They quickly tired of that, so he let them try his foot-operated lathe. That wore ’em out further. Then he told me the story about the pit saw. When powered sawmills came along, all the saw pits were surplus. So they cut them up and sold them as post holes.

    Chris, thanks for sharing your experience with those of us who are in Distance Learning.

  • Mark Dennen

    Reading this article about discovering the ability to master a lost art brought back fond memories. Two years ago, a good friend of mine passed away. He was absolutely the finest sharpener I have ever met. He could do it all from chisels to plane irons to router bits to table saw blades to bread knives (which he said were not a knife, but a saw!).

    He sharpened normal kitchen knives on an Arkansas stone trying to instruct me on how to twist the wrist to get the tip just right. I never learned the technique which he learned over a lifetime and use a more modern jig and get less than perfect results. Those who have perfected an art, be it sharpening, drywall, plaster or crown molding in an old house are just a joy to behold (and envy).

    Have a good day,


  • Christopher Schwarz


    You’re absolutely right. My best friend from high school is an epileptic, and we used to joke about the "wooden spoon" myth so much that it became part of my humor lexicon. My mistake. I went too far there. And thanks for pointing it out.


  • Richard Dort

    Obviously you have never heard of Tommy Tune, the dancer-entertainer. He was well over 6’4" and was very graceful. As I tell my girlfriend-if you were looking for perfection look somewhere else. Chris, leave the dancing to the dancers and just keep working the wood.

  • Blaine


    Thanks for this greatly humorous blog entry. It reminded me of what I am told is a old Irish saying which is: "He who can laugh at himself shall never cease to be amused."

    Keep working at dancing. They say both exercise and laughter make you live longer.


  • Mike O'Brien

    Chris, Your reported adventure with the treadle saw is not only humorous, but refreshingly honest.
    Best wishes, Mike O’Brien , Valley Head,AL

  • Chris C

    There seems to be some interest here in either acquiring
    or building hand/foot powered machines.

    Just as an FYI an article appeared in popular woodworking
    some 10 years ago on how to build a foot powered scroll
    saw. The article was written by…you guessed it: Roy

    Does anyone remember the exact date/issue#? It was actually
    a really interesting project as I recall.


  • Joe Lyddon


    Thank you very much for changing your FONT COLOR making it darker with more contrast than before!

    It is SO MUCH easier to read now!

    Thanks again,
    Joe Lyddon

  • Devon

    I really enjoy reading your blog, and if I had the money would subscribe to your magazines for certain. I did want to point something out in this post, and to clarify I’m not upset by any means. you don’t put anything in the mouth of an epileptic. In my youth I suffered from petit mal seizures and my sister throughout her entire life has suffered from grand mal. there is a lot of misconception out there about what to do when someone is seizing. moving objects out of the way and giving them space and protecting them from others are about all you can really do. I’ve seen people try to restrian people having seizure and try putting wallets in their mouth. both very bad ideas. Anyway, that was all very serious, and I do apologize for that. Just want to help educate where ever possible. Again, love reading your stuff, keep up the great work!

  • Dan

    An old fellow here in Phillips, Wisconsin had a Barnes table saw similar to the one pictured above in his frame shop. It had been his father’s and was in use in the late 1800/early 1900s. It had been since converted to electric. He told me that his Dad hired two high school boys to spin the flywheel with cranks. Electricity was available but was so expensive at that time that it was cheaper to hire the boys than to get an electric motor.


  • Josh


    Where/Who would one contact to purchase one of these foot powered table saws?


  • Tom Dugan

    Now, in Roy’s book(s) he says that the oldtimers told him that the "correct" way to run your wheel was away from the edge. When Roy asked whyzat, he was given the obvious answer; turning towards you throws the water into your lap!

    Good thing you’ve got those Depends.


  • Christopher Schwarz

    If you pedal it like a bicycle, the stone turns toward the user.

    You could pedal it backwards….


  • Tom Dugan

    Actually, it kinda does explain your mad dancing skilz – in that every tall guy I’ve seen on a dance floor was ….. well,let’s just say they weren’t going to make "Dancing w/t/ Stars".

    Now with all that Roy has written about grinding wheels, I gotta ask: Which way does the thing turn?


  • Christopher Schwarz

    A genius excuse! I’ll have to remember that.

    I’m 6’3-5/8". Long story.

    It still doesn’t explain my inability to dance….


  • David

    One thing to remember is that those tools were not built for the modern man. The average height today for a male from a western country is 5’10". In the day that these machines were made, it was more like 5’6". And I’m guessing from your Lie Nielsen videos that you’re more like 6’2". Ask anyone that runs a bike shop how important the frame size match to your height is – I think you’ll find that you were doing the equivalent of trying to pedal a child’s tricycle.

  • Jonas H. Jensen

    I used to have an old foot powerered Singer sewing machine standing in my machinery shed until I threw it out.
    It was complete including the instruction book….

    These things could easily be transformed into almost any woodworking machinery, since the bottom is a cast iron table including a foot threadleplate, a flywheel of approx. 20", and the outside rim of the flywheel has a groove in it designed to be used with a round leather "rope" of approx. ½" diameter.
    So you just add whatever machinery you want on the top, and the power part of the machine is ready to go.

    It wont be an original, but it would work.
    According to my dad, my granddad made him a scroll saw like that when he was a child.

    Have a nice weekend

  • Christopher Schwarz

    OK. The little cone above the grinding wheel holds the water that drips on the grindstone and then onto the nice sidewalk of Pittsboro.

    That is not my mess. Because I wear Depends.


  • Joel Jacobson

    "I hope that the water under the wheel came from the honing process."

    That’s also the first thing that occurred to me.

    I remember seeing a treadle operated table saw in the Smithsonian. It was in the Centennial exhibit (items from the 1876 Centennial in Philly). Sadly, it’s no longer on display.

  • CatX

    I’d love to get some good photos of that grinding wheel — it looks like it’d be fun to build and use… (the table saw also, although I’m trying very hard not to look at the jointmaker pro…)

  • The Village Carpenter

    Roy would have to add a seatbelt before I’d try my feet at that grinding wheel.

  • Tim TAN

    Chris :

    I hope that the water under the wheel came from the honing process. I’d hate for all the blog readers to discover that during the sharpening process, you either wet your pants because of nervous ticks, or perspired so badly your body fluids ended up on the curbside.


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