Ornamental Turning Book of Knowledge
Rose Engine Lathe

Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis

A rose engine lathe is a specialized kind of geometric lathe.

The headstock rocks back and forth with a rocking motion or along the spindle axis in a pumping motion, controlled by a touch moving against a rosette or cam-like pattern mounted on the spindle, while the lathe spindle rotates.

Rose engine work can make flower patterns, as well as convoluted, symmetrical, multi-lobed geometric patterns.

The patterns it produces are similar to that of a Spirograph. No other ornamental lathe can produce these "rose" patterns.

One type of decoration produced by a rose engine lathe is called guilloché. Guilloché is sometimes confused with "jewel finishes" or engine turning, a much cheaper process of making swirly marks in metal by a rotating abrasive peg or pad, which is repeatedly applied to the surface to make a pattern of overlapping circles. Jewel finishes used to be common on stereo faceplates and automobile interiors. An example of the jewel finish is on the nose of the Spirit of St. Louis (shown at the right).

Beautiful wooden objects are also made with a rose engine lathe, and that seems to be the primary purpose for most hobbyists.


Rocking Motion

At a simplistic level, a rose engine lathe makes three sets of movement happen at the same time.

  1. An object, held in a chuck, is rotated very slowly (typically <10 RPM) around the Z axis,

  2. The headstock is rocked back and forth (basically in the X axis) with movements which are based on the shape of a rosettes (i.e., a cam), and

  3. A spinning cutter (held in cutting frame) is engaged to make the cutting.

But what makes a Rose Engine Lathe really fun is that there are so many variables that can be brought into play.

  1. There are a whole bunch of types of chucks that can present the object in different ways to the cutter,

  2. The headstock can:
    1. rock back and forth,
    2. pump to the left and right, or be
    3. held fixed, and indexed using a indexing wheel.

  3. The cutter can:
    1. rotate horizontally, vertically, or somewhere in between,
    2. spin like a drill, or
    3. simply be a fixed scraper.

(There are other approaches that can be taken, but this gives the general idea.)

The video to the right shows these activities working in harmony to produce a nice design.


To me, the most excellent part is the way it can work relatively unattended. This means:

  • I can walk to the other end of my shop and get a cup of coffee whilst it is running, and

  • Someone who has less muscular control (e.g., an arthritic) can make great pieces whilst sitting in front of the machine, making small adjustments as needed. This hobby really accommodates those of us who aren't in the prime of our life any more (or maybe never were).

And, my wife loves what I make on the machine! (She chooses what to keep, and what to give away.)


So, how do you get started? Well this site is intended to help you do just that. But if you get hung up along the way, do send me an email via the address shown below. I will do what I can to get you past your stopping point.


And for a fun video, here is a spirograph used on an MDF rose engine lathe.

Rose Engine meets Spirograph

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Disclaimer : eMail comments to me at OTBookOfKnowledge @ Gmail.com. The process of woodturning involves the use of tools, machinery and materials which could cause injury or be a health hazard unless proper precautions are taken, including the wearing of appropriate protective equipment.