Victorian Era Toolmaker: The Holtzapffel Firm

The Holtzapffel Firm (Fl. 1795-1928)

The Holtzapffel family spanned several generations and had an extremely important influence on ornamental turning during England's Victorian Era.

John Jacob Holtzapffel I (Photo courtesy of Ron Roszkiewicz)

John Jacob Holtzapffel was born and lived in Strasbourg (then part of France) where he trained as a turner. He moved to London in 1792 and worked for two years in the workshop of the famous mathematical instrument maker Jesse Ransden (Fl. 1762-1800). Then, in 1794, he setup his own mechanical and toolmaker business, initially as a partnership with Francis Rousset. During its first years, the shop made anything requested, including ammunition casings and inventor models.

In 1795, John Jacob began the lathe production for which the firm was to become famous. From 1795 to 1803, they produced and sold 385 lathes, including Holtzapffel's first rose engine lathe in 1797.

Of particular importance is the overhead drive system he developed in which a treadle-powered arrangement of pulleys and belts rotates the cutters, which had a variety of sizes and profiles. This enabled an unending profusion of surface decorations to be made on an item while still mounted on the lathe.

Lathe headstock engraved Holtzapffel & Deyerlein, London

From 1804 to 1827, John Jacob formed a partnership with his assistant John George Deyerlein and conducted business under the name Holtzapffel & Deyerlein. (Holtzapffel lathes were not engraved with numbers until Deyerlein joined the firm.) Deyerlein became ill and died in October of 1826. John Jacob's son Charles joined the business in 1827 and by year's end the firm had officially become Holtzapffel & Co..

Read letters by J. J. Holtzapffel I, and other related documents on website

Early Holtzapffel rose engine lathe

Charles joined his father's company at age 21, the same time Deyerlein left the firm. He took over the business nine years later when his father died and continued to develop the machinery and attachments for ornamental turning. He also invented other devices including machinery for printing banknotes, a dividing engine for the graduation of drawing scales, and an apparatus for tracing geometrical figures on glass.

In 1838, Charles published his "A New System of Scales of Equal Parts: Applicable to Various Purposes of Engineering, Architectural and General Science," as well as the related "List of Scales of Equal Parts." He then published several of the multi-volume treatise Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, which were intended as a work of general reference and instruction on the lathe. Volume 1, "Materials, Their Differences, Choice, and Preparation; Various Modes of Working Them, Generally Without Cutting Tools," was his father's work and published in 1843. Charles wrote Volume 2, "The Principles of Construction, Action and Application of Cutting Tools Used by Hand; And Also of Machines Derived from the Hand Tools," was published in 1846. Vol. 3, "Abrasives and Miscellaneous Processes, which Cannot be Accomplished with Cutting Tools," remained uncompleted when Charles died at age 41.

The original Holtzapffel register of lathes is a handwritten document containing 2,557 entries, each noting the type of lathe, when it was first sold, buyer's name, date sold and price paid. The document is currently housed at the Guildhall Library in London. (Photo courtesy Richard Boughton.)

At the time of his death in 1847, the firm had sold approximately 1500 lathes. Charles Holtzapffel was a member of the Council of the Institute of Civil Engineers, and was Chairman of the Mechanic's Committee of the Society of Arts. Read the Charles Holtzapffel obituary, memorial, will, and other related documents

Amelia took over the firm upon her husband's early death, as their eldest son John Jacob II was only eleven years old at the time. She posthumously published Charles' partially completed Vol. 3 of Turning and Mechanical Manipulation in 1850, and continued to manage the firm until 1853. Her marriage to George Caulkin Budd produced further lineage to the company a generation later, after her brother John Jacob II, who did not have any children, led the company from 1867 to 1897.

Since John Jacob II was a minor when his father died, it would be twenty years after his fathers death until he became head of the firm, which he ran until 1896.

"The Principles and Practice of Ornamental or Complex Turning" was first published in 1884 and became a much sought-after reference for ornamental turners even to this day.

He completed Vol. 4, "The Principles and Practice of Hand or Simple Turning," which was published in 1879. (He also made the 750 woodcut illustrations that it contains.) Vol. 5, "The Principles and Practice of Ornamental or Complex Turning," was published in 1884. The examples shown in Vol. 5 attest to his fine abilities as an ornamental turner. It would have contained more information since he had planned to write a Vol. 6 detailing the rose engine and geometric chuck, but it was never produced. However, John Jacob did go on to publish a revised and enlarged edition of Vol. 3 in 1894.

Today, Vol. IV and V of the series are often called the "Bible of Ornamental Turning" because they are such comprehensive books on all aspects of the craft. John Jacob is credited with having brought the cost of an ornamental turning lathe down to a sum which a "mere gentleman" could afford. He also refined and improved lathe design in general, resulting in a combination that was both elegant and functional.

Although he married in 1862, John Jacob had no children. His sister (also named Amelia) married George Calkin Budd and produced five children, among them George William (see below).

Holtzapffel catalogue, circa 1910.
John Jacob's nephew, George William Budd adopted the Holtzapffel name and became head of the firm in 1896. He enjoyed sharing admiration and advice for the art of ornamental turning and was a skilled artist himself. He was also a Justice of the Peace, a Past Master of The Worshipful Company of Turners, and a constant Judge at that Company's Exhibition. His son, John George succeeded him. Read the George W. Holtzapffel Budd obituary

From 1919, John George helped with the business, becoming head in his turn. In 1927, John George announced that due to increased costs of production after the war, combined with their clients' tremendous preoccupation with the automobile over ornamental turning, they would be closing their doors. The last lathe produced was Holtzapffel No. 2557, made in 1913-14 and sold in November 1928. No other business matched the Holtzapffel family in the production of ornamental lathes.

Walshaw's graph of Holtzapffel lathe production 1795 to 1919.

In 1928, the lathe business was given up, the stock sold off, and the firm became a common retail shop along with a sub-contracting engineering business. In 1938, this business was taken over by Sharpleshall Ltd. and was also known as Sharples Hall Works. From 1932-1956, an associate firm conducted business as Walkers & Holtzapffel (Walker was Budd's brother-in-law), and was also known simply as Walkers during the period 1929-1931. One of that company's main activities was producing model railway equipment.

Learn more about the Holtzapffel family, their firm, and the lathes they produced at the website.

If you want a tool to be the centre of all manner of tinkering and mending, or for exercise that is gentle and cheap, or for calling the mind off from anxiety or hard thinking, or for healthful and artistic creations, I know of no instrument to be compared to the Lathe. It is easily kept in order, and the results are so quick, so varied, and so beautiful, that you never get tired of it.

Reverend John Todd (1870)


Holtzapffel rose engine lathe #1636, first sold on December 1838.