WHAT IS A WOOD LATHE?
In the simplest sense, a wood lathe is a highly efficient woodturning machine. The workpiece is spun or rotated so you can sculpt it against a grinder, sandpaper or a cutting tool. This allows you to turn the wood in a way simply not possible with other equipment.
While you can obviously sculpt by hand, a lathe gives you much more speed as well as bringing down the likelihood of any mishaps likely to occur when you’re forcing a sharp blade manually against a workpiece.
What Accessories Do You Need?
A lathe is not a standalone piece of equipment. Think of it as more of a facilitator…
That said, the face plate, live center and spur center provided with most lathes will get you off to a flying start. A chuck would make your life easier if you’re turning bowls or coring out boxes.
In today’s wood lathe reviews, we’ll give you a solid overview of what you need to look for if you want the best lathe and we’ll present a choice of 5 first-class machines to cater for all your woodturning needs.
Before that, though, a swift breakdown of the 3 main types of wood lathe…
Many power tools and machines come in a staggering array of variants with more differences than similarities. With wood lathes, though, the only major thing to consider off the bat is the size of machine that would make the best fit…
If you intend to turn dinky little bowls or pens, a mini lathe fits the bill perfectly.
There are many different definitions of a mini lathe but, as a rule of thumb, they feature engines of less than 1HP, have less than 12 inches of clearance above the bed and measure less than 18 inches from center to center.
Stepping things up, midi lathes offer more horsepower, length and swing.
Midi lathes can either drop onto a workbench or sit on a set of legs.
Increasingly, midi lathes are electronic variable speed rather than the more traditional pulley and belt style.
With midi lathes, you’ll be able to turn wood more rapidly and also deal with larger projects more comfortably.
Although they rate a mention, for the purposes of this article we won’t be exploring full-sized lathes in detail.
These hulking machines are capable of the full gamut of applications including turning really huge workpieces and are indispensable for turning table legs and large round pieces of all descriptions.
Who Needs Wood Lathes?
Woodturning is really a subset of woodworking so you need to ask yourself just how often you’d use a lathe before establishing whether or not you should buy one.
Where something like a table saw or band saw has a range of applications and would be well used in most home workshops, a lathe is a specialist piece of kit.
If you do want to pursue the noble art of woodturning, a lathe is crucial. Hollowing out boxes, turning bowls or spindles, perhaps even table legs or baseball bats, is impractical or, at best, incredibly time-consuming without the assistance of a wood lathe.
So, long story short, lathes are absolutely not a requirement for the standard woodworker. If you want to get involved in some turning, though, a lathe could be the best investment you ever made.
THE COMPLETE WOOD LATHE BUYING GUIDE
Buying any power tool is not something to be taken lightly. If you’re serious about your woodworking, you’ll understand the importance of getting the very best tools you can afford. It’s for this reason we put together such detailed guides to help you every step of the way and ensure you avoid any expensive mistakes.
If you steam in and buy a wood lathe on a whim, you’re highly likely to end up with something entirely unsuitable. If, on the other hand, you take your time and do plenty of research, your woodturning will take on a new dimension.
Since wood lathes are fairly complex pieces of kit, it usually pays to spend a little more if you plan to get plenty of use out of the machine. That said, don’t under any circumstances spend more than you can afford. If you spot something you fancy and it’s out of your price range, you’re better off saving up rather than compromising yourself with a cheap and potentially subpar lathe.
Read a selection of user reviews so you can get a feel for the reported pros and cons of any given model. Familiarize yourself, too, with lathes in general so you’re well informed not whistling in the dark.
Here are some of the most important factors to take into account if you want to maximize your chance of finding the best wood lathe for your needs…
What To Consider When Buying a Wood Lathe
- The Type of Project and Type of Lathe
Before you launch into further specifics, honestly analyze what kind of woodturning you’ll be undertaking. This will help you determine what type of lathe would work best.
For smaller projects, a mini tabletop lathe is absolutely fine. It’s senseless buying something that offers functionality and capacity you’ll never use.
Equally, if you know in advance you’ll be working with larger pieces of wood and carrying out more ambitious projects, roll with a midi lathe or perhaps even a full-sized lathe if you have a commercial enterprise or a demanding scope of work up your sleeve.
If you plan to mainly work with smaller pieces but might occasionally need to crack on with a more substantial project, you can opt for a smaller lathe that takes extensions.
There’s no right or wrong answer here so take your time and double down on intended purpose to get the best wood lathe for your needs.
- The Type of Project and Type of Lathe
- Motor and Head Stock
There’s a wide range of motors available with wood lathes from 1/8HP right up through 3HP and beyond.
Variable speed controls allow you to tweak the pace from a few hundred RPM up to 4000RPM.
Since you need to keep your workpiece spinning at a consistent rate, the beefier the motor, the larger the material you’ll be able to turn.
If you’re looking to turn spindles or bowls, look for an interchangeable faceplate and drive center so you can hold your workpiece without the tail stock.
For anyone looking to turn big bowls, look for a head stock that will rotate well away from the base so you’ll get plenty of clearance but still be able to make use of the tool rest.
- Tail Stock
The tail stock is nothing more than a rotating pin at the opposite end of the head stock. Its function is to make sure the spindle stays centered and rotates evenly.
Make sure the tail stock locks into position along the bed. This will allow you much more adaptability when you’re turning.
- Motor and Head Stock
- Height and Weight of Lathe
The ergonomics of a lathe are critical. The last thing you want is a machine that’s a chore to work with.
The middle of the lathe should ideally sit at elbow height. Get the height wrong and you’ll find it uncomfortable to work with.
Regarding weight, you need to take the opposite approach to many tools where it’s a case of the lighter the better. The heavier your lathe, the more balance you’ll enjoy. Weightier lathes also help to dampen that menacing vibration.
Regardless of the size and type of lathe you choose, you’ll want a nice solid foundation.
The bed of your lathe is the horizontal beam running across the bed. It’s usually made from cast iron and its primary function is to stop the lathe from vibrating when you’re turning your wood. Even a small amount of vibration can make your job much harder and, in the worst scenario, cause an accident.
Put simply, the heavier and more rugged the base, the easier you’ll find working with it.
- Height and Weight of Lathe
When you’re turning, some pieces will need to be rotated at different speeds for best results. Table legs, for example, demand a brisker rotation than bowls.
Look for a lathe with variable speed which will give you much more versatility and allow you to tailor the pace according to the application.
Here, you need to consider the logistics of your workshop…
For spaces where’s there’s limited room, a lathe that will work well on any bench is a smart choice.
If you have a more spacious shop, you can certainly consider a lathe that comes with its own bench if that’s the type that would best gel with your turning requirements.
- Tool Rest
The tool rest is arguably one of the most important components of a wood lathe. You should rest your workpiece against this at all times when you are turning.
It’s imperative that the tool rest is fully adjustable and able to be locked into position securely.
Depending on the scope of work you have in mind, you might want more than one tool rest in differing sizes. These can be swapped out within the bed mount and will afford you more flexibility if you’re cutting spindles or bowls.
USAGE AND MAINTENANCE TIPS
While a lathe is simple enough in principle, it could take you a lifetime to fully master the art of woodturning.
Once you’ve got your lathe, it’s as much as anything about the accessories and tools you use with it to get best results.
To get started, here are some tools to consider:
Roughing Gouge: These miniature tools help you to rough the wood taking it from square to round. These are normally fashioned from steel and U-shaped. You can get rid of stock extremely swiftly with these tools. Unless you plan to work exclusively with platters and bowls
Spindle Gouge: For turning coves, you’ll want to invest in a spindle gouge. These gouges come with semi-circular cross-sections and are available in a range of sizes. The groove on a spindle gouge is shallower than on a rough gouge. You can grind the cutting edge up to 45 degrees. Once you’re more experienced, you can grind your own spindle gouges
Bowl Gouge: Ground square rather than back to the upper edge, bowl gouges come in many shapes and sizes. These gouges need to be highly rigid and robust and are ground from 40 to 55 degrees. With bowl gouges, it’s worth trying a few out to see which one best meshes with your needs
Skew Chisel: After using your roughing gouge to get a cylindrical shape, a skew chisel is ideal for planing it. You can find these with rectangular or oval cross-sections. Skew chisels are ground to angles of 60 to 80 degrees. While it’s a versatile tool, it’s for more advanced woodturners and something you don’t need to rush out and buy straight off the bat
Scraper: For fine internal finishes, scrapers are a must-have for any woodturner. You use scrapers without bevel rubbing. You use the tip of the cutting edge. It’s quite possible to regrind scrapers according to your requirements
Center Finder: Whether it’s round or square stock, pinpoint the middle easily with a center finder. With a center finder, use one side to find the diagonal on square stock and the other side for round stock. Marking 2 diagonals will give you the center
In terms of maintenance, a great deal depends on the type of machine, how often you use it and what type of turning you carry out.
Check all the main components each time you use your lathe.
Clean out the head stock and tail stock on a regular basis. Smooth and wax the tool rest frequently. Keep everything well brushed down and free of sawdust.
If you keep everything checked over and fine-tuned, your lathe will be a pleasure to use and last for years. Overlook basic maintenance and it’s a recipe for duster.
Since there are so many variables, refer to the manual and make sure you follow all recommended maintenance. In this instance, less is definitely not more so take care of your lathe lovingly for best results and maximum longevity.