Guide written by:
Lucas, Antique wood-worker, Gloucester
Base, piece length, diameter, fixed or mobile headstock, turning power... Wood and metal lathes have a variety of factors to consider. Bench lathes and workshop lathes - let us do you a good "turn" with some helpful buying advice.
- Motor type
- Turning length
Metal vs. wood lathes: similarities and differences
The basic principle is the same: a motor-driven belt rotates a shaft which holds your workpiece. On the motor unit side, there is the fixedheadstock and opposite, perfectly aligned in the same plane, the mobileheadstock or tailstock. The latter can be adjusted laterally according to the width of the workpiece.
Unlike other machine tools, the cutting power of a lathe comes from rotating the workpiece rather than the tool! Keep this in mind and everything else will follow easily!
Whether for metal or wood, lathes have two possible types of motors:
- Asynchronous single-phase: more affordable, these motors are common on low- to mid-range models.
- Asynchronous three-phase : if you're willing to make the investment, these motors are more reliable and robust. With a frequency converter, they can even be connected to a standard single-phase power source.
Speed ranges (in rpm) are important when considering lathes - the speed you require will depend on the material you want to turn. To adjust speed, the belt is manually switched up through a progressive range of pulleys (although pro-level machines can be adjusted mechanically). A speed variator that allows instant, precisely adjustments is highly preferable. For versatility, opt for at least 6 speeds, bearing in mind that you can get as many as 10 for wood and 16 for metals. Whichever type of motor your lathe has, it's worthwhile having the option of reversing the direction of rotation - great for sanding jobs for instance!
Regarding machine design, a distinction can be made between smaller 'workbench' models and the more imposing 'workshop' models (especially for wood lathes).
- Workbench models have a steel or sheet metal frame and a table made of the same or treated steel (mid-range).
- Workshop lathes have a cast-iron base and table, virtually eliminating vibration and providing unbeatable robustness!
Finally, be aware that metal lathes are completely unsuitable for work on wood and vice versa - the cutting power and rotation speed are different.
What are the operating characteristics of a lathe?
Since you don't necessarily have pro-level requirements or infinite workshop space, here are some handy tips to help you choose:
- Machine weight: ranges from 30 to over 600kg for wood and 22 to around 1700kg for metal lathes.
- Price: Entry-level 'mini' wood lathes are very affordable, but a metal lathe can easily cost four times as much. For very high-end machines, we're talking about several months' salary!
- Power:500W will give decent performance, but consider carefully the type of wood or metal you want to work. For machine tool fanatics, you can get up to 2250W for wood and 5500W for metal lathes.
In terms of dimensions, the important figures are those that determine the machine's turning capacity.
- For timber lathes, maximum turning length - or distance between mounting points - starts at 320mm and goes up to 1270mm. Remember that you can always add table extensions - some as long as 2500mm - on most lathes, so don't go overboard if you just want to machine a few table legs. Next comes maximum turning diameter, dictated by the height of the mounting points - 400mm is a good compromise.
- For metal lathes,choose a point spacing of 400mm if you can stretch to it, as you'll get much more versatility out of your machine than with 250mm. Spacings over 1500mm are for professional use only. In terms of maximum diameter, 200mm is a good starting point.
With metal lathes, there are a few other points to be considered: lengthwise and crosswise trolley travel are important because machining is done by pushing a trolley fitted with your chosen metalwork tool. The settings for this need to be ultra-precise! Some trolleys can even move automatically both lengthwise and crosswise: in this case, settings must be sensitive enough to allow adjustments of 1/100mm per revolution - no need to panic though, feed speeds are preset!
What's the benefit of a Morse tapered spindle?
On lathes, the shaft driven by the motor is threaded at the end - this is the spindle nose or fixed headstock - so that accessories can be attached.
A word to the wise - it's a good idea to stick to M33 x 3.5mm threads because it conforms to European standards, making it easier and cheaper to find compatible accessories.
The spindle nose may be bored with a Morse taper: the most common gauge is CM2, however workbench models sometimes have CM1 gauge spindles. Either way, a Morse tapered spindle will easily accommodate all the accessories on the market on your lathe.
Anything I should know about mobile headstocks?
Well, fixed headstocks you already know about!
As regards the mobile headstock, its horizontal shaft is also Morse-tapered to take mandrels and accessories, but the major difference is that its position can be adjusted - usually viaa handwheel - and this is very important!
So, first you move the mobile headstock block and then lock it in place with the handwheel to secure your workpiece. The same procedure can also be used for drilling! The relevant machine characteristic is known as mobile headstock movement range.
Different models offer headstock ranges from 30mm to over 150mm. The range itself isn't too important (unless you're a pro!) - as long as it has a micrometric adjustment scale for high-precision setting.
Essential and optional accessories
Certain accessories are essential as a bare minimum; the rest will depend on your specific plans and requirements.
- Piece-holding accessories: guide claws, trays, pigtails, mandrels, clips... Read up carefully, because without these you won't get very far with your lathe! Handy tip: mandrels are equipped with bits, components that can approach or retract from one another to hold your workpieces. A four-jaw mandrel is particularly effective!
- Tool holder: this is your best friend when lathing. With the wood lathe version, you rest the tool on it to reduce effort and ensure even machining. It must be adjustable heightwise and crosswise and can sometimes be angled at 180° to line up with the axis of a workpiece. On a metal lathe, cutting tools are fixed: adjustable similar to a wood lathe, and free to move in a crosswise direction. Above all, you want to aim for near-perfect guide precision and hold to it!
- Copying device: don't even think about high-volume work without a copying device! It can follow the outline of a template or piece and reproduce it on a new piece with ease.
- Bezel: in case you're thinking big, these are useful for holding long workpieces while avoiding accidents!
Optional, but no less practical:
- Emergency stop punch;
- Digital display indicating rotation speed and desired dimensions;
- Mobile start-stop control, positioned with a magnet according to the job you're carrying out;
- Chip vacuum, to avoid the inconvenience of cleaning!
One final piece of advice?
If you're undecided, the three main things to think about before you buy are potential uses of your machine, the dimensions you require and the necessary power rating.
If in doubt, always choose a more powerful model that will let you develop your new passion for woodwork or metalwork!
Bear in mind that holding and cutting accessories (including chisels etc for wood and turning tools for metals) represent a serious investment, so don't spend up all at once!
In the case of metal lathes, pay special attention to the range of materials that can be machined, especially for the smaller workbench models (which may be more limited).
Above all, always make sure you secure your machine base to avoid catastrophe!
Oh, and never forget to use appropriate personal protective gear: goggles, gloves, hearing protection (such as a noise-cancelling helmet), safety shoes and work clothes.
Learn more about woodworking tools...
To find out more about woodworking tools, follow our editors' advice and check out their other guides:
How to choose your sander?
How to choose your router?
How to choose your edge-planer?
How to choose your drill bits?
How to choose your grooving machine?
How to choose your clamps?
How to choose your screws?
How to choose your drill?
How to choose your workshop vacuum cleaner?
How to choose your protective eyewear?
How to choose your hearing protection?
How to choose your protective gloves?
How to choose your safety shoes?
How to choose your work clothes?
Guide written by:
Lucas, Antique wood-worker, Gloucester, 27 guides
After some time busting my hump at construction, specifically at renovation, painting, carpentry, laying kitchen and bathroom tile, I decided to get my degree as a Carpenter. And I did well because nothing is more pleasant than working on a timber frame or designing a wooden house. Everything about woodworking fascinates me, and building my own home in this material is one of my goals. I’m also a follower of construction tools: I love to learn about innovations, the way they’re used, the tips and tricks, or the performances of each new tool on the market, whether it’s for woodworking or not. I would be happy to advise you and help you with your choices. Happy Tinkering.