Last Updated on August 28, 2022 by James Thomas
One of the most satisfying things to do (and watch) is turning wood on a lathe. I recently saw a video of someone carving a piece of metal on a wood lathe, and it raised the question of if you can use a wood lathe for metal? I have asked a few wizened woodworkers and metalsmiths what their experience can teach us on this practice.
A wood lathe can be used for small projects in soft metal, but it is not recommended. A wood lathe rotates faster than a metal lathe, which causes “chatter,” and the carving tools heat up rapidly on metal. The strength needed to hold tools steady on metal exceeds what is required for woodturning.
The turning of soft metal on a wood lathe is probably not going to yield the best results, but there are a few people who have managed to get decent metal projects out. The main concerns are safety and accuracy, and I have found a few pearls of wisdom for those brave enough to try this technique.
Not All Lathes Are Made Equal
A lathe is, by definition, a machine tool that continuously rotates a workpiece on an axis to cut, carve, shape, and sand the item with a stationary implement. Lathes were initially powered by a foot treadle, water, or steam, but most modern lathes are electronic.
The common perception is that all lathes perform the same primary function; therefore, they must work interchangeably. This is not the case with wood and metal lathes. If you had to choose the most versatile lathe, it would probably be a metal lathe, as you can cut wood on a metal lathe with less risk than metal on a wood lathe.
Overview Of A Wood Lathe
A wood lathe is specifically designed to turn, cut, drill, and face wood. It is a less complex machine than a metal lathe and often a bit smaller. The speed of a wood lathe is controlled by a simple pulley system which does not generate the same power as a metal lathe, but it is fast and perfect for soft materials. Excess vibration of the workpiece causes “chattering” and an uneven surface.
Most wood lathes have a tool rest that guides the cutting and shaping tools as they are pressed against the wood to transform the wooden item. The metal tools used for carving are made from either high-speed steel (HSS), carbide steel, or tungsten carbide. A craftsman makes work easier by half if he uses the correct tool and always keeps it sharp.
The type of wood chosen for a particular job will also determine the ease of turning and finishing. A block of wet wood is usually easier to shape as the excess cuts away in long ribbons instead of fine shavings; however, damp wood may warp while drying and create a slight bough in the finished item. For precision carving, especially when parts need to fit together, it’s good to choose a dry piece of wood.
Everyday items made on a wood lathe:
- Furniture legs and pegs
- Rolling pins
- Tool handles
- Door and drawer knobs
- Bowls and platters
- Chess pieces
- Décor items – Sculptures, urns, lamps, Christmas ornaments
- Baseball bats
Important Tips For Woodturning
Wood workshops are filled with sharp tools, heavy wood, and fast spinning machines. Always ensure you wear the correct protective clothing. Tie back all long loose hair and trailing clothes when working with a lathe or other rotating machines.
Remember the acronym “SAFER” when working with a lathe:
S – Speed – Check the rotational speed – start slow and adjust as necessary for the job. Go slower for large items and faster for smaller jobs.
A – Aside – Stand next to the lathe with the wood spinning away from you to avoid flying chips.
F – Fixings – Ensure that your wood and tool-rest are securely attached.
E – Eye and ear protection – Use proper eye and ear protection.
R – Revolve – Check that the wood can freely rotate without obstructions.
Overview Of A Metal Lathe
The metal lathe, also known as a metalworking lathe, was designed to machine metal and other hard materials to precise measurements. The cutting tool bit on a metal lathe is stationary when pressed into a rotating metal object, and it is usually moved mechanically and not by hand. The tool can be applied to the metal either radially (on the outer surface) or axially (on the face surface).
Metal lathes are designed in various sizes depending on what they are used to make. Larger lathes can usually accommodate bulky wood pieces that need to be turned. If you are cutting materials other than metal on a metal lathe, be sure to clean (vacuum) any grinding dust out of the nooks and crannies of the machine. Also, use the appropriate speed setting and cutting tools for the material you are working on.
Components Of A Metal Lathe
The four main components of a metal lathe are the following:
- Headstock – Houses the motor, speed change mechanism, change gears, and the main spindle.
- Bed – The base attached to the headstock allows parallel movement of the carriage and tailstock with the spindle axis.
- Carriage – Hold the tool bit that moves either left and right (on the face surface) or perpendicular to the work surface.
- Tailstock – The center mount and tool (usually a drill bit) opposite the headstock. It moves longitudinally to allow drilling and support of the object if needed.
Lathes come in varying sizes that facilitate even minute jobs required in the precise art of jewelry making.
Everyday items made on a metal lathe:
- Bearing mounts
- Metal tubing
- Metal Knobs
- Thread on screw-in parts (tap and die)
The cost of an average wood lathe is lower than that of an entry-level metal lathe, which is why most crafters will try and machine metal on a wood lathe that they already own instead of buying a new lathe. The wood lathe will most likely handle softer metals that cut easily, but the risk of chattering and less than perfect surfaces is high.
If you prefer only to buy one type of lathe, you will need to make sure you tailor your projects to the tools at your disposal. A metal lathe is far more versatile in the variety of materials it can turn because of the variable speed and accuracy.