Last Updated on May 2, 2023 by Barry Gray
So, can you use a wood lathe when working with metal? Generally, the answer is no, that you cannot do that, but as with power tools, there can often be an exception to the rule. So, it is possible to work on small metal projects, but with some real limitations.
You see, one of the things I love about power tools tends to be their ability to cross over in what they can be used for, which leads me to explore the possibilities associated with different tools.
But I do admit that this ability to be used in various ways is not always something that applies to every tool. So, I need to explain the ins and outs of a wood lathe and either why it cannot be used for metal or to explain more about the times when it could perhaps be a possibility.
As you will discover, it’s often more about the particular tool rather than anything else. So, let’s get on with checking out a wood lathe.
The Basic Idea of a Wood Lathe
I think the clue as to what a wood lathe is designed to do is in the name. Yet, there are times when a name can prove deceptive. This can, potentially at least, be one of those times.
You see, the basic principle of a wood lathe is that it’s generally a small machine that is specifically designed to allow you to work on soft materials thanks to how it’s set up. Now, metal is not generally a soft material, so your immediate thought is that it would prove impossible to work metal on a wood lathe.
Also, it’s accepted that a metal lathe is more of an engineering lathe. This is different to the lathe you would use when working with wood, and it’s highly unusual for a lathe to be able to operate in both spheres and still allow you to produce the same end results.
But I know it can work, although there are various limitations you must understand before you think a wood lathe has the potential to produce the same results as a metal lathe. That part is impossible, so best to bring your ideas down a couple of notches, or you will end up being disappointed.
Yet there’s a slight problem.
People fall into the trap of believing that any lathe is capable of doing the same task, and the only difference would be the size of the project you could work on. Well, that’s not true.
Instead, what you need to realize is that a wood lathe is designed to tackle projects involving wood, whereas a metal lathe is viewed as being more for engineering rather than anything else.
To help explain this point, let me take you through the reasons why a wood lathe really should not be capable of working with metal.
Why Will it Often Not Work?
The main issue with trying to use a wood lathe to work metal is in how it functions. A wood lathe may have high speed, but it also has lower torque. In addition, you use hand tools to shape the wood on the lathe, which is almost the complete opposite of what you need when working with metal.
A metal lathe takes a different approach. It cannot use the same high speed as this can lead to overheating, but it also uses clamped tools to keep the metal in place and for you to work on it, and it must come with high torque to be effective.
You see, a wood lathe will use a high RPM on the spindle, but low torque, as too much torque will increase the possibility of you damaging the wood. However, it would help if you had the opposite of this when it comes to working with metal. It’s hardly a surprise considering we are talking about two completely different types of materials.
But the point regarding the use of hand tools is also an important one. To shape and work metal, you need a significant amount of force, hence the high torque and clamped tools approach, and you just cannot do that with a hand tool. Basically, a hand tool will be unable to even scratch the surface with most metals, and you will probably damage the tool in the process as well.
Basically, it won’t work using a wood lathe for metal on most occasions because of the following reasons.
- The speed is too high on a wood lathe for metal
- The torque is too low on a wood lathe for metal
- You generally use the wrong tools
- You will damage the wood if using the wrong torque
- You will damage the metal if using too much speed
The Exceptions with a Wood Lathe
I mentioned earlier how a metal lathe works with high torque and high speed to then generate the force that’s required to ultimately cut and shape the metal. Well, that’s not always the case.
Instead, there are some exceptions to this, and it comes down to the metal you are working with. However, I must stress that I’m only talking about a couple of opportunities where you can use a wood lathe with metal. Don’t think you can start shaping iron or any metal along those lines. It’s just not going to work.
If you have a wood lathe with slightly more torque than the norm, it becomes possible to use the lathe to work on a couple of softer metals. This does tend to be only aluminum, but some versions may also be capable of working on brass. Aside from those two metals, I don’t think I would even try anything else, or you run the risk of potentially even damaging your lathe.
I admit this makes a lot of sense. Often, tools that are designed for working with wood can, to a certain extent, be used on aluminum. After all, it’s a soft metal and easier to manipulate than almost any other metal out there.
So, the idea of a wood lathe being used to work and shape aluminum is not as strange as it sounds.
The Size is Important
I must stress a key point, and it’s the need for you to pay attention to the size of the piece of metal you will be working with. Generally, you will only be capable of working with a small piece of metal on a wood lathe rather than something designed for a larger project.
Again, this is primarily thanks to the capabilities of the machine and how it does struggle with the strength of the metal. Also, larger projects involving metal do require you to have so much control over each part, and you just don’t get that when using hand tools against metal.
So, if you do want to use a wood lathe to work with metal, then ensure you keep it small and simple. Believe me when I say it will make a massive difference to the potential outcome. Also, the size of the lathe itself will change what you can work on with a project.
However, I’ve still not addressed how to really work metal with a wood lathe, and the good news is that it’s pretty straightforward once you have everything set up and ready to go.
How to Work Metal On a Wood Lathe
Let’s say you plan on trying to work with some aluminum on a wood lathe. To do so successfully, there are several tips I feel you need to know about to even stand a chance of getting the types of end results you are hoping for.
First, there’s the clamping of the tool. One of the reasons why a metal lathe has the tools clamped down is to attempt to reduce the vibrations that will undoubtedly occur when working with the metal. More vibration increases the chances of running into problems and also making mistakes, and who wants to do that?
The piece you are working with must be secure and tight on the chuck before you start. Also, I’d strongly advise wearing more than just safety goggles.
What you need to remember is your wood lathe will be working at a higher RPM than a metal one, and that will lead to one outcome: The metal will be hot.
The problem here is that metal chips will fly off, and that’s why I’d suggest wearing protective gloves and also ensuring you have your arms covered. If not, then don’t be surprised if you find yourself effectively getting minor burns, and they will hurt.
Keeping it Cool
This issue of the metal overheating is a genuine problem you need to contend with, but there are a couple of things you can attempt to do that could make a difference.
First, if you are able to install some form of mist system that sprays water over the area, then this can make a noticeable difference. Also, the water will not be able to negatively affect your ability to work the metal, but it can certainly stop you from receiving those nasty burns I spoke about.
But that’s not all.
Shallow Cuts are the Best
To get the best results, you should really look at doing shallow cuts and making multiple passes rather than simply hammering away at the one spot until you have achieved whatever you want to achieve.
Also, making these shallow cuts can reduce the chances of the metal either bending or even breaking. If this happens, you stand a real chance of being hurt in the process, and it’s likely to be your hands that take the brunt of what’s going to happen.
Making these multiple passes over the piece of metal will stop you from cutting too much off one part, making it weaker than the rest of the metal. If you have ever worked with metal before, you will be aware of how it can develop weak spots, but in this instance, you are the one that has managed to create the weak spot.
So, by working along the length of the piece of metal, you will at least reduce the chances of that happening, although I cannot state it will mean there’s no chance of it happening.
Keeping it Controlled
Even when working wood with a wood lathe, keeping everything under control is clearly important. However, this issue of control becomes even more important when you are really trying to get a power tool to do something that it’s not specifically designed to do.
I said earlier how a metal lathe is designed to really hold everything in place to reduce the possibility of excessive vibrations. Well, that’s the type of control I’m talking about, and even though it’s impossible for you to get the same sort of control in this situation, it doesn’t have to be as bad as you initially think.
The key here is to use both the chuck and tailstock support, and this is the only way you can hope to get close to having control over the metal while working on it. But don’t expect it to give you the full amount of support. It cannot do that, so that is why you will probably need to do the next step to get the end result you are hoping for.
Sanding is Often Required
But I will be honest, even though you can use a wood lathe to turn small pieces of metal, it’s often the case you need to do some sanding at the end to get everything nice and smooth.
Again, this is due to the lack of torque and the fact that a wood lathe is just incapable of doing the exact same job as its metal lathe counterpart.
This is down to one issue you need to know about: Chatter. Sadly, this is going to be something that will prove to be almost impossible to avoid, so it’s best to learn everything you can about it before you start your project.
The Problem with Chatter
Chatter is a huge issue when using a wood lathe to try to shape metal. It’s caused by the fact you are trying to use a hand tool with less force behind it to cut metal. This, in turn, creates vibration, and the vibration is not your friend when working metal.
The problem with vibration is it leaves distinct marks on the surface of the metal. Also, metal tends to shine, so all of those marks can stand out and draw your eye to them.
That’s not something you want to happen as you have this rough and raised surface. The way it can ruin your entire project is not something to underestimate either.
But these marks can be removed, even though it does require some work on your part. That is where the ability to sand things down will make a huge difference, but I do have a couple of other points that can reduce the severity of the chatter.
Your Key Issues Working Metal on a Wood Lathe
I’ve covered how it is possible to work some metal on a wood lathe, but I admit that this is something that is fraught with difficulties and problems. However, problems can often be something you are able to overcome, so aside from mentioning them, I will also tell you the best way to work around the issues.
But, in my opinion, these are the main problems.
- You will struggle to be as accurate as you need to be
- Too much movement of the metal makes life harder
- You need to work freestyle when you should use clamped tools
- Tools will bounce around causing problems
But let me go into these problems in a bit more detail.
Lack of Accuracy
Working metal on a metal lathe will lead to absolute accuracy, and this is something that’s even more important with metal than it is with wood. It’s almost as if a small mistake with wood is something you can then blend out. That’s harder to do when it comes to metal, as removing the mistakes is a more significant task.
This lack of accuracy is all due to the movement of the piece of metal and also the tools you use.
I stated how a metal lathe uses clamped tools to hold everything in place, but you will be going freestyle when it comes to the tools. That’s why I’ve stated how you need to keep it in place using the chuck and tailstock. But that’s not all.
A wood lathe does use tool rests to help you when working with wood. This is something I would recommend using. It’s not a 100% solution, but it will make a huge difference when it comes to feeling more confident in what you are doing.
Problem with Bouncing
This problem tends to fall in line with the control problem I’ve mentioned throughout this article, and honestly, there’s little you can do to stop it from happening.
The issue here is that a wood lathe will work at speed, so there’s the risk of the metal spinning at a higher RPM than you would like. Of course, if you have a lathe that offers you the ability to adjust the speed, then life will be easier, but that’s not always the case.
So, the first method to reduce bouncing is to lower the speed, if you can do this. It will make a difference, but I would also ensure I use the correct tools for working with the metal. This is something I will cover shortly, and the correct tools will make a massive difference to how much chatter you produce and even the level of control you have over your project.
But I think the key way to tackle this problem is to use those tool rests or even see if there is a way you can clamp the tools down. Giving yourself this sense of solidity, rather than doing free hand and allowing the tool to skip and skid all over the metal, is the best course of action to take.
When you then also incorporate attaching the metal to the chuck correctly along with these other methods, then you start to see how this needs to be a multi-faceted approach to reduce this bouncing problem. It’s undoubtedly worth doing simply because it will save you a lot of work in trying to finish off and tidy up the piece of metal once you take it off the lathe.
The Best Tools for Working Metal on a Wood Lathe
I’ll be honest here, the tools you will use to work wood on a wood lathe will just not really perform as well as you need when it comes to working metal. So, I have a few suggestions as to the best tools you should use when you do want to work metal on your wood lathe.
Tip 1: The Type of Tool Material
The key here is the material used in the tools. I suggest you ensure the tools are made from either high-speed steel or even carbide-tipped tools. This is important because they will allow you to apply that bit more force to the metal, and you stand a better chance of being able to shape the metal as required.
Also, the tools have greater strength when made with either of these materials. Normal tools for working wood will just come up short, and the chances of them then destroying your project are high.
Tip 2: The Shape of the Tool
But it goes beyond even the material the tools should be made from. Instead, the actual shape of the end of the tool you use needs to change even depending on the type of metal you are working on.
Take aluminum as an example. I’d suggest opting for a graver that works at lower spindle speeds. Also, a bowl gouge can work well, but only when you are using a short-beveled version. This should provide you with significant control over the tool and make it easier to generate the outcome you are hoping for with the piece of metal.
But if you are working with brass, then things change slightly due to the variation in the composition of brass compared to aluminum.
With brass, you should opt for using a scraper. This is because a scraper will generally have a low top rake, and that will reduce the chances of you damaging the brass.
The key thing to remember with the tools you need to use is to ensure they can cope with the rigors of working metal. That’s why they must be made from certain materials, or they will lose their effectiveness before you are even capable of working with the material.
Investing in the correct tools from the outset should make a significant difference to your ability to produce the sort of results you want. Don’t use the exact same tools as you would do with wood, or you may be disappointed in what you can achieve.
Generally, you cannot use a wood lathe for metal, but there can be some exceptions to the rule. However, I think the most important point here is to understand what your lathe is capable of doing and also how you then get the best out of it.
To help with that, I suggest checking out several other articles posted here on the site that will not only help you to choose the best lathe for your needs but also tell you more about how to get the sorts of results you want from a lathe.
I think the best articles to check out includes: