How To Use A Metal Lathe For Your Next Project?

Many different projects can be undertaken using a lathe. It can be overwhelming for beginners to understand how to use a lathe, so we’ve made this guide for you. So, how do you use a metal lathe?

Short for time? No problem. Have a read of our overview below:

  • Familiarize yourself with the metal lathe features – so you’re working both smarter and also safely
  • Clear yourself of all potential hazards within your workspace – dangling objects to name one example
  • Adjust the speed in relation to the  material you’re cutting, as this increases the  quality of cuts and prevents damage
  • Setting up is crucial – always make sure your lathe is turned off when doing so
  • Work slowly – if you’re just starting off, there is no need to move quickly – take it one step at a time 

To use a metal lathe, you must first attach your stock into the chuck provided with the lathe, and use the tailstock to fix the stock into place. Your lathe may have a turret or tool post, which holds your chosen tools. These tools are used to shape the stock, once the lathe is turned on and the metal begins to be shaved off.

Metal Lathes: Main Components

It’s important that we identify the main components of a lathe before we explain how to use it – so you understand how each part works with each other.

How to use a metal lathe

Motor

Like most power tools, metal lathes contain a motor. This provides the power for the lathe via the electrical outlet it’s plugged into.

To control the motor, a majority of lathes will include a power on switch and a speed control dial. Metal lathes which can go in both a forward and reverse direction will have a switch, so you can adjust these movements accordingly.

The power of a motor is measured in HP, and range from 1/8 HP to 3HP – with the RPM varying between 100 to 2,500.
Higher speeds can be found, which varies by model.

Bed, Headstock & Tailstock

The ‘bed’ on a lathe refers to the horizontal beam that runs across the base of your metal lathe. Commonly, beds are made from cast iron – and the reason for this? 

To keep the entire lathe weighted. This eliminates inaccuracies, as the heavy weight of the cast iron construction reduced vibrations.

One common term you’ll see often with metal lathes is the ‘bed swing’. This refers to the width of the stock that the lathe can fit.

The next two important features of a metal lathe are the head and tailstock.

The heastock is mounted on the left of the lathe, and is fixed into place. This assists in rotating your stock, using the chuck.

Unlike the fixed headstock, tailstock can be moved, and is used to fit the stock comfortably, regardless of its size.

Spindle & Chuck

The motor on your metal lathe allows for turning to be possible, that use the spindle to rotate. Spindles are hollow, and fit the metal you’re working on inside, rotating the stock. 

This allows you to then use your tools to shape the piece you’re working on as it rotates – allowing you to effectively turn your metal. These are found on the headstock of the lathe.

Essentially, chucks are clamps – which hold the piece you’re working on into place. Chucks can be found in 3-jaw, which are known as universal chuck, and a 4-jaw chuck, also known as an independent chuck.

There are also specialized chucks/faceplates that are able to fit stocks that aren’t common shapes available, some that are included as accessories bundled with your lathe.

Tool-Rest

Tool-rests are exactly what they sound like – a feature of the lathe you can rest the tools you’re using to shape the metal with, against.

As using a metal lathe can be dangerous at the best of times, so this is a very important aspect to have on your lathe.

Tool-rests are adjustable, so you’re able to move this into the position that’s best for the metal you’re working on.
They can hold up to four tools with certain metal lathes, making interchanging between tool bits both convenient and seamless.

Cross Slide & Carriage

Both are equally important to your lathe as the previous components we’ve discussed.

The carriage is moved by the carriage handwheel, which is located on the front of the lathe. This moves the carriage towards the headstock, and also in the opposite direction – and this movement depends entirely on the direction you’re moving the handwheel.

The cross slide allows you to move your tools into your pieces, and has a dial on the handle. This handle is incredibly useful, as it pinpoints the position of the cross slide, with a very minimal error rate.

The Metal Lathe: How Do I Use One?

Now you’re familiar with the main components of the lathe, let’s get into the fun stuff – how to use one.

I’ve divided this into two sections: setting up, and using the metal lathe. Feel free to ask any questions you have on this process in our comment section below.

Setting Up

For this example, we’ll be explaining how to turn your piece – one of the most common uses of this tool.

You can do so manually, and also by using the automatic feed should your lathe have this option. We’ll be using the manual example here. Make sure that before you begin – your lathe is completely switched off. You don’t want any accidents happening, do you?

Now, to start off, you’ll need to make sure your lathe is well lubricated before use – as dry components can damage your unit.
After a quick check, and lubrication where necessary, it’s important to gather all the components you will be using. This includes the metal stock you’re shaping and the correct tools for the job. 

It’s essential you use the proper cutting tool – otherwise you’re going to cause damage to your piece, tool and can even put yourself in a dangerous position. Make sure all your tools are tightly in place upon the rest – and for this particular example, place your tool bit on a 90° angle.

Once you’ve rested your tool upon the rest, align this tool bit so it’s in positioned at the center height of your lathe.

After you’ve done so and made sure you’re wearing the correct safety equipment, you can move onto turning your metal.

Using The Lathe

Now that you’ve set up, you’re ready to start turning.

When you were setting up your lathe for turning, you would’ve adjusted the tool bit to a 90° angle. Using the carriage handwheel, slowly move the carriage, so it’ll bring the tool bit as close as possible to your piece without touching it.

Now, you’re ready to turn on your lathe. now, setting the correct speed in relation to the material you’re turning. Tougher materials do require a slower speed setting, as they take longer to cut through. There are many helpful charts available on the internet which you can use that outline cutting speeds

Once it’s turned on, adjust the cross slide handle – this will move your tool bit into your stock, and it should be slightly touching the piece itself. Following this, you’ll be moving the carriage to the right, which should be placed at the end of your metal.

After you’ve completed this, you’ll be using the cross slide again. Move this ever so slightly, with your dial meter as a guide – to a graduation of 0.010”. Lastly, use the handwheel of the carriage once more – moving this to the left of the lathe, this time.

This will move the tool bit into the stock – and you’ve made your first cut on your metal lathe!

Summary

As you become more familiar with the process, this will become a lot easier for you – so don’t worry if you felt a little confused when first reading this article – hopefully by now you should have a great understanding.

As always – be sure to always protect yourself when using metal lathes, as they can cause serious injuries if not used correctly. 

What are some pieces you’re looking to create with your lathe? I’d love to hear your thoughts – let me know in the comments below. That also goes for any tips you’d like to share with fellow readers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some ways I can keep safe when using a metal lathe?

That’s a great question. Always make sure you’re wearing eye protection – as metal shards can fly off incredibly fast – and your eyesight should be number one priority to protect.

Remove anything that can get stuck in the lathe – jewelry, long-sleeved clothing, watches, and anything else that may dangle in front of the lathe. Also – keep your fingers clear or rotating stock and tools! This should be another crucial thing to remember.

James Thomas

James Thomas

Tool Enthusiast

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