How To Use A Wood Lathe (For A Beginner)

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 wood lathe?

We go into further detail within this article, but if you don’t have enough time to read through the entire article, we’ve made a quick overview below for you to skim through on how to use a wood lathe. 

  • Identify the main components of a wood lathe, motor, head and tailstock, variable speed options and the tool-rest
  • Set up is important, make sure your blades are sharp and the correct composition, I suggest using high-speed steel
  • Place blades/tool-bits onto the tool-rest at a 90° angle and away from your person to avoid flying shavings of wood 
  • To create a cylindrical piece out of your stock, evenly shave across all areas of the stock 
  • Always keep any loose or dangling items away from the lathe, as this can cause serious injury if stuck

To use a wood lathe, you’ll need to move the tailstock via the handwheel, so it’s above the spindle of the headstock. You’ll need to place your tool-bit onto the tool-rest, turn the machine on – and begin your woodturning. 

How to use a wood lathe

Main Components Of A Wood Lathe

If you’re new to turning, it can often be difficult in pinpointing the differences of your wood lathe.

So you understand how each part works with each other, we’ve identified the main components of a wood lathe below, so you have a clearer idea on how to use it.

Motor

The lathe is powered by electricity from a socket, that runs through the motor. Without a motor, your wood lathe has no power – so this is a crucial component for this machine. 

Wood lathes can come in different sizes, and these all depend on how they are used. Most usually, you’ll find wood lathes that have a horsepower that ranges from ¾ to 2HP.

The motor on a wood lathe is located on the left of the lathe, and this area is known as the ‘headstock’ of the lathe.
It can be found either inside of the headstock, or beneath the headstock – this depends on the model of wood lathe you’ve purchased.

Not too sure what a headstock is? Keep reading on – we’ll go into the details of this component shortly.

Power & Speed Control

We’ve established that the wood lathe is a powerful tool to have in your workshop, yet it’s no use if you can’t use it properly.

To effectively use your wood lathe and drain every last bit of performance out of it, you’ll need to utilize different speeds.

A majority of wood lathes have options to control speeds, which are found in the form of a belt pulley, electric and mechanical mechanism. Electric and mechanical mechanisms have a variable speed feature, and this allows users to dictate the speed to their chosen application.

These speeds, through any three of these speed controlling components, can range from 500 to 3,000 RPMs. The reason this feature is so important in a wood lathe?

It’s simple – the wood you’re cutting, and the size of the application. As a rule of thumb, smaller pieces command a higher RPM in order to control the cut more effectively.

Headstock, & Tailstock

The headstock is located on the left of the wood lathe. It houses the conversion of power from the motor, to the chosen spindle speed. The spindle provide motion to your piece, allowing it to rotate. 

As well as the headstock, the wood lathe holds a tailstock, located on the right of the unit – however this can be adjusted to a chosen position, in relation to convenience for your project. 

The tailstock allows the lathes’ spindle to stay in a central position, and also ensures that the spindle rotates evenly. As the tailstock can be adjusted along the rails of the lathe, woodturners have added versatility to work with projects of all sizes, locking the tailstock in place when necessary.

Tool-Rest

Tool-rests are considered one of the most important features of a lathe, and this is purely based on two things; safety and convenience. A wood lathe can be a dangerous tool to use, and you don’t want to be another statistic, do you?

To make sure you’re not, the tool-rest provides woodturners with the option of placing their tool-bits onto the rest, in order to make cuts into the wood effectively. Some wood lathes contain a four-position tool rest, meaning swaps between tools are easy, and you’re protecting your fingers in the meantime.

As well as this, tool-rests are adjustable, so you’re able to move this into the position that’s best for the type of wood, and also the application that you’re working on. 

The Wood Lathe: How Do I Use One?

Do you feel more comfortable in pointing out the components of a wood lathe now that we’ve gone through the basic features?

Hopefully, you are – so we’ll now be able to look at using the wood lathe – which is the enjoyable part.

To make this easier to follow, I’ve segmented using a wood lathe into two parts, setting up and using the lathe.

Let’s begin with setting up your lathe and the piece you’re working on.

Setting Up

As an example, we’ll be turning the wood. This is the most common use for wood lathes, and a great way to start.

Before you begin, as you’re setting up – it’s important that your lathe is completely switched off, as you don’t want any accidents to occur.

You’ll need to organize the tools you’re using as you’re setting up, and utilize the positional holding of the tool-rest.

Why is it important to set up your tools? Well, you’ll need to choose the correct tool-bit, as the wrong selection can cause damage to your piece. Make sure your tool bits are sharp before use, as dull bits can also cause damage, and may send your piece flying off the lathe if not secured tightly enough.

High-speed steel is recommended for blades, as blades made from materials such as carbon steel will become dull in a very short amount of time – causing an extreme amount of inconvenience for you when turning.

The best angle to cut into the wood is from a 90° angle, yet this changes as you learn more skills and need to cut from a different angle, pending on the application and project.

Using The Lathe

Now that set-up is complete, you should be reading to begin turning.

I stated in the ‘Setting Up’ section, that a 90° angle is perfect for turning, so you’ll need to keep this at this angle for optimal performance. You’ll need to use the tailstock wheel to move the tailstock into position. What position is this, you’re wondering?

The stock you’re working on will need to be above the spindle of the headstock, and inside of the spur center. When you’ve turned the wheel of the tailstock, this will position this for you.

Another important step following this is to make sure your stock is tight. You don’t want this flying off and hitting you – it would definitely cause severe damage to yourself. 

The tool-rest upon your wood lathe should be in line with your stock, with a comfortable amount of distance between the bit itself and the stock, with a good guide being at ¾”.

Next, you’ll need to turn your wood lathe on. For the sake of this example, it’s best to choose the lowest speed possible.

In future times you’ll be turning, the speed you’ve chosen will be directly in tune with the type of wood you’re cutting. If you’re unsure, the internet has many guides that assist in the form of charts, and some models of lathes come with these guides, also.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the amount of resistance pushed against you as your tool-bit moves into the wood. This creates the incisions, so don’t be put off by this once it happens.

Bits of your wood stock should now be falling off, and you’re seeing your lathe now at its best. As you drive into the stock with your blade, it’s important to cover all directions – especially if you’re wanting a perfectly cylindrical piece.

This is how you use a wood lathe – not too difficult once it’s put this way, is it?

The tool-bits you’re using will differ from task to task, so it’s an important note to practice on spare stock – so you can get the highest quality from your machine.

Final Thoughts

Now, you should have a solid understanding of the components of a wood lathe, and how to use one effectively.

These machines are fantastic tools that have assisted woodworkers and hobbyists alike for decades, and it’s great to see that you’re looking at the beginning this journey as well.

If you don’t have a wood lathe as of yet – don’t stress, we have some helpful guides to assist you, that cater for all budget ranges.

What did you think of this article, do you believe you’d be able to use a wood lathe to start on your projects after reading through?

The answer should be a yes – and I’m excited to see what you can create.

Let me know what you’re thinking of creating in the comments below, and also make sure to share some tips with our readers if you’re an experienced turner. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What safety equipment should I be using?

Most importantly, safety glasses are necessary, as these prevent flying pieces of wood from hitting your eyes. Consider using a face mask, as sawdust can be dangerous if inhaled, and wood lathes create a very large amount of dust when turning. 

Keep all loose bits of clothing, hair, and jewelry out of the area and hidden, as loose and dangling objects or hair can get caught in the machine.

James Thomas

James Thomas

Tool Enthusiast

12 thoughts on “How To Use A Wood Lathe (For A Beginner)”

  1. People like to say that the industrial revolution began with the machinery in the textile mills, this is wrong! I believe the industrial revolution really began with the first mechanized lathe – you have to be specific here, as lathes in some form have existed for thousands of years. At any rate, these beautiful tools are responsible for creating a countless number of everyday items. They are beautiful tools, useful for large companies and small artisans alike! Thank you for this overview and write up on wood lathes, it was very informative.

  2. I know I am being pedantic, but my grandfather used a lathe for years that did not have a motor. It was foot powered used a rope around the stock and he would use the tool on the down stroke. Of course it could be argued that he himself was the motor I suppose.

  3. Very nice and helpful article James! I know nothing about lathes but I love woodworking! So I’m thinking to buy one and I don’t know which one. There are so many brands out there. Record, Draper, SIP, JET and many more. It will be just a hobby for me but I need something relible because I will keep it forever! Looking forward for your advise. Thank you James!

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for dropping by. An excellent YouTube channel by the way!

      The Jet or Powermatic listed in this article are my go-to picks, Peter. They will be more than enough for what you require and will last you for years if you keep them maintained 🙂

      Cheers,
      James

        1. Makes complete sense, Peter. I really hope you enjoy it and get a lot out of it. Wood lathes, aside from table saws are one of my favorite tools!

          Cheers,
          James

  4. SAFETY NOTE: FIRST & FOREMOST ENSURE LATHE IS UNPLUGGED: …. Install workpiece in the lathe, adjust tool rest to about .25 inches from the wood…. BY HAND …. TURN workpiece a couple of rotations …. This ensures tool rest is adequate distance from workpiece …. IF it isn’t straight …. Could have warp. This could prove injurious or fatal when lathe is energized with electricity an starts skinny stock @ 500 + rpms. If contact is made with tool rest …. Make appropriate adjustment of tool rest to ensure clearance of same …. Recheck with manual rotation of stock …. When clear …. Happy Turnings to you.

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