Your Lathe (Wood & Metal) Buyers Guide 2019

There are many unique tools out there, each with their own use for a variety of applications.

If you’ve started working with metal and wood, you may have noticed that shaping these materials are quite difficult without the correct tools. What is the correct tool for this? That’s right, a lathe.

Short on time? Not an issue. I’ve made a run-down of the wood and metal lathe buying guide for your convenience below.

  • Lathes are traditionally used to shape wood and metal stock into a desired shape
  • Commonly, wood lathes are used for turning, and metal lathes for threading – but don’t restrict yourself to just these
  • Both types of lathes contain similar features; motor, spindle, headstock, tailstock, bed & tool-rest to name examples
  • Metal lathes have a HP range of ⅛-3, and wood lathes are found with a power between ¾ to 2 HP for workshop uses
  • Lathes of both metal and wood applications can be found to suit all budgets – so there is one out there for you

A lathe is a specialized tool that is used for shaping materials – mainly wood and metal. It does this by rotating the piece you’re shaping, known as the stock. As the price rotates, the tools you’ve chosen shave, cut, and gouge away at the material, shaping the material until your desired outcome. 

The lathe can be a difficult tool to use, and even more so when you’re unsure of the components involved. Within this 2019 Buyers Guide, I’ll cover all the important information and explain the ins and outs of the lathe – both metal and wood.

Wood & Metal Lathe buying guide

In Detail: Types Of Lathes Available

Depending on your needs, there’s two types of lathes available. Wood lathes are used for shaping wood, and metal lathes – well, you get the idea, right? 

As I mentioned earlier – starting off to find a perfect lathe for your needs can often be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to pinpoint the features of each machine.

The general design of both wood and metal lathe are similar, however there are some differences – purely in relation to the type of material being shaped. I’ll be looking at these for you, so you’ve a clearer understanding on what is best suited for you.

Let’s start off with the wood lathe.

Wood Lathe

For the hobbyist and professional involved in woodworking, shaping your pieces is important. Most commonly, wood lathes are used for processes such as woodturning, which is the process of molding the piece of stock into a chosen shape.

The shapes most commonly turned are symmetrical, smooth objects, such as pens and bowls – to use two well-known examples.

The wood is shaped by a variety of tools – known as tool bits. We’ll also be looking into these tool bits further along in this buyers guide.

If you’re working in a professional environment, there’s a very high chance you’ll be using a wood lathe that is built for heavy, industrial use. These lathes can take up an immense amount of space, so we’ll be focusing upon lathes you can find room for within your home workshop.

The Wood Lathe: Features To Look For

You might be wondering – what exactly do all these components mean, and what do they do? New entrants to the world of woodturning can often find the technical terms and jargon used for models confusing, as they’re unlike a majority of tools you would’ve used before.

So you can get the most out of your lathe performance-wise, it’s imperative you understand the important aspects of your machine – and that’s what we’ll look at in the section below.

Motor & Speed Control

Lathes don’t come in a portable unit, so the electricity source is your everyday, household electrical socket.

This flow of electricity is channeled into the motor of the lathe. Where is the motor located on your wood lathe, you ask?

The wood lathe motor is found on the left of the lathe. This area is known as the headstock, and the motor is housed either inside of the headstock, completely covered – or under the headstock. 

Motors on wood lathes range from ¾ to 2 HP – however the latter is usually found in industrial lathes, used for mass-scale professional use. Wood lathes include the option to control the speed at all times, giving you a smoother turn of your stock. For example, if you’re turning a small piece of stock for a pen, you’ll be using the highest speed, known as RPM (rotations per minute).

Speed control features on wood lathes vary between a minimum of 500, to a maximum of 3,000 RPM. They can be found in three separate forms, and this also depends on the model and manufacturer.

Older wood lathes, and those that are on the lower end of the price point, usually contain a belt pulley. These can be inconvenient, and require painstaking manual changes. Some have automatic adjustment features, however these are not as common.

The other two forms of speed control are mechanical and electrical mechanisms. These are found in modern models, and unlike the belt pulleys, these include variable speed features – and it’s this feature which gives you the choice to control the speed, changing it to fit the application.

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.

Headstock, Spindle & Tailstock

We briefly touched upon the headstock of the wood lathe in the previous paragraph – and you’re now aware that it’s located upon the left of your unit. But, what does the headstock do, exactly? 

It has a very important function – converting the motor’s power to the spindle. Without the spindle, you wouldn’t have a rotating piece of stock, and your wood lathe would be useless – so it’s quite an important feature. 

With the converted energy from the motor channelled into the spindle, this rotates the piece of wood, in line with the speed you’ve chosen. Headstocks are rigid, and don’t move from their left position on the wood lathe.

To the right of your lathe, is the tailstock. Unlike the headstock, this component can be adjusted to any position you desire – giving you versatility to work with many different sizes of stock. The only limitation is the size of your wood lathe.

The tailstock also has an important role to play as the headstock, and this also involves the spindle. The tailstock makes sure that the spindle rotates evenly, with no erratic motion. It does this by allowing the spindle to stay centralized at all times when working.

Tool-rest

The tool-rest is another very important component found in the wood lathe, and one of the main roles it plays is the promotion of safety, as well as being the rest for your tool bits.

Tool-rests, like the tailstock, is adjustable, giving you complete control over the different angles you can shape your stock from.

These tool-rests are angled, and many models have the option to place four tools upon them, known as a four-position tool-rest.

This makes switching between tool-bits incredibly quick, and also provides the safety function of protecting your hands from exposed components, and the stock itself.

Tool-rests are included within most wood lathes when you make your first purchase, and they’re also quite easy to make – should this be the avenue you’d like to go down.

Additional Accessories

As well as the core features of the wood lathe, there are several additional features that are able to enhance the quality of your work, and add another layer of protection.

Indexing heads are a very popular addition to a wood lathe. Some models can be found with a 12-position indexing head, and some include a higher, 24 position indexing head. This provides more patterns to work with, such as decorative finishes, and different hole drilling patterns.

Faceplates are another accessory that can be found on wood lathes. The function of a faceplate is to thread into the spindle -m an important note to be aware of, as this is great for turning without the spindle.

On a random note, check out this guy’s workshop for some inspiration!

This is important for those looking to turn bowls with their wood lathe. Spur centers and knockout bars are also common accessories that are included within a lathe.

There are many accessories to list – we’d be here all day! So I’ve listed the most common ones for you. 

If you have any accessories you’d like to know more about, ask us a question in the comments at the end of this guide.

Projects You Can Use A Wood Lathe For

There are many, many different projects you can use a wood lathe for. 

A common use for a wood lathe is the turning of beautiful, wooden pens and home-made bowls. Many hobbyists prefer to make their own, as it’s much more satisfying to do so. Don’t you agree?

Replacement furniture, with the legs of table and chairs, are projects that can also be commonly undertaken by turners. This works well with older furniture, especially if you’re watching your budget and only need to replace some wonky furniture legs.

Consider using your wood lathe for the creation of new tool handles, instead of purchasing a new tool. As many handles can detach from blades due to use, it’ll give you a great joy to create your own – and it’ll last a long time after you’ve learnt the tricks of the trade.

What’s The Best Wood Lathe To Use?

As I’ve stated, there are many variations of wood lathes available, all of which suit different budgets and needs.

One of the most popular wood lathes, and my personal favorite, is the JWL-1221VS.

This model is perfect for all users, catering for a range of experience levels. It features the main aspects you’d find in a lathe, without going overboard on additional features. 

As well as this, it’s also quite affordable, and is perfectly sized to fit in your workshop without taking up large amount of space.

It contains a unique and patented ratchet style belt tension system that has three separate speed options to choose from.

When you’re choosing the speed, you’ll be able to see the RPM speed by looking at the digital control system, and this is a great feature for checking speed without risking your safety to do so.

I would also recommend the RIKON 70-100 mini wood lathe – it’s one of the smallest wood lathes available.

Functionality and versatility are at the forefront of this design, with RIKON providing the option to add a raft of extensions to the wood lathe. It features a maximum RPM speed of 3,900, which is quite impressive for its size – and also its affordable price point.

Do you have a favorite wood lathe you like to use? Let us know in the comments.

The Metal Lathe

The metal lathe, like its wood kin, is used to shape metal. It was first designed to only mold metal of cylindrical nature, however as time passed, opened up a new world of possibilities. 

This included the drilling of holes, manufacturing screw threads and other metal turning. A large percentage of the tools that you use are manufactured by metal lathes – showcasing their importance to the industry.

Metal lathes can be found in these industrial settings, and they are immensely powerful. We’ll be looking at the metal lathes that you can fit within your home – so let’s get into the features of the metal lathe.

The Metal Lathe: Features To Look For

The wood and metal lathe share some similarities, as you’ll become aware of throughout this article. 

There are the core features of a lathe – which we discuss below, as well as additional accessories that assist with various functions of the lathe and the molding of your stock.

Motor, Spindle & Chuck

The motor on a metal lathe provides the power to shape your metal. Metal lathes have HP range of ⅛ -3, pending on the model and manufacturer. For motor control, lathes include a speed control dial.

This allows for optimal turning of metals that require different speeds. Some metal lathes include the option to adjust the turn in both reverse and forward directions, powered by a switch or knob.

The motor uses the spindle to rotate. The spindle is located on the headstock, and is hollow – allowing for the metal you’re shaping to fit inside, as it rotates the stock. This creates the turning effect.

The stock you’re working on is held together by a clamp, known as a chuck, The chuck can be found in two common models – a universal ‘3-jaw’ chuck, and an independent ‘4-jaw’ chuck.

If you’re working on shapes that are irregular, specific chucks and faceplates are included to assist with these tasks – and these are often included in the package when you purchase a metal lathe.

Headstock, Tailstock & Bed

After reading through the wood lathe section, you’ll be quite familiar with the head and tailstock of the lathe.

The metal lathe is no different, with both of these components included for the same function – and the tailstock can still be adjusted on a metal lathe, whereas the headstock is located on the left of the lathe without movement.

The bed is made from cast iron, and is the beam that runs horizontally across the base of the lathe. It’s made from cast iron in order to reduce vibration throughout the lathe, and to keep your metal lathe weighted.

Tool-rest

I’m going to let you have a guess – as you should know what the tool-rest is after reading through the section on wood lathes.

Tool-rests on metal lathes are the same as wood lathes, being used as a layer of protection for your hands when shaping the metal, and for the safe placement of your tools when doing so. You’re also able to lock the tool-rest into place with the locking feature.

Tool-rests on metal lathes can also be found with the four-positional feature, for convenient tool-bit changes.

Carriage & Cross Slide

The carriage of the metal lathe allows you to feed the tool bits into the stock using the cross slide by adjusting the carriage handwheel, and a dial on the handle. This is located on the front of the lathe, and can be adjusted to the distance you’d prefer when shaping the metal.

One of the most convenient aspects of this metal lathe component is that the handle locates the position of the cross slide, and is incredibly accurate. Most metal lathes have a helpful chart that is often included, that shows the best positions and the resulting cuts. 

These have a very small rate of error, and accuracy is vital for metal turning. What do you think of this accuracy assisting feature?

Additional Accessories

I’ve covered some of the additional accessories included when explaining the wood lathe, and there are many of the same features found with the metal lathe, that you can use to enhance your turning sessions, increase convenience, and also promote safety.

Shaping metal can be a messy task, so one helpful accessory is the chip tray. The main job of this is to capture the metal shavings from your stock, for convenient cleaning. This also gives you some additional scrap metal to work with, should you look to keep it for another task.

Guards are a common accessory that can be found on either the wood and metal lathe – and one that I definitely recommend you looking into when you purchase your lathe. It minimizes the risk of being hit by shards when you’re turning your metal.

And you can’t place a price on safety, can you?

Projects You Can Use A Metal Lathe For

Metal lathes have an unbelievable list of projects that you can start on, thanks to the different metals available and the versatility of the lathe itself.

One of the most popular uses for a metal lathe is creating screw threads. These can be made suited for the shape and length you need them, and saves yourself having to buy them at the store. Plus, added satisfaction of creating your own is a bonus, right?

As well as screw threads, you can use scrap metal for creating bolts, nuts and rings. Tools can also be created – maybe you fancy yourself in making a knife or a scribe – there really are countless options available for you to start off with, as your experience grows.

Is there anything in particular you’d like to make with a metal lathe? Let me know of your ideas in the comments.

What’s The Best Metal Lathe To Use?

If you’re using a metal lathe for the first time and your experience level is that of a beginner, it’s recommended to use a lathe that doesn’t go overboard with additional features, sticking to the core aspects.

If you trust yourself as a quick learner – definitely go with a lathe that you know will serve you in the long run.

The Grizzly G8688 is one of the best in the mini-metal lathe class, with a ¾ HP motor, and a variable speed option with a low range setting of 0-1100 RPM, and a high range setting of 0-2500 RPM.

It does include a learning curve – yet you don’t buy a metal lathe to stay on the same experience level, and it’ll assist in increasing your skills and confidence in metal turning.

Is there a model of metal lathe you’ve seen but are unsure about? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to help you.

Final Words

It was great to put this together for you, and I’m hoping that you now have a better understanding of the different types of lathes, how they work, and what is best suited for your needs.

Starting your lathe journey, whether it be on a wood or metal lathe, can be difficult to start – and that’s why I’ve made this guide for you.

There are many different used for a lathe, as we’ve spoken about, and I hope you’re able to pinpoint each component when you’re shopping for one, and there are many available that are suited for all budgets.

We’ve also made our reviews on five of the best wood and metal lathes, so feel free to check them out – as we want you to be as informed as possible.

If you’re experienced, leave some tips below for those who are starting off – I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I’m sure they would do.

James Thomas

James Thomas

Tool Enthusiast

2 thoughts on “Your Lathe (Wood & Metal) Buyers Guide 2019”

    1. Hi Graeme,

      Short answer, yes, it can be used for woodturning. However, there are a couple of things to consider such as the tool rest, chuck/ faceplates etc. It all depends on the lathe you get though. And to be honest, your best bet is to consult the manufacturer to be safe (mind you, some will advise purchasing a woodworking lathe).

      Cheers,
      James

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