Wood Lathe Vs. Metal Lathe (A Complete Guide For Beginners)

When you are just starting with woodworking, you will quickly learn of the amazing tools and projects that people worldwide are doing. One of the tools that cause a lot of confusion for beginners is lathes, as there are several different types, with metal versus wood lathes being the most popular argument. 

Wood lathes are meant only to be used with wood and allow you to be a bit more creative with the hand tools you have to use on wood. Metal lathes are much more expensive, stronger, and more versatile as the metals are usually a lot harder to work with than any wood. 

Understanding which of these two lathes to get can be confusing, especially when you are still considering which projects you may start working on. I always recommend looking at how these two types of lathes are different and how they can sometimes be similar. 

wood lathe vs metal lathe

Can You Turn A Wood Lathe Into A Metal Lathe?

No, you cannot turn a wood lathe into a metal lathe; the required gears and chuck holds are not included with the design of any wood lathe. Further, wood lathes all use tool rests when cutting and shaping the material, which is the complete opposite of metal lathes.

Wood lathes cannot provide the power required to turn most metals, with only softer metals being turned. I always recommend being careful; when turning metal, the material does not behave in the same way as wood, bending or shattering your tools.

Further, your wood tools will not work as well, usually becoming extremely blunt when even cutting into the softest of metals. Instead, you will be required to change your tool rest with a different tool holder of buy tungsten-tipped tools that can bite into the metals. 

How Do You Cut Wood On A Metal Lathe?

Now that we know why you cannot cut metal on a wooden lathe, we need to look at how you can cut wood on a metal lathe. As metal lathes are much stronger and can turn at faster or slower speeds, you can convert them to work for any of the woods you may want to turn. 

However, three parts of your metal lathe will be replaced or adjusted to work well with the wooden parts that you are turning. While you may use the standard metal lathe parts, you will find that your ability to feel and control the wood as you normally would not be present. 

Replace Chuck

The chuck of a metal lathe can have several different types of ways of gripping, ranging from the standard three-tooth chuck to the much more complicated four tooth chuck. These are all made to hold onto various odd shapes that metal parts can sometimes be in when they are cut. 

Wood lathes usually have many simple chucks on them or chuck made to grip the wood in different ways. I always recommend replacing the chuck, if possible, to hold onto your wooden workpieces properly, as standard metal lathe chucks require more material to properly hold onto parts.

Add Tool Rest

Metal lathes do not have tool rests; they have tool posts that rest on the cross slide; this is a part where you place the cutter. To cut material on a metal lathe, you adjust the cross slide using the apron and everything else attached to it, never using your hand to touch the tool directly. 

If you want to cut wood on your metal lathe, you need to place a tool rest onto it, usually removing the apron entirely with everything attached to it. A few companies provide parts that allow you to convert the apron into something you can use to rest your tools on while you are cutting. 

Live Centre Adjustment

I have seen some strange live centers being used on wood and metal lathes, which is why you will need to replace the one on your metal lathe. These are not usually made to have flat grips or hold things that are not perfectly balanced, as your wood may be. 

Fortunately, this is the quickest thing you can do as live centers are usually replaced or adjusted to work better with whatever project you are working on. However, it should be noted that not all your wood lathe centers will work on your metal lathe as the parts are usually different sizes. 

Why Can A Wood Lathe Not Be Used To Cut Metal?

Wood lathes turn at high speeds, and when working with harder metals, it becomes almost impossible to control how you are cutting. Further, even with softer metals, normal wood lathe tools become blunt quite fast as softer metals usually grip the tools a lot more than other materials.

You must always remember that metals, especially the softest ones, do not behave the same way as wood does. Wood may hit a tool and chip off, where metal, turning at high or low speeds, may hit a tool and grab onto it, pulling you and the tool into the machine as it continues to turn away. 

It is entirely possible to use a wood lathe when turning softer metals that are not too long or complicated. But you will have to use high-speed steel or tungsten carbide tips that are specifically made to cut into metals rather than cut into the wood. 

Which Is Better For Carving, Metal Or Wood Lathes?

If you are only ever carving wood, then wood lathes will always be the best answer for your needs. Wood lathes give you the flexibility with your tool to easily and comfortably word around the piece you have, changing its shape and feeling where you still need to remove a bit.

Metal lathes can provide the same level of quality, but usually only when you are cutting metals, lacking some of the basic parts that a wood lathe has. Further, the price difference between the two types of lathes usually causes many people to get something that exactly fits their needs.

A basic wood lathe that can be used on almost any wood project can be as affordable as a few hundred dollars. Metal lathes are always nearing $1000 or more, with metal lathes capable of turning fast enough to work with wood can be several thousands of dollars. 

Summary

If you are only ever cutting wood, then a wood lathe is exactly what you will need, allowing for custom carving and shaping. However, if you are going to be cutting metals and other materials investing in a proper metal lathe that can help you on any project.

Whatever you do, please always remember that it will not stop because your hand is in the way regardless of the machine type! 

James Thomas

James Thomas

Tool Enthusiast

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