Last Updated on August 28, 2022 by Barry Gray
Lathes are powerful, versatile tools for shaping wood in a variety of interesting ways. But wood lathes and metal lathes have important differences you should understand before you make the significant investment of buying one.
A wood lathe is a relatively lightweight tool meant for turning wood quickly and letting you work it into rounded, creative shapes. Metal lathes do something similar, but can be used with either wood or metal.
In general, metal lathes are more powerful than wood lathes, which is what lets them cut through much harder materials. But in order to generate that power, metal lathes are also more complicated and heavy than wood lathes. Wood lathes are also less expensive, but they’re less precise and versatile than metal lathes.
To put the difference in numbers, a wood lathe will usually be able to deliver about two horsepower at a maximum. On the other hand, metal lathes can reach up to ten horsepower with their much more powerful motors. That’s as much as some early cars!
Wood lathes will get the job done even with dense hardwoods, but a metal lathe’s higher power is necessary to cut through metal. That’s especially important for larger projects. If you’re only making small- to mid-sized items out of softer materials, a wood lathe is probably more than sufficient.
But if you’re making larger products, or want to do more intricate, detailed work, a metal lathe is a good idea. Metal lathes are also useful if you want to work with non-wood materials, like plastics and other hard-to-cut materials.
If all you ever want to do with your lathe is turn wood into rounded shapes, a wood lathe is probably enough for you. But if you want to make complex, multi-part projects with intricate curves, you need a metal lathe.
Wood lathes are very limited in the shapes they can create. You can only turn the wood in one direction, and the workpiece can only be as wide as the length of the lathe. Metal lathes, on the other hand, can move the workpiece in two directions and you can use longer workpieces.
That makes it much easier to create the intricate shapes you need for more complex projects like furniture, car parts, and other items made from multiple pieces. Obviously, metal lathes have the additional advantage of being able to cut into many more materials than wood lathes.
If versatility is important to you, a metal lathe should be a no-brainer. A wood lathe simply can’t handle the same variety of materials or angles that you can cut with a metal lathe.
Wood lathes are small and light enough that you can move them around your workshop as needed. But metal lathes are hefty and bulky by comparison. Those larger lathes designed for metalworking are much larger and heavier than wood lathes.
Some metal lathes weigh more than 1,000 pounds. That makes them far less portable; you can’t just wheel them around your workshop as the need arises. It also makes them much more difficult to transport onto a job site.
If you need to move your lathe around, get a smaller wood lathe. They’re still large enough to do a variety of tasks, but they can be moved around a lot more easily. But if you’re working with a variety of materials and don’t need to move your lathe often, a larger metal lathe is a good choice. You’ll be able to do more with it, and you won’t have to move it as often.
Metal lathes also have wheels and a handle to make transportation easier. That means that with some effort, you’ll be able to rearrange your shop if you need to, although it doesn’t mean it’ll be effortless. Metal lathes aren’t impossible to move around, but wood lathes will be much easier to bring to more distant locations.
Wood lathes don’t need to stand up to the abuse that metal lathes do, which makes them less tough, but also less exposed to extreme stress. On the other hand, metal lathes are built to be sturdy, but have to endure the soaring temperatures and flying sparks that come with metalworking.
If you’re working almost exclusively with wood, a metal lathe will last you much longer. That’s because wood won’t put anywhere close to the amount of stress on a metal lathe that would break it. If you’re planning to work with metals much of the time, you shouldn’t be considering a wood lathe anyways–it’s not suited for work with metals.
You should also consider that generally speaking, lathes at higher price points are more durable. These higher-quality machines will last longer, although the price point of a high-quality wood lathe may be much higher than that of a quality wood lathe.
That brings us to the prices of these tools. In general, wood lathes are much less expensive than metal lathes. You can easily find a quality wood lathe for under $100, but metal lathes start at around $100 and can easily approach $1,000.
You don’t need the best lathe money can buy, but if you want a metal lathe, you need to be prepared to spend some real cash. If you only want to occasionally make small items, a cheap wood lathe is probably fine. But if you want to do more with metal and are willing to spend a bit more, a metal lathe is a better choice.
It’s worth noting that maintenance and repairs on metal lathes will be more expensive as well. Metal lathes tend to be more complex machines with more moving parts, and while they’re more durable, their parts are more pricey as well.
You can save some of this money by learning how to do basic maintenance and repairs on your lathes yourself. That could take down some of the costs of keeping the machines running longer, and make them more of a long-term investment.
Wood lathes have some inherent precision, but metal lathes are much more accurate. Metal lathes have more powerful motors, which give them more control and allow them to work more precisely. That’s especially true when working with metal.
Wood on wood is a pretty rough-and-tumble affair, where you have to make do with a bit of inaccuracy. But when working with metals, the difference in precision between wood and metal lathes is dramatic.
That’s especially true if you’re working with longer pieces; with wood, it’s hard to be precise with workpieces that are longer than the length of the lathe. But with a metal lathe, you can work with much longer pieces and be more precise.
Overall, metal lathes are more powerful and precise than wood lathes, and are generally better suited to more complex, intricate projects. But wood lathes are more affordable, more portable, and more suited to working with softer materials, like wood.
That means both tools have their place in woodworking. You’ll probably have a wood lathe, but you’ll benefit from having a metal lathe, too.
I suggest that if you are looking to get your first lathe, to start with a wood lathe. It will be easier on your wallet, and it will give you a good idea of whether or not you want to expand your lathing horizons and get a metal lathe as well.