Just as handsaws have been disproportionately used less with the advent of circular and table saws, the treadle lathe has been replaced with electric lathes.
Lathes are used for a variety of woodworking projects. Pens, bowls, chair legs and parts for furniture are a few popular projects that we woodworkers use a lathe to sculpt.
Choosing a lathe is the first and most critical step, ensuring a functional tool for the type of work you’re planning. The length and diameter a lathe can effectively accept is the biggest and most important decision.
Couple references that will help in your choosing the correct size lathe:
Swing – a 12” swing over the bed (bottom), means the distance from the bed to the center of the chuck is 6”. So, the largest diameter of piece you can turn is 12”.
If all you’re turning pens, you don’t need a full size lathe. Any bench top type will work. The bench top usually can handle 8” to 15” lengths. Turning larger projects will require a full size lathe and the most common is a 12” x 36”. And, if you’re turning bowls, you will want a lathe with a swiveling head or out board spindle.
Let’s talk speed. Typically, more speeds is better. If you’re turning big stock or roughing a piece, you’ll need to use a slow speed for safety’s sake. The smaller the diameter or as you finish the piece, the faster you go the better!
Select a lathe with at least four speeds. The slowest speed you’ll need is at least 600 rpm and the fastest would be near 3200 to 4000 rpm. Fancy variable speed models can select from zero to top speed and anything between.
The structure of the lathe is fundamentally important. Small lathes can have aluminum beds. However, beds are commonly cast iron or steel. The material a bed determines how strong and rigid the lathe is and how well is performs with pressure and vibration. A few notes; single piece construction is best and a two-piece bed is less appealing.
Accessories are important. There are a few items needing prior planning before selecting your lathe; some tools only fit on specific beds. If your work requires a duplicator, ensure
that tool is available for the machine you like.
When selecting, check these items too; the two flat sides on the bed run parallel to each other, the head-stock and tail-stock are in functioning shape. Many parts will be made of castings, ensure they are of good quality and are free from cracks. The other major part of the lathe is the head and tail stocks. Inspecting the strength and viability of their materials will result in quality finished materials.
Motor sizes typically range from the 1/8 horsepower (hp) to 2hp. Common hobby motor size is 1/2hp to 1hp.
Woodworking Lathe Check List
- Bed size: 8” to 43” long
- Swing size: 3” to 20”
- Motor size: 1/8hp up to 2hp
- Speed: 600 to 4000rpm. (don’t get a single speed lathe! you’ll end up poking your eyes out!)
- Model: Bench or floor (this decision is driven by space available and project requirements)
- Bed: Must be stable and solid. (single piece is better than two-piece)
- Head stock: swivel is best
- Check for high quality materials and defects