Any serious woodworker knows the importance of having a lathe their shop. Turning wood, which is done effectively and efficiently with a wood lathe, is one of the most basic techniques in woodworking other than planing and sawing. Without one of these bad boys in your workshop, turning out beautifully round pieces of wood-based art is close to impossible.
The biggest problem that most first-time buyers have regarding lathing machines is finding the right model that suits their needs. In this article, we’ll help you find the right wood lathe based on what sort of projects you plan on doing in the near future. But before we jump into our buying guides, let’s discuss the basics of this basic woodworking tool.
Benchtop vs. Large Wood Lathes
When shopping for a wood lathe, you may come across two vastly different types – compact benchtop models and large, floor models.
Average DIY-ers and even professional woodworkers may look to benchtop lathes as the go-to tool for most if not all of their wood-turning needs. These compact lathes provide enough space for long and wide pieces of stock. They’re also powerful enough to turn large blocks of wood for making a wide range of different objects, including baseball bats, pens, and bowls.
Free-standing floor models are mainly designed for use in professional workshops. They come with humungous motors for turning enormous blocks of aged wood which is just something that most craftsmen will find unnecessary.
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Mini vs. Midi Lathes – Huh?
On your journey to find the best wood lathe for your workshop, you’ll most likely run into two terms that describe the capacity of the machine. These are mini and midi lathes, and they cause a ton of confusion aspiring woodworkers.
Mini and midi lathes have many similarities in terms of size and portability. They’re much more transportable than their full-sized counterparts. However, that’s where their similarities end.
Mini lathes are smaller than midis and feature smaller motors. This means they deliver less power – still enough for turning small stock – at a slower speed.
But just because they’re smaller doesn’t mean they’re not worth the investment. For most small wood-turning projects, a mini lathe could supply you with more than enough.
Lathe Buying Guide
If you plan on investing in a lathe machine for your workshop, the biggest challenge you’ll come across is finding the right model. Since there’s a sea of literally thousands of lathe machines made by hundreds of different producers to choose from, getting the best lathe that suits your every need is going to be difficult.
But worry not, friends. We’re here to help. In this article, we’ll provide you with three different guides on how to choose the best lathe machine for wood (general-purpose), for turning pens, and for turning bowls.
Lathe for Wood Buying Guide
Even though every lathe we’re going to discuss in this article is used for turning wood, we feel that a general-purpose lathe – one that can be used for much more than specific jobs like turning pens and bowls – deserves its own section. The following guide will go over what sort of things you need to be on the lookout for when shopping for a wood lathe.
What sort of work you’re doing
We’ll go over lathes for pen and bowl making in a bit, but first let’s see what sort of things a wood lathe can be used for.
Lathes can be used to make random wood-based objects like baseball bats (store-bought is of much greater quality), table and chair legs, goblets, wooden rings, and the list goes on. Basically, anything that needs to be rounded or made into a spherical shape can be done using a wood lathe.
The centers of a lathe are the metal objects found on both sides of the lathe that grab onto the wooden workpiece. The centers poke at the exact center of the workpiece in order to give it a perfect spin on its axis.
The distance between the two centers determines how long of a block can be turned. The distance can be anywhere from 8 to 18 inches long, but for longer projects – e.g. long table legs – you might want to consider purchasing a bed extension which allows you to place the tail center (the right-hand center) further away.
Swing over Bed
Swing over bed is the maximum width of a stick that a lathe machine can accommodate. This measures the distance between the center and the bed which is also the maximum diameter of the stock. Anything larger than the swing and the workpiece will bump into the bed, possibly knocking the tool off of your workbench. A good swing over bed size for most DIY projects would be at least 6 inches.
Speed is measured in how many times the headstock center rotates per minute (RPM). Lathe machines with bigger motors can spin stock at higher speeds which would be more appropriate for making final cuts or sanding the workpiece.
The rule of thumb for determining the most appropriate speed of the wood lathe is by multiplying the thickness of the stock by the machine’s RPM setting. The result should be within the 6,000 to 9,000 range. For instance, turning a 5-inch stock should be done at a speed of between 1,200 RPM and 1,800 RPM – slower speed for rough cuts and quicker speed for final touches.
The index plate which is located at the headstock side of the lathe machine allows users to add curved details to their work. It’s not included in every lathe machine, but if you plan on adding intricate details to your work, then definitely look for a tool that comes with one or has one that’s sold separately.
Lathe for Turning Pens Buying Guide
Turning pens on a wood lathe is a simple yet meticulous process that can be done on most wood lathes. However, if you plan on producing beautiful wooden pens in large quantities, you may want to consider investing in a lathe that’s designed almost specifically for pen-making purposes. Of course, you can produce other creations with these lathes if you feel like it. Let’s take a look at what specs and features a pen-producing wood lathe needs to have.
Despite the thickness of the pen stock being ultra-thin – maybe a few inches at most – it’s still important that the lathe deliver both low and high speeds. On its slower speed setting of around 500 RPM or so, you can carve the stock down to its desired diameter. Crank the tool’s speed up to remove more material more quickly and make fancy curves along the length of the pen.
Higher speeds are also needed for final touches on the pen. The lathe’s function is to spin the stock, letting you not only remove material with a chisel but also sand it down with sandpaper and polish it by using a buffing pad. These two things are only made possible with a high-speed lathe.
The ideal speed range for turning pens would be between 500 and 4,000 RPM. Most lathe machines rely on manually changing drive belts to get the desired speed. To simplify matters, we recommend finding a model that comes with a digital readout, eliminating all guesswork in terms of speed delivery.
As we mentioned in the previous section, the center-to-center distance is the amount of available space between the lathe’s headstock and tailstock centers. Unless you plan on making a ridiculously long pen (something that you should definitely try when you have the time and spare material), a simple 18-inch bed without extensions will work just fine.
Benchtop lathes are only as good as there are sturdy. You don’t want the machine working at high speed and suddenly topple off of your workbench, possibly breaking your toes, causing damage to the tool, or, even worse, damaging the floor of your workshop.
Benchtop lathes can be made of heavy-duty cast iron and weigh around 70 to 100 pounds. These are preferable to the flimsy 50-ish-pound models made of plastic. You can further increase the tool’s sturdiness by mounting it onto your worktable with screws.
Pen Turning Set
Even though this isn’t a part of the lathing machine, you may want to consider taking a look at various pen turning kits available. These kits come with all of the components needed to create a beautifully turned pen. The DIY factor of this kit is the pen stock blank which you turn using your lathing machine. The style of pen depends on the kit, so take a few moments to check out different types of kits online.
Lathe for Turning Bowls Buying Guide
The final guide we’ll leave you with today is regarding how to find the right lathe machine for turning bowls. Like pen-turning wood lathes, any lathe that can be used to make bowls will work fine for other projects.
Swing over Bed
One of the most important things you need to consider before turning a bowl on a lathe is whether the tool has enough space to do so. Of course, this depends on how big or small of a bowl you plan on making, but if you’re anything like us, you’ll appreciate a tool that comes with higher centers for accommodating larger blanks.
Certain benchtop and even floor wood lathes have smaller a small swing measurement of about 8 inches. However, if you’d like to go bigger, there are models out there with more than a foot of swing space.
Placing an uneven 8- to 12-inch blank on a wood lathe can be extremely dangerous, especially if you’re turning the material at high speed. If the unit isn’t sitting flat or properly mounted, you could end up destroying the tool, your chisel, and your dignity.
The ideal lathe for turning large blanks for bowls is made of durable cast iron and can be mounted onto a bench with screws (benchtop models). For floor models, the legs should be perfectly even and sit flat on the floor of your workshop.
The speed needed to turn a bowl depends on which part of the process you’re currently working on. For instance, shaping a rough stock should be done at a slower speed of about 700 RPM. Shaping and final sanding can be done at speeds of more than 3,000 RPM.
This means opting for a lathe machine with easy-to-adjust drive belts. Better yet, there are models that automatically adjust the positions of the belt with a push of a button.
After making your fiftieth bowl, there won’t be any challenge in making plain bowls with smooth outer edges. You may feel the need to add intricate cuts and grooves along the outer surface of the bowl. An index plate will help you ensure that the angles of the cuts are made perfectly. More indexing positions allow for more intricate designs, so we’d recommend looking for an index plate with at least 24 positions.
This may seem like a no-brainer since sanding should be done at all angles in order to remove any trace of tool marks, but there are several lathe machines out there that don’t come with a reverse feature. Putting the tool in reverse means changing the direction in which the headstock spins. For turning large objects like bowls, this is extremely important as it can be annoying having to turn the stock around to sand all of the chisel marks away.
Lathe machines are pretty much a must-have tool for any woodworker of any level. Lathe machines make chiseling, sanding, and buffing round objects much easier to do and without the risk of removing more material than initially planned.
We’ve provided you with knowledge on how to purchase the right wood lathe depending on what sort of project you plan on taking up. The guides are how to get a lathe for general woodworking jobs, for producing pens, and for making bowls.
Even though the “best” specs and features of a general-purpose lathe depend on what sort of jobs you’re doing, it’s better to opt for a large tool – benchtop or otherwise – that holds onto blanks of at least 18 inches long and 10 inches thick. Variable speed is also important as both slow and quick rotations are needed to shape, sand, and buff your work.
Wood lathes for making pens can be small mini models that deliver between 500 and 3,000 RPM. The compact size of the mini lathe should also be mountable onto a workbench to prevent it from falling over and becoming damaged. All lathe machines come with long beds and large swing over bed measurements for turning pens without any risks of bumps.
Finally, lathe machines for turning bowls should have a wide swing over bed – 12 inches or more is ideal – for making large bowls. It’s also crucial that the machine can be put into reverse to shave material off without having to turn the bowl over. Furthermore, the lathe should also be steady on its feet since large, uneven blanks could potentially rock the lathe back and forth during rough trimming.
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