Best Lathe: Buying Guide and Top 5
Woodturning is one of the most popular forms of woodworking. There are plenty of things you can create by woodturning such as bowls, bird feeders, pens, cradles, and even replacement handles for some of your aging tools. All you need to begin several fun projects are curved gouges, sharp chisels, and parting tools. But for woodturning to go so much more easily, you need to have a reliable lathe in your workshop.
What Is a Lathe?
Lathes are machines that help in shaping wood, metal, and any other material. You attach the stock to a rotating drive which then turns the piece in a circular motion, allowing you to remove some of the materials by resting chiseling tools against the spinning stock. Woodturning calls for having a good eye, steady hands, and a high-quality lathe to keep your material perfectly centered while rotating hundred or even thousands of times every 60 seconds.
The lathe was designed back in the 13th century by ancient Egyptians who… Who cares? Let’s see what the modern day lathes have in store for us.
Types of Lathes
There are several different types of lathes. We can categorize them based on their size, what materials they’re meant to shape, and their specialty features for producing customized works of art. For the average woodworker who doesn’t have a ton of money to spend on super-mega-machines, there are three types of lathers that you should consider – mini lathes, midi lathes, and full-sized lathes.
This is the smallest type of lathe available. It’s a great starting point for people looking to get into the woodturning game, but it can also be a great option for working creating small pieces like pens, bottle stoppers, chair spindles, and drawer knobs. Technically, a mini lathe is defined as a machine that can turn stock as large as 20 long by 12 inches tall. However, many models come with bed extensions, allowing you to turn longer spindles for creating table legs, chair legs, and even baseball bats.
Of the three types of commonly used lathes by hobbyist and serious woodoworkers, the midi lathe is in the middle ground in terms of size between mini lathes and full-sized lathes. The biggest difference between mini and midi lathes is that the latter has a larger motor for spinning thicker stock (slightly more than 12 inches in diameter). This makes a midi lathe better suited for turning table legs, chair legs, and other long objects.
A full-sized lathe is the largest of the three types of lathes. This means you can spin and produce some pretty huge pieces with one of these machines in your shop. There are vast differences between each full-sized lathe’s capacities, usually ranging from 16 to 20-inch swing over bed and 24 to 46-inch length capacity.
Their ability to latch onto and turn larger stock is due to their incredible motors of at least 1-1/2 HP. These machines can be used to do anything a mini and midi lathe can and more. The only drawback is the price tag, so perhaps woodworking hobbyists should steer clear of these machines.
So Which Type Should I Get?
Well, it ultimately depends on what you plan on creating with your lathe. We recommend aspiring woodworkers to get either a mini or midi lathe. These machines, though small, pack enough power so you can turn rather sizeable pieces of wood. These types of lathes will also help you build up your confidence in woodturning. The only problem is that as your skill in woodturning develops, you’ll find these machines extremely limiting due to their small bed capacities.
If you’re seriously considering getting a full-sized lathe, know that you’ll have to invest upwards of $1,000 on a good machine. We’re not saying that the investment isn’t worth it, especially if you have your own furniture-producing company, but for the average Joe looking to create pens, bowls, and baseball bats, perhaps this isn’t the most cost-effective machine.
For the remainder of this article, we’re going to focus heavily on mini and midi lathes, but the same principles can be applied to full-sized lathes if you’re really going that route.
Lathe Buying Guide
As of late, lathes have become increasingly more popular. Back in the day, consumers were at the mercy of retailers when it came to owning tables, bowls, wooden pens, and baseball bats. However, with the influx of mini and midi lathes entering the market, the prices of these machines have dropped considerably, and machine retailers have included them in their arsenal of equipment for sale.
The only problem now is finding the right lathe that suits your every need. This means looking at their capacities, motor sizes, operating speeds, and a range of special features that sweeten the deal. Our buying guide will give you a quick rundown of each of the most important specs and features to pay attention to when scouring the market for the right lathe for your workshop.
The most important thing to consider when checking out different lathe models is its motor. Stronger motors, or a higher horsepower rating, mean better woodturning results. It can also be used as an indicator in determining whether the machine is able to turn large stock.
Most mini and midi lathes come with less than 1-HP motors. It offers enough power to turn rather sizeable stock – around 12 inches thick – and more than 40 inches long (depending on the model and bed extensions). However, not every mini and midi lathe, regardless of motor power, performs the same. The motor is a great starting point when comparing different models, but there are several other factors you need to consider.
There are several single-speed lathes that we recommend you avoid at all costs. A lathe that moves at a single, high-speed pace can wreak some pretty significant damage to your blank, especially if you’re working on an out-of-balance piece.
Variable speed, or multi-speed, lathes give users the freedom to adjust how quickly the spindle turns. Slower speeds, between 200 and 700 RPM, can be used to shape and balance rough blanks, to sand, and to apply oil finishes to your piece. As the blank becomes more uniform in shape and turns evenly, you can crank up the speed of your lathe for quickly removing and shaping. The maximum speed isn’t as important as the minimum speed, but it never hurts to go fast (be careful!).
There are two different ways of changing the speed of your lathe. The first method is by manually shifting the belt to the right gear position. Traditional, cheaper models use this time-tested system, but there are several factors that can affect the speed. This includes the condition of the belt, how well it’s positioned on the pulley, putting it on the correct pulley, and the tension of the belt.
Of course, you can avoid the headache of manually shifting the belt to the right pulley by picking up a lathe with electronic variable speed. Operators simply need to turn a knob, and an LED readout will show the maximum turning speed of the spindle. This also gives greater freedom in selecting the spindle speed since using the pulley system may produce speeds that are too slow or too fast; there is not in between.
Distance between Headstock and Tailstock Spindles
The length of the bed can help you determine how large a blank can be fitted onto your machine, but it’s actually the distance between the headstock and tailstock spindles that you should consider. Greater distances translate into spinning longer blanks for making table legs, chair legs, and baseball bats. The tailstock travels along the bed, either increasing or decreasing the distance between the spindles.
Most mini and midi lathes have the capacity to fit objects of around 20 inches long. As you can see, if you’re creating large furniture, this can be somewhat limiting. However, you can overcome this length issue by purchasing an extension for the bed. This can enhance the distance by up 20 or even 30 inches!
Swing Over Bed
One of the most important numbers to take into account when looking at potential lathes to take home with you is the swing over bed distance. Swing over bed refers to the maximum diameter of a blank that can be situated between the headstock and tailstock spindles. You’ll need a greater swing over bed distance if you plan on making large bowls.
If you’re looking at mini and midi lathes, don’t be surprised if they show swing over bed distances of around one foot. For most small projects such as making pens, this will be more than enough. However, if you’re planning on making huge objects – e.g., huge salad bowls – then you may need to consider full-sized lathe models. There is no way to enhance the swing over bed distance.
The materials used to make a lathe are an extremely important factor. You don’t want a cheap plastic lathe since the casing may vibrate and cause the screws to fall out over time. The best lathes are made of heavy-duty cast iron. The added weight of cast iron really lends a helping hand in keeping vibrations down to a minimum, giving the blank an even, balanced spin. Of course, cast iron models will be more expensive than their plastic counterparts, but it really is a worthy investment, especially if you’re serious about producing high-quality pieces of wood art.
When using a lathe, it’s important to consider the direction of your blank’s grain. It’s a good idea to chisel with the grain since going to opposite direction may dig into the wood, causing it to split. However, when your piece is ready for the final touches – e.g., sanding – then you need to go both with and against the grain for perfect results.
Lathes are versatile machines that let users do a multitude of different things, such as sanding, polishing, and applying an even coat of oil. Good lathes have both forward and reverse gears. This gives you the ability to sand both with and against the grain when finishing up on your piece.
Even if you don’t plan on turning wood, a lathe can still serve some purpose. Lathes come with indexing positions which let you plan out intricate designs on cylindrical objects. Indexing involves locking your piece onto the headstock spindle, making sure that the piece is balanced and spins evenly, and locking the spindle at different positions. This lets you plan out intricate designs on the sides of your bowls and pens. If you’ve ever seen intricate Celtic know designs in wood, a lathe’s indexing most likely helped in its creation.
Top 5 Lathes
Now that we know what constitutes a good, reliable mini or midi lathe, it’s time to check out what the market has in store for us. Remember how we mentioned an influx of different lathe makes and models? Yeah, that wasn’t an exaggeration. A quick internet search will show you hundreds upon hundreds of different mini and midi lathes to get. To save you some time, we’ve compiled a list of five of the best mini and midi lathes available.
5 NOVA 46300 Comet II Variable Speed Mini Lathe
The first item on our list of the favorite mini/midi lathes is the 46300 Comet II from NOVA. This machine comes with a ¾-HP motor. This machine has three different speed settings, ranging from 250 to 4,000 RPM. From start to finish, you can use this lathe to turn your blank into beautiful pieces of wood art. It uses a pulley system where the headstock needs to be lifted in order to move the belt’s position. It’s a piece of cake and takes less than 30 seconds to do.
Although this unit is compact, it is no way a cheap product. The body, headstock, and tailstock of the machine are made of heavy-duty cast iron. If you need to transport this machine to and from job sites, there’s very little risk of the move causing damage to any component. Furthermore, the design and weight of the Comet gives it stability so you’ll hardly feel the vibrations.
The Comet supports blanks of up to 12 inches thick and 16-1/2 inches long. For a mini lathe, you can produce a wide range of different pieces of art. With the bed extension accessory (sold separately), you can increase the capacity from 16-1/2 inches to a whopping 41 inches.
As for its specialty features, this unit comes with 12 indexing positions to help you create intricate designs on your bowls, pens, and baseball bats (if you want). However, the most prominent feature of the Comet is the coupler system which lets you attach different accessories onto the left-hand side of the machine near the headstock. Accessories include wire brushes, belt, and spindle sanders, and a grinding wheel.
4 Jet JWL-1015 Wood Working Lathe
The JWL-1015 from Jet is another great mini lathe. Unlike the previous model, this is one of the simpler mini lathes you’ll find on the market. However, its performance more than makes up for the lack of specialty features.
This machine comes with a ½-HP motor and six different gears for varying speeds. From lowest to highest, the JWL-1015 offers speeds of 500, 840, 1,240, 2,630, and 3,975 RPM. From shaping blanks to finishing pieces, this mini lathe from JET can do it all.
This is one of the smaller mini lathes you’ll find on the market. It has a limited capacity of only 15-1/2 long and 10 inches thick. However, you can purchase the bed accessory which allows users to mount longer stock to up to 36-1/2 inches. With the extension bed in place, you can turn blanks to produce long legs for your tables, chairs, and bed frames.
Like the Comet, this unit’s frame and spindles are made entirely of durable cast iron. The weight you get from such a heavy-duty material lends it much-needed stability when the spindles work at 3,975 RPM.
To help plan out intricate cuts and designs on any stock, the JWL-1015 comes with 24 indexing positions, giving you more freedom to draw out and produce more complex patterns and designs. Not too shabby for a mini lathe, in our opinion.
3 WEN 3420 8″ by 12″ Variable Speed Benchtop Wood Lathe
This particular mini lathe from WEN is an excellent choice for those of us on a tight budget. The 3420 features a 1/3-HP motor and variable speed of between 750 and 3,200 RPM. To adjust the speed, simply move the belt’s position from one pulley to another. Some users found that this speed range is just a rough guideline, and some machines have gone below 750 RPM and beyond 3,200 RPM.
This is one of the smaller mini lathes around with a blank capacity of only 12 inches long by 8 inches thick. Unfortunately, with the WEN 3420, there is no way to increase the capacity. You get 12 x 8 inches of space to turn wood, and that’s it. Not that this is a bad thing, especially if you’re working on small items like pens and bowls.
The 3240’s frame and spindles are made of cast iron. The weight of the entire unit is only about 43 pounds. It’s still a sturdy, vibration-less model but is easier to transport from place to place. This will come in handy if you take your work with you to various locations.
Unfortunately, the 3420 doesn’t have any index positions. This is one of the simpler tools with even fewer features than the JWL-1015. However, in this wood lathe’s case, fewer features isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering that in exchange for storage space, index positions, and capacity, you get ultimate performance.
2 SHOP FOX W1704 1/3-Horsepower Benchtop Lathe
The sturdy W1704 from SHOP FOX is an excellent mini lathe for people looking to get into woodturning. Durable body, excellent power delivery, and the ability to change speeds on the fly really make this versatile tool something to behold.
The W1704 comes with a 1/3-HP motor which is smaller than most, even in mini lathe standards. However, with its somewhat limited capacity of only 12 x 8-inch blanks, you really don’t need an abundant amount of power. In fact, this machine is perhaps one of the most efficient lathes in terms of capacity and power delivery.
The variable speed knob allows you take adjust how quickly you want the spindles to rotate. With a speed range of between 700 and 3,200 RPM, you can complete small-scale tasks in no time. One of the most interesting things about this machine is that despite having somewhat of a simple design, you can actually change the speed of the spindle while it’s spinning.
Because this lathe is so lightweight (45 pounds), even though it’s made of heavy-duty cast iron, it’s important that you mount it onto your work surface prior to flipping the switch. In fact, for any benchtop lathe, it’s important that they’re mounted securely, but it becomes that much more crucial for the W1704.
1 Delta Industrial 46-460 12-1/2-Inch Variable-Speed Midi Lathe
The numero uno product on our list is the heavy-duty 46-460 Midi Lathe from Delta. This product is different from the others in the sense that it comes with an electric variable speed with pulleys so even though you need to change pulley positions to work at a desired speed, each pulley position has its own speed range. From the lowest to highest gear, this machine offers 250 to 750 RPM, 600 to 1,800 RPM, and 1,350 to 4,000 RPM.
The largest sized stock you can mount onto the headstock and tailstock spindles is 16-1/2 inches long by 12-1/2 inches thick. Most beginner users will find this to be just about what they need, but if you’re looking to increase the capacity, you can get the add-on extension table which increases the length capacity to 42 inches (sold separately).
The frame is made of strong cast iron, making the 46-460 weigh almost 100 pounds. The added weight really helps in keeping the unit stable while running at its quickest speed, but it may not be the portable model you need for taking with you to various locations.
The reversing feature of the spindles really helps with sanding and applying oil finishes to your pieces. Just be sure that your bowl/pen/whatever is mounted correctly in order to prevent sanding away more of the material that you originally hoped for.
Wood lathes are becoming increasingly more popular due to the number of jobs they can do. Although you can do woodturning jobs without a lathe, having one makes it incredibly easier to do by eliminating the risk of chiseling away more than you’d hoped.
There are several types of lathes, but for most woodworkers, they only need to consider three types for their garage workshop – mini, midi, and full-sized lathes. Mini lathes are the smallest type which has the most limited capacity in terms of stock size. Midi lathes come with larger motors but have similar capacities. Full-sized lathes are the $1,000-plus machines that industry workers would find beneficial for their work; not so much for the average hobbyist.
When looking at lathes, it’s important that you consider the following factors: how powerful the motor is, the different speed ranges that the machine offers, how to adjust the speed (pulleys, electronically, or both), the maximum length between the headstock and tailstock, the maximum thickness of the blank (swing over bed), the materials used to construct the lathe, whether there is a reverse gear for sanding and polishing, and indexing positions for creating intricate cuts. You may not need a reverse gear or indexing positions, but they are commonly found in lathes and help with a wide range of different jobs.
In this article, we’ve given our two cents by including our picks of the five best mini/midi wood lathes available. Of all the models we’ve researched and tested, both included on our list and not; our favorite model is 46-460 from Delta. It may seem like a simple machine, but this midi lathe really does offer excellent performance, stock capacity, and sturdiness. There aren’t any indexing positions on this model, so you need to find another way to design fancy patterns on your works of art.