Lathes are used for a number of different projects, but for the regular handyman, it’s mainly used to produce beautiful wood-based art. However, depending on the type of lathe machine, you can even turn and shape pieces of metal. More advanced lathe machines have programmable limbs for making precise and identical cuts on multiple blanks without you even holding onto a chisel.
If you plan on making pieces of furniture with beautifully designed legs or stands, then you’ll need the help of a lathe machine. However, for amateur DIY woodworkers, using your hands to cut shavings off of a spinning piece of wood manually can be a daunting task, especially considering that the blank can rotate at speeds of more than 1,000 RPM.
With a bit of knowledge and common sense, using a lathe machine isn’t that challenging, and it can even be relaxing. This article will give you a step-by-step guide on what you need to do to use a lathe machine properly.
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1. Read the manual
Nobody gives better, more detailed directions than the lathe machine’s manufacturer. In fact, we can probably end the article here if you’ve taken the time to read and study the manual carefully. Assuming that you haven’t and probably won’t, we’ll continue by explaining the most crucial things to consider.
The manual will tell you three of the most crucial things about your lathe machine. The first is the specifications of the tool (e.g., bed length, swing over bed, motor power, RPM, how to change the drive belt’s position and adjust tension). The second thing is names of a lathe machine’s components (tool rest, headstock, tailstock, bed, drive belt, etc.). The third thing is the different attachments that you can get for your particular lathe machine (manufacturers have to increase their sales, right?).
2. Prepare your safety equipment
It’s always a good idea to have the proper safety gear on when operating any power tool. Since a lathing machine works by turning a block of wood at high speeds, you want to ensure that your fingers, hands, arms, ears, and eyes are protected in case anything goes wrong.
3. Choose a suitable blank
A blank refers to a block of wood/metal that you want to turn between the headstock and tailstock of the lathe machine. This means you need to consider the species of wood, the direction of the grain, and the presence of blemishes or knots. You should never turn a blank with splitting pieces or loose knots since, during the turning process, they fly away from the blank without the slightest provocation, potentially becoming projectiles that could blind you.
4. Square and dimension the blank
You want the blank to be as close to a cylindrical shape as possible before mounting it between the headstock and tailstock since you’ll need to remove less material. If you can’t find a cylindrical piece of wood, then the next best thing is to use a squared blank. For instance, if you have a 2×4 board, rip it using a saw to cut it down to 2×2.
A squared block might still be a bit problematic to new users, so we recommend chamfering the sides until the blank resembles an octagon. You can even go on as to fillet the edges using a belt sander or oscillating spindle sander if you’d like.
After the blank has been properly squared/octagoned/filleted, you need to cut the blank down to the appropriate length. Pay attention to the length of the bed and swing over the bed so you don’t end up turning a piece that’ll bump your machine and knock it over.
5. Find the center of the stock and mount it onto the lathe machine’s centers
Using whatever you learned in 8th-grade Geometry class, find the center of the stock on each of its ends. After doing so, you need to mount the blank onto the lathe machine’s headstock and tailstock. If the length of the blank doesn’t reach the tailstock or you’re making a bowl, then you can disregard the tailstock altogether.
Your experience in mounting the blank onto the headstock varies depending on the make and model of your lathe machine. Many times, you need to detach the headstock from the machine and screw it onto one end of the blank, ensuring that it’s as centered as possible to avoid uneven turning.
6. Position the tool rest
The tool rest gives you better control when removing material using a gouge, chisel, parting tool, scraper, etc. The tool rest should be positioned as close to the blank as possible without the blank bumping into the tool rest. The rule of thumb is to position the tool rest at a distance of ¾ of an inch away from the blank.
To check whether the blank will bump into the tool rest as it spins, you can hand-turn the workpiece by rotating the headstock. If the blank makes any contact with the tool rest, readjust the placement of the tool rest. Keep in mind that the closer the tool rest is to the blank, the better leverage, and control you’ll have.
7. Choose the right woodturning tool
Each of the tools we mentioned earlier can be divided into different types that serve specific purposes. Take some time to study what each tool is designed to do and how to use it. After knowing what you need and how to use it, select the right tool for the right job.
8. Turn the lathe machine on at the lowest setting
Give the machine a few moments to pick up speed before penetrating the surface of the blank with your woodturning tool. After it’s reached its maximum speed on the lowest setting, you can begin pushing the end of your chisel into the blank.
Make sure that you have a steady grip on the tool and that you don’t force it in too quickly since this can a) send the tool flying around your workshop, b) hurt your hand and fingers, c) stall the machine, and/or 4) jolt your lathe machine and cause it to topple over.
9. Stop the machine periodically
Putting a halt on operations isn’t done just to annoy you and increase downtime, but it’s a safety measure that every user should make a habit of doing.
The first reason for doing so is that you’ll want to see how much material you’ve removed during each session. This will be almost impossible to do if the blank is still spinning between the centers. If you’ve reached a particular depth, then it might be time to switch tools or remove the blank.
Another reason for stopping the machine is to get rid of any wood chips or shavings that have accumulated onto the machine’s bed. Be sure to eliminate the debris with a reliable dust-collection system.
10. End the woodturning session with a quick sanding
A lathe machine is a great tool to assist you in sanding round objects. Like with any sanding job, you’ll want to start off with a coarser grit and gradually progress to a finer grit of sandpaper.
11. Turn the machine off and admire your work
You’re all done! Turn the lathe machine off, detach your blank from the center(s), and take a moment to shed a few tears for your lathing accomplishments. We wish you the best of luck in your woodturning endeavors!