Lathes For Woodworkers

I happen to think that turning is more fun than humans are supposed to have.  If I can’t do a little bit every day, I go beyond sardonic and start reflecting the dark.  Everyone doesn’t need a lathe.  I can handle that, but for me, a shop without a lathe is like a ball without a bat.  I have a table saw because I need one, but I have more lathes than I have routers.  So here’s some lathe talk.

I always try to take, borrow, or beg a lathe when I do tool events.  My turning demonstrations usually produce the “what kind of a lathe should I get” question.  There’s no simple answer for that, but here are some things to consider.

Space is a big one.  Bench-top lathes have done for turning what bench-top planers have done for woodworking.  I bought a bench-top planer because I had limited space.  I have more space now, but I still get my bench-top planer out occasionally to supplement my floor model.  “Bench-top” is a suitable descriptor for a small planer.  You can set it on a workbench and use it.  It might be a little awkward, but the results are not going to suffer.  Trying to use a lathe on top of a workbench however will not only discourage reasonable use and reasonable results, it can easily induce reasonable fear.  Yes, I’ve seen it done, on Youtube even, by people who work for people who should know better.

Bench-top lathes are designed to save space and save money, and they do that, but be prepared to build a suitable stand for the lathe.  Lathe centers should be at elbow height.  If your workbench is at a suitable height, then putting a lathe on top of your bench will be un-suitable.  You can still save space by building a cabinet/stand for your lathe and use it to support other bench-top tools, like a planer for example.  The space underneath can hold all sorts of things, including the lathe when it is not in use.

“Bench-top” is a class of lathes advertised as “micro”, “mini”, and “midi” lathes.  If you are aching to join the pen parade or make dollhouse furniture, then you might be interested in a micro lathe.  Move up to a mini lathe and you can add bottle stoppers, pepper mills and anything else that the kit sellers can think of to rake in the money.  I’m assuming that I’m talking to furniture makers here though, so I will confine my “bench-top” comments to the midi lathes, which I think is the minimum size for turning furniture components.

There are two primary measurements for a lathe, the “swing” and the distance between centers.  The swing is the maximum diameter that you can turn over the bed of the lathe, and that’s typically in the range of 12 inches……….less over the “banjo” (tool-rest holder) but still more than enough.  The distance between centers (between the headstock and tailstock) determines the maximum length that you can turn.  On a midi lathe the distance between centers is the primary limitation for furniture makers.  It’s typically in the range of 15 to 20 inches.  That’s enough for pulls, pegs and plugs, but it’s not enough for chair and table legs.  That’s not a deal-killer though.  You can still turn longer parts by 1) adding an extension if that option is supported or 2) turning long components in parts and using decorative details to disguise the joinery.

Midis can be purchased with or without stands.  Buying a midi lathe on a midi-lathe stand rather defeats the space-saving purpose, not to mention the fact that most midi-lathe stands have trouble supporting themselves.   Some of these stands are now adjustable.  That just adds another insecurity, and if you’re done growing, what’s the point…… stand fits all?  You’ll be better off spending that money on an extension.

Be prepared to spend at least $500 to $800 for a good midi lathe.  An extension will add another $150. You can spend way more than that of course, but that’s a good starter-price and they typically hold their value.   If that exceeds your budget, then look for a used one that cost at least that much new.  Who knows………you might find one with a stand.  Trying to spend less for a new lathe will pretty much be a waste of money followed by a waste of electricity.  (If Harbor Fright is your source for tools then stop reading this.  There’s no point in wasting your time now……..……you’ll be doing plenty of that later.)

Now, for the same money, and if you have the space, you can also find used floor models.  By floor models I mean heavy lathes whose legs are integrated in such a way that they are essential.  The biggest advantage for floor models is the added distance between centers, i.e. the spindle capacity is greater.  You’ll have no trouble turning furniture components on a floor model, including chair and table legs.  The biggest disadvantage to floor models is their fixed height.  Some new models are adjustable, but those tend to be expensive.  The easiest and cheapest fix for a height mismatch is to either set the lathe on some risers or stand on one yourself.  Newer floor models tend to be taller than the older ones.  What you definitely want to stay clear of is anything that comes out of a school, that is unless you like to rebuild machines.  And if you do, then give me a call and come on over.

If money and space are no objects, there’s always new floor models.  What’s really new is this:  The swing is typically bigger on the newer floor models.   The swing can go up to 24 inches.  For furniture purposes 12 inches is more than enough.  If you decide you want to turn a bowl however, a 12-inch bowl is a pretty big bowl.  Measure the ones you have in the kitchen if you need to confirm that.  But bigger is better to some people, and the newer floor-model lathes are built to cater to those people.  Now we’re talking at least $3500 and up.  Don’t fall for the cheap floor models.  You’re better off spending that money on a good midi lathe.

On the newer lathes, you may also be able to move or rotate the headstock to increase the swing to make it easier to reach the inside of a bowl.  Some have partial beds down low at the end of the lathe to increase the swing and add control for bowls and hollow turnings.  You have to move or rotate the head to take advantage of that.  This is overkill unless you want to move toward the art-part of turning.  Some require a tool rest on a stand that sits on the floor, and my experience says that’s a bad idea.  The problem with floor stands is that when the lathe and the tool rest are not connected, vibrations are not synchronous, and vibration in either one is more likely to be reflected in the work.  It’s also true that anything that moves has to have some play in it, or it wouldn’t move.  That means that once you get everything lined up and then move it, you run the risk of having to line everything up again, i.e. get the headstock and tailstock points in the same planes.  I do a lot of drilling with a chuck mounted in the tailstock, so the centers have to be lined up.  If you find a good lathe at a good price, and it has a headstock that moves, that’s not a deal killer, but don’t buy it for that reason.

Now, what about the hybrids.  The hybrids are lathes that can sit on a bench but are longer than a midi and may still accommodate an extension.  Those can be a good choice.  Some have flat beds.  Others have round beds.   Some come with motors.  Others don’t.  How you mount the motor varies.  You can still move the lathe out of the way when it is not in use, but that may be more trouble, and you may need some help.

My first full-sized lathe was a Conover.  Those aren’t made any more, but I think they have a lot of advantages if you can find one.  When I bought mine you could buy just the headstock, tailstock, tool rest with banjo, motor mount, and pulleys.  It was essentially a kit.  You could add your own motor and build your own bed and legs, so you could build it for your height and make it as long or as short as you wanted.  You could also purchase them with very ornate legs.  I passed on that, but you may see some occasionally on eBay, or in the corner of a garage.  I have two Conovers now.  You can see me using one briefly on my “Tools and Techniques” DVD.  Send me an email if you want one.  Make the subject “DVD” and include your address in mailing-label format.

Okay, whew………………..….motors.  Whether you are buying new or used, definitely go for the electronic variable-speed models.  Some convert 220 AC to DC.  Some convert 220 single-phase to three-phase.  Some now have variable speed AC motors.   The smoothest model I have has a three-phase motor running off 220 single phase with an integrated three-phase converter.  If I couldn’t hear it and see it, I wouldn’t know it was running.  They all have stepped pulleys as well, so speed and torque are both adjustable.  Older machines may have a way to vary the speed mechanically.  Now you’re talking about a lot more moving parts.  Check these out very carefully.  If they aren’t smooth………….forget it.  If you ignore this advice, don’t call me, and don’t come over.

You can add electronic controls to some older lathes, especially the ones where the motors are not stuffed into some kind of housing.  Kits for this are available for around $300.  Just make sure the lathe is solid before you go that route.

Next, there’s tools and tooling.

Stay tuned.

Kevin Glen-Drake