Cheap vs Expensive Lathe Tools: What’s The Difference?

Last Updated on December 21, 2023 by Charles Wilson

Woodworking and metalworking are crafts that have been honed over centuries. The tools used in these crafts play a pivotal role in the outcome of the work. Among these tools, lathe tools hold a special place. They shape, cut, and finish materials, bringing life to a craftsman’s vision. But how does one differentiate between a cheap lathe tool and a quality one?

The short version? You can’t tell just by looking at it, so you may as well invest in this Robert Sorby Kit if you have the money.

But let’s talk about the nuances.

The Allure of Cheap Tools

For many budding craftsmen, the journey begins with a tight budget. This often leads to the purchase of cheaper tools. Their affordability is undeniably attractive. You can often find an entire set of cheap lathe tools for the price of a single quality tool. Their availability is another factor. Walk into any generic hardware store, and you’re likely to find an array of inexpensive lathe tools beckoning from the shelves.

Moreover, there’s a school of thought that believes in the practicality of starting with cheaper tools. The rationale? As a novice, you’re bound to make mistakes. Whether it’s an incorrect cut or a botched sharpening attempt, these errors are less painful, both emotionally and financially, with a cheap tool.

How to Tell if Your Tool is Cheap

So, you’ve got a lathe tool in hand, but is it cheap or quality? Here are some indicators:

  1. Material: Unfortunately it’s tough to tell the difference between regular steel and high speed steel (which is the kind you want for turning). Most brands, including the cheapies, label their tools as “HSS”. But having used many an “el cheapo” brand, I’m skeptical. The only practical test of steel quality is how quickly the edge gets dull. So make sure to read the reviews of any cheap chisel set before buying it. Lucky for you, I’ve already reviewed the best woodturning tools, so much of the work is done for you!
  2. Finish: Examine the tool closely. Uneven finishes, rough edges, or any visible defects can be telltale signs of a tool made with less care and precision.
  3. Brand: While brand isn’t always an indicator, unknown or generic brands often produce cheaper tools. Established brands usually have a reputation to uphold and, thus, maintain a certain standard.
  4. Price: It’s an obvious one, but worth mentioning. If you bought a set of tools for the price of a coffee, they’re likely on the cheaper side.
  5. Performance: This is the real test. When used, cheap tools often require more effort to achieve desired results. The cuts might not be as clean, and the finish might lack precision.

The Downside of Cheap Tools

While the initial cost-saving allure of cheap tools is undeniable, there are downsides:

  1. Material: Inferior materials mean the tool won’t retain its edge for long. You’ll find yourself sharpening it frequently, leading to reduced tool life.
  2. Performance: Achieving a smooth finish or a precise cut might require multiple passes, increasing the time and effort.
  3. Longevity: Cheap tools wear out or break faster. Over time, you might end up spending more on replacements than if you’d invested in a quality tool from the start.

The Merits of Quality Tools

Quality tools are an investment, and here’s why:

  1. Material: Crafted from superior materials like High-Speed Steel (HSS), these tools retain their edge longer, ensuring consistent performance.
  2. Performance: Quality tools glide through materials, offering smoother cuts, better finishes, and unmatched precision.
  3. Reputation: Brands like Sorby, Henry Taylor, and others have spent years, if not decades, perfecting their tools. Their reputation is often a testament to the tool’s quality.
  4. Long-Term Investment: The initial cost might be higher, but the longevity and performance of quality tools often make them more cost-effective in the long run.
  5. Safety: Quality tools stay sharp longer, which minimizes the risks associated with turning.

Making the Right Choice

Every craftsman’s journey is unique. For some, starting with cheaper tools provides a learning curve without the fear of damaging expensive equipment. For others, investing in quality from the get-go ensures they learn with the best tools at their disposal.

If you’re on a budget, consider the second-hand market. Quality tools, even if used, often retain much of their performance. With a bit of care and sharpening, they can serve you well for years.


In the world of lathe tools, the debate between cheap and quality is eternal. While cheap tools offer immediate cost savings, quality tools promise longevity and unmatched performance. The choice ultimately boils down to individual needs, budget, and long-term goals. But remember, in craftsmanship, your tools are an extension of you. Choose wisely.