What Is Wood Lathe: How It Differs From Metal Lathes

Last Updated on August 18, 2021 by Charles Wilson

Back in early 2000, when I started woodturning, the internet wasn’t really a place where I could get all the information about wood lathes.

But remember that was a long time ago. And frankly, I wasn’t that bothered by this back then.

You can now pretty much have it all across the web but you have to search everything separately.

So, I wanted to make an article that will contain all the basic and major information about wood lathes so beginners can get some free info in one piece.

That resulted in this crafted piece where I’ll be going deep about wood lathes and other grounds related to this.

You can sit back with a warm coffee and have a read-

So what is a wood lathe?

"old man in blue shirt in a woodworking garage and working with his lathe"

Technically, the lathe is a machine that rotates a workpiece at a certain speed with the help of a powerful motor in its head.

The purpose is to let you cylindrically cut, drill, bore, turn and shape woods, metals, and other materials. You have to use different cutting tools to get the finish you want.

So accordingly, a wood lathe is a machine that allows you to turn only woods and plastics into different cylindrical shapes. You can make pens, bowls, table legs, goblets, bottle stoppers as examples.

Can you turn metals on them?

Let’s say you want to turn metal on your wood lathe. This is something a wood lathe can’t do. Wood lathes are not capable enough to turn more rigid materials such as metal or aluminum.

They’re a bit smaller too. They work in a simple way and operating system. You’ll have to control the speed manually. 

Despite being unable to turn metal, they’re terrific at woodturning projects. I mean, they were specifically built only to turn woods and plastics. So, it’s better to let it do what it was made for.

History of wood lathe invention

Woodturning began way back in 1300 BC in Egypt. And the fascinating part is, it used to take 2 people to make those lathes work. But as time passed, people slowly started to add pedals and horses. 

Nowadays, most people couldn’t even imagine how people did it back then. Anyhow, that’s not the point.

You see, the woodturning industry suddenly took a turn after WWII. More and more people started liking woodturning as a fun hobby. After the 1960s, it became even popular thanks to people such as Prestini and Stocksdale.  

The major parts of a wood lathe

If you aren’t familiar with wood lathes, figuring out the parts can get a bit complicated. But don’t worry, this old man is here to explain everything-

Headstock

The headstock is kind of like the core of a wood lathe. This part contains the motor, headstock spindle, and tension pulley(s). So, you might say this is where all the actions get started.

Giving out one-liner explanations isn’t enough if you want to understand what really happens in the headstock. So, dive in with me.

Motor

The motor is the heart of the wood lathe. Depending on your model, the motor can be either electric or hydraulic. You’ll mostly see electric motors, but you can configure how it’ll use the power(A/C or D/C).

Tension pulley

The tension pulleys let you change the speed and torque of a wood lathe machine. However, the mechanism might get a bit different depending on the model you have.

Most machines have a tension release lever for lifting the entire motor. When you pull the lever the drive belt releases the tension. With no extra tension whatsoever, the shifting gets much more manageable. 

Moreover, manufacturers make sure you know the speed and torque for every setting. That’s why they provide you with an RPM chart and a complete diagram for every pulley.

However, don’t get worried if you can’t find it anywhere. My suggestion would be to check out the user manual. But what if that backs out too? Well, you can always contact the manufacturer to get some info out.

Nonetheless, you do have to remember there are wood lathes with only one drive belt. So, if you’ve got one of those, you can’t change the speed and torque anyway.

Headstock spindle 

Do you see that threaded part on the headstock? That’s the headstock spindle. This is where you fit various tools, depending on the type of project you’re doing.

When it’s about the threaded spindle, remember 2 measurements-

The first one is the headstock spindle’s thread size and its thread count. Although the exciting fact is you measure the spindle threading in diameter.

Suppose, the spindle threading is 1’’. And on the other hand, the thread count is 8 TPI. In this case, the spindle size is 1” x 8 TPI which is the US standard. 

The second is the Morse Taper. This ultimately decides what types of accessories you can or can’t use on your wood lathe. Usually, you’ll find these 2 types on the market-

  • MT-1
  • MT-2

Before you buy any extra accessories, make sure you check out the Morse Taper. Otherwise, it’ll kind of be like a gamble. 

Headstock hand wheel

You’ll find the headstock hand wheel on the left of the headstock. Suppose you’re almost done turning a wood bowl, and there’s only some tiny detailing left. This is where the handwheel comes in.

With its help, you can slow down the lathe effectively. However, remember to turn the lathe off before you use the handwheel.

Tailstock

After the headstock, the most critical part of a wood lathe is the tailstock. It’s the vital support you need to hold the tail of your workpiece during fast rotation.

It goes without saying that it stays on the right side of the machine. You’ll notice it’s attached to the bed rails.

This makes it easier to slide the tailstock back and forth, allowing you to work with perfect precision.

But the story’s not over yet. In the top left corner, you’ll find the live center, also known as the quill. This is where all the Morse Taper accessories (Chucks, live center) are placed.

You see, the tailstock’s main job is to hold the wooden piece you’re working on. But there will be times where you’d have to remove it. For instance, bowl interiors need some extra care in the interior.

You can simply loosen the tailstock and keep it on the end of the far end of the be in such situations.

Bed

You could say the bed is the foundation of a wood lathe. It’s the horizontal beam you see across a lathe. Most of the time manufacturers use cast iron to make this bed. 

But it gets more interesting. 

Many newcomers think of buying portable wood lathes for mobility and everything. However, those portable ones are the hardest to use. I can’t stress this enough, but even small vibrations will hamper the process.

If you really want to get into the game, my suggestion would be to set a specific place in your workshop for woodturning.  

Tool rest or banjo

The tool rest, as the name suggests is where you rest the tools you’ll be using. You see the tool rest is attached to the bed with something called the banjo. 

But the best part is you can adjust the tool rest or banjo almost anywhere in the bed. However, placing the tool rest in the right place is a whole different game. So, I think I’ll leave that topic for some other time. 

The stand or the leg

The stand, also known as the legs, is there to give the machine stability. No matter what type of project you’re doing, stability is a must in woodturning work. 

Let me break it down-

Wood lathe machines spin at high RPMs. So, it goes without saying that unnecessary vibrations won’t let you get that precision you want. So, for smaller machines, make sure the bench or table you’ll be using is vibration-free. 

On the other hand, regular-sized wood lathes usually come with support legs. But even then, you have to ensure the legs will be able to deliver a vibration-free experience at 1000 RPMs.

Differences between wood and metal lathes

The relationship between wood lathes and metal lathes is quite fascinating to me. Even though there’s a big gap in basically every aspect despite all that, crafters still respect and love both of these lathes.

So, here’s a side-by-side(literally) comparison of wood lathe and metal lathe-

FactorsWood LatheMetal Lathe
LimitationsYou can only turn wood and plastic with a wood lathe.A metal lathe can turn harder materials than wood, such as metal or aluminum.
Usage wood bowls, pens, wooden rings, table legs, goblets, etc. Metal rings, threads, hammers, and anything metal.
ComplexityEasy to use than the metal lathes and you don’t have to be a machinist to handle wood lathe projects.While it doesn’t take a NASA scientist to operate a metal lathe, it’s certainly a bit complicated than a wood lathe. Many of the lathes also have computerized controls, so it takes some time and skills to operate.
Structural Difference Wood lathes come with simple designs, power, and speed controls.As they are accurate and precise, metal lathes are more powerful and have high-speed functionality.
Horsepower1/3 to 3 horsepower1/5 to 10-horsepower
WeightTypically within 50-800 lbs. Considered lightweight than metal lathes.Mostly within 1500 lbs and but goes up to 6000 lbs.
AccuracyThe accuracy is adequate for turning woods and plastics.In contrast to wood lathes, the accuracy of metal lathes is much higher.
Turning ProcessManual. You need to control the chisels with your hand to turn the logs.Metal lathes are known for accuracy where the cutting tools are a one-time set process during turning. You set the tools over the carriage and control it with a switch to perform the passes you need.
ToolsGouges (spindle, bowls) chisels, parting tools, scrapers, etc.Boring bar, chamfering tool, knurling tool, etc.

Which Is for Whom? 

It’s a no brainer that metal lathes are for machinists and wood lathes serve the woodworkers. So if you’re only starting out woodturning, you need to go for wood lathes which is obvious.

Now, you can turn woods on a metal lathe but not everyone is a machinist. In most cases, people are DIY hobbyists. So this could be an advantage for a metal worker.

The wood lathe comes with the most basic features, allowing you to enhance your woodturning techniques traditionally. But in terms of precision and accuracy, metal lathes will take the trophy.

Nonetheless, it all boils down to your needs. Consider a few criteria, and you’ll know what you need.

Types of Modern Wood Lathes

Generally, you’ll find 3 types of modern wood lathes. While all of these have their differences, it’s quite clear that the classes were mostly determined by their sizes.

Anyhow, I’ve pointed out other aspects too. Let’s start. 

Mini lathes

Mini wood lathes, also known as micro lathes are the smallest in size. These lightweight lathes are benchtop units making them perfect to set up anywhere. 

Don’t think any less of these lathes for their sizes. In fact, their smaller sizes make them perfect for small turning projects. Projects such as pens, ice cream scoops, bottle stoppers are perfect for this. 

Overall, I’d say these are amazing lathes for people who are only starting woodturning. But even if you’re an intermediate in terms of skill, I’d suggest you move to a bigger sized lathe. 

Medium size lathes

Midi lathes are quite new in the market. They’re offering something in the middle, and people love it. Here’s the fascinating part-

You see, midi lathes have the performance of regular-sized lathes but they come with the sizing advantage of a mini lathe. 

Back in the 90s when these came into the market, they totally changed people’s perspective about compact wood lathes. 

Anyone who’s looking for an upgrade from mini lathes should go for these. Other than the lower price tag of a regular-sized lathe, you’ll get to place the compact machine more efficiently. 

Full-size lathes

Having a full-size wood lathe is every crafter’s dream as I mentioned in my recent survey on some of the greatest wood lathe. When it comes to the capability of a full-size lathe, the sky becomes the limit. For every feature you’d want as a woodturner, these lathes will have it for sure.

I guess you’ve already figured out one thing. These lathes are NOT for everyone. 

You see, full-size lathes eat up a lot of space. You’d need to have at least a workshop to fit one of these properly. Nonetheless, if you’ve got floor space, I’d say go for it.

Comparison between Mini, Midi, and Full-size wood lathes

FactorsMini LatheMidi LatheFull-size Lathe 
Maximum Turning Diameter10’’12-14’’14’’ and more
Maximum Distance between Centers (without bed extension)18’’24’’24’’ and more
Horsepower1/8 to 1/2 HP3/4 to 1 HP2-5 HP
Speed Ranges1000 to 5000 rpmVariable Speed between 60-5000Variable Speed starting from as low speed as possible
Bed ConstructionCast IronCast IronCast Iron or Steel
WeightLess than 60lbs80-135lbsCan go up to 6000 lbs

What Size Wood Lathe Beginners Should Use?

I’m glad that more and more people are taking woodturning as a hobby. In fact, from a recent survey, I can say the number of beginner woodturners has risen 28% in the last 5 years.

The point is to know which beginner lathe to get when you’re starting out.

These questions are something to think about, huh? However, most people start with mini wood lathes to find out how things work.

But once you are in, you will soon be outgrowing your turning skills and that will lead you to upgrade the lathe to a bigger one.

If you’re asking for my suggestion, I’d tell you to go for midi lathes like my Jet 1221vs. These lathes are compact, and they perform outstandingly in the ranged diameter.

What I want to say is, if you don’t have the budget and space for a full-size lathe then stay in the middle so you have the room to grow.

Is Wood Lathe Dangerous to Work With?

Wood lathes are powerful, not dangerous machinery. But similar to other machines, this also needs proper precautions before operating.

What I’m trying to say is wood lathes aren’t a child’s toy. In fact, keep your children as far as the machine as possible when the lathe is on. But you have to understand; children get curious. So, they might want to see what’s going on.

In such cases, make sure to wear protective gear. Although you need to be strict about one thing.

Never let your kid operate a wood lathe on his own when you are not around. Flying chips can be a threat. One bad catch on the wood can lead to an accident.

Nonetheless, I’d say wood lathes can be as dangerous as any other machine if the person behind the wheel doesn’t know how to operate.

That being said, they’re not dangerous to work when you have protective gear, and you know what to do. In fact, many high school students are taking woodturning classes these days and are turning pretty comfortably.

Basic Safety tips While Using Wood Lathes

You already have a good idea regarding the dangers of working with a wood lathe. So, I’ll get straight to the point without any chitchats-

  • Remember to wear protective glasses every time you turn on the machine. 
  • Wear respirators when you’re sanding if you want to avoid lung disease.
  • Try to wear short sleeves. Avoid long sleeves with fluffy ends.
  • Clear out everything except the lathe before you turn on the machine. 
  • Keep your workspace clean so that you don’t slip.
  • Avoid wearing long neck jewelry or anything that can get tangled up. 
  • Make sure the workspace is kid-proof.
  • Don’t confuse a bowl gouge to a spindle roughing gouge. Read more about roughing gouge here.

Parting Words 

So, that’s been it. I hope this piece helped clear out your confusion regarding what is a wood lathe. Even though I tried to make it as in-depth as possible, there might’ve been some mistakes here and there. 

Nonetheless, I have one final piece of advice for beginners. Before you start your first project, get yourself some training. You can call over an expert woodturner friend, join a guild in your local area. Or you can watch instructional videos, they do help.

Trust me, that’ll give you a ton of information. Anyhow, do leave a comment below if anything is bugging you. I’ll come with a solution in a jiff.

2 thoughts on “What Is Wood Lathe: How It Differs From Metal Lathes”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *