Last Updated on March 1, 2023 by Charles Wilson
Lathes are machine tools with a rotating surface used for shaping and cutting materials into a desired shape. The two most common types of lathes are the wood lathe and the metal lathe.
Both types of lathes can accomplish multiple tasks with their powerful motors for mass production, but they are designed to handle different materials and have unique features.
This article will take a closer look at the main differences between wood lathes and metal lathes, including their design, construction, and intended uses.
This article will help you understand the key differences between the rotating cutting tool and decide which suits your specific needs.
What Are Wood Lathes?
A wood lathe is a lathe machine cutting tool designed specifically for shaping wood pieces. They are used to produce wooden workpieces such as furniture legs and wooden bowls.
Wood lathes, like a CNC wood lathe, have a low-speed control, allowing the user to create woodworking projects with soft materials without damaging them.
The tools used for cutting are typically made of high-speed steel or carbide and are designed to remove a wooden piece evenly and smoothly.
A wood lathe can be powered by electricity or a hand tool and come in various sizes and configurations to accommodate different woodworking applications.
It can function as a mobile machine, as most wooden lathes are mini lathes. That makes it simple to save once you’re done with the wooden workpiece.
While wood lathe machines don’t produce as much force as metal lathe machines, they are incredibly effective in controlling wooden objects. Just be careful of the wood dust!
- Versatility: A wood lathe can handle a wide range of wood turning projects, making them a great choice for an amateur and an experienced machinist.
- Ease of use: Unlike the metal lathe, which is too heavy to be used as a free-hand cutting tool, the wood lathe can be used more easily without mounting.
- Affordability: Wood lathes are generally inexpensive, making them a more accessible option for those on a budget.
- Quieter operation: Wood lathes typically operate at lower speeds and less power than a metal lathe, which results in a quieter operation.
- Limited cutting speed: The slower speeds of wood lathes can make it difficult to cut harder materials and may limit the size and complexity of projects that can be tackled.
- Less precision: Wood lathes are less precise than metal lathes and may require additional steps to achieve a smooth and accurate finish.
- Less durable: Wood lathes are typically less robust and durable and may not withstand frequent use or heavy loads.
What Are Metal Lathes?
A metal lathe is a metal turning and cutting tool designed specifically to turn metal pieces.
They are commonly used in industrial settings to produce metal workpieces or metal parts for various applications, such as automotive and military weapons.
Metal lathes consist of a bed, headstock, tailstock, and tool post and operate at high speeds, allowing the user to cut and deform metals and heavy materials.
The tools used for cutting on a metal lathe are typically made of high-speed steel or carbide and are designed to withstand the high speeds and forces involved in metalworking.
Metal lathes are typically more expensive and complex, but they offer greater precision, durability, and versatility for metalworking applications.
- Precision: Metal lathes are designed to handle complex shapes, making them ideal for industrial applications.
- Durability: Metal lathes are built to last and are typically more robust and durable than wood lathes, making them suitable for heavy-duty use.
- High cutting speed: Metal lathes require higher speeds to operate, unlike wood lathes, which allows for more precise cutting of hard materials.
- Higher cost: A metal lathe is a hardened cutting tool typically more expensive than a wood lathe, making them less accessible for hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts.
- Noisier operation: A metal lathe operates at higher speeds, resulting in a noisier operation than a wood lathe.
- Complexity: A metal lathe is often more complex and challenging to use than a wood lathe, making them less suitable for beginners or those with limited experience.
Wood Lathe vs. Metal Lathe: What’s the Difference?
Wood and metal lathe machines share several similarities, despite their design and intended use differences.
Both types of lathes are high-speed lathes used for shaping and cutting materials into a desired shape, typically consisting of a bed, headstock, tailstock, tool post, and tool rest.
Additionally, both wood and metal lathes are computer controlled and run the same system on their program, making them suitable for all skill levels.
However, while both serve similar functions, they are designed to handle different materials and have unique features and capabilities.
Here we break down the main differences between wood lathe vs. metal lathe.
The main difference between wood lathes and metal lathes lies in their function and the types of materials they are designed to handle.
Wood lathes, like CNC lathes, are optimized for machining soft materials, such as wood, plastic, and foam, and are typically used to turn wood, cut wood, and shape wood.
Wood lathes typically operate at slower speeds and use a gentler cutting tool, which helps to prevent the material from cracking or splitting.
On the other hand, a metal lathe machine is designed for cutting and shaping a metal workpiece and other harder materials, such as steel, aluminum, and brass.
A metal lathe machine also operates at higher speeds and uses cutting tools made of high-speed steel to handle the higher forces involved in metalworking.
The size of a wood lathe or a metal lathe machine can vary greatly, but there are some general differences between the two types of lathes.
Wood lathes are typically smaller and lighter in weight than metal lathes, making them more portable and easier to store.
A wood lathe is also generally less expensive, which makes them a good option for hobbyists, DIYers, and those with limited workspace.
On the other hand, metal lathes tend to be larger and heavier, with a more robust and sturdy construction.
This makes them well-suited for industrial and commercial settings, where heavy-duty work is performed on hard materials, as opposed to a wood machine
However, the size of a wood or metal lathe machine can vary greatly based on the specific model, intended use, and features, so it’s important to consider your specific needs.
A wood lathe typically has a belt-and-pulley system or a speed selector dial, which allows the user to adjust the speed of the spindle.
This allows the user to vary the speed according to the type of wood or material being worked on and the desired cutting or shaping of the outcome.
On the other hand, a metal lathe often has a gearbox or a variable-speed drive system, which provides a wider range of speed options and allows for more precise speed control.
This feature is particularly important in metalworking, where the cutting speed must be carefully controlled to avoid damaging the workpiece or the cutting tool.
Additionally, a metal lathe can operate at much higher speeds than a wood lathe, allowing for more efficient and precise cutting and shaping.
A wood lathe typically uses a standard Morse taper or a spur center to hold the tool rest, which is sufficient for the relatively low-force cutting applications for wood.
On the other hand, a metal lathe typically uses a more robust tool rest mechanism, such as a tool post, that allows the user to change cutting tools quickly and easily.
The tool post can also hold a wider range of cutting tools, including boring bars, drilling tools, and a lead screw, which are necessary for various metalworking operations.
Additionally, the tool post on a metal lathe is typically adjustable, allowing for precise tool positioning and cutting control, critical features in metalworking.
Wood lathes are generally less accurate due to the softer and less rigid materials being worked on and the relatively low cutting forces involved.
The looser tolerances and less precise tooling used on a wood lathe are typically sufficient for turning a wooden piece for which a wood lathe is designed.
On the other hand, a metal lathe is designed to achieve high accuracy and precision, even when working with the harder and more demanding materials used in metalworking.
Metal lathe machines typically have a more robust construction, more precise tooling, and finer features, which allow the user to achieve higher levels of accuracy.
Wood lathes are less expensive than metal lathes due to their smaller size, lighter construction, and simpler tooling and features.
Wood lathes are typically designed for hobbyist and DIY use, and the lower cost makes them accessible to a wider range of users.
On the other hand, metal lathes tend to be more expensive due to their larger size, heavier construction, and more advanced tooling and features.
Metal lathes are typically designed for industrial and commercial use, and the higher cost reflects the greater precision and accuracy required for metalworking applications.
Additionally, the cost of a lathe can vary greatly based on the model, use, and features, so it’s important to consider your needs when choosing between the lathe machines.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Got more questions about wood lathe vs. metal lathe? Here are some of our frequently asked questions.
Is Woodworking Possible on a Metal Lathe?
Yes, woodworking is possible on a metal machine, although it is generally not the ideal tool.
Metal lathe machines are designed for cutting and shaping metal, and their robust construction, high accuracy, and precision features are better suited for that task.
However, with proper care and adjustments, a metal lathe can be used for woodworking, although the results may not be as precise as those achieved on a dedicated wood lathe.
Additionally, because metal lathes are designed for metalworking, the cutting speeds may not be optimal for woodturning, which could damage the workpiece or the lathe itself.
If you’re working with wood, it’s best to invest in a wood lathe, but if you have both metal and woodworking needs, a multi-purpose lathe may be a good investment.
Are Metal Lathes Available in Bench Lathe Formats?
Yes, these lathes are available in bench lathe formats. Bench lathes are smaller and more compact versions of full-sized lathes and can be used where space is limited.
Bench lathes are designed for the hobbyist, DIY, and light-duty commercial use, and they typically have a smaller footprint and less robust construction than full-sized lathes.
However, despite their size, bench lathes still offer many of the same capabilities as their full-sized counterparts, including adjustable speed control and high accuracy and precision.
Whether you’re looking for a compact metal lathe for small-scale metalworking projects or are limited by space in your workshop, a bench lathe is a good option.
Can We Use a Wood Lathe for Metal Workpieces?
While it is possible to use a wood lathe for metal workpieces, it is not the ideal tool.
Wood lathes are designed for working with soft materials, and their lower precision features may not be able to handle the demands and forces involved in metalworking.
If you want to work on metal, you must do away with the standard tool rest on your wood lathe and install a carriage operated by a lead screw.
And you would need a cross slide on top of that carriage to obtain the same accuracy across the face.
You would need a tool post with a high-speed steel bit to make cuts in the metal.
When you were finished, your costs and efforts could have bought a metal lathe in the first place.
Wood Lathe vs. Metal Lathe: Which Should I Choose?
The choice between a wood lathe and a metal lathe depends on your specific needs and intended use.
Choose Wood Lathe If…
- Wood lathes are typically less expensive than metal lathes.
- Wood lathes are also lighter and more compact.
- Wood lathes are simpler in terms of features and tooling.
- A wood lathe is a good choice if you’re primarily interested in woodworking and don’t need a metal lathe’s advanced features and capabilities.
Choose Metal Lathe If…
- If you’re primarily interested in metalworking, a metal lathe is better than a wood lathe.
- Metal lathes are designed for working with hard and rigid materials like metal, and their robust construction makes them better suited for cutting and shaping metal.
- Metal lathes are also typically more accurate, allowing for more precise cuts.
- Metal lathes often have more advanced features and capabilities.
- If you’re interested in metalworking, a metal lathe is the better choice, as it will provide you with the features, accuracy, and power you need to tackle your projects effectively.
Wood Lathe vs. Metal Lathe: Conclusion
In conclusion, choosing between a wood lathe and a metal lathe depends on your specific needs and intended use.
A wood lathe is a good choice if you’re primarily interested in woodworking due to its lower cost, lighter construction, and simpler tooling and features.
On the other hand, if you’re primarily interested in metalworking, a metal lathe is a better choice due to its robust construction, high accuracy, and advanced tooling and features.
Regardless of your choice, both lathes can be incredibly valuable tools for any workshop, allowing you to create beautiful and functional projects easily.