What Is a Lathe?


A lathe is an essential piece of equipment in the manufacturing industry, even though it dates back to Ancient Egypt and is one of the oldest machining tools that is still used.

The lathe is mainly used for cutting and shaping wood and metal, but it can also sharpen, sand, drill, knurl, and deform those and other materials. These big and complex machines use a rotating system that turns the workpiece against a stationary cutting tool to shape it and remove any unwanted material in a fast, precise, and efficient way.

This is one of the most versatile machines on the market because it can perform a wide variety of tasks on many materials. Because of that, the lathe is a must-have not only for manufacturers but also for woodworkers and artisans.

What is a lathe used for?

You can use a lathe to do almost everything. The manufacturing industry and craftsmen are the main users of this tool.

In the manufacturing industry, lathes are highly valued for their precision and their ability to do the job of multiple tools. They can be used to make machinery parts, parts for old cars, musical instruments, and smaller products such as gun barrels, screws, candlesticks, and much more.

Metal and woodworkers can create unique pieces with this machine, such as chess pieces, lamp stands, bowls, cups, plates, and anything else they can think of. The potential of this tool is immense because the artisan can freehand the cutting and carving stages to create pieces adding their own personal touch.

Lathes are also used in other areas like glass working and pottery, the Potter’s wheel being one of the oldest and most common designs.

Lathe

When not to use a lathe?

Lathes can be extremely dangerous if handled incorrectly or by inexperienced turners. You should not use a lathe if you:

  • Do not have protective gear. Hearing protection, a full-face mask or a dust mask, and safety goggles are essential to protect you against loud noises, sawdust, and debris.
  • Are wearing gloves. Wearing them is not recommended because they could get caught in the moving parts of the machine.
  • Are wearing loose-fitting clothes or jewelry that could get in the way or even get caught in the spindle and cause an accident.
  • Have not firmly secured the piece you are working on. Everything should be clamped to the headstock or the tailstock to avoid dangerous slips. The tailstock is normally used for large or long workpieces.
  • Have dull lathe cutting tools. Sharp tools will cut and turn the material easily and safely, but dull ones will tear through them, which could send debris in your direction, and damage the workpiece as well.

How much money does it cost?

Lathes are usually expensive machines. However, if you just want to try one out, you can find a mini lathe with basic features for $40 on Amazon, but the price for this size usually  ranges from $80 to, approximately, $300. Midi lathes start at $100 and go as high as $500, while industrial models, the most expensive ones, cost a few thousand dollars. The pricing will depend on the brand, the strength of the motor, the RPM, and the accessories the tool includes.

Where can I buy one?

Amazon has a wide range of models available. Home improvement and hardware stores such as Lowe’s usually have around 10 designs to choose from. However, Home Depot offers over 50 options for all kinds of budgets. You can even find lathes at Walmart, although only mini and midi sized.

What are the different types of lathes?

The design and the features of a lathe vary depending on the material they are meant to turn and the task they were built to perform. There is a specialized lathe for each material that it can work with.

Woodworking lathes are the most popular ones and, as you can probably guess, they are used for turning wood. Professionals and DIYers alike can take great advantage of the stable space and sharp tools that allow for cutting, sanding, and grinding tasks. Their most important features are how much control the user can have over the material and the unique look they can give to their piece.

Metalworking lathes have stronger and sharper cutting tools than their woodworking brothers, and they allow you to cut aluminum and steel. There are three main types of metal lathes: the centering lathe, which does exactly what its name suggests; the toolroom lathe, a heavy-duty model that is more precise than the others; and the turret lathe, which is used for mass production applications because it can perform repetitive tasks.

Glassworking lathes are slightly different when it comes to their design. With this model, a hollow glass vessel is slowly rotated over a flame to soften it.

There are many other types of lathes such as metal-spinning lathes, lathes, ornamental turning lathes, cue lathes, patternmaker’s lathes, reducing lathes, and rotary lathes.

Wood Lathe

Which lathe should I buy?

To choose the best lathe for the tasks you need to perform and the materials you are going to use you need to consider certain features.

First is how much floor space you have in your workshop. Lathes come in three sizes: mini, midi, and full size. For small spaces, the best choice is the benchtop style, which can be used to turn small pieces into pens, pots, and candlesticks, for example. For bigger places, you can choose among different types of floor standing lathes, which are larger and cannot sit directly against a wall. These can be midi, like the bowl turning style lathes that have a 20-inch-long bed, to full size lathes with a 42-inch bed that can tackle any task.

Next is the spindle thread size, which is determined by the spindle diameter and the threads per inch. The larger the spindle diameter, the more rigid it will when be when performing heavy-duty tasks. So mini and midi lathes that usually have a 1-inch spindle with eight threads per inch are not suitable for larger projects because the spindle can flex between the headstock bearings.

The swing capacity of the lathe will determine the size of the material you can mount on it, and how much it can handle. This is measured by doubling the distance from the top of the bed to the center of the spindle.

The bed size will constrict the length of the piece you can use, and it is determined by the distance between the spindle face and the tailstock.

Conclusion

The lathe has been around for thousands of years, and its versatility has made it endure the passing of time and become an essential machine for the manufacturing industry and the artisans. It can be used with a wide variety of materials for many purposes, but always with utmost care because it can be dangerous if handled incorrectly. You will find that there are a lot of different types of lathes, and to choose the one that is perfect for you, you must consider the size of the machine itself, of the spindle thread, and of the bed, and the swing capacity.

Liam Weissman

Hello and welcome to PowerToolGenius! My name is Liam and for the last 9 years, I have worked extensively with various power tools and accessories. I have tested hundreds of different brands and models and understand the industry extensively and have been working with tools my entire life!

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