Choosing the Right Wood Lathe
By Shabir Balolia
Woodturning is an art of the highest order dating back to 6th century B.C. You become a sort of creator, turning a dull chunk of wood into a magnificent masterpiece, which is why choosing the right wood lathe is of the utmost importance.
Inspired by the intriguing concept of transforming raw wood materials into useful and aesthetically-pleasing items, many hobbyists and budding pros look to purchase a wood lathe to learn the fundamentals of woodturning. With the vast amount of different lathe options available, how do you begin to weigh the pros and cons of each unit to make sure it is the right fit for your specific projects? Hopefully below we can answer that question.
At the most fundamental level, a prospective turner needs to consider the types of projects they will be doing, how much space they have to work with, and the lathe size. Other factors, such as the lathe’s speed, capability and accessories suited to the type of lathe will be important considerations.
- Types of Projects
The types of projects you plan to fashion determine what type of lathe you end up purchasing. For example, if you plan on only making pens, candle holders and small goblets, you will likely benefit most from a benchtop lathe. However, if you plan on doing larger projects, like table legs, bowls, lamps, vases, baseball bats, etc. you will need a heavy duty floor model lathe, which can handle larger dimensions.
- Workspace Size
If you opt for a larger floor model lathe, you will need to accommodate for a space that can handle the width in your workplace location. The dimensions of a lathe are given as diameter by length of the largest piece of stock it can turn. Hence, a common-sized lathe — 16” inch X 42”inch — will turn a piece of wood that is 16 inches in diameter and can also turn pieces up to 42” in length. A typical footprint of a floor model lathe is 75” in width, 20” in depth and stands 48” in height. So find a place that is comfortable and easy to access as this is a machine that you do not want to move around in your shop.
- Based on Use, Bigger is generally better.
Depending on your budget, available workspace, and the amount of time you plan to use your lathe, a bigger lathe is better because it is more versatile. A large lathe can turn small projects, but a small lathe will not be able to turn larger projects. If you plan to use your lathe as your primary means of woodworking buy a floor model lathe.
- Variable vs fixed lathe speed.
The speed of lathes can be adjusted either manually or electronically. For convenience, electronic speed controls provide a variety of speed ranges vs a manual belt change that limits you to a select few speeds set by the manufacturer. They both work well but a variable speed lathe gives you a lot of options based on the type of wood you are working with. Some woods burn at high speed so a variable speed lathe allows for fine adjustments so you don’t smoke your piece.
Make sure you buy a lathe with standard spindle threads and tapers. If you purchase one with non-standard spindle threads and tapers, you will be frustrated later when your skills expand and you end up limiting yourself on options for different faceplates, live centers and chucks. A common spindle thread is 1 ¼” x 8” and a common spindle taper is a MT#2. More on this later.
Aside from these basic considerations, you will also need to note the weight, quality of construction i.e. cast/ground lathe bed, heavy duty cast iron legs, and the motor horsepower of your lathe. Be sure to carefully contemplate these variables:
These basics are a good starting point for finding the wood lathe that will fit your needs. Whether you are turning for fun or profit, it is important that you properly educate yourself on the subject. Consider borrowing books from your local library, taking a basic course at a local college or trade school, joining a local woodturning group, or going to forums where other woodturning enthusiasts talk shop.
When shopping for a lathe, a great feature on a floor model lathe is a swivel headstock. A lot of turners enjoy this feature because you are able to swivel the headstock away from the bed and turn large pieces such as bowls that do not require the stabilizing feature that the tailstock provides. If you are purchasing a large lathe, be sure it holds a MT #2 or larger Morse taper. Confirm that its tailstock taper also accepts the same sized (MT #2) Morse taper. In addition, be sure you have an extremely strong stand or bench that will properly support the size and weight of the lathe you purchase. Swing over the bed is also important, if the swing is 14” that means you have 7” from the center of your spindle to the lathe bed. The larger the swing the bigger the piece you will be able to turn.
- Cast Iron Bed
Many professional wood turners agree that cast iron beds are the best for lathe work because they suppress vibration better than steel beds. The cast iron weight also provides stability and rigidity against the centrifugal movement of the work piece. It is best to call the manufacturer or check their website for the type of material used in the production of their lathe.
It is natural for a wood lathe to vibrate and occasionally shake when the weight of the wood you are using is unbalanced. It is important to address any shaking of the stand or bench your lathe may have when there is no workpiece mounted up. This could be an issue with the lathe. When mounting the work piece into the lathe do your best to center it so that it reduces any shaking that may occur when you start your carve.
A quality lathe can help you produce quality work, and there are many things to consider when researching what the best option for your needs are. Make sure the lathe you purchase consists of durable, heavy components and is from a reputable manufacturer. Insure the bed is cast iron, ground and smooth. The tailstock of your lathe should slide easily but must still lock firmly to the bed of the lathe without any slop. Make sure the tool post used is made of cast iron and lines up with the center of the spindle but still has the ability to adjust up and down and lock with a lever.
Do not forget to consider the motor horsepower when researching lathes. Small benchtop lathes typically start at 1/3 horsepower, which is the recommended minimum you will need to execute small projects that require only light carving. A 1 horsepower motor should be used in lathes for medium projects; and when completing larger projects, a 2 or 3 horsepower motor should be used.
When you are finally ready to purchase the right lathe for you, consider the quality woodworking machinery at Grizzly Industrial Inc., www.grizzly.com.
About the Author: Shabir Balolia is an avid woodworker and works in all aspects of the family business - Grizzly Industrial Inc.
with a focus on marketing, retail store management, foreign product acquisitions, and new product development/R&D.