A wood lathe is a machine that rotates a wood piece on a spindle. We call the process of working on a wood lathe “turning.” Wood lathes have modifications that allow them to perform different functions like making grooves, threading, drilling and boring.
The workpieces that we work with on wood lathes are usually cylindrical or shaped along the axis of the spindle of the lathe. Wood lathes come in different sizes and models. As a woodworker, you need to know about the different types of wood lathes and their functions.
In our post on different types of woodworking machines, we featured a basic wood lathe. In this post, we take a look at various sizes and models of wood lathes and we also guide you on what to look for in a wood lathe. So, let’s get started!
Types of Wood Lathes According to Size
Wood lathes come in three primary sizes – mini/benchtop, midi and full-size. In the absence of a drill press, you can use a wood lathe to drill holes vertically using a special attachment.
Mini/Benchtop Wood Lathes
If a lathe has a distance between centers (DBC) of 20 inches or less, or a swing over bed (SOB) of 12 inches or less, it comes under the category of a mini or benchtop lathe. The DBC is the maximum length of wood we can use whereas the SOB refers to the optimum wood diameter that we can put onto the lathe.
Mini/benchtop wood lathes are the smallest type of lathes and serve well in places of restricted space. You will also find this type of lathe useful if you have fine and detailed turning work. It is also the cheapest type of lathe, making it an excellent choice for beginners.
Midi Wood Lathes
As the name suggests, midi wood lathes are bigger than benchtops but smaller than the full-size variety. Midi wood lathes have added power, but occupy less shop floor space. It makes a suitable option when you need a more powerful machine but you have limited space in your woodworking workshop.
Although the DBC of midi lathes can be 20 inches or less, the SOB will be 12 inches and above. Here you get power similar to a full-size lathe but with a machine that occupies less shop floor space and at a lower price.
A full-size lathe has both power and size and will take up a lot of space on your shop floor. The job will rest at about four feet above the floor, giving you easy access to it. The DBC of a full-size wood lathe can exceed 45 inches and the SOB can be 15 inches or more.
You can work on larger turning items like table legs or a baseball bat with ease with this category of wood lathe. Because of the size and power of full-size lathes, you need to have considerable experience, if you are to use them.
Types of Wood Lathes According to Function
Another way of classifying wood lathes is through the type of job they do and how they vary their orientation. Here are a few of the major types:
Center Wood Lathe
This is the most widely-used variety of wood lathe. Earlier, center wood lathes used a belt for transmission from a tower wheel. Today, we use gears to apply the transmission. It results in increased power and efficiency.
The wear and tear also reduce as there is less friction in greased gears than in a belt. We also call this type of wood lathe a “horizontal” lathe because the orientation of the main shaft is horizontal. If there are notches on the bed surface, we call that type of lathe a “notched” lathe.
Vertical Wood Lathe
A vertical wood lathe gets its name from the vertical orientation of the spindle. The bed however is horizontal and the workpiece sits on the horizontal bed. You will find this type of lathe suitable for turning short but large diameter workpieces.
Turret Wood Lathe
We also call it a “hexagon lathe” and it replaces the tailstock of a regular lathe with a hexagonal rotating turret. We use this type of lathe when we need to perform multiple operations like reaming, boring or drilling. It plays a prominent role in the mass production of wooden items.
Copying Wood Lathe
We also call them “imitation” turning lathes. A stylus shapes the wood according to the shape of a template, imitating the required shape. It is useful for making repetitive irregular shapes in wood.
CNC Wood Lathe
This type of lathe works on the principle of computer numerical control (CNC). With this lathe, we can create wooden pieces of complex shapes in large quantities with a high degree of accuracy.
What to Look for in Wood Lathes
Before you buy a wood lathe, you would do well to check these features of wood lathes to get a suitable model:
Size and Weight
Consider the space available on your woodworking shop floor. You also need to ensure a firm foundation for heavy midi and full-size lathes.
A wood lathe’s base is a critical part of the machine. It has to provide a solid foundation to absorb vibrations generated by the machine. If the machine vibrates too much, your workpiece can get damaged and it can also be a safety hazard.
A cast-iron base is the best choice because it is heavy and absorbs vibrations adequately. Ensure that there is sufficient provision to bolt the base to the surface, be it a workbench or the shop floor.
Headstock and Tailstock
The headstock takes power from the motor and contains the speed control mechanism. Its spindle extends to the center of the machine and should be aligned perfectly with the tailstock. In combination, these two components should grip your workpiece firmly for best results while operating the wood lathe.
Power and Speed
Power usually refers to the output power of the motor expressed in horsepower (HP) which should range from ¾ HP for a mini lathe and at least 2 HP for a full-size lathe. The power of the motor is directly proportional to the force that you can exert on your workpiece.
Also, ensure that the machine provides sufficient speed for performing various tasks. Speed is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). Look for lathes that provide speeds ranging from 250 RPM to 4,000 RPM. Precision and fine jobs call for higher speeds for better accuracy.
Wood lathes come in 110-120 volts AC and 230-240 volts AC models. Select a model compatible with the type of power supply you have at your woodworking shop. Also, ensure that the power switch is located at an accessible point, for the convenient and safe operation of your wood lathe.
We determine the capacity of a wood lathe by its DBC and SOB. We have discussed the different DBCs and SOBs of different sizes of wood lathes above. Be aware of the type of work that you expect to undertake and ensure that you get a wood lathe of suitable capacity.
We call the horizontal bar for placing cutting tools during the lathe’s operation a tool rest. It keeps the tool stable while you cut into the rotating workpiece. The distance of the tool rest from the workpiece is critical. Make sure that the tool rest is sturdy and it should neither be too near nor too far from the workpiece.
A wood lathe can be dangerous if not used properly. While operating a wood lathe, avoid loose clothing and jewelry. Also, keep long hair tied or covered in a hairnet.
Use appropriate safety gear like face shields, goggles and gloves. Ensure that moving parts like vee-belts, wheels and gears have adequate safety guards.
When you select a wood lathe, ensure that you also stock up on accessories like chisels, gouges, calipers, hones, hammers and spanners.
You can have a fascinating time using wood lathes. They perform a surprising number of tasks and serve as indispensable pieces of equipment to a woodworking workshop.
Now that you are aware of how to distinguish the different types of wood lathes and how to select them, you can surely turn out (pun intended!) some great woodworking items.
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