Best Wood Lathe
Lathes are one of those woodworking tools that not every woodworker needs. They are a specialty tool, used for turning wood spindles for furniture, table legs, and wood bowls. While I know that some wood turners (the term for people who use a lathe) can make some amazing things on their lathes, it’s just not the tool for all of us.
On the other hand, there are things which you can do on a lathe, which you can’t do on any other type of tool. I don’t care how hard you try; you’re not going to be very successful making a turned wood table leg on a table saw, although in theory it should be possible. Even so, to make it possible would require holding the part in a spindle; much like you would in a lathe.
A woodworking lathe depends a lot on the skill of the individual wood turner, as they are essentially carving the spindle, with the lathe only rotating the work piece to allow the cutting action to happen evenly all around the circumference of it. Cutting is accomplished with a series of hand-held chisels, with only a tool rest to reduce the amount of strain on the woodworker’s hands.
Turning wood is hard on the chisels, especially if you are turning dense hardwoods. Good quality chisels are needed, so that they will hold an edge. Even so, you'll probably find that you need to sharpen them frequently. Having a bench grinder on hand to do this makes using a wood lathe much more enjoyable.
If you need additional information to help you in your search for a wood lathe, be sure to check out out buyer's guide provided below.
Best Wood Lathe Overall:
If you’re into making colonial style furniture with turned spindles, there’s nothing like having your own wood lathe. Many woodworking projects require the use of a lathe and when you start looking around it’s real easy to get caught up in looking at units that cost thousands of dollars.
Okay, so that raises the question, what would make a lathe like that so much more expensive? Other than some digital read outs, there are two basic criterion which are the motor size and the unit’s structural strength.
The strength of a lathe’s structure, especially the bed rails greatly affects its ability to hold steady when you start putting pressure on the cutting tool. Likewise, the size of the motor will affect how much pressure you can put on those cutting tools. Since that pressure affects the cutting speed, that’s an important factor in the choice of a lathe.
A well-built lathe will withstand a lot of pressure without chatter so you'll be able to work faster than you could on a less expensive one. This is important for commercial lathes which are turning out work as fast as possible. But this may not be as important for the hobbyist, especially when you start looking at the higher priced lathes.
Larger motors allow more pressure and faster cutting because they can maintain the rotational speed, even when tool pressure is applied. Some of the larger lathes have digital readouts, along with electronic controls to help regulate speed and ensure consistent pressure is applied.
We’re looking at lathes suited for home workshops, so I’ve decided to limit this list to units retailing for less than $1,500. There are two different sized lathes on this list, full size, which will hold pieces of wood over 40-inches long, and midi units, which only hold pieces up to about 16-inches long.
Some lathes come with stands, while others are intended to be used as benchtop units. Pretty much any of them that are bench top units can be modified for use on a stand, with a little creativity on your part. While benchtop mounted, they generally take up a large portion of the bench.
For number one, I pick Grizzly’s G1495. This has got to be the heaviest duty, full-size lathe on the market within this price range. They’ve added a disk/drum sander on the back side of the head, the only manufacturer who does this. Read Full Review
Coming in at a little lower price than the Grizzly is this really nice Shop Fox model. This unit also has a 2 hp motor but it’s mounted on the head, instead of being belt driven. That gives this lathe’s head the ability to swing, for outboard bowl turning. Read Full Review
The outstanding thing about this lathe is that the head rotates 360 degrees, with seven positive locking positions. Options that can be added on include a base and extended ways, allowing it to be used for pieces up to 60-inches in length. Read Full Review
For a midi sized lathe, I’ve got to give kudos to Delta. They make some of the best woodworking workshop tools around. This little beauty is designed for years of accurate, trouble-free service. I’d take a Delta tool and give it a home any day. Read Full Review
Best Budget Wood Lathe:
Wood lathes are somewhat of a specialty tool, which might explain why there really aren’t many of them available at a budget price. Woodworkers once turned their own spindles on a lathe, today’s woodworker is much more likely to not use turned spindles. Those who do will probably buy commercially manufactured ones and this has reduced the number of tool manufacturers who will still provide reasonably priced wood lathes.
Nevertheless, these tools haven’t really changed all that much over the years. The existing design works well for what is needed, so there’s really no reason to make drastic changes to the design of the lathe. By keeping the design the same, it allows these tools and the accessories available for them much more universal.
The basic function of a lathe is to hold a piece of wood firmly while spinning it. The cutting is done with a series of chisels which are held on a rest to counter the force of the spinning wood pushing against them. Unlike lathes which are used for metal, there is no fine adjustment on these tools, no tool holder (other than the tool rest) and no thread cutting capability for making screw threads. The accuracy of these tools comes mostly from the eye of the woodworker, which can be challenging when a number of identical pieces are needed.
There are several important factors in the design of a good wood lathe. First of all, motor power counts for a lot. If all you are going to cut is soft woods, then that isn’t as much of an issue, but harder woods require more force to cut. If the lathe has too small a motor, it may bog down if you try and cut too fast.
Other than the motor power, the biggest deciding factor in lathe quality is the “ways” or the bed that the tailstock slides on. If the ways aren’t ground straight and flat, it can cause a wobble in the stock being cut, causing inaccurate cuts and unintended part tapering.
Since this is a “budget” list, I tried to stick to lathes that went for under $250. If you’re looking for a budget tool for occasional use, these models provide a lot of service for very little money. If you want something that’s a little bit better, take a look at our Best Wood Lathe list.
Shop Fox's small lathe only comes with a 1/3 HP motor. Even so, everything about this lathe is nicely made to give you quality results. Read Full Review
Grizzly's smallest lathe fits nicely into this list. This one comes with a 1/2 HP motor. With the bed extension, it will handle work pieces up to 33 inches long. Read Full Review
While inexpensive, like most of Central Machinery's tools, this one will get the job done for you. It comes with a 1/2 HP motor and an 18 capacity between centers. Read Full Review
For the do-it-yourselfer who only needs a lathe on occasion, Grizzly has come out with a budget model that uses your corded drill for its power source. While limited in size, it works fine for small projects. Read Full Review
This budget lathe is a bit different as Woodstock has provided an attachment to allow you to use your drill press as a small lathe. It will handle material up to 24-inches long, assuming your drill press is big enough. Read Full Review
Best Mini Wood Lathe:
Size is everything to many wood turners who are always wanting a bigger lathe so that they can do bigger projects. But then there are those who go the other direction, wanting to turn small tings. For this group, there’s the mini wood lathe.
These are small, benchtop models specifically designed for turning small pieces in many cases, these lathes can handle much bigger work than you’d expect, even allowing the addition of bed extensions to increase their capacity even more. Some even have a 12-inch swing capacity.
The real advantage of these smaller lathes over their larger cousins, is they’re designed so you can do very intricate work on them, which can be hard to do on larger lathes. The other advantage is that they take up less room and while that may not seem like an advantage to some, when you’ve got a crowded workshop it sure can be.
As with larger lathes, the keys to these lathes are the size of the motor and the accuracy of the machining. If the centers don’t align right, it doesn’t matter what else is going on because the work simply won’t come out good. If the motor is too small, then it’s too easy for the lathe to get bogged down by the friction of cutting.
While lathes are pretty consistent from one manufacturer to another, each tries to do something to make their product stand out as with these best mini wood lathes for one reason or another. They’re all quality units which you can count on for your projects, whether you’re turning wood pens or something more complicated.
This lathe is packed with features to make things easier for the woodworker. The best is the digital readout and electronic motor control, allowing precise speed settings. Read Full Review
Delta makes the most powerful mini lathe around, with a full 1 HP motor. It also has a reversing function, which is great for finishing your projects. Read Full Review
This lathe comes with the longest ram stroke of any mini lathe. Like all of the Shop Fox line of tools, it's designed to last. Read Full Review
For those looking for a bargain in a mini-lathe, Rockler offers this basic lathe, manufactured by Excelsior. The five speeds allow working on all types of projects and an optional bed extension allows turning spindles up to 38-1/2 inches long. Read Full Review
Although a bit pricey, the Jet mini late is the most stable on the market. The added stability comes from the extra-wide ways that they have on it. Read Full Review
Wood Lathe Buyer's Guide
While wood turning is a very specialized part of woodworking, its history goes back for over 2,000 years. Early wood turners used manual lathes with an assistant pulling a leather strap to turn the wood. While nowhere near as efficient as modern wood lathes, they were able to manufacture a number of things.
Originally, wood turning was used more to make bowls and plates, than it was for turning spindles. However, in modern times, we find much more use of the lathe to turn spindles, both for furniture and for architectural adornment. We even find some purely artistic turning being done, such as making turned wood pens.
The average woodworker doesn't buy a lathe, unless they are serious about getting into turning wood. Once they do, turning becomes the major part of their woodworking. With that in mind, it's often a good idea to look for more than you need, so you won't end up having to replace a lathe after a year.
Types of Wood Lathes
These are larger lathes which have the stand integrated into the tool. They are generally sturdier units although the ways on many benchtop lathes are sturdy as well. If you are planning on doing really big work, you will need a floor mounted lathe.
The vast majority of lathes are benchtop units. These vary extensively in size so you’ll really want to think about how big a lathe you need for your projects. Larger lathes can pretty much always handle smaller projects but all lathes have a limit as to how big a project they can hold.
Mini lathes are a separate category of benchtop lathe, designed specifically for those who are doing smaller projects. These are used for turning wood pens and some types of doll furniture, such as the doll furniture used in wood doll houses. Mini lathes are specifically designed with detail in mind.
What to Look For in a Wood Lathe
There really isn’t a whole lot of difference between one lathe and other, other than motor size and maximum capacity of the lathe. This maximum capacity is measured in two ways: between the centers and maximum swing. Between the centers refers to the distance from the spindle, which holds the workpiece at the motor end and the spindle which holds the piece of wood at the tailstock; the larger this distance, the longer the piece of wood that can be turned in said lathe.
Some lathes have bed extensions, which increase the effective maximum distance between centers. So, a mini lathe with a bed extension may actually have a larger capacity between centers than a different benchtop lathe which isn’t considered a mini lathe. Be sure to check this dimension for any lathe which you are considering.
The maximum swing refers to the largest diameter workpiece that can be put in the lathe, without it hitting any part of the tool. Typically, this is stated as the diameter, even though the critical measurement is the radius of the workpiece. Don’t get the two confused. This dimension is limited by how high the head is and how high the head puts the spindle above the ways (the part the tailstock slides on).
Some lathes allow turning bowls and platters on what is called the outboard side of the head, which is essentially the other end of the motor spindle. This allows turning much larger bowls than would otherwise be possible with the lathe. Not all allow this though, so if this is a feature you want, be sure to check on it. Of course, if you are limiting yourself to turning spindles, this won’t be so important to you.
Structurally, the most important part of any lathe are the ways. These are the metal bars (often cast) which run from the motor head to the tailstock. Hefty ways are necessary to maintain the stiffness of the lathe. If the lathe isn't stiff enough, then the lathe can warp when working, causing the cutting tool to go off track and possibly even destroying a project.
Tool rests vary little from lathe to lathe, although some are slightly longer than others. In most cases, you'll want to use the center of the rest as much as possible, locating your tool directly over the rest's support post. That will provide the best support for the tool and the least amount of chatter.
Motor size affects how quickly you can cut the material. If the motor is small and you try to make a heavy cut, there’s a good chance that your tool will chatter, or the workpiece will bog down. In either case, you’ll probably damage the workpiece perhaps beyond the point of repair.
Dense hardwoods require more physical force than softer woods to cut. This usually means having to take a smaller cut while turning the piece. A larger motor will make it possible to still take larger cuts to the workpiece, even when it is made of a dense hardwood.
Most wood lathes are variable speed. This allows you to use the same tool effectively with a variety of wood densities. The harder the wood, the faster you’ll want to turn it, so that you don’t try to take too big a cut. At the same time, the larger the diameter of the workpiece, the slower you need to turn it. This is because a larger workpiece will have the circumference moving faster, even with the same lathe speed.