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Tools

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.

Central Machinery 65345 5-Speed Bench Top Wood Lathe

This lathe, manufactured by Central Machinery and sold by our good friends at Harbor Freight is an incredible bargain. It comes with a 1/2 HP motor, which delivers 750 to 3,200 RPM across five adjustable speeds. The lathe’s capacity is 18-inches long and up to 10-inches in diameter, which isn’t bad for a bench top lathe. The faceplate is 3-inches in diameter and it comes with both live and spur centers.

Grizzly H2669 Hobby Lathe/Disc Sander

If you only need a lathe on occasion, this unique lathe from Grizzly may be the answer. It's powered by your corded drill, which limits its power somewhat. But if you have a beefy 1/2-inch drill, it will handle small projects just fine. The tailstock and tool rest are mounted to the rails along with your drill, making it a functional lathe. Both spur and screw centers are provided and you can also use this as a disk sander by attaching a pad to the drill and a table in place of the tool rest.

Woodstock Lathe Attachment for Drill Press (D4088)

This unique attachment from Woodstock allows you to convert any drill press into a drill press. It mounts to the drill press table and the drill chuck with both screw and spur centers for the chuck, giving you variety in how you hold the workpiece. The tool rest is 12-inches long, allowing you to work on pieces up to 24-inches long, if your drill press has enough room between the table and the chuck. It might take a bit of time to get used to turning wood vertically, but for those who have never used a lathe, there would be no time lost in unlearning how to turn the wood. For the hobbyist who only has occasional need for a lathe or limited space in their workshop, this is a great option.

PSI Woodworking Commander 10-Inch Variable Speed Midi Lathe

Although they call this a “midi” lathe, rather than a “mini” lathe, I had to include it. This lathe by PSI Woodworking is unique in that it has a digital readout with variable speeds from 150 to 4100 RPM. That allows you to set it for quick cutting or fine finishing. However, the digital readout isn’t just there for show, as it’s connected to a microprocessor speed control, for maximum accuracy. As far as I know, this is the only mini wood lathe with this feature.

There are also a number of features added for convenience, such as carry handles, a tool storage rack and a flexible work light. There are 24 locking indexing positions on the spindle which is more than any other lathe I’ve seen while the tailstock is ball bearing, reducing stress on the workpiece. The motor powering this all is 3/4 HP, providing enough power for projects up to 10 inches in diameter.

Delta Industrial 46-460 12-1/2-Inch Variable-Speed Midi Lathe

This is the most powerful lathe on our list, with a full 1 HP motor. Delta is known for putting powerful motors on their tools, because they provide better service and smoother operation. The motor connects through three pulley speeds, along with electronic variable speed control.

This mini lathe has a reversing function, which isn’t very common but nice for sanding, as it helps get the smoothest possible finish with the grain lying down. There’s also a patented belt tensioning system, making speed changes quicker, while maintaining long tool life.

Shop Fox W1752 Mini Wood Lathe

Woodstock has given their Shop Fox mini lathe the longest ram stroke of any mini wood lathe, at 3-1/2-inches. I'm not sure how often I'd use that, but I like the idea of having that capability if I need it. I'm constantly running into situations with one power tool or another, where I don't have enough travel without having to set up again.

This lathe has a 1/2-inch motor which has six variable speed settings, running as high as 4023 RPM. It has a swing of 10 inches and a max distance between the centers of 15-1/2 inches, unless you add the optional bed extension, which increases it up to 38-inches.

Jet 10" x 15" Variable Speed Wood Working Lathe (JWL-1015VS)

Jet produces a very nice mini wood lathe, although I'll have to say that it's a bit pricey. Actually, if it wasn't for the price, I would have rated it higher. This lathe offers 10 inches of swing between 15-1/2-inch centers and the ways are extra wide for added stability.

I'd have to say it's the most stable lathe in this class. The tool provides fully variable speed, broken down into three ranges and an improved tensioning system makes it easy to change the belts for each of the ranges. 24 position indexing provides additional accuracy for detail work.

Shop Fox W1758 Wood Lathe With Cast Iron Legs And Digital Readout

For the money, this lathe is a bargain. The bed and rails are precision ground cast iron, albeit a little bit lighter than the Grizzly unit. However, it also comes with a full 2 hp motor, making it good competition for the Grizzly, at a more reasonable price. The head swivels for easy outboard bowl turning, an option that the Grizzly’s design doesn’t allow it to match. There’s also a digital tachometer for exact spindle speeds. It will allow you to work with material up to 16-inches in diameter and 43-inches long.

Jet Single Phase Woodworking Lathe (JWL-1440VS)

Jet makes a lot of industrial woodworking equipment, so their prices are a bit steep. However, if you want to buy a tool that will last, Jet is a good way to go. The unique  feature on this lathe is the headstock which pivots 360 degrees and has positive locking positions at 30, 60, 90, 120, 180 and 270 degrees. That provides a lot of versatility, as well as helping with operator comfort.

The one HP motor on this lathe is variable speed, ranging from 400 to 3,000 RPM, along with a positive locking tool rest and an Acme threaded tailstock. Optional equipment available for this lathe includes a base and a bed extension which brings the capacity up to 60-inches between centers.

Delta Industrial 46-460 12-1/2-Inch Variable-Speed Midi Lathe

This is the most powerful lathe on our list, with a full 1 HP motor. Delta is known for putting powerful motors on their tools, because they provide better service and smoother operation. The motor connects through three pulley speeds, along with electronic variable speed control.

This mini lathe has a reversing function, which isn’t very common but nice for sanding, as it helps get the smoothest possible finish with the grain lying down. There’s also a patented belt tensioning system, making speed changes quicker, while maintaining long tool life.

Craftsman 12" x 16" Midi Lathe (21752)

Craftsman 12" x 16" Midi Lathe (21752)

This bench-top midi sized lathe seems to fit the bill for many homeowner projects. It will take material up to 12-inches in diameter by 16-inches long. The only thing I could fault Craftsman for on this unit it the 1/2 hp motor and I’d like to see this same unit with a stronger motor. Nevertheless, 1/2 hp is adequate for turning chair spindles without a problem.

Buyer's Guide

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

Floor Mounted
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.

Benchtop
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
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

Maximum Capacity
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.

Bed Extensions
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.

Maximum Swing
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).

Outboard Side
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.

Ways
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 Rest
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
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.

Variable Speed
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.

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