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How to Choose a Wood Lathe

by Jess Buskirk

Man carving a table leg on a wood lathe

Wood lathes are simple machines that allow you to make beautifully symmetrical woodwork. Wood lathes consist of an electric motor, two points, called the "headstock" and the "tailstock," and a chisel or gouge. As the motor turns the piece of wood secured between the headstock and the tailstock, the chisel carves. With a wood lathe in your collection of power tools, you'll be able to make a wide variety of items, including wooden pens, table legs, banisters and even wooden salad bowls. Although lathes are fairly simplistic tools, finding the right lathe for you can take some time and research.

Choosing a Wood Lathe:

  1. Think about the types of projects you'll be turning on your lathe. If you'll be making smaller objects, such as pens or wooden toys, a tabletop lathe will likely be your most convenient power tool option. If you'll be tackling larger projects, such as tables and lamps, you'll want a sturdy steel or cast-iron lathe than can handle unbalanced pieces of wood.

  2. Measure your workspace. Wood lathes are long, bulky pieces of equipment that need plenty of room to turn. Fortunately, lathes are measured in inches, so it will be easy for you to determine what size lathe you can accommodate. The dimensions of a lathe are given as diameter by length of the largest piece of stock it can turn. For example, a 12-inch by 36-inch wood lathe, which is a common size, can turn a piece of wood that is 12 inches in diameter and 36 inches long.

  3. Remember that bigger is usually better when it comes to wood lathes. The larger the piece of wood the lathe can turn, the more versatile the machine will be. A big lathe can turn small projects, but a small lathe cannot turn large projects. If you're planning on using your lathe for a wide variety of woodworking, purchase the largest tool your budget and your workspace can afford.

  4. Pick your method of speed. Lathes turn wood in one of two ways: with manual adjustments or with an electronic speed drive. Manually adjusting the pulleys that determine how many rotations per minute the lathe turns the wood is typically more accurate than an electronic speed drive, but it takes more time and skill. Beginners will likely have more luck with adjusting the speed electronically.

  5. Make sure accessories are available for the size of lathe you are considering. You may not want to add accessories to your lathe right away, but you also don't want to limit yourself by purchasing a lathe with uncommonly sized spindle threads and tapers.

  6. Check the height of the lathe. Ideally, the center of the spindle should be at your elbows when you are standing with your arms relaxed by your sides. If the height is significantly too tall or too short, you may need to have a stand built.

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