When it comes to hobbies where you get to create something, scarcely is there an activity as useful and rewarding as woodworking.
Indeed, you get to work on your favorite type of wood, hacking at it patiently for hours to see the result, which is nothing short of marvelous! Whether it’s a delicately carved wooden bowl, a sculpture, or some similar swindle-like sculpture, wood is a sort of material that gives you almost infinite opportunities when it comes to the stuff you can make of it.
That said, to make the sort of sculptures and other structures made of wood, you have to have the proper machinery for the job. Now, other than the regular hand tools such as hand saws, chisels, planes, carving knives, and rasps, a proper woodworker will also need some motorized tools to make the best of his or her efforts!
(Now, we’re not saying that the folks who prefer to stick to hand tools aren’t real woodworkers – far from that. But when it comes to efficiency and the quality of the end product, a little help from a machine should never be dismissed as a great woodworking strategy, so to speak.)
In this article, we’re going to speak about a special breed of woodworking motorized tools – wood lathes. These curious machines are rather simple in their design (when compared to some other woodworking machines), but it’s essential for making any sort of round wooden item.
Whether it’s a chess figurine or a Japanese soup bowl, if you mean to make it out of wood – you’re going to need a wood lathe for the job! So, we’ve prepared a brief buyer’s guide for all the rookies out there, and we’ve also come up with a list of the 10 best wood lathes currently available on the market. Plus, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions in this particular category.
Right then, without further ado, here’s the deal.
Editor’s Recommendation: Top 5 Wood Lathes
Wood Lathes for the Money – A Brief Buyer’s Guide
As we’ve mentioned above, wood lathes are motorized machines. They usually come with electric motors and their power ratings tend to vary widely – depending on the size and more importantly, the purpose of the machine.
For smaller woodworking tasks, you can get a wee 1/8 of a horsepower motor. Of course, if you get a lathe with this sort of motor, you’ll only be able to work on smaller pieces. For larger projects involving bigger pieces of wood, you will need a lathe with a stronger motor – anywhere from 1 to 3 horsepower.
(Mind you, 3 HP motors are some of the most powerful models for personal use, so only buy them if you intend to work with really large pieces of wood. Otherwise, you can buy a smaller model and save some money!)
The headstock represents one of the two parts of the wood lathe that hold the wood in question firmly in place. So, the headstock is the part where you’ll be mounting your chuck. It’s important for this part to be sturdy and to be properly modified in case you want to work on different pieces without the tailstock.
For example, wooden bowls and similar items can’t be attached to both a head and a tailstock because they need to be hollowed out eventually. This is why you will need a strong drive center and a faceplate on your headstock for this arrangement to work well.
The second part of the ‘lathe clamping equation’, so to speak, would then be the tailstock.
So, if the chucks are attached to the headstock, the tailstock represents a sturdy rotating pin, which serves to secure the piece of wood from the other side. (The result looks like a pig that turns on that rotating grill. The only difference is that the pin doesn’t go all the way through the piece of wood like it does through the pig.)
The tailstock only serves to secure larger pieces of wood from the other side. For smaller pieces or those that cannot be secured in such a way for technical reasons (bowls, for example), the tailstock is not used at all.
4. Tool Rest
A big part of using a wood lathe is controlling the situation by taking out only small pieces of wood at a time. You cannot work fast or be rough-handed. Once you’ve secured the piece of wood you intend to work on, you must approach it carefully and take great care when using hand tools such as chisels.
This is where the tool rest comes in. Its purpose is to help you lead the tool you’re using towards the wood and allow you to work with it precisely. A good tool rest should be able to be mounted anywhere in the vicinity of the lathe where it’s needed.
Also, once you’ve chosen a spot for it, the tool rest must be secured tightly because if it gets loose, there’s a danger it may fly off violently in an unexpected direction potentially hurting the operator!
Since wood lathes allow you quite a lot of freedom when it comes to the ways you can approach woodworking, there’s a great number of useful accessories for this machine that can help you get even more out of it.
So, wood lathe accessories typically include items such as the aforementioned tool rest, tailstock extensions, Jacob chucks, as well as different types of adapters and drive centers. Also, logistical items such as lathe lights, calipers, and other measuring tools can come in handy!
Top 10 Best Wood Lathes For Beginners
1. Powermatic – Model 3520B Wood Lathe with RPM Digital Readout
If you’re on a lookout for a durable machine that looks as if it just came out of an industrial woodworking facility, this Powermatic contraption may be just what you’ve been looking for. This model represents a mighty woodworking power station as it comes with a 2-horsepower motor capable of taking on big ‘n’ tough chunks of wood and turning them into toothpicks in no time!
The great thing about this motor is that its variable speed, so you can change the intensity of the rotation whenever you like during your project. Also, to help you understand exactly how quickly this lathe is rotating the piece of wood you’re working on, the folks at Powermatic have installed an easy-to-read digital RPM meter.
Appearance-wise, this contraption is painted industrial-style yellow, so it will fit right in your workshop. As far as the material it’s made out of is concerned, this model is made of cast iron, which means it will be able to survive a nuclear disaster.
(A note: Some assembly is required, so be prepared for it, if you buy this model.)
- Comes with a digital RPM display for easy reading
- Made out of heavy-duty cast iron
- Painted in industrial yellow
- A powerful, 2-horsepower motor
- Variable speed of the motor
- Some users may not like the fact that it doesn’t come fully assembled
- Assembly requires some advanced tools
2. Jet – Variable Speed Wood Lathe
Boasting an appearance of a sci-fi contraption that could have easily passed as a prop for a Stanley Kubrick film, this variable speed wood lathe coming from the company called Jet is an excellent piece of woodworking equipment perfect for a variety of woodworking tasks.
One of the biggest strengths of this machine, in particular, would be the incredible speed control variations it offers. You can get from as low as 60 RPM to as high as 3,600 RPM, which is a monumental range. This means you’ll be able to approach various woodworking projects with utmost precision and control every time you use this tool.
In case you want to use this machine in reverse, you don’t need to worry about the transition giving you any headaches at all. The folks at Jet have organized a smooth transition from the forward to reverse gear, so you won’t have to worry about having to adjust the speeds yourself when performing this maneuver.
- Excellent speed control (from 60 to 3,600 RPM)
- Spring-loaded spindle lock
- Ratchet style belt tension system
- 24 integrated indexing positions
- Smooth transition from forward to reverse
- 5-year warranty
- Some users complained about poor customer support
- Some users had trouble with the loud noise coming from the headstock
3. Shop Fox – 1/3 Horsepower Benchtop Lathe
This wood lathe model coming from Shop Fox brings to the table some pretty interesting features such as a small but plucky 1/3 HP motor, a 12-inch distance between the centers, as well as not one, not three, but two different tool rests.
Indeed, using these two, you can approach the fast-spinning piece of wood that you’re about to thoroughly chisel down in complete safety. Other than that, this machine boasts sturdy cast-iron construction, which can withstand quite a lot of use, so you can rest assured this thing will last you for years to come.
Another interesting thing about this machine would be that, even though its motor is only 1/3 of a horsepower, you still can do wonders with it in terms of its variable speed control. You can set it at whatever value you so desire, so there’s no lack of variety with this model, alright!
- A compact but mighty 1/3 HP motor
- Made out of sturdy cast iron
- Variable speed control
- Comes with two tool rests
- 2-year warranty
- Only suitable for smaller projects
- Some users reported problems with the tailstock
4. Delta – Industrial 1/2-Inch Variable-Speed Midi Lathe
For those users looking for a mid-range (in terms of power) wood lathe that can take on smaller as well as some larger projects, this contraption from Delta can be just the tool for you! Under its ‘bonnet’, it packs a single horsepower engine that can make your piece of wood (no pun intended) spinning at as many as 1,725 RPM.
The speed is controlled electronically, so you won’t have to worry about changing the speed every 5 minutes or puttering about with the belt or anything like that. You can complete a multiple-speed-changing project quite quickly, without ever having to mess with the speed mechanism! This can be great news for someone who often works on the same types of projects and who needs to finish them quickly.
- 1-horsepower motor
- There are 1,725 revolutions per minute
- Features electronic variable speed control
- Patented belt tensioning system (quick speed changes)
- Forwarding and reversing function
- Does not come with a digital speed reading display
- Some users found it annoying that the gears were backward when this unit first arrived (The reverse was forward and vice versa. Luckily, this is an easy fix.)
5. Nova – Comet II Variable Speed Mini Lathe
When it comes to the revolutions per minute this thing can enable you, you don’t need to look much further than this Nova Comet II variable speed mini-lathe. You can rest assured that with this particular model, you’ll be getting the fastest-spinning mini-lathe on the market!
To be precise, this thing can make the wood you insert between the headstock and the tailstock spin as fast as 4,000 RPM. This is quite extraordinary considering that all of this spinning power comes from the rather small 3/4 HP electronic variable speed motor. (Which isn’t the strongest one currently on the market, by the way.)
As far as the speed ranges are concerned, you can choose between low, medium, and high speed ranges thanks to the 3 step pulley system, which provides excellent flexibility properties for the user in this regard.
- A powerful 3/4 HP motor
- 3 step pulley system
- Comes with a self-ejecting tailstock
- Made out of solid cast iron
- Variable speed adjustment
- Some customers did not like the customer support
- Some users have reported that the tailstock was rough and jerky
6. RIKON Power Tools – 12-by-16-Inch Mini Lathe
One of the most important aspects of a well-made wood lathe would be its ability to spin the piece of wood you’re working on at different speeds, so you can apply different woodworking techniques to your project. This model here has covered this aspect quite well, indeed.
Thanks to its easy access speed change property, you can rest assured that this unit will be able to provide you with the best possible, well, speed-changing during your projects. This is important because you don’t have to stop working on your bowl or sculpture just because you need to switch gears and slow down, for example. Instead, you can simply adjust the speed of the lathe and continue working on whatever it is you’ve started to work on!
The motor itself is a small but plucky ½ HP engine that can do more than well for a majority of your wood-working requirements. Whether it’s small objects such as rice bowls or pens, or something of medium size – such as some sort of wooden totem sculpture, this little motor will able to cover your needs and serve you well with different projects.
Another great little addition to the overall design of this unit would be quite useful self-ejecting tailstock. This thing will make sure that you won’t have to waste time to remove the center from the stock. It will come off on its own when you loosen up the locking lever!
- Boasts easy access speed change
- Comes with a self-ejecting tailstock
- Laser engraved ram
- A small but plucky ½ HP motor
- Various accessories are available
- 5-year warranty
- Some users have reported problems with the protective cover for the headstock (it doesn’t close all the way)
- Some users claim to have spotted some assembly defects
7. WEN – Variable Speed Benchtop Wood Lathe
Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most important parameters these wood lathes are judged would be their ability to spin the object of your woodworking attention at varying speeds. Indeed, the ability of a wood lathe to offer a user an operation that consists of different speeds can mean the difference between a smooth, work-intensive operation, so to speak, and a project that’s constantly pestered with a sort of stop-and-go dynamic.
Now, the model we’ve decided to place as our entry number 7 possesses this great and widely required ability to grant its user with the ability to switch between different speeds and thus maximize the scope of his or her woodworking output.
To be precise, this excellent machine can give you anywhere from 750 to 3200 revolutions per minute – a large enough scope for you to work on a variety of different projects. Now, as far as the motor of this unit is in question, the folks at WEN decided to install a small but quite powerful 2Amp motor.
To protect the motor, the WEN folks made it always start with a soft start, to exclude the possibility of damage to the biggest extent. So, when it comes to all things ‘motor’, you can rest assured that it won’t break down easily, even after years of use.
On the other hand, there’s the tool rest, which is a breeze to use thanks to the unique clamping system developed by the WEN engineers. So, the adjustments for both the tool rest and the tailstock on this tool can be simple and precise every time!
- Variable speed (from 750 to 3200 rpm)
- Comes with a variety of accessories
- 2 Amp slow motor start (for motor safety and longevity)
- Made out of durable steel
- 2-year warranty
- Some users reported problems with the locking mechanism
- Not suitable for larger projects
8. Laguna Tools – MLAREVO 1836 Revo Lathe
Representing a tough-looking and powerful wood lathe tool, this contraption from Laguna Tools boasts a mighty 2 HP motor, capable of producing up to 1,725 RPM. This amount of power is usually more than enough for things small, medium, and even some of the bigger projects you might want to embark on.
Everything about this model was made to make the user feel comfortable and help him or her get the best results while using this unit. This is why the folks at Laguna Tools equipped this model with a stylish and, more importantly, highly functional control panel, which you can use to issue commands to this superb wood-spinning machine! To be precise, the control panel has been made out of anodized aluminum, and the buttons themselves have been made to be as ergonomic as possible, giving the user the ability to operate for hours without fatigue.
In the department of materials, this model from Laguna Tools fares pretty well, indeed. It’s been made out of high-quality steel, which is well-known for its durability and reliability properties.
- A powerful 2HP motor
- Speeds up to 3,500 RPM
- Control panel made out of anodized aluminum
- Made out of high-quality steel
- Some users reported problems with a headstock
- Could be set a bit higher (you have to buy risers separately)
9. PSI Woodworking – Turn Crafter Commander Variable Speed Mini Lathe
Coming from the company well-known for its excellent wood lathes, this Turn Crafter variable speed mini lathe model can be a great choice for anyone in need of a tough ‘n’ ready wood lathe. When it comes to its power pedigree, so to speak, this woodworking contraption is powered by a tough mid-range 1HP induction motor.
So, using this machine, you can surely make all sorts of objects out of wood – as long as they’re oblong or rotund in some way, of course. For example, any sort of a bowl or pen will look great if you make it using one of these machines! (And provided you don’t mess up the handcrafting part.)
As far as using some of this machine’s ‘finesse moves’ goes, so to speak, you can use either of its two different belt positions. The first one works at 500 – 1,800 RPM, while the other one starts at 1,950 and then ends at 3,800 RPM. So, there’s plenty of spinning power you can put to good use!
The base of this PSI Woodworking model is made out of cast iron, so you can rest assured that if everything else in your workshop fails, and a nuke falls right through your chimney, this Turn Crafter Commander Variable Speed Mini Lathe will survive! (Well, it really wouldn’t, but you catch our drift. This thing’s pretty sturdy.)
- A strong 1HP motor
- Two belt positions (500 – 1,800 RPM & 1,950 – 3,800 RPM)
- Comes with a hex wrench
- Rubber feet for stability
- Safety goggles
- Features a special work lamp
- Phillips screwdriver
- 3-year warranty
- Some users have reported problems with the work lamp
- Some users were dissatisfied with the lamp holder, as well
10. Shop Fox – Wood Lathe With Cast Iron Legs And Digital Readout
Suitable for small, medium-sized, AND large projects involving woodworking procedures on rotund (or square but soon to be rotund) pieces of wood, this wood lathe model from Shop Fox is a powerful contraption that can satisfy all of your lathin’ needs for years to come!
First things first. Powering up this mighty wood lathe is a tough motor boasting 2HP. If we take in consideration the fact that the range of power for wood lathes for personal use goes from an eighth of horsepower to 3HP, we can see that the motor on this Shop Fox machine is up there with the best of them.
Now, since this machine boasts such a powerful engine, this thing must be well protected against vibrations and other potential physical malfunctions. This is why the folks at Shop Fox made the body as well as the legs of this mean machine out of cast iron, which is heavy and sturdy enough to withstand the ‘turbulences’ of all of those revolutions per minute, so to speak.
Another interesting addition to the overall design of this wood lathe would be the quick-release levers for headstock and tailstock. Of course, this also means that you can lock either of these just as quickly as you can release them.
- Made out of heavy-duty cast iron
- A mighty 2HP motor
- Quick-lock & release lever for the head and tailstock
- Spindle tachometer
- Variable speed adjustment (from 600 to 2,400 RPM)
- 10 speeds
- Some users have complained about the locking mechanisms (which won’t stay tightly locked apparently)
- Fairly pricey
Consideration Factors of Powermatic Wood Lathe
When it comes to organizing your workshop to be able to house a full-sized wood lathe, what you need to take into consideration would be the fact that this thing needs some space to run properly. If can’t put in a cramped place, just because you don’t want to award it its spot.
Wood lathes take up a lot of space – not just for housing themselves, so to speak, but also for all the additional equipment you will need to haul along. For example, you might need one of those lamps for seeing what you’re doing in case you stay to work on your project after nightfall.
Also, you might need your more space for your tool rests, various tools you’ll use in woodworking, as well as the pieces of wood themselves you’re going to work on.
When it comes to buying any expensive machine you’re going to be using for possibly years to come, you need to consider whether the investment makes sense. For example, buying a massive freezer wouldn’t make much sense unless you plan to store in it plenty of food. It would just be a waste of money.
Now, the same goes for woodworking tools. For example, if you’re planning to only make small pens and bowls with a wood lathe, you may be better off buying a smaller model than a full-sized one. This way, you’ll save both your money AND some space in your workshop. (Those full-sized wood lathes can get pretty big, indeed.)
So, before committing to a purchase, make sure to understand what you’re purchasing and for what purpose. It may save you a lot of trouble down the road.
Wood lathes aren’t exactly the least expensive woodworking materials. Their prices can get pretty steep, indeed. For example, a full-size wood lathe with a powerful motor (around 1 to 2HP) and variable speed control might set you back as much as a 1,000 dollars or more.
Of course, if the brand name is popular and doing well currently on the market, the price may go even higher than that. Some models can reach the price of over 2,000 dollars!
On the other hand, smaller models such as mini wood lathes usually don’t get that bad in price and tend not to exceed 500 dollars. (Although you can surely find some models that do, this would be the general rule for these machines.)
How to Clean a Wood Lathe After Use – A Step by Step Guide
1. Clean the Dust and Debris
One of the biggest hygiene-related problems that routinely pesters wood lathes and their corresponding parts would be the usual accumulation of dust and debris in its a great many nooks ‘n’ crannies, so to speak.
Just think about it. Every time you work with wood on your wood lathe, you tend to produce heaps of sawdust and other itsy bitsy pieces of wood that get scattered everywhere. The biggest area where it gets piled, of course, is the immediate vicinity of the wood lathe itself. So, to keep your wood lathe up-and-running for years, you need to clean it up regularly – optimally after every use.
The simplest way to get your wood lathe rid of the various small pieces of wood and sawdust would be to vacuum clean the entire area. Even better, if you have an air compressor, you can use it to blow out all the dust particles off the machine itself and then vacuum clean the floor after that.
2. Apply Lubrication to the Rail
Every mechanical piece of machinery needs some lubrication now and again and wood lathes are no exception. To ensure they’ll continue to serve you for years to come, you’ll need to regularly tend to its rails, the banjo, and the tailstock.
The red flag moment is when the banjo and other movable parts start losing their mobility and ‘agility’, so to speak. So, to prevent the premature wear and tear of some of the most crucial parts of your wood lathe, apply lubrication to the parts in question.
You can use a standard lubrication oil, some oil, and anti-rust combinations, or a wax paste for this purpose. (Make sure to clean the area of debris and dust first, and only apply lubrication once you’ve ensured everything is as clean as a whistle.)
3. Treat the Parts Against Rust
Other than getting stuck together in a horrifying screeching fashion due to a lack of lubrication, machines such as wood lathes tend to suffer from another notable ailment – rust. Indeed, no matter how well protected your wood lathe is against rust, some signs of it can start creeping up over time if you don’t take the necessary protective measures in advance. (This is, of course, your lathe is not made out of stainless steel or gold.)
So, if you’ve just turned a bunch of green pieces of wood and now your entire wood lathe is dank as a result, a good course of action would be to clean up the area and then treat it with an anti-rust liquid. Do this every time you suspect a bit of rust may start rearing its ugly head on your wood lathe.
What’s the Difference Between a Wood Lathe vs. a Metal Lathe?
Despite their similar names, wood lathe and metal lathes are two very different machines.
They work on roughly the same principle, but since metal lathes deal with metal instead of wood, they have to be much sturdier and have more powerful motors, all of which means – increased weight.
This is why metal lathes can be significantly heavier than their wood-spinning counterparts.
When it comes to turning metal objects, the room for error is much smaller than with wood.
This is why metal lathes are not only heavy and boast powerful motors, they also tend to be much more precise than wood lathes and tend to have more elaborate chucks and other supporting parts.
Also, cooling is a big part of metal lathes that isn’t as important with wood ones.
As their names suggest themselves, wood lathes are made to be able to take on pieces of wood and turn them, so that the operator can shape it into an oblong object.
On the other hand, metal lathes serve the purpose of doing roughly the same task as described above – but with metal objects. As simple as that!
Mechanically Controlled vs. Manually Controlled
With wood lathes, the procedure is quite simple – stick a piece of wood between the headstock and the tailstock, bring the tool rest close to the spinning piece of wood, and start working with your tools!
With metal lathes, much of this process is operated mechanically, as using hand tools to scratch down pieces of metal can be too dangerous. This is why metal lathes are typically significantly more complex machines with many more parts than the wood lathes.
Wood is quite a malleable material, so you don’t need a beast of a machine to be able to work with it.
When it comes to metal, the story is a bit different. Due to its natural toughness, scrapping down tiny pieces of metal to reshape it takes a lot of power, so motors installed in metal lathes tend to be more powerful than those you’ll find in a typical wood lathe.
What is the Best Wood Lathe for Beginners?
As a beginner, you won’t need a big and powerful lathe with 2 or more horsepower.
A model with up to one half of horsepower would probably suit you just fine. Since you’ll probably be interested in smaller projects, a smaller lathe will more than suffice in helping you learn the ropes of the woodworking trade.
How Does a Wood Lathe Work?
A wood lathe is not an overly complicated machine.
It consists of a motor, a mechanism for setting up the pieces of wood you plan to work on and a bit of additional equipment.
The way it works is the following:
You put the piece of wood you intend to work within the chuck that you previously attached to the headstock. Once you’ve secured it, you need to make sure this thing won’t fall off by checking it once again. Now, you can either bring in the tailstock as well, for further protection or, if you’re planning on making a bowl or a pen-like structure, you may want to NOT use the tailstock at all.
Once you’ve set everything up, simply turn on the machine, set the speed you’re comfortable with, and start using the tools together with the tool rest to slowly whittle down the wood until you’re satisfied with the new round shape!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Best Hobby Lathe?
Well, this all depends.
Depends on what your hobby is. For example, if you like making smaller objects such as pens, bowls, or rolling pins, a mini lathe may be just what you’ve been looking for.
If you like making bigger, more elaborate structures, then you’ll probably need a larger machine to go with your hobby.
Why Are Wood Lathes So Expensive?
Whenever you have a heavy-duty machine with a powerful motor and plenty of precision mechanics involved, the price is going to be sky-high.
Of course, compared to hand tools woodworkers use, the price of a wood lathe can seem like an insurmountable obstacle in the path of one’s expertise in woodworking. But, it is what it is – if you need a wood lathe but hasn’t got the money to afford it, try getting a mini lathe or a second hand one first!
Is a Wood Lathe Better Than a Metal Lathe?
Not really. Again, it all depends.
These are two completely different tools. One is suited for working on wood, the other one is for metal.
Asking which one is better is like asking if Heads Will Roll song from Yeah Yeah Yeahs is better than the new Tarantino film. Both are good and useful in their vein of work.
All in all, obtaining a wood lathe you can call your own is an absolute must if you’re an aspiring woodworker. Especially when it comes to creating new oblong items! Hope this article helped you figure out what sort of wood lathe would suit you and we wish you plenty of luck with your woodworking ventures!