Build a Simple, Homemade Wood Lathe on a Low Budget

This homemade wood lathe works a lot better than it looks.

| January/February 1984

Wood Lathe

The homemade wood lathe may not be high-tech, but it's perfectly functional.


For most of us, establishing an effective home workshop is a matter of patiently purchasing equipment over a long period of time. True, new hand tools can ordinarily be acquired quickly, but larger, table-mounted machines are enough of an investment to send the amateur craftsperson off to garage sales in desperate quest of a secondhand bargain.

Consider the wood lathe: The basic models cost more than $300, and even a used piece of equipment commands nearly that price . . . yet the tool is so versatile that it's usually one of the first to find a place in the serious wood shop. Fortunately, a garden-variety lathe—without a lot of fancy features—is such a perfect example of simple design that an amateur toolsmith ought to be able to assemble a bargain-basement duplicate all on his or her own. To prove just this point, MOTHER EARTH NEWS researchers Dennis Burkholder and Robyn Bryan tackled the task and came up with the bare-bones, homemade wood lathe.

A Functional Tool

At first glance, the fellows' rustic interpretation of the familiar machine tool appears to be little more than a toy. But a few of our staffers with some woodworking experience to their credit have put the lathe through a number of trials, and the consensus is that the timber-framed woodturner is fully capable of handling most of the basic shaping and finishing jobs encountered by the casual crafter . . . at least until he or she can afford a more conventional machine.

Our budget lathe's bed is just a length of pressure-treated 4 X 4 supported by two short 3/4"-plywood legs (we recommend treated lumber for the 4 X 4, because it's generally heavier and truer than its unprocessed counterpart). The headstock consists of a bearing mandrel mounted on a 4 X 4 spacer, and the tailstock is similarly arranged . . . except that its center is fastened to a threaded-rod ram equipped with a handwheel. The headstock spindle is driven, through a V-belt, by a two-speed washing machine motor . . . and the tool rest is an adjustable framework of slotted steel angle clamped to the bed.

Just to see how much the lathe's component parts would come to if everything-excluding the motor, which was a used one-were bought right off the hardware store's shelves, we itemized its every piece and came up with a grand total of $57.16. However, since Dennis and Robyn actually assembled the tool largely from odds and ends around the shop (a feat that probably wouldn't be all that difficult to duplicate in your own workspace), the entire lathe lightened our till by only $35 or so. Of course, the motor drive—if purchased new—would run at least $50. But it's easy to salvage a working unit from a retired clothes washer instead (ours cost a mere $10).

Finding Materials

If you're interested in putting together your own low-buck lathe, you'll first have to come up with a 1/2-horsepower, two-speed washing machine motor with a clockwise rotation (looking at it from the shaft end). Our split-phase model, taken from a Whirlpool, spins at 1,725 and 1,140 revolutions per minute (RPM), though a similar reversible motor with dual-speed capability (found in some Norge, Speed Queen, Whirlpool, Kenmore, and Maytag washers) would work as well, providing you wired it to spin in the correct direction. Other major parts you'll need to acquire are a bearing mandrel with 1/2" arbors . . . a straight, 6', pressure-treated 4 X 4 . . . and pulleys to fit the motor and mandrel shafts that will yield a step-down of between 2/3 and 3/4 speed. (Our 2" motor pulley drives a 3" mandrel wheel, so our step-down factor is .666, or 2/3.)

2/15/2015 9:16:22 PM

I'm tryin to build a lathe to turn pool cues. Will this particular setup work if I use a longer 4x4?

walt baker
7/3/2011 2:10:39 PM

List of materiels for your lathe is unreadable. Is this on purpose? How can I get a readable list?

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