This MOTHER EARTH NEWS survey covers the types of wood-turning lathe machines available and tips when buying a machine, as well as a chart with wood lathe manufacturers and their specifications.

| March/April 1986

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    The lathe, like any other shop tool, is only as good as the parts that go into it. If one axiom applies to this machine, it's that balance is all-important.
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    MOTHER EARTH NEWS wood lathe survey chart.

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When compared with other tools in the home workshop, the wood-turning lathe is unique by virtue of its singular purpose: It's designed to allow rapid and symmetrical shaping or carving by rotating the workpiece on a driven center. Don't, however, assume that the lathe is too limited in function to be useful. Tackling even a moderately intricate project without one would be a major chore, and a well-equipped machine is flexible enough to handle a wide variety of turning tasks, as well as shaping, sanding, and finishing jobs.

A cursory look at any wood-turning lathe will reveal the major components that all lathes share. Probably most important is the bed, which determines the center-length capacity of the tool and establishes how true it will be. This foundation supports the headstock, which contains the spindle drive mechanism, and the tailstock, which secures the workpiece opposite the driven spindle and adjusts laterally to suit the length of the work involved. A tool rest, also fastened to the bed, supports the hand-held gouges and chisels used in turning and can be slid along the bedways to face the work at any point. Though some lathes are designed as bench-top models, most manufacturers offer stands or cabinet bases to make their machines freestanding. (See the wood-turning lathe survey results in the image gallery).

A Look at the Wood-Turning Lathe

Lathes are sized by the maximum diameter of work they're able to turn. This dimension, which is known as the swing, is determined by the height of the drive spindle above the bed, or the radius of the swing. The tool's center length capacity — or distance between headstock and tailstock centers — is limited by the length of the bed, and necessarily must be a foot or more shorter, since the headstock and tailstock occupy some of the bedways' space.

If your work is going to be limited to hobby turning or simple crafts, you probably won't need anything more than a moderate-sized, light-duty bench lathe. As you set your sights on more intricate projects, such as furniture components, large bowls, and turned containers, you'll appreciate the features and convenience of the larger, base-mounted, stationary machines.

As with any major purchase, there are a number of things to be aware of if you're doing some serious shopping. One nice feature offered by about half the manufacturers is an outboard turning capability, which allows the user to mount a faceplate on the outer end of the headstock to accommodate a larger-diameter workpiece than would normally fit over the bed. This is usually achieved by extending the drive spindle through that end and machining it with a left-handed thread . . . though several firms do save that extra tooling step and the cost of a separate faceplate by designing their headstocks to swivel, or slide to the opposite end of the bed.

Too, most cast-iron-bed lathes are available with a gap-bed feature — a recess built into the bed beneath the drive spindle which allows inboard faceplate turning of a larger-diameter piece than would fit over the bedways.

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