Choosing a Lathe
Just starting out in woodworking? Want to know about the features of a lathe that are best for a beginner? In this article, I give some pointers on what to look for when choosing your first lathe – a big step and a big investment for many novice woodturners.
There is no beginner’s lathe
First to clear up a bit of a misconception – there is no such thing as a beginner’s lathe. I suspect what you really want to know at this stage of your wood turning journey is: is there a cheap option for a lathe so you don’t have a large financial outlay?
The answer to this is yes, with qualifications. When looking for an affordable option, there are two main categories of lathes.
- Cheap new Chinese manufactured lathes
- Second hand lathes from other countries.
If given the choice, for the same expenditure I would choose a higher quality second hand lathe, over a new Chinese made lathe. Second hand lathes may require some repairs such as worn ball-bearing replacement or a little rust removal, but in my opinion will serve you far better in the long run. You need to carefully look at a few key features when choosing any lathe. If you’re a little uncertain of the terminology, I’ve added from information from Vicmarc, which has been sourced here.
What to look for when choosing a lathe
Whether you are looking at purchasing a new lathe or a second hand lathe as a hobbyist or small business owner, there are a few key areas to check to make sure you are investing in a machine which can stand up to the task.
The Head stock is the business end of the lathe, and there are a number of things to look for particularly when assessing a second hand machine.
The first thing you want to check is whether the bearings are gone. There are a number of ways to tell if this is a problem. Firstly, when you turn on the lathe what is the noise level like? If the bearings are OK there will be little or no noise.
Secondly, can you feel heat coming from the head stock? This can be a tell-tale sign additional friction is being created due to worn ball-bearings.
Thirdly – is there any movement such as wobbling in the spindle?
Worn bearings shouldn’t be a deal breaker as these can be replaced. Ball bearings on better quality lathes can last at least 10 years.
Thread and Spindle Size
Another aspect of your Head Stock to consider is the thread and spindle size. A coarse thread is generally a strong thread. A standard thread classified as M30 x 3.5 means it is a metric 30mm in diameter with a 3.5mm distance between each thread. Another common size in the ‘old money’ is Inch 10 TPI – this means that the spindle itself is an inch in diameter and there are 10 threads per inch.
Why should you worry what the common sizes are? Choosing a lathe with a common thread size will make a BIG difference to you in the long run, because there will be so many more tools and accessories including chucks, face plates and accessories available that fit on these standard sizes.
Another spindle feature to check for is that it is hollow. With a hollow spindle, you can use a knockout bar to tap out the drive. A number 2 morse taper (MT2) in the spindle is another common size. In fact, avoid any morse taper sizes except MT2 as they can be very hard to get accessories for.
I love the 90 degree swivelling head on my lathe. It’s far more comfortable to turn a bowl with this feature, particularly when working on the inside of the bowl. If are looking at a lathe with a swivelling head, there should be a pin that locks the head back in the centre and then a lever to lock the whole thing in place.
Motors and Speed
A lathe is connected to its spindle via a belt. Flat belts with lots of ridges are better than V-belts because they create more friction. If you do not have electronic variable speed on your lathe, you are looking for at least 4 pulleys so that you can change the speed at which the spindle will rotate.
The second method of controlling the speed is electronic variable speed, which I have on all of my Vicmarc lathes. Because the speed of the lathe and spindle are controlled via an electronic dial, this type of lathe requires fewer pulleys (mine has two).
The third way of changing the speed is via mechanical variable speed. This is managed via a lever on the side of your head stock that you pull down to decrease or increase the speed of your lathe. It relies on a series of pulleys and is quite ingenious, but can be noisy. Also, the belts on these models wear out fast due to the increased friction created via the pulleys. The better quality lathes have the better mechanical variable speed systems.
If I was choosing a lathe, I would always go for electronic variable speed – unfortunately it does add around $1,000 to the cost. If you are buying a second hand lathe, you can always add electronic variable speed as a kit, but keep in mind it’s not just the matter of adding an electronic box, you more often than not will have to change the motor as well.
The Tail Stock
When assessing the tail stock of a lathe, you need to make sure it lines up perfectly with your head stock. If they are even .5mm out, don’t buy the lathe – it will be a constant source of frustration to you! You can check the line up by putting a nice pointed centre in both the tail and head stock, and bringing the two together. Make sure they are spot on. The other factor that can affect the line up is if there is any movement in your tail stock. Unlock it to check – you don’t want any shake at all there, don’t ever buy a lathe with either of these problems.
In the quill section look for a nice big wheel at the back with a good diameter and a nice smooth thread.
There is a lever to lock the quill, once that’s locked in place the quill can’t go in and out. Avoid plastic levers on quills, as they are prone to breakage. You want good quality steel levers.
Underneath my Vicmarc 175 tail stock is a lever that locks the tail stock so it can’t slide further along the bed. Cam locks are the most convenient way of accessing this, but some lathes have just got a nut and bolt, which requires a spanner to unlock the tail stock. This is not a deal breaker, but if you can get a lathe with a can lock it is far more user friendly.
The Bed and Rest
Banjos and tool rests
The wider your lathe’s banjo the better, as this makes it more rigid. A wide tool rest is also preferable, with a steel lever (not plastic) lever to lock it in place. A good feature on my tool rest is that it is angled away from the tool post which helps you get tools closer to your work.
Another sort of tool rest uses a tubular section of steel. These are often not as rigid and are prone to vibration. Another drawback is that you can’t get the fulcrum point of your tools as close to your work as you might want.
The bed of your lathe is where the tool stock, the banjo and tool rest slides. My preference is for cast beds – their advantage lies in their mass and weight, which keeps the lathe stable. Make sure the bed is nice and clean, free of dints and chips so the tail stock and the banjo can slide easily. The footprint of the bed should be wider than the lathe for stability. The heavier the bed and the bigger the stand, the more stable your lathe will be. This is particularly important if you are planning to turn big lumps of wood.
This is a great feature that enables me to swivel my headstock around 90 degrees to turn big items such as 2ft diameter platters. My outrigger is made of solid steel and has lots of hinges for adjustment. I’ve seen some terrible ones however that let everything vibrate and move around.
An alternative to a full size lathe is a mini lathe – and they are actually great options to consider. You may have a full sized lathe in mind – but do you really need it? Consider how many big bowls or platters you will realistically gift or sell? There are some fantastic mini lathes on the market with many of the features of a full sized machine.
Vicmarc’s VL150 for example extends 150mm from the bed to the centre of the spindle. I can still turn a 1 foot bowl blank on this lathe because it has a powerful 3/4 horsepower motor. The torque is also helped by having 3 pulleys. Watch out for mini lathes with low powered motors or poorly constructed beds – in fact, everything that applies to a full sized lathe applies here.
Mini lathes are a great choice for those with limited workshop space or if you need something to take to a demonstration. The prices range from $300 to $2300 for this model, which is the ultimate example of a mini lathe. If you want a little bit more in the way of size, the VL 175 or equivalent in other reputable brands, is probably a better size for most uses.
The Lowdown on Lathes
I hope these tips help you understand what to look for, particularly when investigating purchasing second hand lathes, which can offer great value when starting out woodturning. Like many things in life, you will get what you pay for. If you don’t have never-ending pockets, think seriously about spending your money on a high quality second hand lathe rather than buying a brand new, lower quality one for the same money.