Buying a wood lathe for the first time can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
In this article, I will share with you some things people rarely discuss, but are very important in your wood lathe decision-making process.
Many of the points in this article are never spoken about. Without this knowledge, you may not realize many aspects of your lathe until it’s too late.
So, let’s dig in and know what you’re getting before you purchase.
Let’s face it: our budget dictates our final lathe choice to a great degree.
There are three main wood lathe size categories. Mini, Midi, and Full-size lathes all have corresponding price tags.
If you plan on turning bowls, the mini lathes will probably not be what you’re looking for.
Unless you plan to make very small bowls of only a few inches in diameter, there’s nothing wrong with this, and I’ve made my share of tiny bowls. There might even be a doll house wood bowl market out there.
The Midi lathes are a lathe category between the mini and the full-size lathes. Midi lathes are a great starting point if you have a limited budget or shop space.
Jet makes the very popular Jet 1221VS lathe with a 12” swing and a variable-speed motor. This is a nice midi lathe for making wooden bowls 6” -11” in diameter.
Full-sized lathes make up the remainder of the lathe market. As the name implies, full-size lathes are usually built to handle more extensive stock and produce larger bowls.
The range of models, build quality, and price vary significantly in the full-size lathe market.
Four Measurements To Know
You need to know four measurements to understand a wood lathe’s potential: swing, headstock threads, morse taper, and tool rest diameter.
The swing is the lathe’s radius times two. The radius of the lathe is the distance from the center of the headstock to the bed rails.
So, as an example, the Jet 1221VS has a 12” swing, meaning the radius is “6 from the center of the headstock to the rails.
Here’s what nobody talks about. Because the lathe has a 12” swing does not mean you can easily turn a full 12” bowl. You might get close to 12” but usually need extra room while turning.
Rarely can we put an exact 12” blank on the lathe and turn it without removing any of that 12” diameter.
If you want to make 12” + sized final turned pieces, you will need a larger lathe than the 12” swing implies.
Another critical measurement is the headstock thread size.
All of your threaded accessories will need to match your headstock thread size.
Headstock thread size has two measurements—the width of the threads and the number of threads per inch (TPI).
In the United States, 1” by 8 tpi and 1-1/4” by 8 tpi are popular headstock thread sizes. There are many other thread sizes around the world.
Morse taper size is also essential to know. The center of the headstock and tailstock quill have a tapered hole.
All Morse Taper accessories are fiction fit into the Morse taper hole and need to be removed with the knockout bar. Almost every lathe (I needed to say “almost” because there might be one out there that doesn’t, but I’ve never seen it) comes with a knockout bar.
These Morse Taper hole sizes correspond to one of three Morse Taper sizes.
The three sizes of Morse Taper are M1 or #1 MT (about 1/2” or 12mm), M2 or #2 MT (about 3/4” or 18mm), and M3 or #3 MT (about 1” or 24mm).
M1 accessories will not fit in an M2 or M3 hole or vice versa. Many Midi lathes have M1 holes; most full-size lathes use an M2 morse taper.
Tool Rest Diameter
The size of the receiver in your banjo for the tool rest is a fixed size.
The diameter of the post on your tool rest needs to match the same size as the receiver in your banjo.
Most Midi lathes use a 3/4” diameter post, while most full-size lathes use a 1” diameter post.
What’s in a name?
When I started turning, Nova made a popular chuck. Nobody said out loud that chuck does not have to be mounted to a Nova lathe.
If you look at all the different lathe and lathe accessory manufacturers, there are many that make a wide range of parts. Oneway, Nova, Jet, Robust, etc., all make lathes and accessories.
Here’s the good news: I’ve rarely heard anyone talk about. You can mix and match any lathe with any other brand’s accessories.
But there is one catch. However, we can even work around this catch sometimes.
The catch is you need to match accessories to your lathe based on size.
So, in other words, you can put any headstock accessory on your lathe if the thread size matches. The same goes for matching the Morse taper accessories’ size, and additional tool rests.
And, if you happen to have a headstock accessory that doesn’t match, like a 1” chuck for your 1-1/4” headstock lathe, you can purchase an adapter.
Adapters are available to step up or down from various-sized headstock accessories.
One important thing to remember is to stay closer, or near the headstock. The more adapters or distance you’re turning is away from the headstock, the more potential vibration and movement can occur while turning.
The lathe power source and motor size are essential for turning larger wood bowls. If you plan to turn large pieces, go with the largest sized motor available.
One and two-horse power motors are a good starting point for turning larger wood bowls, but larger motors are even better.
A 1/2 horsepower motor will struggle with large, heavy green wood turning. But, a half-horse lathe can be great for 6” -12” turning using dry, balanced blanks.
Many of the larger lathes need a 220v power source. If you have your shop already set up for this, it’s no big deal.
If you’re turning in your garage and you don’t have a 220 power source, contract an electrician to set you up. They can often run a new outlet from an existing 220 source in your home.
Direct Drive Vs. Variable Speed
It is essential to understand that turning wood bowls, especially large ones, initially requires very slow lathe speeds.
Most direct belt-driven lathes do not have variable speed control, and their lowest speed is still too fast.
Variable speed control is a must for precise wood bowl turning. Find a lathe with variable speed control and a slow (300 rpm or less) low setting.
There is an option if you have a direct belt-driven model lathe and can’t get the lowest speed down.
Kits are available to add a DC motor to your lathe called a Variable Frequency Drive, which uses a 3-phase motor on a 1-phase power. This setup converts a direct drive lathe into a variable speed-controlled lathe.
When looking for a new lathe, I find that many people look for counter space to place their lathe. While this might seem typical, it’s not usually the best way.
Think of all the woodworking tools and machines you own and their location. We typically place them on benchtops, counters, or rolling carts.
Our lathe is different. And it needs to be treated differently.
Placing a lathe on a bench top might seem okay, but two critical factors are being overlooked: free mobility around the lathe and lathe height.
If you are comfortable turning or have turned for a while, you know your body movements do all the work while you turn. We need plenty of free space around the lathe to make all those movements.
A bench-mounted lathe usually does not have enough space under or around the lathe. We need to get our feet under the turning at times and shift our weight without bumping the counter.
Even if we move the lathe right to the edge of the counter, we rarely have full mobility.
The second issue with using a bench, counter, or cart, is the height. Getting your lathe height dialed is critically important for turning comfortably.
A rule of thumb is to fold your arms across your chest and put your hands on the opposite shoulder. Now, measure the height of your elbows while in this pose. That height is where the center of your headstock should be located.
Most benches or counters are fixed and typically set up higher than we need to turn comfortably.
A counter or bench-mounted lathe might be convenient for your shop space, but it will most likely limit your movement and make you uncomfortable while turning.
Instead, consider giving your lathe an open space. Turning in the center of your shop or garage is a much better setup. If this puts a crimp in your space, move the lathe out only while turning.
Most manufacturers make bases or legs for each lathe. Use these legs or stands to get the most out of your lathe and wood-turning experience. The legs are designed to be adjusted to your height, and you will have a much more enjoyable turning experience turning at the correct height and with plenty of free space to move.
While these five things are not everything you need to consider while purchasing a new wood lathe, they are vital and rarely discussed.
If you’re looking for reviews of wood lathes, check out this article.
Take your time and look at all the details. Get the lathe you need and one that meets your turning style and space situation, and you will enjoy turning wood bowls for a long time to come.