Wood lathe maintenance needs to be a routine habit almost like the frequency of sharpening a bowl gouge.
Yes, it may seem mundane, but this essential practice can be quick and will keep your wood lathe up and running for years to come.
If you aren’t sure of all the parts of a wood lathe, check out this article for all the specifics.
Why Wood Lathe Maintenance
Simply put, we need to regularly maintain our lathe because of accumulation.
Over time debris, friction, and nicks can build up and interfere with the performance of the wood lathe and our ability to turn efficiently.
Regular wood lathe maintenance reduces and eliminates these problematic accumulations and makes our lathe operate like new again.
Wood Lathe Maintenance When?
Of course, regular maintenance intervals are ideal.
I must confess, I usually don’t even think about wood lathe maintenance until something is acting up.
When the banjo or tailstock don’t slide so well, or a faceplate threads rough onto the headstock, then I think about maintenance.
In an ideal world, we should schedule regular wood lathe maintenance at intervals long before issues arise.
Monthly maintenance is a great practice.
Wood Lathe Maintenance Checklist
1 – Dust and debris
The biggest culprit for issues on the lathe is dust and debris build up.
Obviously, we take time to wipe off the big piles of wood shavings and dust after each bowl, but removing dust and debris from the entire lathe needs to take place.
Take your time with a vacuum or air compressor and clean out all the nooks and crannies on the lathe.
Use pressurized air from the air compressor to blow out dust from around the electric motor, under the banjo and tailstock and even blow out the morse taper holes on the headstock and tailstock.
I use a lint-free cloth and a dowel rod to wipe out and clean the morse taper holes on the head and tailstock.
If your lathe is on a bench, be sure to clear out, on a regular basis, any piles of shavings and dust that accumulate under the wood lathe. Freestanding lathes usually allow shavings to quickly fall to the floor.
2 – Rust Away
One of the most significant issues to be aware of while maintaining a wood lathe occurs when turning green wood. While turning green wood can be a pleasure, the clean up afterward can be the opposite.
Wet wood and shavings can coat the lathe and promote rust formation. Depending on the tree species being turned, like oaks and walnut, additional tannins and compounds in the wet shavings can accelerate oxidation on exposed lathe metal surfaces.
Cast iron parts on the lathe, like the ways or bed rails, banjo, tool rest, and tailstock can quickly become coated in nasty rust.
Don’t fear, there are ways to remove this rust and keep the lathe clean and shiny.
Tool-specific rust cleaning products like TopSaver Rust Remover can be sprayed on the affected areas of the lathe, and the rust will disappear. Follow the directions on the product for best results.
If rust areas persist, take fine sandpaper (400 grit or finer) and sand the areas affected by rust before and after the rust treatment application.
Fine steel wool (0000) can be used afterward to further smooth the metal surfaces making them less likely to attract future rust.
CAUTION, don’t use this rust-removing sandpaper later on your wood bowls. Fine metal dust can cause oxidation on the surface of the wood. Or perhaps, this could become a new finishing technique. Hm?
3 – Lubricate Rails
Regularly lubricating the ways or rails, banjo, and tailstock needs to be a frequent wood lathe maintenance practice.
When the banjo becomes difficult to move around and get into position effortlessly, this is a good indication that the lathe ways need to be lubricated.
I use the metal tool rust remover and lubricant, TopSaver specifically designed to work well with the wood lathe. TopSaver is a product that can be sprayed on and does a great job lubricating the lathe surfaces.
Another option is to use a good quality paste wax. Clean and dry the bed rails first. Apply the paste wax and let it dry a bit before buffing it with a clean, soft cloth.
Also, a high-quality product to use to protect and lubricant the metal surfaces of the lathe is Bostik Top-Coat Spray. This spray quickly seals and coats surfaces making them like new again.
If the banjo continues to be difficult to slide across the ways or lathe rails, use a flat diamond hone and carefully rub the surface. You might find small fine shiny spots along with the bed ways. These are scratches or high spots that have just been filed and smoothed down. Now reapply the lubricating coat or TopSaver or paste wax.
4 – Banjo and Tailstock
Remove the banjo and tailstock from the lathe and place them upside down on a work surface. Carefully clean off any debris or build up from all surfaces and cavities.
With the banjo and tailstock off the lathe, lubricate the bottom surfaces that come into contact with the bedrails of the lathe with paste wax.
Also, with the banjo and tailstock removed, lubricate the drive screw with a light spray of WD-40.
Spray lubricant lightly on the locking mechanisms. Too much lubricant might make it difficult to securely lock down the banjo or tailstock.
Once this step is complete, the banjo and tailstock should move effortlessly across the ways or bedrails of the lathe, and the locking screw should lock and unlock easily.
5 – Inspect Tool Rest
Hardened woodturning tools can damage the tool rest over time. Catches, which can occur when turning a wood bowl, can lift and smack a bowl gouge or scraper down onto the tool rest.
If a tool rest is made of cast iron, it is very common to find many nicks and gouges along the tool rest top edge.
Any interruptions in the tool rest surface will affect all woodturning tools as they are used on that tool rest. These imperfections must be dealt with immediately.
Use a flat metal file and make long angled strokes across the top of the tool rest to file away any rough areas and return a smooth continuous edge to the tool rest.
Tool Rest Recommendation
When I started learning how to turn wood bowls, I used a lathe which came with a factory cast iron tool rest. And yes, that tool rest was nicked, chipped and filled with all kinds of bumps and dings.
After I figured out what lathe I would purchase for myself, I knew that a high-quality hardened steel tool rest would be a significant improvement.
I turn with all hardened tool rests and I never even think about “fixing” or filing the tool rest edge. No, actually I’ve never had to do anything to the tool rest edge. It’s still just like when I first got it.
I have a list of high-quality hardened edge tool rests on my Recommended Lathe Equipment page. Check it out, and experience the difference.
6 – Belt Check
The lathe drive belt connected from the motor to the headstock needs to be cleaned and checked occasionally.
Unplug the lathe and open any covers that conceal the drive belt. Rotate the belt by hand and inspect all the surfaces of the belt.
If any frayed edges appear or if the belt appears worn or damaged, replace the belt as soon as possible.
Loosen the motor tension and belt assembly and inspect under the belt too.
Be sure debris and dust are not built up or present anywhere around, under, or near the lathe drive belt.
7 – Check Threads
The threads on the lathe headstock spindle can become nicked or damaged from accidental cross-threading.
I have another article about things to avoid when using a faceplate that illustrates how a headstock spindle might get cross-threaded by turning a bowl blank onto a headstock spindle.
If the threads on the headstock are crossed, attaching a chuck or faceplate will not be fluid and smooth. Crossed threads cause friction and make attaching any threaded accessory a challenge.
Steps To Fixing Crossed Threads
The first thing to do if a chuck or faceplate does not want to thread on smoothly is to not force the device.
To locate where the issue originates, try a different wood lathe accessory like another chuck or faceplate and see if that too has the same trouble threading to the lathe headstock spindle.
If more than one device is having issues, then the headstock threads might be the problem.
If only one accessory is acting up, then it is probably the threads on that accessory that need to be addressed.
Use an old toothbrush and clean off the threads on the headstock and the accessory to be attached. Try threading the attachment again.
If that is not working, spray some WD-40 on the threads and see if that does the trick.
Once these steps have been tried and the accessory still won’t thread, then more drastic measures need to be implemented to solve the problem.
Fixing the Headstock Spindle
After brushing off the headstock spindle threads, look closely at the ridges and valleys of the spindle threads.
Any areas where cuts, scratches, or grooves appear need to be filed away to restore the original thread profile.
Use a small detail metal file and slowly file the valleys of each affected area carefully. I use this small flat metal file I found online, and it works great for this exact task.
At this point, any accessory should attach and thread onto the spindle headstock without any problem. If you still have an issue, then a metal die is the best way to solve the issue once and for all.
Be sure to get a die that matches your exact headstock spindle specs. I use a 1-1/4” by 8 TPI to resurface the threads on my headstock spindle. The 1” x 8 TPI size is also very popular for many lathe headstock spindles.
Thread the die on the headstock and slowly turn until the die rotates free and smoothly all the way down the headstock spindle. The problem should now be fixed.
Fixing Accessory Threads
If you have an accessory that is cross-threaded or is not threading smoothly, there is no easy way to hand file the internal threads.
You can try to clean the surface with a brass bristle wire brush and see if that helps.
If the threads are still damaged, you will need to use a corresponding tap to resurface the thread of that accessory. The same dimensions will correspond to the headstock spindle. I use a 1-1/4” by 8 TPI tap, and if you have a 1” spindle, then a correspondingly sized tap will do the trick.
Spray a little lubricant on the threads before tapping them. Use talcum powder if the accessory to be tapped is made of aluminum.
Wood Lathe Maintenance Conclusion
Yes, it’s much more fun and rewarding to put another bowl blank on the lathe and create yet another beautiful wooden bowl. But occasionally, we need to pause and take care of the wood lathe that makes all those bowls possible.
Wood lathe maintenance doesn’t need to be time-consuming and tedious, but it does need to be addressed before issues arise.
I think after doing the research and writing this article, I will now set a regular monthly reminder to stop turning for a bit and give the lathe a bit of well-deserved attention and care.
Take care of your equipment, and it will take care of you. That statement applies to so many things, and I think the wood lathe is undoubtedly one of them.