Wood lathe vibration can be a very frustrating and potentially dangerous experience. Not only is vibration unsafe, it usually causes tool marks and interferes with a quality turned
The potential sources for wood lathe vibration are numerous, and in this article, we will systematically move through and eliminate each possibility.
After all, what we are looking for is a smooth woodturning opportunity to make the most of each wood bowl blank. Vibration needs not to be part of your wood bowl turning process.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it can be to have my lathe, which I’ve taken a good deal of time leveling to the floor, start dancing and walking away because of an unbalanced bowl blank.
Here’s what I’ve discovered, mostly the hard way, and how I manage vibration on my lathe.
Wood Lathe Vibration Dry Run
With no wood or accessories, like a chuck attached to the lathe, start the lathe and let’s check for any vibrations.
If any vibrations occur at this point, address them before any wood is turned.
A wood lathe is essentially a motor driven platform to mount and rotate wood. The headstock only needs to revolve smoothly and be able to hold the weight of a bowl blank.
Vibration from a wood lathe itself, without a blank mounted, is a sign of a mechanical or structural issue.
Drive Train Check
Turn off the lathe and see if the belt can be moved smoothly by hand around the headstock pulley.
If the electric motor turns rough or makes noise, it could indicate that the motor needs repair or bearings need replacing.
If the motor and belt seem to move smoothly, but the headstock vibrates or makes excessive noise when the lathe is turned on, the headstock bearings may need repair.
Depending on the wood lathe and the manufacturer, repairing or replacing the bearings may be relatively simple, or more complex.
Contact the manufacturer for information on repairing the headstock bearings. Until the bearings are fixed, turning wood isn’t the best idea.
Wood Lathe Vibration Solid Footing
So your motor, belt, and headstock checkout fine. That’s good news, but you still might have a wood lathe vibration.
Let’s look further, and downward. Without good footing, any lathe will vibrate and rattle during operation.
All four legs need to have a good reliable connection with the floor. If even one leg is off the floor, just a hair, it can cause vibration.
To make this simpler, be sure first thoroughly to clean the floor of any dust and debris.
Depending on your lathe, you might have adjustable leg settings. Each leg setting needs to be adjusted to anchor the leg to the floor.
Footing Check Trick
With no accessories or wood attached to the lathe, turn the lathe on and check for any vibration.
Get down close to each leg connected to the floor and see if you can slip a piece of paper under the lathe foot. If you can, that leg needs to be lowered or adjusted until it makes firm contact.
Don’t extend the foot too far, because one of the other legs might become dislodged in the process. Recheck all legs with the paper technique.
Now that the foundational components of the lathe have been checked and corrected for vibration, we need to look at the point of connection to your wood bowl blanks.
The point of contact at the headstock is the most critical point to remove and eliminate vibration.
Why is this?
Imagine having a long 20-foot thin fiberglass rod in your hand. If you hold still everything is fine. However, if you move your hand which is holding the rod at one end just a small amount, the corresponding vibration and movement out at the other end of the rod will be dramatic.
This is precisely what happens at the headstock as well. If even a tiny issue occurs at the headstock, by the time it magnifies through a four-jaw chuck or faceplate and into a bowl blank, the vibration can be significant.
Solid Faceplate Connection
No matter how you attach a bowl blank to the lathe, take your time and make sure the connection is solid and clean.
If you’re attaching the bowl blank to the lathe with a faceplate, be sure the faceplate is centered, flat to the blank surface and secured using all screw holes possible.
Also, be sure, no debris is lodged between the bowl blank and the faceplate before securing and tightening the faceplate screws.
True Tenon Connection
Forming a well-sized and angled tenon is key to making a stable connection with a four-jaw chuck.
In the article about creating the perfect tenon, I cover all the details needed to make an ideal tenon that can hold tight and accurate to the lathe chuck.
Take your time when forming a tenon and be sure to make a nice flush shoulder and a dovetail that matches your chuck jaws angle.
Remember, any imperfections at the tenon can magnify out into the bowl blank and become an annoying vibration.
Wondering about what tenon imperfections might cause vibration issues? Check out this article next.
Sweat The Small Stuff
- Take compressed air or an old toothbrush and clean the headstock threads and the receiving threads in all chucks and faceplates. Dust inside the headstock thread connection can cause the chuck or faceplate to shift a tiny bit off-center.
- Be sure all chucks and faceplates seat entirely flush to the headstock shoulder. A gap, even a super-thin gap, may allow vibration to extend out to the bowl blank. Fill the gap with a plastic washer if needed.
- Carefully thread all accessories onto the headstock threads slowly to avoid cross-threading. A chuck or faceplate mounted with cross-threads will most likely be off-axis and vibrate during operation. If cross-threads exists on the headstock, take time to file off any burrs to prevent future cross-threading. I use this very nice, small, angled metal file to correct any issues on my headstock threads
Dancing Wood Lathe Vibration
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see a silenced cell phone go off in vibrate mode and float across a desk surface, you witnessed exactly what an unbalanced lathe can do.
Believe it or not, the microdevice inside a cell phone that makes it vibrate is a rotating unbalanced cylinder, very much like a lathe with an unbalanced bowl blank.
Based on the size of the bowl blank, the amount of unbalanced mass, and the speed of the lathe, wood lathe vibration can make a lathe move uncontrollably and dangerously across the floor.
Just like placing your hand on that vibrating phone and holding it down, so too can we add weight to reduce wood lathe vibration.
Some wood lathes, like Oneway lathes, have structural cavities that can be filled with sand to weigh them down.
Depending on the lathe design, placing sandbags on leg structures or a custom crossbeam can be made to hold weighed bags.
Weighing down a lathe will reduce and absorb vibration and allow for much less wood lathe vibration.
Working Irregular Pieces
Very few bowl blanks are perfectly centered and balanced precisely. Turning large blanks or asymmetrical bowl blanks can and will cause wood lathe vibration.
The key to working with irregular bowl blanks is patience. Start by slowing increasing the lathe speed until vibration occurs.
Sometimes, if the lathe is well anchored, it is possible to turn up the lathe speed just a bit past the vibration point, and the turning will smooth out.
If the bowl blank doesn’t smooth out by going a bit faster slow down. Back the speed down until the wood lathe vibration subsides and the bowl blank rotates smoothly.
No Set Speed
There is no exact ideal speed for turning wood bowls. Instead, the speed that doesn’t cause vibration is the best speed to begin turning a wood bowl blank.
Large bowl blanks can be especially problematic. Vibration from larger pieces can cause a lathe to dance and walk across the floor.
Keep the speed low or right below the vibration point and work the bowl blank into a more balanced shape.
I’ve found that if you take your time and true up the outside edge of a bowl blank, the lathe speed can usually be increased.
As each step of the bowl turning process is completed and more material is removed, speeds can be increased without new vibrations.
To help understand lathe speed better, read this article.
Moisture, shape, internal structures will all affect the rotation and vibration present in a given bowl blank.
I’ve seen blanks that look perfectly cylindrical and well balanced, cause wood lathe vibration like crazy. Sometimes there is a mass of wood or moisture in one area of the blank that is imbalanced on the opposite side of the bowl blank.
Internal knots or voids can also cause imbalance and make a smooth bowl turning experience elusive.
No matter what, the tailstock is not only great insurance, it also mitigates overall bowl blanks vibration.
Think of that fiberglass rod example from earlier. When you engage the tailstock, it is as if the other end of the fiberglass rod is now anchored and centered as well as the end you’re holding.
The tailstock pins in, or bookends the bowl blank and reduces any wood lathe vibrations.
Always use the tailstock when possible, and most vibrations generally are reduced to insignificant issues that can be avoided by reducing the lathe speed just a touch.
The lathe I learned on had a nice RPM readout, and I found myself getting in the habit of turning around 800-1000 RPMs.
When I purchased my lathe, I was a bit disappointed that it did not have an RPM readout display. Instead, I needed to adjust the lathe speed by feel and sight.
In the long run, not having the readout is a blessing. I’m more in tune with what speed is best for each given bowl blank without being influenced by a readout display.
Wood lathe vibration doesn’t occur that much because I’m not trying to push the speed up to some arbitrary RPM number. Instead, I’m listening to the bowl blank and my machine and making the speed just right for each situation.
Wood Lathe Vibration Extreme Solution
In extreme situations, mounting the lathe to the floor is a possible vibration reduction solution. However, I would do everything in my power first to reduce the vibration by other means first.
If you are designing large offset turned bowls or other deliberately unbalanced pieces, then mounting to the floor might be a good solution.
Do your homework and possibly even consult a structural engineer to determine the best way to anchor your lathe to the floor safely.
So remember, just because a lathe mounts to the floor does not mean the forces of an unbalanced wood bowl blank aren’t affecting the lathe and its support base.
Work within reasonable lathe speeds and don’t push beyond safe turning conditions.
Bench Mounting Wood Lathe
Similar to mounting a standing lathe to the floor, a benchtop lathe model can be bolted to a work surface.
The one thing to keep in mind is that once the lathe is mounted to the work surface, all the vibration energy from the lathe can be transferred to the workbench.
If the benchtop is not stable or secured well, further vibrations can occur.
It’s a good idea to reinforce the workbench or benchtop that the lathe is attached to before mounting and using the lathe.
Working An Unstable Bowl Blank
I have found that taking your time and truing up the side of a bowl blank usually helps reduce vibration the most dramatically.
After the sides of the bowl blank are true, the faces of the blank can also be smoothed which further reduces most vibrations.
Usually, with a nice trued up round cylindrical bowl blank, I can back off the tailstock and bring the lathe speed up to a pretty quick pace and begin shaping the outside of the wood bowl.
Wood Lathe Vibration Wrap
Without a smooth turning bowl blank on the lathe, it is almost impossible to create a smooth finished bowl shape without nasty tool marks and other imperfections that need further attention.
Not only will wood lathe vibration make bowl gouge tool performance difficult, but it also makes the whole process of wood bowl turning less enjoyable.
What wood lathe vibration issues have you had?
How have you managed to reduce or remove vibration from your turning process?
I’d be curious to know what has worked for you. Please leave a comment below.