I remember shop class in junior high school with Mr. Davis. There was drafting, learning protractors and compasses, foundry work with making a mold in wet sand, melting the metal, and pouring, and more. But working the wood lathe was my favorite.
We made a matching plate and bowl, including digging out the inner bowl and the concave part of the plate, smoothing them out, sanding, and then finishing with oil. It was so much fun learning the lathe tools, adjusting the variable speeds, and turnery in general.
Since then, though, I haven’t used a lathe. When life took off in earnest and kids came along, the cost of a lathe didn’t fit the budget ahead of diapers, clothes, doctor’s visits, and the cost of raising a family. Lathes can run from $150 to $50,000, depending on how serious you are about turnery.
But I still remember those days in shop class. Let me reminisce with you.
In This Article
What Is A Lathe?
Lathes are serious machine tools that rotate a piece of wood around an axis of rotation while you are cutting, knurling, drilling, sanding and shaping with tools designed for those various purposes to create a finished product that is symmetrical about that axis.
In short, a piece of wood is installed between points on the lathe and turned. Using special tools, you remove material from the piece as it rotates to reach the shape of whatever you are making. Then by changing tools, the workpiece form is refined and sanded smooth to make it ready for your choice of finish – oil, stain, etc.
Lathes have variable speed controls, with different speeds called for along the various stages of turning and sanding. A tool rest is used to guide the tools for removing material from the workpiece and refining the lines of the piece, and then makes way for sandpaper to ready the piece for finish.
What Kinds Of Lathes Are There?
Lathes come in a variety of sizes and powers, as well as purposes and the uses to which they will be put. Here’s a partial list of those kinds:
- Center lathe. Widely used, this machine can perform rotations for turning, grooving, knurling, and more. Knurling is involves creating a pattern of straight, crossed, or angled lines on a piece of wood; grooving is exactly what the word implies – creating grooves on a piece of wood.
- Speed lathe. A high-speed lathe, usually referred to as a wood lathe, with variable speed control ranging from 1200 to 3600 rpms. It rotates the workpiece within that range of speed for work on wood to shape and form the desired shape, to polish it, and to sand it smooth.
- Turret lathe. This is a larger lathe than a speed lathe that can be used for high-volume production. It can take on large jobs performing the same functions of turning – shaping, polishing, etc.
- Bench lathe. This is a smaller version of a speed lathe, a benchtop model, that performs the same functions as the speed lathe but is better suited for smaller projects and pieces.
- Automatic lathe. Functioning exactly as the name would suggest, these lathes work automatically and are used for mass production of the same end pieces.
- Special lathe. These are used for special operations that the other lathes can not perform. They include vertical lathes and wheeled lathes, among others, that are used for heavy-duty production of the same end pieces and shapes.
- CNC lathe. A sign of the times, these lathes are computer-operated. Once the design program is developed, it is input into the lathe, and pieces are mass-produced. They are the most sophisticated lathe machines and can produce parts that have an extremely high precision tolerance, every piece exactly alike per the design program.
The variety of lathe types and abilities, small to large and sophisticated, give you an idea of both what can be done with them and why there can be such a wide range of prices for them. For the home woodworking shop, though, you’re likely to have, or at least want, a bench lathe for the smaller projects you are most likely to tackle.
What Are The Parts of A Lathe?
While a lathe machine has many parts, moving and otherwise, the basic parts common to all lathes are as follows:
The Headstock. This is the business end of a lathe, the drive end. Without getting into too much detail and machine-speak, this is the end to which the workpiece is attached that turns the piece as you work on it.
The Bed. This is the part that holds and supports the other parts – – the headstock, the tool rest, and the tailstock. The length of the bed determines the length of the piece the lathe can hold from the headstock to the tailstock.
The Tool Rest. Exactly as the name implies, the cutting tools you are using rest on this bar for support and stability as you work on the rotating wood.
The Tailstock. As you are no doubt able to visualize now, this is the rest that the other end of the workpiece will be held by, the “tail” of the piece. It may be configured exactly like the headstock, but is usually smaller.
These would be the parts used when, for instance, you are turning table legs. The tool rest would be on the outside of the bed, and if shorter than the workpiece would be moved along the span of the piece. If the workpiece was intended to be turned into a plate or bowl, though, it would be attached only to the headstock, and the tool rest would be situated in front of the rotating piece within the bed for access to create the concavity of the piece.
What Are the Lathe Tools?
The various lathe tools each perform a different function in working the wood as it spins, and are handheld as they sit on the tool rest. The workpiece is turning, and the lathe tool is pushed against the spinning wood to create shape, depth and dimension.
- The gouge tool is used for rough-cutting, to “gouge” out or off materials to create the general shape and form of the piece.
- The skew chisel tool is used for smoothing and cutting shoulders on the workpiece.
- The spear tool is flat-ground to a point and is used to remove lesser levels of the workpiece than the gouge and skew chisel.
- The round nose tool is also flat and with a rounded point that will remove a lesser amount of material than the spear tool and with a gentler curve to the piece.
- Finally, the parting chisel is used for cutting off a particular part of the workpiece.
In shop class, we used each of these tools, beginning with the gouge tool for the rough cutting down of the wood, and then in progression removing ever lesser material as we more carefully shaped the workpiece, and ending with the parting chisel to make that final cut.
It was fun.
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What Are Common Wood Lathe Projects?
We’ve already mentioned several wood lathe projects that were part of junior high school shop class. Let’s see if we can come up with ideas for you to consider with your bench lathe and a piece of wood or tree trunk:
Plates. If we could make wood plates in junior high school, then certainly so can you. Pick your wood, looking for something that has a nice grain and markings to it. Attach it to your headstock, move the tool rest into the bed facing the wood, grab your first tool, and remove everything from the piece that isn’t a plate.
Bowls. Same thing – if a junior high school student can tackle a bowl project, so can you. The gouging will be more severe as you remove material from the concave inner space, but your round nose tool will smooth that out and ready it for sanding.
Table legs. This project will present more of a challenge for you. Your chair or table will need four of them, and you’d like them to all be the same. So, measurements in your template will need to be exact, and you’ll need to learn how to mass produce four identical versions of that template. This is not a beginner’s project in the same way plates and bowls are.
Spindles. You might like your chairs to have spindle backs, and again, creating four or five identical versions will require careful planning and measurements, and a steady hand. But, that steady hand comes with practice, and if turnery is your style of woodworking, it will happen over time.
Honey dippers. I use a little honey in my tea sometimes. A hot cup of sweet tea is a nice refresher. A honey dipper, with its grooves at the business end, makes adding honey to my tea easy. Remember earlier in discussing the center lathe we mentioned grooving? Well, here you go. Lathes make that grooving easy.
Chopsticks. And, a cup of tea is a nice accompaniment to sushi. Chopsticks are a cool project for your turnery and an easy one for the beginner. A little wider at the holding end, and a little thinner at the food end, these are easy to turn out on your lathe.
Vases. If you can turn out bowls, vases are not that much different. They’ll be deeper, and you might want to include a lip and perhaps a more pronounced base, so maybe not for the beginner. But after a few bowls, it’s not much more of a challenge to turn out a vase.
A bat. In The Natural, Roy Hobbs made his own bat, “Wonderboy.” He was a kid when he turned that out, so you should be able to do that for yourself. Have fun with it.
Lamp stands. These can be once-offs, unlike chair legs or spindles, so less planning and mapping will be needed. Make each one unique as you practice your tool use and growing turnery skills.
Pepper mills. A little flourish, a few grooves, a few curves, and a pepper mill hardware kit, and you have yourself a nice set for the dining room table. A more advanced project requiring greater skill and some assembly, but the results could be a conversation piece during a dinner party.
Art. There’s no reason why a lathe project couldn’t be a piece of art. We saw an art show from an artist whose medium is exotic woods, and his work was stunning. One such piece was a cultural statement about being “connected” to the Internet world from even before birth – an egg with a wifi antenna. Let your imagination take you anywhere with your lathe and tools. And if you want to see more turnery art, check out www.petermcgrathstudio.com.
If you haven’t had turnery experience before, start small and simple. Plates and bowls are those beginner projects we recommend, as they don’t necessarily need to be completely matching. They can be one-offs, large or small – – a fruit bowl, for instance, or a large serving platter, making sure to use a food-safe finish on them like shellac or polyurethane.
Something none of these listed projects mentioned, but we want to mention now, is the drilling of holes in the ends of cylinders. Turning a piece to use as a handle for a hand tool, maybe a garden digger, is a pretty cool project for lathe work.
You’ll need to drill that hole in the center of the workpiece to fit the tool into, and the lathe is the perfect tool for this. Attaching your cylinder to the headstock and using the power of the lathe to turn the wood, a drill attachment to the tailstock will do the job for you.
Want to see a video about easy wood turning lathe projects? Here you go:
Once you have acquired some lathe skills, the possibilities for projects are limited only by your imagination. You will never run out of gifts for family and friends if you let that imagination flow. But even more, if you truly master lathe work and its possibilities, and want to monetize that mastery, there are outlets for your production, including craft fairs, and online resources like Craigslist and Etsy.
When you have a moment, go to Etsy and search “wooden bowls” or “wooden plates” to get an idea of what is selling and how much it is selling for. Wood turners are making money with their hobby, and turning it into a business.
Lathes are cool. Even after all these years I can still remember using one when I was 13 years old in shop class. This has brought back such nice memories, I may just have to buy one to add to my shop tool inventory.
Last update on 2022-09-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API