Wood vs. Metal Lathe: What to Choose for My Project?

One of the most versatile machines used in manufacturing, the lathe can drill, sand, turn, and cut wood pieces with relative ease.

A lathe is defined by the way it holds the pieces as the work is being performed.

With most tools, the workpiece is kept stationary when it is being cut or shaped. A lathe turns the workpiece itself as it is being addressed by a stationary tool.

The workpiece is secured to the lathe and rotates. A tool is then used to cut, shape, or otherwise change the piece.

The way it works is simple enough and quite familiar to those who have been in a woodworking shop. However, there are two different types of lathes, wood, and metal.

The difference is rather straightforward. A metal lathe can work on both metal and wood while a wood lathe only works on wood. Wood lathes also tend to be smaller and have fewer options compared to metal lathes, but this also makes them less expensive.

With that in mind let’s take a look at what these both lathes are, tips for working them, and what to look for when you need to buy one…

What is a Wood Lathe?

As the name suggests, this is a lathe that is designed to be used with wood pieces.

You can sand, drill, face, turn, deform, and cut wood as it turns on the lathe. You only need to apply a stationary tool to do the job you want.

Wood lathes only work with wood and are not suited for metal or other harder materials.

The basic wood lathe is a simple enough device. A pulley system is used to control the speed at which the wood is being turned.

This is generally less powerful than a metal lathe, but you still get fine control over manipulating the wood piece.

There are several types of wood lathes, each of which has a designed use.

Although most wood lathes offer enough variety so they can be used for different tasks.

  • Automatic: Can produce numerous identical versions of the same pattern
  • Bench: A tabletop version of the center lathe
  • Center: No need to bend over the piece when working
  • Turret: May use up to six tools when working
  • Vertical: Holds the pieces vertically instead of horizontally

For precision or complex cutting, you’ll probably want to get a CNC or computer numerical-controlled lathe.

This is especially if you need to produce many identical pieces, such as in a factory setting.

What is a Metal Lathe?

As the name suggests, this type of lathe is designed to work with metal pieces, but it can also work with wooden ones as well.

Metal lathes tend to be larger, more powerful, have more functions, and are more expensive than their wood lathe counterparts.

You can use a metal lathe on aluminum, iron, steel, and other metals.

You’ll mostly find this type of lathe in a metal workshop, factory, or manufacturing center.

They are used with hardened cutting tools that are secured to the rotating surface.

You put the piece of metal in place, turn on the lathe, and then apply the tools that are present.

For those who work with metal and wood, you only need the metal lathe. It can work just as well with wooden pieces. It is simply more expensive to purchase.

Safety Tips When Working with Lathe

Under normal circumstances, working with wood or metal pieces requires a modicum of safety procedures and gear since the item is stationary.

However, since the lathe spins the item at considerable speeds, you will need to take extra precautions.

The most obvious danger is a piece breaking free and flying towards you.

Other dangers include loose clothing, jewelry, or long hair that might get caught up in the spinning machine.

This can cause considerable injury if you are not careful.

Do not wear jewelry, or loose clothing, and have any long hair pulled back so that it cannot come into contact with the lathe.

It is also recommended that you wear a face mask to protect your lungs from the dust that is generated.

Check the lathe before turning it on to see if everything is tight and working properly.

For pieces that start to vibrate, turn off the lathe and then check the piece to ensure that it is secured.

Buying a Wood Lathe – What to Look For? 

Purchasing a wood lathe is relatively simple, but there are some things that you need to know.

First, you will need to purchase a wood lathe that fits the type of work that you do.

While most wood lathes are general purpose in nature, if you have a specific task that needs to be performed, then focus on getting the type of lathe that is right for your needs.

a) Bench or Floor:

Do you want a lathe that can be mounted on a bench or one that sits on the floor?

Most homeowners choose the bench models as they take up less space. However, you will need a solid bench to mount the lathe properly.

Floor models do not require any mounting, but they are bulkier and take up more space.

Plus, you may not be able to adjust the height to the desired level if you choose a floor version.

However, some floor models come with storage underneath. This allows you to keep the wood under the lathe assuming your bench has no such storage area.

b) Weight:

Although not always true, the more the wood lathe weighs, the better it should operate.

This is because the weight of the lathe helps keep the machine from vibrating. Vibration is what you want to avoid when creating wood pieces on a lathe.

While it is true that lathes are secured to the surface, a lathe that packs considerable weight will help steady workpieces that otherwise might vibrate.

This is not the vibration that occurs when the workpiece is not fully secured, but rather the vibration of the lathe itself.

So, get a lathe that has plenty of heft which will absorb much of the vibration that is created.

c) Bed & Swing:

The bed is the space available for you to work on the piece. For most work, 36” is recommended.

If you need a longer bed, then search for one that offers more space to turn and work on the piece. However, the longer the bed, the more vibrations it will create.

The bed is usually heavy metal tubes or bars. However, some beds are still flat cast versions.

It should be strong enough to support the tailstock and the tool rest without bending or flexing. It also must allow the shavings to fall through so that the lathe is kept clean.

There should be enough space under the bed for you to keep a few tools if necessary.

The swing is the height of the spindle above the bed. This determined the maximum dimensions of the piece that you can work with.

There is no one set measurement, but most swings are from 9” to 15”. If you need something bigger, then you will need to search for a bigger swing.

d) Headstock:

This is the heart of the lathe, housing the motor that spins the pieces. A good headstock should be solid and made from cast metal.

There should also be enough space between the bearings to hold the spindle rigid and in place.

The actual size of the headstock may be considerably greater than the space between the spindle bearings.

The smaller the spread, the more difficulty it will have with keeping the pieces solidly in place. This is especially true with larger pieces.

So, look for plenty of space between the bearings and do not trust the size of the headstock alone.

e) Head:

The head of the lathe holds the piece that you are working on.

While some lathes have a head that is fixed into place, most will swing outwards.

A swinging head lets you work on the interior of pieces easier, such as shaping the inside of a bowl.

In addition, the head that swings will require less space since you can stay in one place and do all the work. So, go with a swinging head if possible.

f) Spindle:

While most spindles may look the same, you will want one that uses a standard thread size.

This is important because if you want to upgrade to a new lathe, having an industry-standard thread size on your spindle will save you money.

This is because you can use all the threaded accessories on the new lathe and not have to purchase new ones.

g) Price:

Last, but not least is the price. You may notice that there are lathes which seem quite cheap compared to other versions and yet they do the same job.

This is normally a warning sign as cheap lathes have limitations that prevent you from doing some types of work.

Or such cheap lathes have issues that the more expensive versions do not possess.

You get what you pay for when it comes to lathes.

You should generally ignore the cheapest versions and instead focus on the best quality lathe that does what you need while still fitting your budget.

This means if you want to save money, then ignore lathes that offer functions that you will never use.

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