What type of lathe do I need? A comprehensive Guide!

Lathes have been in existence for more than three thousand years, with the origin of this important wood and metal working tool dating back to around 1,300 B.C.E. A lathe is a machine tool that rotates a work piece (whether it’s a piece of metal or wood) on its axis in order to cut, sand, drill, or deform or reform aspects of the piece. The goal of the lathe is to create symmetry within the piece, whether that symmetry is intended for functional or artistic purposes.

What Are Lathes Used For?

Lathes are most commonly used for wood turning, metal working, and metal spinning. They can also be used for glass working and thermal spraying, depending on the needs of an industry at a given time. Lathes have also been used for shaping pottery.
There are even ornamental lathes that are capable of producing some amazing three dimensional pieces that exhibit intense complexity.
There are many different items that can be produced with lathes. Some of those objects include:

  • Candlestick holders
  • Table legs
  • Bowls
  • Baseball bats
  • Gun barrels
  • Camshafts (automotive)
  • Musical instruments
  • And a vast array of other objects

Different Types of Lathes

There are many different types of lathes that you can choose from, depending on your needs and what you aim to accomplish with the lathe itself. Some of the more common modern style and types of lathes are:

  • Wood lathe
  • Metal lathe
  • Glass lathe
  • Lathe mill combo
  • Mini lathe
  • Micro lathe
  • CNC lathe

Each type of lathe will serve a different and unique purpose. Let’s take a closer look at each type of lathe, who would be most likely to use that particular lathe, how it differs from other lathes, and the features that are most important or unique to each lathe type.

Wood Lathes

wood-lathe

The oldest form of lathe is the woodworking lathe. Any other lathe that you may find on the market or use yourself is derive, ultimately, from the wood lathe. The wood lathe has an adjustable horizontal rail which is known as the tool rest. This is where the piece of wood is placed and the operator of the wood lathe would position his or her shaping tools on the surface of the wood to create the shapes and designs that he or she intends. With wood lathes, it’s important to apply sandpaper to the wood after reshaping it in order to create a smooth finish, though that isn’t an absolute requirement; it is merely a common practice and saves time for the operator in the long run. Metal is the most common type of shaping tools that are used with wood lathes, and the metal can create rough surfaces as a result.

There are also a few varieties of wood lathes in which bowls and other objects can be worked. The difference between these wood lathes and the more traditional forms is that they don’t have the horizontal rail. That means the objects being worked can be positioned at one point and since there is no rail, the object can be almost any size.

Metal Lathes

Metal lathes serve a wide range of requirements in today’s modern environment, from automotive to just about every type of manufacturing industry. The metalworking lathe, at its basic concept, will appear to be very similar to a wood lathe, except that for metal lathes, the metal that is to be worked will be fitted to a tool-post and the tools can be positioned in place using either manual controls or CNC (computer controlled systems).
The tool-posts are generally operated by the use of lead screws. These lead screws can be positioned accurately along just about any plane of the metal that is to be worked.

metal-lathe

Metal lathes often require cooling fluids because the metal can become exceedingly hot during the process of cutting and shaping. These types of lathes are commonly used to create threads (for bolts, camshafts, crankshafts, and other large metal objects) as well as worm gears and much more.
Metal lathes are most commonly used for practical, industrial purposes whereas some wood lathes are used for artistic styling of different products, such as the aforementioned table legs.

Working with metal lathes can be challenging because of the way that the tools are applied to the metal to be ‘turned’ and cut. The thread pitches of some of the cuts will be determined by the pitch of the lead screw. This can pose a challenge when working with metric and American based threading types. This limitation can be addressed through the use of a 127-tooth gear, which is also known as a transposing gear. The downside for this is that is it commonly known as optional equipment and can add to the overall cost of the metal lathe. Most people who work with metal lathes will tend to do so in the capacity of a company or metalworking firm that produces very specific parts that are commonly used in major machines, such as commercial grade equipment and other vehicles.

Glass Lathes

Another common type of lathe is known as the glass lathe. These glass lathes look similar to a number of other types of lathes, but the major difference is in how the glass is worked, as opposed to wood or metal, for example.

The glass that is being worked will be hollow and it will be turned rather slowly over a heat source, most commonly an open flame. This heat source will need to be variable in temperature in order to allow the glass worker to shape the glass and not have it run or become misshapen in the wrong way. In most cases, this open flame source will be hand held or positioned in such a way that the worker can easily move, lower, or remove it from the working area as needed.
The flame is what softens the glass that is to be worked. When the glass is soften, it becomes ductile and that is what allows the worker to be able to shape it properly. Glass lathes will generally be equipped with two different head stocks that hold the piece of glass uniformly and they will usually turn together. Air can be introduced into the glass (for glassblowing) through the headstock on one end or the other, or both. The glass working tools will general be handheld, which is similar to wood lathes. There are also computer controlled glass lathes that utilize diamond tipped tools that are necessary for creating precise optical surfaces on the glass. This technique is generally used to create complex lenses and the entire process saves a tremendous amount of time over other forms of glass working.

Lathe Mill Combo

A lathe mill is ideal for individuals who need to work on metal or other aluminum based projects but for which a mini lathe is not an option. The lathe mill combo will general be a two-in-one or three-in-one combo unit (with some units including a drill option) that allows the user to work aluminum into the proper shape (milling) that is required, and then to use the lathe tools in order to refine it into the necessary threading, shape, or design.
Lathe mill combos are very specific tools that cater to a niche of metal workers and isn’t ideal for all workers. Some lathe mill combos have a 4-jaw or 3-jaw chuck as well as a large vice for the mill.

It’s important to understand your specific needs for lathing before setting out to purchase a lathe mill combo, as you could end up determining that you don’t need this type of machine or it’s beyond your requirements. While some companies will market these lathe mill combos as being ideal for the beginner as well as the experienced machinist, they are better suited for those with experience.

Mini Lathe

The mini lathe is ideal for home applications. It is also known as the micro lathe and is small enough that it can be installed on a table for small in-home projects. The accuracy of these lathes is actually quite high, meaning that you can get high quality results from using a mini or micro lathe.
The mini lathe is ideal for the home machinist, or the hobbyist who has a passion for either metal or wood working and requires a lathe for his or her purposes. The other benefit of the mini or micro lathe is that it is affordable for just about any budget.

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There are certainly limitations for what can be accomplished with a mini lathe, but those limitations are generally classified as the size of the working piece that you’re planning to cut and shape. In other words, you won’t be able to work large pieces of wood in mini lathes like you would in larger, full size lathes.
However, for the average lathe enthusiast or hobbyist who wants to work on table legs or other similar sized projects, or smaller, then the mini lathe is an ideal solution for his or her needs.

Micro Lathes

Micro lathes are simply another term for mini lathes (see above). These terms are essentially interchangeable and are based on the size of the lathe and the ability to place them on a table top. This makes them ideal for home and occasional use.

CNC Lathes

CNC, or Computer Numerical Control) lathes are the most advanced type of lathing machine on the market. These lathes are high priced but offer a wealth of benefits for the commercial lathe machinist, such as precision and output. The machine will have a programmable feature that allows the machinist to set new parameters for the creation of new and unique lathing patterns, or the same pattern can be applied to one piece after another. The CNC lathe is fully automated, but still requires a skilled machinist to operate it. The advantage of having full automation is that once the metal or wood is placed into the lathe to be worked, the machinist can work on other tasks until the lathe process is completed. CNC lathes are ideal for industrial applications where a high volume of lathing work will be required. It’s not ideal for an individual who plans on only working a few items every so often, unless the cost of the machine is not an issue for him or her.

Even though the CNC lathe is fully automated, its basic operation is fundamentally the same as any traditional, manually operated lathe.

Which Lathe Should You Choose?

Each lathe provides a number of benefits that could suit different applications and individuals. If you are new to lathing, then you are going to want to begin with a lathe machine that is straightforward and easy to understanding, such as the traditional wood lathe or mini lathe. If you have a specific need, of course, then you’ll want to focus on lathe machines that fill that need effectively and efficiently.

For individuals, as noted in the section about them, computer controlled (or CNC) lathes offer a wide range of benefits, especially considering the precision of them and full automation that allows you to do something else while the metal or other object is being worked, but if you want a hands-on experience to refine your skills, then a traditional, manual lathe would likely be more well suited to your specific needs.

Lathe working is an art form that has been around for more than three thousand years. The fundamentals have remained essentially unchanged in all that time. That means when something has reached a point of perfection, there is little that can be done to improve upon it. Lathe working is one of the few arts that can be practiced today in much the same manner as it was when it was first introduced to the world.

There’s something inherently appealing about that.

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