Woodwork lathes & tools

Woodturning with a woodwork lathe and specialised tools

Woodwork Lathes and Woodturning Tools

Woodworking Lathes Explained

The woodwork lathe is used for wood turning and generally speaking, the goal of turning is to make round objects, such as spindles or discs, by turning between centres or on a faceplate.

Woodturning differs from other woodworking techniques in that the wood spins/turns while the cutting tool remains stationary. On a woodworking lathe, a motor drives a headstock through a set of gears and a drive mechanism attached to the headstock holds and turns the wood.

On most lathes, you will either spin between two centres (spindle turning) or mount your wood blank onto a plate or chuck attached to the headstock of a lathe (faceplate turning).

The spindle turning method is used for Table Legs, Chair Legs, Stair Spindles, Baseball Bats or maybe Pool Cues.   The two centres used to hold the wood on the lathe are the Drive Centre and the Rotating Centre.    The Drive Centre is used on the headstock Morse Taper End.    The Rotating Centre is positioned on the Tailstock side of the lathe and revolves with the wood blank to keep it centered.

Faceplate turning is where the wood blank is held on a faceplate or in a chuck.    The faceplate is a circular metal plate which fixes to the end of the lathe spindle.   Screws or bolts are used to secure the wood blank onto faceplate.   There are no moving parts on the faceplate.   Faceplate turning is often used for making wooden bowls. An adjustable tool rest supports your turning tool in front of the rotating wood.

Woodworking lathes can be installed on a bench or they might stand alone on your shed floor.   The capacity of the lathe is determined by the size of the piece of wood that can fit between the centres and the swing (the maximum diameter piece of wood you can turn on your lathe). Measure the swing from the top of your lathe’s bed to the centre of the spindle, then multiply by two.

The tailstock supports the end of the wood during between-centres turning. It glides along the lathe bed, enabling for different lengths of wood to be accommodated. The tool rests are supported and the tailstock can be adjusted on the lathe bed.

What type of Woodworking Lathe should I buy?

If you are in the market for buying a woodwork lathe and you’ve got you’ve worked out the maximum you can afford to spend, then you just need to work out your search criteria.

Typical considerations would be:

What’s the biggest thing you can picture yourself turning on a lathe?

Do you want a free standing lathe or a bench mounted lathe?

Do you want the lathe to be light enough that you can easily pick it up and move it?

What is the maximum diameter piece of wood you imagine yourself turning on the lathe? (Swing Capacity)

Whether you buy a bench mounted lathe or a free standing unit, only buy a unit that has effective dust extraction to ensure quality work, protect your health.

What Spindle Thread Size are you looking for?  Imperial threads are measured in threads per inch (TPI), metric threads are measured by pitch, which is the distance from the crest of one thread to the next.   Typical metric spindle pitches are 1.5/2/2.5/3/3.5mm.

What to look for with a bench mounted woodworking lathe

A good size motor for an affordable lathe might range from around 350w to 600W and typical RPM range would vary from 500-3800 rpm.   It’s great if you can get a lathe that has a digital RPM readout, it helps make sure you’re working at the speed that best suits what you are doing and facilitates precise speed adjustments.   You will most likely need at least 18 inches spacing between the centres but I wouldn’t be looking at anything around 1 metre or larger between centres, it’ll be too heavy.   You will benefit  if the unit has a swing of at least 300mm.Aim for a unit that has an easily adjustable tool support that is at least 6-inchs and a minimum of 3-inches for face plate size and should come with a knock out bar and a took kit.   A good spindle size is around M30 x 3.5 tpi.   Unless you’re very strong I wouldn’t be looking for a unit that is too far over 30kg in weight.   Insist upon at least 1 year warranty too.   The tool rest height will be more of less half of the swing over bed specification.

Extra features to look for are a top drive, live centre and an electronic variable-speed spindle control.  Look for a unit that has precisely machined gears and shafts in the headstock that have been hardened, this will provide you with a lathe that will provide a long service life and silent operation.   Should be a heavy-duty cast iron design and rubber feet will help with stability which will give you smooth turning.

What to look for with a free standing woodwork lathe

If you’re on a budget of less than $1,500 then you might be able to secure a swivelling headstock lathe with a swing of at least 400mm and at between 1000 and 1500mm between centres.   Go for a decently powerful motor, at least 1000w and something that can be plugged into a regular 10A power point.


Look for a variable speed unit, rpm range between 500 to 2500 rpm.   You will need at least 1000mm between centres if you are looking at turning table legs.   If wanting to turn largish bowls, see if you can get one with a tool rest extension.   You will probably find that the lightest free standing unit you’ll come across is around 100kg and you should expect a heap of them will be closer to 200kg and maybe more.

Woodwork lathe turning tools

There are many turning woodwork turning tools on the market that are designed to withstand the stresses & pressures of long-term operation in this specific application.   Most people these days will choose to use high-speed steel (HSS) woodturning tools over older high-carbon steel equipment.   HSS is a steel alloy that maintains a sharp edge over time, can resist high temperatures, and is easy to sharpen.

What is a Skew chisel?

The Skew Chisel is a long, flat chisel with a bevelled edge and an angled tip. The toe refers to the longest point of the chisel’s cutting edge, whereas the heel refers to the smallest point.    As a starter, you could buy a 1/2″ and a 1″ Skew Chisel, it really just depends on what you intend to do.

What is a Roughing Gouge?

A Roughing Gouge is used to shape rough wood into a round shape and would normally be for spindle work. The gouge’s profile and form are ideal for removing wood from a spindle. On a turning project, this is frequently the first tool you employ. 3/4″ and 1-1/4″ seem to be the most common sizes.

What is a Bowl Gouge?

The Bowl Gouge is a hand tool used on a lathe to cut and shape wood bowls.  A handle and a sturdy metal shaft make up the bowl gouge and a flute, or central groove, can be found on the top portion of the metal shaft.    The Bowl Gouge can be used for making Bowls, doing large profiling cuts and fine finishing cuts.   A very versatile turning tool, it’s very likely that every wood turner would have one.

What is a Diamond Parting Tool?

A Diamond Parting Tool is a must-have wood turning tool for removing undesirable material, establishing diameters, and cutting small flat areas.

Should you buy a Fine Detail Spindle Turning Set?

The tools in a fine detail spindle turning set are generally ideal for the smaller projects and these kits consists of a couple of Spindle Gouges (1/4″ & 1/8″), a 1/4″ Round Nose Scraper, 1/4″ Skew Chisel & a 1/16″ parting tool.

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