What’s A Lathe – Wood Turning Basics


What Is Wood Turning

Before we get into what a lathe is I think that it’s a good idea to discuss what wood turning is first. Wood turning is a different type of woodworking altogether. Basically what it is is taking something that is square or round in shape and transforming it into something that’s unique. For instance a baseball bat or a wooden bowl. Of course there are many other things we can make with a lathe.

In wood turning you don’t need to build things out of wood. Instead the process is more of a carving technique with the use of a wood lathe and a variety of chisels, also known as turning tools. It’s a very rewarding process and is fun to do and watch. As you carve away at the wood you can really see the cool designs of the wood grain. With some sanding and a nice stain or other finish it brings the grain to life.

People have gotten pretty creative when it comes to wood turning and you don’t necessarily have to buy wood from a lumber yard. Maybe you have access to some old logs that have lying around for a while. Imagine the grain design underneath the bark. Here’s another idea, how about a knotty piece of wood that’s waiting for you to knock the roughness off of and transform it into a work of art. The possibilities are practically endless.

In short maybe building things out of wood isn’t something that your’e interested in but you know that you want to create something from wood. Well maybe look into wood turning where the process is never dull or boring and is also a fast process to where you can see results quickly.

How To Use A Lathe

Smooth and slow: Once you’ve chosen the right lathe for you, now it’s time to learn some of the wood turning basics on how to use it. I recommend starting off with a simple project such as a handle for a hammer or using a piece of scrap wood so that you can get a feel for it. Of course you don’t have to use these suggestions, there are so many small projects that you can do as a beginner. Find something that interests you and go for it.

Learn how to guide your chisels slowly so that a smooth cut is achieved. Another point to mention is make sure that you don’t try to lathe off to much at once. This can be pretty dangerous because not only will it ruin your project but there’s a chance that you could break the chisel or worse, it’ll be taken out of your hands and flung across the shop. Something that dad always told me when he saw that I was trying to hurry through something was “don’t bite off more than you can chew” yea, I got a lot of butt chewing over this and he was right.

Chisels and gouges: You only need a handful of these but it’s important to do a little shopping and research so you won’t over spend or under spend money. You don’t need to buy something expensive to learn how to use a lathe. But you do need good chisels so find the happy medium between cheap and expensive. By acquiring these, you’ll go a long way in learning the basics of how to use a wood lathe. Take a look at the list below and i’ll go into more detail in another article of what each one does.

  • Roughing Gouge
  • Spindle Gouge
  • Skew Chisel
  • Parting Chisel
  • Calipers

Gain the experience through use: Once you’ve bought your set of chisels and gouges, you have learn how to use them properly. Each lathe chisel has it’s own unique job. The only way that you’ll get the experience is to learn how to use each one. Don’t be afraid or get discouraged when you mess up. Start off slow with some scrap wood and just practice. Hardly anybody gets it right the first time. Just remember this, the learning is in the struggle and if it was that easy everybody would be doing it.

Softwood: Is a great wood to start turning with and there are many types to choose from. Some softwood examples are pine, cedar, spruce and Douglas fir. Why start with these types of wood? Well there are a few reasons. These types of wood are easier to work with in the beginning in that they are easier to turn. They don’t cost that much. Softwood is also more forgiving than hardwood when learning the wood turning basics. Once you’ve learned the basics and gained some confidence then you can move onto more challenging projects that involve hardwood.

Inspect the lumber: Before buying or mounting your work piece in the lathe it’s important to inspect the lumber for any kind of defects such as knots and cracks. A defective piece of wood turning on a lathe can be dangerous when turning. This is just another one of the wood turning basics that you should get into the habit of doing.

Use your body: Another wood turning basic is to learn how to use your body when turning down a piece of wood. Instead of just using your arms and hands to control the tool that’s being used it’s far better to lean in with the elbows while bracing them against your body at the same time. By doing this you’ll find cleaner cuts will be made. Better control will also be achieved instead of just using your arms and hands.

Inspect your cutting tools often: I mention this below in the safety part of this article but it’s worth mentioning here as well. It’s important to inspect the chisels and gouges for sharpness from time to time because a dull tool of any kind is never a good thing. This pertains especially to lathe tools because dullness can cause the chisel or gouge to catch in your project. This can result in injury and messing up your project. A sharp tool will always cut cleaner and give you a much smoother surface.

What Is A Lathe?

What is a lathe exactly? It’s a machine that is able to spin a piece of wood on its axis. By doing this it makes it much easier and faster to carve and shape your work piece into something that’s different from anything else. Imagine for a second that you are building a kitchen table and with a table legs are needed to finish it up. The lathe is the perfect tool for spinning legs.

So what do you need to get started in wood turning? Well, first of all you need a good lathe. I’m not talking about buying the biggest and baddest thing on the market. Nor am I talking about buying the cheapest either. Sit down and think of the size of projects you want to turn or carve. I wish I could answer that question better for you but I can’t because there are so many sizes out there and everybody’s situation and ideas are different. Just do your research and find out what a few of them have to offer. There are some things that you should consider which I will list below.

  • First and foremost, how much money can you spend, because lathes can get expensive.
  • Figure out where you will put the lathe, do you have enough space for one?
  • Make sure that whatever wood lathe that you buy has a good amount of weight to it.
  • Buy a good brand that has a good reputation such Jet or Grizzly just to name a few.

By answering these four questions, it should put you on the right track for buying the lathe that fits your budget and your needs. There are about five components that make up a wood lathe which are listed below under the lathe components and I will explain each one as detailed as I can so that the importance is better understood.

The Lathe Components

  • The Lathe Base
  • The Headstock
  • The Tailstock
  • The Tool Rest
  • The Power Switch

The Lathe Base

The lathe base is an important component to any wood lathe. The heavier the lathe, the easier it’s going to be to turn projects. The weight of the base is what cuts down on vibration and you’re going to need this no matter what size project you plan on turning or what size wood lathe you buy. When vibration occurs it makes turning projects more of a challenge and turning in the beginning will be a challenge, so don’t make it harder on yourself. So pay close attention to the horizontal beam that makes up the weight of the base on any size lathe.

To identify the the beam it will run horizontally from one end to the other and is normally made from good old cast iron. You’ll probably be tempted to sacrifice weight for mobility but don’t do it, it’s not worth it. Instead look at your work area and find a place to where you won’t have move the lathe. Something to consider is what kinds of projects you plan to turn, will they be small, medium or large. This will play a big factor in helping you decide what size wood lathe to buy.

My opinion is this, if you are completely new to wood turning, consider investing in a mini lathe. These are probably going to be the least expensive and if you find that wood turning isn’t your bag, you haven’t wasted a ton of money. You may be able to sell it and recoup half or more of the money that you’ve spent. If you find that wood turning does interest you, you can invest in something bigger when you gain the skills and technique.

The Headstock

The headstock with the help of a motor is what turns your project. There are a number of variants that you can choose from as far as horsepower. To do small spindles and such I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/2 horsepower. Anything lower than that I think that you’re just wasting your time and money. You need to figure out how big future projects will be. Start with small projects of course but plan for larger ones especially if you’re already thinking about it.

The bigger the motor that the lathe that you buy, the larger the projects you can turn. The reason for this is bigger projects need a beefier motor to consistently keep the project spinning at a consistent rate. Whatever lathe you intend to buy make sure that it has a variable speed control on it so that you can dial in your speed anywhere between 500 and 4000 rpm. A digital readout for the speed control is also a nice touch because you can see exactly what the rpm’s are that you’re putting out.

There’s a few accessories that you’ll need to look into. If spindle work is your thing, you’re going to need to make sure that you have a drive center. Bowl turning requires what is known as a faceplate. When you shop for your lathe make sure that you know the capabilities of it before buying.

The swing of the lathe is important to know before buying. If you want to turn bowls you need to know what this means. The swing is the total diameter of the work piece that the lathe will accept. So your doing research on the internet and find a lathe that you want and in the specifications it says that this lathe has a 12″ swing. That means the largest piece of wood that you can turn is 12″ in diameter. So if you want to turn bowls larger than than, guess what you’re gonna need larger lathe.

Something else to consider when buying a lathe second hand from let’s say a yard sale or from an add in the news paper and nobody knows what the swing is. The easiest way to find out is measure with a tape measure from the center of the headstock down to the base the. So for example if the measurement is 6″ you have to multiply by 2 to get the swing. The reason for this is when you measure from the middle of the headstock to the base this just gives you the radius and not the diameter. We need the diameter.

Lathe Height

The lathe height is important to consider when buying a wood lathe. When positioned in front of the lathe, the spindle should be level with your elbows. If you have to lean over to work, you’re going to develop back pain. The lathe height also affects how you cut if the lathe is too high. Plus you have to exert more energy when controlling your spindle and wood gouges. If one of these two things become a problem I suggest building a lathe stand to either raise or lower it to the correct height. Comfortability is key in woodturning.

The Tailstock

A tail stock is what you’ll be using when turning longer and or more slender objects such as baseball bats, spindles or anything that has length to it. If you don’t use a tailstock to support your project, then chatter will start to happen. So what is chatter exactly? it’s when an unsupported piece of wood bends while you are are shaping it with one of the lathe chisels. The tailstock sits at the opposite end of the headstock. This ensures that all of your cuts will be supported and precise. This part of the lathe is adjustable, it slides along the length of the lathe so that different lengths of wood or spindles can be turned.

The tailstock does more than support the other end of your work however. The tailstock with the right hardware can hold drill bits so that you can bore holes down the center of your wood. An example would be when your turning writing pens, you have to have it hollowed out right? Right. The drilling part of the tailstock is different than a cordless drill or a drill press where the bit itself when mounted in the tailstock doesn’t rotate, it stays still while the work piece rotates around the drill bit as you turn the wheel at the back end of the tailstock.

The tailstock is equipped with what is called a feed screw. When turning the feed screw, the whole tailstock will move horizontally along the length of the bed so that boring or reaming can be accomplished. The tailstock is also equipped with a lever so that the it can be locked in place when no movement is necessary when turning your project.

The Tool Rest

This is used to rest your lathe chisel on so that shavings can easily be carved out of the wood piece. If you know somebody that likes to wood turn, have them show you what each chisel does. There is two parts of the tool rest, the banjo and tool rest itself. The banjo is the part that holds the tool rest in position.

One main function of the rest is to provide resistance while cutting. It’s impossible to turn any project without resistance so don’t even try. A safety tip when using this is to make sure that when you insert your wood blank that you turn the lathe by HAND to make sure that the wood doesn’t strike the tool rest. Don’t ever turn the lathe on until you see that your project is going to move freely.

Make sure that your tool rest is locked into position and that the banjo is also locked into position. These are also critical safety factors to keep in mind. The rest comes in various shapes and lengths and you’ll probably need more than one type if you plan on turning projects that vary in length. For instance, longer spindles will require a longer tool rest. Shorter projects will require a shorter one. You know the old saying “use the right tool for the job”

The Power Switch

There’s not much to say about the power switch other than this. Make sure that it’s in a place where you can easily reach it if you need to turn off the lathe quickly. If the switch is in an odd place be aware that it could cause a safety hazard so placement is important.

Lathe Safety

There are some safety issues you guys and gals need to be aware of when turning. Some of these are common sense while others are some you might not have thought about. Such as others in the family like young children. You need to find a way to keep them safe when your not around. This is supposed to fun and entertaining and it won’t be if you or others get hurt not to mention the hospital bill that come with an injury. So let’s get into it.

Getting experience: The best way to do this is try to find somebody in your community to show you some of the capabilities of what it can and can’t do. Maybe you know a friend or family member that can help with this. Another option is to take a class in wood turning. If neither one of these options is available to you then YouTube is a great resource plus most of the tutorials are free.

Secure it: I mentioned earlier about the kidos’ and the best ways to keep their curiosity from harming them is to secure the power source so that the lathe can’t be turned on. There’s a few ways to do this. You can unplug it and put a locking cap over the plug end. Another option is to have it on it’s own circuit breaker so that when your done using it you can just flip the breaker off.

Eye protection: Eye protection is very important no matter what power tool you use and the lathe is high on the list. You’ll find out soon enough how much wood shavings come off while turning your projects. I recommend using a full face shield for this application because it will protect not just your peepers but your entire face. Sometimes larger chunks of wood will break away instead of shaving. When the lathe is in operation, the movement of your project is always towards you so debris will always be coming your way.

Dusty environment: Make sure that your work area has adequate ventilation. The lathe will produce a lot of wood shavings and sawdust as you work. If you don’t maybe consider wearing a dust mask or invest in a dust collection system that will remove wood shavings and particles as you work. Not only is it unhealthy to breath but it also created a fire hazard if your work area isn’t kept up and maintained on a regular basis.

I’ve read some posts that suggest that you can also wear a respirator while operating a lathe. This might work but the only thing that I can see wrong with this is, how will you wear one while also wearing a full face shield? To me it seems like that would be to cumbersome and uncomfortable. Woodworking is supposed to be a relaxing hobby.

Hand placement: Pay attention to your hands, watch what your doing. Keep your hands and fingers away from the moving head. Make sure that your hands or fingers don’t get in between the tool rest and your project. This is known as pinch point and a fun hobby can turn ugly in hurry if your not careful. Something else to mention, when changing out accessories, make sure the lathe is turned off and unplugged so that it won’t turn on by accident.

Clothing and Jewelry: Make sure your shirt tails are tucked in. If you have long sleeves have them rolled up to the elbow. If you can, wear short sleeves so you don’t have to bother with rolling them up. Remove all jewelry especially long necklaces so they won’t get caught in moving parts. It’s a good idea to tie up long hair as well for the same reason.

Lathe Chisels: Inspect your chisels every now and then. This should include your bowl gouges and your carbide ones if you have them. Make sure they haven’t become damaged or dulled. Dull tools believe it or not are more hazardous than sharp ones so keep them in good working order. If you come across one that’s looks damaged it’s just best to replace it.