Best Lathes

Updated December 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

17 Models Considered
6 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
244 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best lathes

Last Updated December 2019

A wood lathe is a versatile tool capable of making everything from pens and chess pieces to large platters and bar stools. If it’s round, then just about the only limit is your imagination.

As a result, wood lathes are popular with both hobbyists and professionals. In order to carry out such a wide range of tasks, there are lots of choices. Size and performance can vary dramatically. Stability, motor power, and speed are also considerations. It’s important to note what you want to use a lathe for when you set out to buy one, as that will inform your purchase.

We can help you choose the best lathe for your wood turning, whatever that happens to be. Our matrix showcases a variety of options that should suit everyone from the absolute beginner to the experienced craftsperson. In our buyer’s guide, we look at the parameters in more detail so you can make an informed choice.

Early lathes were used in the forest among the trees, mostly for making chair legs. A cord was tied to a young, springy branch or sapling and around a shaft to a foot-operated treadle. These woodturners were called “bodgers.” To earn a living, a bodger had to make over 100 legs per day.

Key considerations

Lathe sizes

Lathes are broadly divided into benchtop or floor-standing models. (Notably, leg sets are available for some benchtop models). Although benchtop models are generally smaller, there is some overlap. So how are lathes sized?

You generally see them described as 8 x 12 inches, 14 x 36 inches, and so on. The first figure is the “swing” — the largest diameter that can be turned. Technically, it’s the distance between the headstock spindle and the lathe bed.

In practice, you can never turn right up to the maximum swing because you’re always going to be removing some material from the blank. If you want to make a 12-inch bowl, for example, you need a 14-inch swing.

The second figure is the length “between centers” — the maximum distance between the headlock and tailstock spindles and thus, the longest piece of wood you can turn.

A small benchtop lathe might be 8 x 12 inches or 12 x 16 inches and is often called a mini lathe. Despite the title, a piece of wood 12 inches around and 16 inches long is still a substantial lump. Even relatively small lathes can have considerable capacity.

At the other end of the scale are models that hold pieces of wood as large as 20 x 35 inches. You probably won’t ever turn anything near that maximum — a piece of oak that size would weigh over 200 pounds — but it gives you some idea of the possibilities.

On some lathes, the headstock can swivel, which means it can be rotated at 90° to the bed. This can allow you to make larger diameter bowls because the bed bars aren’t in the way anymore (it’s called “outboard turning”). However, an additional tool rest is required, and this is almost always at an extra cost.

Large diameter doesn’t always mean the lathe is long. There are a number of “short bed” lathes specifically for turning large bowls; you might see 36 x 18 inches, for example. However, these are far from common and really only for specialists.

Stability

Stability is absolutely vital, so lathe beds are almost always cast iron, and legs (when fitted) are steel. When you first mount a piece of wood (before it’s turned), it’s uneven and can make even quite large lathes jump around. Cast iron adds rigidity and weight, reducing vibration and allowing you to get a good finish. In general, the heavier, the better. Even then, it’s usually recommended that you bolt the lathe down.

EXPERT TIP

Don’t wear loose clothing when turning. A woodworker’s smock or apron is a good idea. Never wear a tie or scarf. If you have long hair, pull it back out of the way.


Staff  | BestReviews

Features

Motor power

Motor power is an important aspect and in general, it varies from 1/3 to 2 hp. However, it’s not an area to worry about. Manufacturers are very good at matching performance to the overall specification of their tool.

Speed range

Speed range is important for two reasons. First, when you mount a new blank, it won’t be round, so it’s out of balance. You need a slow speed for initial material removal; after this, you raise the speed. Eventually, final sanding is done with the lathe running fast to give the smoothest possible finish.

Second, different woods cut better at different speeds, and you may want to slow down or speed up for various techniques.

Speed change is handled by a gearbox, which is almost always in the headstock. Belt drive is common; it generally gives five or six speeds and usually operates from 500 rpm to somewhere over 3,000 rpm. Belts have to be changed manually (a wrench is provided), which is not difficult but can get a little frustrating. The alternative is variable speed, controlled by a dial and digital readout. Not only does this give greater flexibility, but it often renders a lower initial speed. As you might expect, variable-speed lathes often cost more.

Tool rest

A tool rest is vital to allow you to control your turning chisel as you work. These vary in length from as small as three inches on some mini lathes to up to 12 inches or 14 inches on larger lathes. A short tool rest isn’t really a problem on a mini lathe, but on larger models it’s inconvenient because you have to stop to reset it when working on long pieces. Most are a standard fitting, so if you find the one supplied isn’t long enough, replacements should be available. A handful of rare machines are supplied with two.

Center

The tailstock supports the right-hand end of your work using a pointed device called a center. There are two sorts: dead and live. A dead center is fixed and can cause scorching on the end of the wood. It might also become loose and require retightening. A live center has ball bearings that allow it to rotate freely with the workpiece. It’s by far the better option and only a little more expensive.

Height

Most lathes are a fixed height, which can make turning for long periods uncomfortable for some. If you have a benchtop lathe, you could probably change the height of your bench without too much trouble. It’s difficult to do with a floor-standing lathe because of the stability you need — putting it on planks or blocks isn’t practical and could be dangerous if the lathe moves around under its load. A few high-end lathes offer adjustable height, but they’re expensive. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, take a break. If it starts to affect your concentration, that’s when accidents happen.

Indexing head

Another feature of some advanced lathes is an indexing head. It allows you to rotate the spindle by a precise number of degrees, such as marking a bowl off in eighth or twelfth segments. It’s a feature of interest to the more accomplished woodturner.

Off button

Sometimes you want to stop your lathe really quickly, so a prominent OFF button is definitely a good idea.

While it’s possible to teach yourself woodturning (if you’re very careful), a short course is highly recommended. With an expert on hand, you can learn the proper techniques quickly and practice and improve at home.

Lathe prices

Inexpensive: There are quite a few inexpensive wood lathes around, but we advise caution. Poor castings and inferior build quality often result in huge disappointment. Expect to pay at least $150 for a mini lathe. Most cost between $200 and $300.

Mid-range: In terms of size and price, it’s quite a step up to a mid-range lathe. You’re unlikely to find much under $800, and it’s not difficult to pay twice that. However, most hobby woodturners find what they’re looking for in this bracket, and you’re able to turn everything from salad bowls to table legs (which are often made in two pieces).

Expensive: Large-capacity wood lathes are a serious investment, but they provide almost limitless capacity and the opportunity for you to continually challenge yourself and improve your skills. Prices start at around $2,500 and can top $5,000.

EXPERT TIP

Stability is vital for good finish quality. To minimize vibrations, it’s always a good idea to bolt your lathe down. Even those with stands usually have holes in the legs to allow for this.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

In addition to your lathe, there are a few other items you may need:

  • Wood turning chisels are not like ordinary chisels. The handles are longer, giving more control and leverage. The blades are different shapes, precisely designed to suit various wood-turning tasks. A quality set makes a big difference to the ease and speed of your work and the quality you product.
  • Chisels can blunt quickly, particularly when turning hardwood. You need a bench grinder to sharpen them. Ideally, it should be relatively close to the lathe. If it’s too far away, you might tend to put off sharpening, causing your work to suffer.
  • Wood turning creates lots of shavings surprisingly quickly, and finish sanding adds lots of fine dust. Some kind of extraction — even if it’s just a basic shop vac — is essential.
  • For your own protection, you need a face shield (not just goggles) and a good quality dust mask. Wood turning is an absorbing hobby, but don’t underestimate how unpleasant wood dust can be. Depending on the variety, it can cause throat irritation, breathing problems, and rhinitis. Several exotic woods, sought after because of the beauty of their grain pattern and color, can cause vomiting and headaches.
  • It’s nice to be able to focus additional lighting on your lathe. A flexible clip-on lamp is a good solution, but make sure it’s secure and that there’s no way it could fall into the work while it rotates.
  • Although not absolutely necessary, a good band saw is a great companion to a lathe, allowing you to convert square section lumber into a roughly round blank before turning. It saves a lot of time, and your lathe runs more smoothly.

Other products we considered

If you like the idea of turning pens or making miniatures, you’ll struggle to find better value than WEN 3420T 8 x 12 inch Mini Wood Lathe. You don’t get variable speed on many mini lathes, and there’s also a face plate for non-spindle turning.

If bowl turning is your thing but you’re a bit short on space, Delta Industrial 46-460 Midi Lathe offers a class-leading 12 1/2-inch swing in a compact, high-quality machine. Some may find the 16 1/2 inches between centers a bit short, but bed extensions are available.

If you’re looking for big capacities on a comparatively modest budget, Grizzly G0462 Wood Lathe offers a 16-inch swing and a massive 43 inches between centers. The 10-speed gearbox has a useful digital readout and Grizzly has a tremendous reputation for durability.

Most mid-size and large lathes require some assembly. Components can be heavy, so it’s good to have someone lend a hand. Large, heavy lathes may have special delivery requirements, so check when ordering.

FAQ

Q. Is a mini lathe better for beginners?
A.
Not necessarily. Mini lathes are very compact, so they’re great if you’re short on space. They are best for pen makers, model makers, and miniaturists. However, if you have room, a mid-size model gives more versatility and allows you to tackle a wider range of projects.

Q. Does a wood lathe need much maintenance?
A.
No. In fact, they are very easy to look after. Most can be cleaned with a soft brush and a shop vac after use. Periodic lubrication is recommended by the manufacturer, and it’s important to follow their suggestions to prolong the life of your lathe, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes. With manual gearboxes, take a glance to check the belt for wear each time you change speed. It’s not a bad idea to have a spare handy, but depending on how much use your lathe gets, they last for months or even years.

Q. Can I use a wood lathe for turning metal?
A.
You can, but it’s not ideal. Softer metals like aluminum and brass can be turned relatively successfully, but steel requires different tools, generally higher speeds, and the use of coolants to prevent overheating. If you want to turn metal with any regularity, we advise investing in a metalworking lathe.

The team that worked on this review
  • Bob
    Bob
    Writer
  • Katherine
    Katherine
    Editor
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer

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