Wood lathes can be a mystery to understand when you’re first getting started.  Maybe you’ve tried one or you’re looking for a new hobby and want to buy your first lathe.  We’ve put together the key information you’ll need to understand how to buy a wood lathe.

Wood Lathe Terminology

There are a few things you need to understand about a wood lathe.  The key parts are:

  • Lathe Bed – the foundation of the lathe that holds all the parts together
  • Lathe Stand – the leg assembly that holds up the bed rails
  • Head Stock – the motor, spindle, belt drive system, and motor controls make up the head stock
  • Spindle – where the power used to turn the wood using various mounting attachments
  • Tail Stock – the live center, quill, and hand wheel used to stabilize the opposite end from the head stock
  • Banjo or Tool Rest Base – the movable part that holds the tool rest, locking into the lathe bed
  • Tool Rest – the location where the turning chisels sit when cutting the wood 

Video Discussion about Buying a Wood Lathe

Watch Scott Bennett and Mike Waldt talk about how to buy a wood lathe.  This video covers not just lathes, but the tools and safety equipment you will also need.

How to buy a wood lathe YouTube video
How to buy a wood lathe YouTube video

How to Budget for Buying a Wood Lathe

Since a wood lathe isn’t a useful tool on it’s own, you will need to budget for additional tools when you’re deciding how much to spend on the lathe.  Here are some minimum items you will need and some additional items you may want to purchase now, or in the future:

Buy With the Lathe

These are the bare essential items you should have (see the video above for more discussion about why these are important).  From a budgeting perspective, these will cost roughly $350.

Purchases using links on this page provide us funding for our video production work.

Optional Additional Tools

  • AirShield Respirator (respirator with face shield built in – good for men with beards)
  • CBN Grinding Wheel
  • Bowl Gouge

Key Dimensions of Wood Lathes

There are three key dimensions you need to understand before you buy a wood lathe:

  • Swing – this is the maximum diameter of the turning over the bed, without the banjo/tool rest base attached.  This is an important dimension for turning bowls as they’re typically the largest diameter work you will be turning.
  • Swing over Tool Rest Base – In the event you will be working on large-diameter spindle turning, be aware, the banjo/tool rest base will decrease the swing capacity.
  • Distance Between Centers – this is the maximum length of wood you can turn on the lathe.  This is more important for spindle turning than it is for bowl turning.

Finding the details of lathe specifications takes some research, so we’ve compiled a chart to make it easier for you.  Note that purchases made on Amazon help fund our video production work.

Model Swing Capacity Swing over Tool Rest Base Tool Rest Size Distance Between Centers Relative Price Retailer
Craftex CX813 12” 9” 16” $ Busy Bee Tools
Laguna – Revo 12 I 16 EVS 12” 9” 6” 15” $$ Rockler
Delta 46-460 12” 9” 6”, 10” 16” $$ Amazon
Jet 1221VS 12” 9” 6”, 10” 20” $$ Amazon
Rikon 70-100 12” 9” 8” 16” $$ Amazon
Rikon 70-220VSR 12” 9” 8” 20” $$$ Lee Valley Tools
Craftex CX803 14” 43” $$ Busy Bee Tools
Jet 1440VSK 14” 11” 12” 40” $$$ Amazon
Harvey T40 Turbo 14” 10” 12” 24” $$$$ Woodcraft
Laguna – REVO 15|24 15” 11” 12” 24” $$$ Rockler
Grizzly Industrial G0462 16” 13” 12” 43” $$$ Amazon
Jet 1640EVS 16” 13” 14” 40” $$$$ Amazon
Laguna – REVO 18|36 18” 13” 12” 36” $$$$ Amazon

Buying a New or Used Wood Lathe

The benefits of being the first owner of a lathe are obvious as you know exactly how the lathe was treated and you will have the manufacturer’s warranty.  On the other hand, if you buy a used lathe, you can expect to spend 40-60% of the original retail price – that’s quite a discount.  If you decide to buy used and you’re not familiar with machinery maintenance, bring a friend along with you to help you decide if the lathe is operating the way you would want it to.

I purchased my lathe used.  I was able to buy it from someone in my own community, and I hit it off with the owner.  We had a great discussion and he showed me his new lathe and explained to me why he was selling the one I was interested in.  I tried it out and made sure all the parts were there before negating a price.  I also had done my research by finding the manual for the lathe online and reading through it to familiarize myself with it.  I’m still happy with my purchase and I bought it at 55% of the retail price.

Some Risks of Using a Lathe

This is not intended as a full list of safety advice, but it’s a list of some of the risks you need to be aware of when operating a lathe.

Don’t Work With Dull Chisels

When the chisels are dull, the user tends to force the work which can cause breakage and injury.  When spinning wood breaks on a lathe, it is very dangerous.  I was at a machinery store and the store clerk told me a story about a spindle turner who had a spindle break and it impaled his stomach.  The operator was only wearing a t-shirt, so I promptly bought an apron to wear when I turn spindles – maybe it was a sales tactic, but I wasn’t taking a chance.

Another reason to keep your chisels sharp is they work much better.  You will get significantly better quality results with sharp tools than you will with dull tools.  You will also find turning a much more enjoyable experience with sharp chisels.

Don’t Wear Jewelry

There have been cases where lathe operators have lost a finger because they were wearing a ring.  The spinning force of the machine is very powerful, and if the machine operator doesn’t take precautions, there are risks of injury

Don’t Wear Loose Clothing

Any loose clothing should be removed before using the lathe.  Items such as loose long sleeves or hoodie strings could get caught into the spinning lathe and cause you injury, or death.  There are some horrible stories of injury so you need to respect the power of the tool you’re working with

For a more comprehensive list of safety precautions, here’s an article from CompWest Insurance on The Unsafe Reality of Lathes.