The 10 Best Power Lathes
This wiki has been updated 25 times since it was first published in April of 2015. Ready to expand your workshop's capabilities? Whether you are a novice looking to start your very first project, a hobbyist woodworker building intricate models, or a professional furniture maker overdue for an equipment upgrade, our selection of power lathes is sure to include an appropriate model for you, as we've included something for everyone, from the budget-minded to the demanding. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
September 03, 2020:
Removed the Wen 3420 Benchtop in favor of the Baileigh MLD-1030.
If you're looking to turn wood, then the Jet JWL-1640 and the Laguna Tools Mlarevo 1836 are excellent options. They have thick shafts which helps keep run-out to a minimum, and they have powerful variable speed drives that should provide smooth turns to reduce chatter against sharp chisels. Their long beds are wide enough to be used to turn table legs. Keep in mind that the length of the bed isn't everything. You'll need to consider the girth and the swing in selecting a wood lathe. This is the distance between the top of the bed and the center. This determines the maximum width of the objects you can turn. This will end up limiting your options much more than just the length of the bed.
You should never attempt to turn metal in any lathe intended for wood. Your hands are not precise, stable, and consistent enough to safely cut metal turning at a high speed and doing so is very dangerous. Similarly, you should not try to turn wood in metal lathes like the Baileigh MLD-1030. Wood dust can foul certain components and prevent them from operating properly. Also, wood lathes typically turn faster than metal lathes, so you'll likely be trying to cut at RPMs lower than what you need. There is also no tool rest so unless you make one, it will be quite an unstable process.
Turning wood and metal are both extremely dangerous. Using a metal lathe is particularly dangerous and should only be attempted by those who are familiar with all of the functions and dangers of a metal lathe.
August 29, 2019:
In revisiting our list, it was imperative that we provide users with a wide range of options, from inexpensive benchtop models to much more expensive freestanding lathes that might be suitable for use in a small production facility or high school wood shop. We eliminated one of the more inexpensive models, the Proxxon DB 250, which ultimately didn't offer users enough security for their work piece, and proved significantly more basic than something like the Wen 3420T, which offers more machine for less money.
That gave us some room to beef up the list with some more powerful options, and we turned to Jet — one of the finest producers of high-end tabletops — and the slightly lesser-known Laguna Tools to fit the bill. The former of those two new additions ended up in our number one spot, as it utilizes an incredibly reliable non-marring positive locking system to hold posts and other pieces. It combines that with an exceptionally powerful and smooth-operating motor to make it our favorite option.
Girzzly is another company we think makes some admirable pieces, but their best work comes at a price that's too outstanding for most consumers, so while we kept their G8688 Mini on the list back at number nine, it was in our special honors section that we found an opportunity to highlight one of the better, more massive products: the G0776, a CNC-augmented gunsmithing machine that is arguably a bargain for its capabilities compared with something like the Powermatic Digital in our number four slot.
Bolton Tools CBT1340 If you're outfitting a full-scale production facility with the intent to produce accurately honed CNC components, there are few better options for the price than this. Of course, it's far too expensive for the casual wood worker, but with a Siemens 808D servo motor and animated tool path graphics on its integrated display, pros will be hard-pressed to find something more capable. boltontool.com
Grizzly 13 x 40 Gunsmithing This option is equipped with just about everything a serious worker needs, including a bright halogen work lamp, an eight-speed gearhead, and a D1-4 spindle that boasts a 1.57-inch bore. It even has a foot brake for added safety. It's a pricey model, to be sure, but it undoubtedly belongs in a professional shop. grizzly.com
The Chicken And The Lathe
The lathe, and we'll spend our time here predominantly discussing power lathes, looks like a terribly complex and difficult to use instrument at first glance.
It's a mystery to the larger portion of the populace how things like screw threads are cut so perfectly into metal, or how the legs of a well made chair can be honed and detailed to such perfection. The truth of the matter is that the machine used for these and many more such nuanced applications in shaping and cutting is rather simple.
The lathe, and we'll spend our time here predominantly discussing power lathes, looks like a terribly complex and difficult to use instrument at first glance. It's got a handful of parts that all seem to move in different directions, and it presents a front akin to the pottery wheel and all its attendant difficulty in craftsmanship.
When it comes down to it, however, the lathe works like nothing more than a very fast rotisserie. Where a rotisserie spins a piece of meat to ensure that all of its sides cook evenly in the presence of a single heat source, your lathe spins a piece of wood or metal to ensure that it evenly meets with a cutting, drilling, or sanding device, among others.
While a rotisserie takes its spit, which is the rod used to support and turn the meat, and puts it through the food, your lathe has a device in the larger end, or headstock, that grabs onto the item you intend to shape. This is also where your power comes from, as the heastock houses your lathe's motor, delivering an incredibly fast spin to the material in question. The shorter end, or tailstock, can grip or drill into the other end of your piece, giving you more support as well as the ability to create internal, female threads, or to create pilot holes and other useful punctures.
Underneath your work space, on the part of the lathe that lives between the stocks, known as the bed, there's a unit that can move your tools for cutting and shaping on a perpendicular axis to your piece, as well as a rotating compound that allows you to create more nuanced angles along the edges of your work.
When you do eventually get your lathe home or into your workshop, make sure to impress your friends by demonstrating its power, as well as your knack for analogous thinking, by getting a nice juicy chicken from the store and taking it for a destructive and meaty spin. Or don't; that's up to you.
Power And Nuance At Your Fingertips
Finding a lathe suitable for the tasks you intend to pursue shouldn't be terribly difficult. All the lathes on our list present you with strong, durable work spaces and precise craftsmanship. What you need to focus on when picking from among them will begin, most likely, with size.
If you find your power is sufficient, but that your work space is too tight, look for a lathe that has an easily extended bed.
Most of the lathes on our list are meant to live on a work bench, though you will see the occasional free-standing lathe. The free-standing options often have longer beds and more powerful motors, which are ideal if you're working with bigger, heavier pieces. For simpler wood and metal work, however, you might not need all that power.
If you find your power is sufficient, but that your work space is too tight, look for a lathe that has an easily extended bed. These have openings at the ends where you can see the track in which the saddle moves parallel to the work space, as well as two or four holes in the body of the lathe bed. This is the point at which you can attach a bed extension.
If the sizes and powers of any of these lathes will suit your needs, then you might want to compare the mechanisms by which individual parts of your lathe move. Traditional designs utilize a small wheel to run the saddle along its track, and smaller levers to manipulate the cross slide and compound. Artisans with bigger hands would do well to avoid a lathe that compresses the size of its controls to shrink the overall footprint of the lathe, as these will be much tougher to manipulate.
When The Machines Began Their Takeover
One of the great fears in the age of interconnected machines and artificial intelligence is that there will eventually be a splinter group of self-aware androids capable of building smarter and smarter machines with more destructive power than ever before, all with the sole intention of destroying mankind and presiding over a purely mechanical world. Pretty scary stuff.
One person used a rope to rotate a piece of wood or stone, and another person would use a cutting object of some kind to carve shapes and designs into said wood.
It may not seem like it, but the lathe is front and center at the very dawn of this idea, as it was the first machine tool that lead directly to the design and creation of other machine tools. Sure, the human element was till present, but a revolution on this scale will take millennia.
Those early lathes just so happen to reach back millennia, all the way to ancient Egypt. These units, active from around 1300 BCE, were manually operated (electricity was still a good ways off). One person used a rope to rotate a piece of wood or stone, and another person would use a cutting object of some kind to carve shapes and designs into said wood.
Much later, in the late 18th century, British engineers designed a lathe that was literally horse-powered. It also positioned the work piece vertically so that a boring tool could sink into it as it turned. These were used primarily in the development of stronger, more accurate cannons that wreaked havoc in the US during the Revolutionary War.
Another hundred years on, lathes drew power from steam and water pressure, eventually adopting electric motors around the turn of the 20th century, giving us the basic design for the power lathes you have to choose from today.