The 9 Best Power Lathes
9. Grizzly G8688
- easy to learn to operate
- quiet and smooth operation
- motor can shut off during hard cuts
|Rating||3.9 / 5.0|
8. Rikon 70-100 Mini
- six rpm speeds for different jobs
- adjustable drive belt
- often ships without tool rest
|Brand||RIKON Power Tools|
|Rating||3.9 / 5.0|
7. Shop Fox W1758
- heavy legs for solid stability
- belt gets worn down quickly
- does not have a reverse option
|Rating||4.1 / 5.0|
6. Wen 3420
- locks and releases quickly
- compact size for easy storage
- stalls with some frequency
|Rating||4.0 / 5.0|
5. Proxxon DB 250
- tool rest turns 360 degrees
- comes with 6 collets
- tool rest is rather small
|Rating||4.3 / 5.0|
4. Jet JWL-1015
- advanced tensioning system
- easy access to the belts
- wide bed for increased rigidity
|Rating||4.3 / 5.0|
3. Nova 46300 Comet II
- rapid access guard latch
- sturdy die-cast motor housing
- no-vault release for safety
|Rating||4.4 / 5.0|
2. Powermatic 3520B
- sliding headstock adjusts easily
- strong 2-horsepower motor
- self-ejecting laser etched quills
|Rating||4.8 / 5.0|
1. Jet JWL-1221VS
- smooth forward to reverse transition
- works with multiple attachments
- operates between 60 and 3600 rpm
|Rating||4.6 / 5.0|
The Chicken And The Lathe
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.
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.
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.