Wood Lathes - What to Look For When You Buy Your First One

Most people involved in woodworking for a while are in good shape when they are going to buy their first wood lathe. Many of the things to look for in a wood lathe are the same things one looks for in other woodworking machinery such as quality of finish and heavy material. However, there are some things specially to look for as a wood lathe is different from the other power tools in the typical woodworking shop.
First of all, look for a lathe that is built to absorb vibration. Many of today's tools are manufactured of steel or aluminum. Either can be made to have great strength compared to lightness, but either material requires extensive and expensive engineering to absorb vibration. This is an issue because of the way in which wood is treated on the lathe compared to something like a band saw or table saw. In the latter cases wood, generally in the form of uniform boards, is placed on a stable table and fed through a blade. There is little vibration involved assuming the blade is balanced.
Wood lathes, on the other hand, hold the wood and turn it at fairly high speeds. Often the wood is rough and unbalanced. This is something like driving an unbalanced tire at highway speeds. Just like the car will rattle and sway, so will the lathe. In the case of the wood lathe, cast iron is the answer and even the lower priced beginner's lathes will have some models with cast iron head and tail stocks. At a little higher price even the ways will be cast iron and it is generally worth it. Many woodturners have begun, however, on a model of lathe that has a single way made of a steel tube and yet with cast iron head and tail stocks. These have worked quite well for many turners.
The finish needs to be adequate on the head and tail stock and great on the ways. If the ways are finished properly the tail stock and tool rest will move well and freely. This makes turning a pleasure. On the other hand, a poor finish on the ways make it a pain to move either one and a frustration to a turner.
Make sure the head and tail stocks line up. Put a center in each one and bring them together. They should line up both vertically and horizontally. Some lathes will have measures to line up the centers but this is seldom seen in beginner's models.
All that is needed now is a good stand. Most beginner's level wood lathes have no stand or a poorly made pressed steel one. Making a solid one out of wood or metal is the best bet in either case.
These tips should help in choosing a first wood lathe. Just remember that, like most tools, it is easy to grow out of the first lathe so getting one with a good resale value helps too.

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