Everything You Need to Know About Lathes

By Peter Jacobs

As a machinist or CNC expert working around vertical mills all day, you must know about the lathe machine. Although lathe machines nowadays are highly advanced with new technologies, they are one of the oldest machinery tools invented back in 1300 BCE in ancient Egypt.

Around 1569 C.E., lathe machines were majorly used in France for making wooden products; however, during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, people in England modernized the metal lathe.

In this blog, we’ll be delving into the details, different types, how to learn to use one, and more. Let’s get started.

What is a Lathe?

A lathe is a machine tool used to shape wooden or metallic products. It furnishes a wooden or metal piece by rotating it about an axis while a stationary cutting tool keeps removing unwanted material from the workpiece to form the desired shape.

These machines are used for various product fabricating operations such as sanding, drilling, cutting, deformation, and turning. They are employed in the metalworking, thermal spraying, glass processing, and wood tuning of various artistic products.

Being one of the most ancient machinery tools able to perform a wide range of fabrication tasks, it is also known as the “Mother of All Machine Tools.”


How Does a Lathe Work?

Before learning how this machine works, it is essential to know about its parts. Most consist of the following:

  • Bed

  • Headstock

  • Tailstock

  • Spindle

  • Motor

  • Chuck

  • Cutting tools

The Working Process of a Lathe Machine

Step 1: The piece to be worked upon is placed between the headstock and tailstock. It is buckled with the chuck that helps put the workpiece into a stable position by gripping it from the outside.

Step 2: The workpiece is rotated with the help of a spindle which is connected to a motor. It makes the workpiece rotate at its axis.

Step 3: A cutting tool is then placed in the tool holder that holds the cutter at an appropriate distance from the rotating workpiece so its blades can cut the workpiece as desired. Different types of cutting tools are used for different desired shapes and materials.


Types of Lathe Machines

Nowadays, you can find numerous types of lathe machines out of which some of the most used are:

Engine Lathe

Engine lathes have been a popular invention since the Industrial Revolution. They utilized steam engines as a source of power for continuous rotation. These machines are now used majorly for industrial purposes for drilling or boring metal pieces.

Speed Lathes

Speed lathes are used for cutting work on wooden pieces. As the velocity of the revolution of the spindle in this type of lathe is high, they are known as speed lathes. They are one of the simplest machines to understand as they only consist of a headstock, tailstock, and a tool turret.

Turret Lathes

Turret lathes are ideal for producing identical workpieces. It has a turret that allows the machine to hold several cutting tools that can be used simultaneously.

Tool Room Lathes

A Tool Room lathe is the best option if you seek accuracy with cuts. In terms of function and operating process, Tool Room lathes are identical to Engine lathes. You can easily control the speed of Tool Room lathes in accordance with the desired cut.

Glass Lathes

As glass is highly fragile and can shatter when cut with a blade, a Glass lathe uses heat from a torch to make it malleable. Once the glass gets pliable, it is shaped by hand. This type of lathe is mainly used to produce glassware such as bangles or designed mirrors.


Difference Between a Metal Work Lathe and a Wooden Work Lathe

Although most of the lathes have similar functions, not all can be used to fabricate one material. For example, a lathe fabricating wooden products cannot be used to work on metal pieces.

Metal Work Lathe Wooden Work Lathe
Engine Power A lathe used for metal pieces has strong engine power. It has a relatively less powerful engine.
Rotation Speed Most metal work lathes rotate much faster than a woodwork lathe and have a variable rotation speed. It has a rotation speed of 500-1200 rotations per minute and generally doesn’t have a variable speed.
Size and sharpness of cutting tools Lathes used for metal pieces have relatively bigger-sized and more sharpened blades. Blades in a woodwork lathe are smaller in size and less sharpened.

Lathe Machine FAQs

What are lathes used for?

Lathes have been used to shape various materials from the earliest times. From ancient Egypt and the Industrial Revolution in England to the modern-day world, these machines are used to shape material products.

Is it hard to learn to use a lathe?

It is important to first learn machining from an experienced instructor in an established machine shop. At The Crucible, you can learn how to safely use machining equipment and make precise, accurate cuts. Our Machine Shop offers introductory classes for machinists that are just starting out, and open lab time is available for students to perfect their skills on the lathe and for experienced workers to work on personal projects. If you are interested in turning wood on the lathe, our Wood Shop offers both introductory classes for beginner woodworkers and also advanced woodturning classes for those with an understanding of turning wood on a lathe.

How much do lathes cost?

An average range for the cost of a lathe for hobbyists can range from $800-$6,000. Prices for industrial lathes can cost all the way up to $60,000, and CNC lathes can price out at even $500,000. There is a huge difference between different types of lathes, so do your research and be sure to have a clear understanding of the type you need.

What type of lathe do I need?

The type you will need is determined by the material you are working with, the amount of space you have, and your budget to start. Different types have varying engine strengths, rotation speeds, blade sizes, and more. If you are working with metal, you will need a more powerful engine and more variable speeds on your machine. Wooden lathes do not require as much power and can work with smaller and less sharp blade sizes.

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This Guide Has The Expert Stamp of Approval

Peter Jacobs, Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters

Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights to various blogs on CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general.

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