Hello, fellow carvers! Today we are in the wood turning lathe world. Which is the best wood lathe to buy? This is a very difficult question because only you know what you need. Do you need a strong but small one? Do you work a lot, or is it just a hobby for you?
There is no way for me to know. However, in this wood lathes review, I will present some products I thought were a good option, but with different kinds of needs in mind. Thus, I believe everyone can find something for their particular workshop.
As always, in the first part of this article, I will describe some details regarding lathes for those of us who are at the beginning of their woodcarving journey. Then we will go through my recommended products list, which will hopefully help you decide on your next wood lathe. So let’s start!
Now, after so many years in woodcarving, I do understand that some of you don’t have time to read long texts, and prefer to have their tools and projects in front of them rather than a laptop screen. So let me summarize the essentials about the lathes I recommend here so that you can have a general idea of what I will write about in detail later.
- SHOP FOX W1704 1/3-Horsepower Benchtop Lathe
- If you are willing to accept a bit strange tool rests, this is a great quality for the price for those who keep themselves busy with lighter projects.
- JET JWL-1221VS, 12"x21" Variable-Speed Woodworking Lathe
- Everything here aims to top functionality. However, it is a bit costly and heavy, so it’s not recommended for single-man workshops. All in all, this JET lathe is absolutely a 2021 best buy.
- RIKON Power Tools 70-105 10" x 18" 1/2 hp Mini Lathe
- This is a great tool for small-scale projects, and especially for beginners.
- Delta Industrial 46-460 12-1/2-Inch Variable-Speed Midi Lathe
- This lathe is perfect for busy and professional workshops, which require durability. Also, it’s great for people who work with medium-sized projects.
- Grizzly Industrial T25920 - 12" x 18" Variable-Speed Benchtop Wood Lathe
- The main flaw of this product is its not so strong motor, so it’s good for smaller projects and beginners.
- WEN 3421 3.2-Amp 8" by 12" Variable Speed Mini Benchtop Wood Lathe
- This is a great buy for the beginners, who still don’t have high volume of work and are focused on softwoods and smaller objects.
- Price not available
What Is A Wood Lathe?
A wood lathe is an inhabitant of every professional woodcarver’s workshop. It is a power tool, meaning that it has a motor that uses electrical power to make the wood chunk go around. The wood is usually placed horizontally, and while it’s spinning, the craftsman leans some kind of a cutting tool against it to make symmetrical shapes.
Although they vary in size, lathes usually have quite big proportions. This is because they are meant for processing larger pieces of wood, which are otherwise impossible to complete only by hand tools, scroll saws or drills. Their size makes them powerful and stable at the same time.
So, let’s learn a bit more about lathes before we pass on to buying one. Which parts do they consist of? Which characteristics determine them? What tools do you need along with them? These are all questions you are about to find answers to in the following section.
Wood Lathe Consisting Parts
A typical wood lathe is made up of three main parts: a base, a headstock, a tailstock and a tool rest.
The base or bed of a lathe, as you might have guessed, is the lower part of the machine, which holds the upper, operative part. It doesn’t have anything to do with woodwork itself, but it’s fundamental for the machine’s stability and your safety as a craftsman. Namely, it has to be very stable, so it’s usually very heavy and sturdy. This weight prevents the lathe from vibrating, which you don’t want when you are doing some fine woodwork. Besides, it also prevents it from moving or even falling, which could cause damage to any person standing around.
For all these reasons, bases are usually cast in iron, regardless of their size, to make sure no undesired vibrations disturb working with the wood.
When we are speaking about the operative part of a lathe, it’s the headstock and a tailstock. These two parts are placed on each side of the base, and the wood is enclosed between the two. The difference is in that the headstock is the one operating with the motor, so it’s the one moving the hunk. The headstock is a long metal pinnacle that spikes the hunk, holding it strongly in place and rotating it.
On the other hand, the tailstock is on the opposite side of the base, and it is another metal pinnacle. Only, the tailstock is without a motor, and it is adjustable to the length of the wood chunk. It’s function is to press the wood chunk, pierced by the headstock on the other side, to make sure it stays in a firm grip.
To explain the tool rest, it is first necessary to say a couple of words about the woodcutting tools we use while working with the lathe. Namely, the lathe itself doesn’t cut anything, it is not a drill or a grinder. It only spins the wood, while it is the craftsman who cuts and shapes the wood by holding a piece of a cutting tool in his hands, placing it against the rotating plank. Now, as we mentioned, since lathes are usually meant for larger projects, these cutting tools are usually quite big in size. So, it takes a lot of strength on the part of the craftsman to hold these tools to make precise cuts in the wood.
With that in mind, you will understand that you need a stable and strong tool rest to lean your tool so that it’s properly supported while cutting the plank. Therefore, the tool rest is a mobile attachment to the base, a metal bar whose function is to additionally support the tools you hold in your hands while cutting. Their position is adjustable so that you can change the distance to the plank as you progress through your project. Usually, it has an interchangeable top bar, which comes in different shapes, which fit different shapes of the cavity you hollowed in the wood, letting you properly approach all parts of the project.
What Are Important Traits of a Lathe?
One of the most important traits of a lathe is of course its size. As mentioned, lathes are generally big power tools, but there are also smaller mobile versions. To be precise, there are three size categories of lathes: mini, midi and full-size.
The full-sized lathes are around four feet high, and represent a professional’s machine, producing large wooden objects, such as bowls, plates etc. Midi or medium-sized lathes are the most common ones, as they are big enough for most types of work, and yet not too big to occupy too much workshop space. Finally, mini lathes are devices you can place on your worktable or bench-tops. We use them for making objects such as pens and pencils, rings, cups etc.
Next to the size, we have to consider a lathe’s capacity. The capacity refers to the dimensions of the wood you are able to process on a lathe. In technical language, we determine this by stating two values: DBC (Distance Between Centres) and SOB (Swing Over Bed).
DBC will tell you the exact distance between the tailstock and the headstock. It’s important because it dictates the maximum length of the plank you can work on. Depending on the size of the lathe, it goes between 10 and 40 inches, or even above that.
SOB, on the other hand, determines the maximum diameter of the plank supported by the lathe. What can be tricky here is that sometimes products list SOB as diameter, while others measure it in radius, which is half the diameter, so be sure to pay attention here. With a mini lathe, you can expect a maximum supported diameter of around 6 inches, while full-sized devices can go up to 15 inches or more.
Now that we stated the dimensions and capacity, the next question is: how strong and how fast can lathes be?
In terms of strength, we measure a lathe’s power output in horse powers (HP). Yes, we evaluate lathes just like a Lamborghini! Of course, you will notice here we deal with much less motor power. Mini lathes’ power goes around one HP, while the bigger ones can go up to 2 HP.
Then, there comes the speed. This usually refers to the number of turns per minute, and usually varies somewhere between 250 and 4000 RPMs (Rotations Per Minute), depending on the size and brand.
Other Important Things To Consider Before Buying
First of all, don’t forget that prior to fully using the creative capacities of a lathe, you need to have adequate equipment, and by that, I mean wood cutting tools. These are hand tools shaped like regular woodworking instruments, but are much larger in size, and are usually held with both hands.
Basically, they look like maximized versions of chisels and gauges. As you probably know, chisels have a straight cutting edge, while gauges have a curved one. You will need both, as each produces a specific type of cut, providing different designs in the wood – cutting, shaving, sanding etc.
Apart from that, you will probably need some kind of a measuring tool, such as a spring calliper. It will help you assess the wood diameter and the depth of the hollows you cut in the plank.
There are accessories that come in handy with a lathe, primarily for your own safety. As a lathe can be quite noisy, it is good to take care of your ears by buying a pair of earplugs or earmuffs. Also, a face shield can keep your face from wood chips flying around, while a good set of gloves can save your fingers from unnecessary cuts.
Now that we know more about lathes, it’s time to check what are the best buys at the moment. But before that, just a quick remark: in case you stumbled upon this article while actually searching for a cutting power tool, maybe I can recommend my Best Scroll Saws review.
Also, if you are an experienced woodworker, your tools might need some sharpening. In that case, check out my Best Diamond Sharpening Stones guide, I really put an effort into that one. On the other hand, if you are a beginner in woodcarving, before going straight to diamond sharpening stones, first check out my detailed guide into How to Sharpen Wood Carving Tools.
As you probably know after reading many reviews online, everyone has their own criteria for evaluating products. It’s perfectly normal, and that is why we all share our opinions – so that you can learn about them and finally decide for yourself.
That being said, in this review I decided on the following list of criteria, which seemed important to me in the case of wood lathes: price, strength (power of the motor), speed range and brand.
SHOP FOX W1704 1/3-Horsepower Benchtop Lathe
This handy mini lathe is a Woodstock brand, so I kind of expected it to be of premium quality right at the start. It having a DBC of 12’’ and SOB 8’’, and a motor with only ⅓ of HP, which means that this lathe is best for working with smaller and lighter pieces of wood. Also, speed range between 700 and 3200 RPMs sounds good for a mini lathe.
With this tabletop lathe, you also get two tool rests. I was a bit disappointed to see that a lot of people seem to complain about these, saying that they have a bumpy texture, poor positioning and keep getting loose.
- Easy set-up
- Unhandy tool rests
To Sum Up
If you are willing to accept a bit strange tool rests, this is a great quality for the price for those who keep themselves busy with lighter projects. It’s easy to set up and very quiet while working. A 90 days warranty doesn’t sound like much, but it’s better than nothing.
JET JWL-1221VS 12″x21″ Variable-Speed Lathe
I don’t even know where to begin in praising this device. Let’s start with basic technical details. It’s a midi benchtop wood lathe, which can optionally be stretched to up to 43’’ DBC, which means it can also be a full-sized device. Further on, it has a capacity of up to 3600 RPMs, a variable speed option and spins in both directions. JET, a well-known brand among woodcarvers operating for more than half a century, made sure all is made of top materials.
Still not impressed? This tool has a digital RPM display, an indexing option and an innovative ratchet style belt tension system, guaranteeing maximum precision. Also, if the space in your workshop allows it, you can make it a standing lathe by purchasing an optional stand, with a tool basket.
- Lots of plug-ins
- Easy to use
- Premium quality
To Sum Up
This time, we are speaking about a seriously good device. Everything here aims top functionality. However, we have to admit that it is a bit costly, and is heavy, so it’s not recommended for single-man workshops. All in all, if we add a 5-year warranty on the top of all the great features of this lathe, this JET lathe is absolutely a 2021 best buy.
RIKON 70-105 10″ x 18″ Mini Lathe
This lathe is a mini-sized one, with a motor power of ½ HP, which is not bad for this size of a product. It supports a maximum of 18’’ long and 10’’ diameter wood pieces.
Now, the RIKON brand is located in China, however, since it has a 5-year warranty, I would take this tool seriously. It is made of cast iron, and works quite smoothly, without much vibrations. It comes with tool rest, a knock-out bar and wrenches.
The major issue with this model are plastic belt covers, which seem to be of poor quality and falling off, according to the reviews.
- Cheap construction of some parts
- Variable speed option unavailable
To Sum Up
This is a great tool for small-scale projects, and especially for beginners. The price is good, the brand not so much, but all in all, it is a good deal for those who don’t need a high-performance lathe.
Delta Industrial 46-460 12 1/2-Inch Variable-Speed Midi Lathe
This machine is probably one of the best midi lathes in its category. It has a powerful 1 HP motor, and a nice capacity of SOB – 12 and a half inches. It boasts with electronically controlled speed variation, which means you won’t have to change the belt position manually, and it spins in both directions.
However, what I have noticed about this device is that a lot of people seem to complain about the reverse and forward functions being set oposite to what is marked out, so this could be an issue.
- Electronically controlled speed variation
- Strong motor
- The reverse and forward functions are reversed
To Sum Up
With the Delta brand, there is no need for a special introduction. This brand that recently celebrated a century of being in the machinery building business, is always a good buy. This lathe is perfect for busy and professional workshops, which require durability. Also, it’s great for people who work with medium-sized projects, and prefer to work in hardwoods.
Grizzly Industrial T25920 – 12″ x 18″ Variable-Speed Benchtop Lathe
Here’s another medium sized benchtop lathe. It’s major advantage is speed. It has three speeds, and a good speed range (lowest 650 and highest 3800). Additionally, the digital display and a speed control knob enables you full control over the spinning velocity.
However, the power of the motor being ¾ HP, doesn’t seem impressive for a midi lathe.
- Easy to assemble and use
- Good customer service
To Sum Up
This Grizzly model seems like a good medium quality option. The main flaw of this product is its not so strong motor, so it’s good for smaller projects and not so busy workshops or beginners.
WEN 3421 8″ x 12″ Variable Speed Mini Benchtop Lathe
We will finish our journey through best wood lathes with another mini-sized one. The design of this piece is unique and eyecatching, and its black color really stands out from anything we reviewed today.
Now, regarding its functionality, speed range between 750 and 3200 RPMs is very good for a small lathe. It comes with two different tool rests. According to the number of reviews, it seems to be quite a popular buy, and when a product manages to keep 4,5 rating with so many reviews, you know it’s a good buy. However, according to the price, you know this is a great buy for the beginners, but not for professionals.
- Good customer service
- Easy to set up
- Variable speed
To Sum Up
This is a great buy for the beginners, who still don’t have high volume of work and are focused on softwoods and smaller objects.
To Sum Up
In the end, I would just like to say a few words about safety. Lathes are a really powerful tool, and require particular attention from you when working with them. Pay attention so your loose clothes or jewelry don’t get caught by the rotating part, as this could cause injury. Also, make sure to wear protective equipment, such as working glasses and ear protection.
Otherwise, wood turning lathe is a great power tool that enables a significant load of work to be done easily and precisely. It is a must-have for every professional workshop, but beginners are also invited to try out smaller versions, while practicing.
In this wood lathes review, my intention was to guide you through some of the best wood lathes I think are out there, and hopefully provide you with some important information about them. As we could see, there is no perfect tool, but there definitely is a tool that matches your needs in the best possible manner. I hope you found one for you!
What’s the best wood lathe for a beginner?
It’s definitely a mini, benchtop lathe. Their motors usually have lower power, but as beginners work in softwoods, such as basswood, a bit less powerful device is just fine. Besides, beginners still don’t have big load of work to do, so durability is not something they require at any cost. Therefore, a stable mini wood lathe at an affordable price is a perfect choice for them.
What is the best wood for turning on a lathe?
You can process any type wood with lathes, but as they are very powerful tools, it makes hardwoods particularly attractive for craftsmen. They usually take the challenge of working with maple, walnut or cherry.
What projects can be made with a wood lathe?
There is a great variety of projects you can make with a wood turning lathe, that is one of the reasons people buy them. You can make various objects, from pens, spoons and table legs, to bowls, plates, and cups.