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What is a Turret Lathe?

By Jodee Redmond
Updated May 17, 2024
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A turret lathe is used by metalworking shops to fashion parts that are a standard size and shape. This style of lathe has an indexable toolholder, which means that a series of cuts may be made to the piece in succession. The person operating the turret lathe doesn't need to stop in between cuts to set up for the next one. The path used to make the metal parts using a turret lathe is controlled by the machine itself, which leads to a more efficient process.

The turret lathe has been in use since the mid-19th century. Its development was an important one for manufacturers. Before the turret lathe came into existence, making quality metal tools or components was dependent on the skill of the operator. Once it started being used in manufacturing plants, it meant that tools and other parts could be made quicker and at a lower cost.

Another advantage to using a tool lathe was that workers could be hired to use this device without being engineers or skilled toolmakers. This development also helped to keep labor costs down. The more educated employees would still be needed to set up the machines, but the actual operation could be performed by a cheaper work force.

Unique parts would still need to be made by a master craftsman, and the turret lathe wouldn't be used for this purpose. When mass production is the required, this type of lathe is the most efficient choice for producers. The settings for each type of tool can be stored. Changing the settings when it's time to produce a different part is a quick and easy process.

Starting in the latter part of the 19th century, the turret lathe became an important part of the manufacturing process. The first automatic turret lathe was developed in 1873. Christopher Miner Spencer did patent his invention, but unfortunately didn't include the cam drum in the description. This meant other inventors were free to develop their own versions, and several other models were introduced to the market in the United States and Switzerland.

This technology is used to make screws of all thread sizes. By the time World War I broke out in 1914, automatic lathes quite advanced. Manual turret lathes are still used for small runs of specific parts. Larger runs are usually handled by an automatic model, but manufacturers may find it more economical to use existing equipment than invest in upgrading to the automatic type.

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Discussion Comments

By B707 — On Jun 21, 2011

I looked at some pictures of a turret lathe. I didn't know they were so large and they look very complicated. I have no idea how they work. Tools must have been very expensive in the 1800s and before as they had to be made individually by one tool maker.

Then when tools began to be made on pre-set machines, now that was a real advancement.And then the automatic lathes came on the scene.

I'd like to see how these machines work. They are intriguing.

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