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What is a Woodworking Lathe?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Among the myriad tools available to create decorative or functional products is a tool called a lathe, which spins material at a controlled speed so that a latheworker can press a sharp tool against the material to shape it. A woodworking lathe is a lathe specifically designed to handle various types of wood, as opposed to a metal lathe which handles exclusively metal, or a glassworking lathe, which functions in an entirely different manner than other types of lathes. The woodworking lathe is the oldest type of lathe, supposedly dating back to ancient Egypt--in a non-motorized version, of course.

The woodworking lathe is a unique woodworking tool because unlike many other woodworking processes, the wood spins while the tool remains mostly stationary. The woodworking lathe may come in a variety of styles and sizes, but most lathes are either smaller tabletop lathes, or larger freestanding lathes with their own legs that can be bolted to the floor. A piece of wood is attached to a rotating spindle at the headstock of the lathe, and secured at the other end to a tailstock or tailpiece. The rotating spindle of the woodworking lathe is then turned either by a motor or by a non-motorized foot pedal, which then in turn rotates the piece of wood.

A wooden bowl made on a woodworking lathe.
A wooden bowl made on a woodworking lathe.

A tool rest is attached to the base--or bed--of the lathe and runs parallel to the spinning wood. The tool rest gives the user a solid, steady surface on which to place a hand-held chisel or other cutting tool. This tool rest prevents the cutting tool from moving too much or skipping out of the woodworker's hand, thus allowing stability and accurate cuts. Holding sandpaper to the still-spinning piece of wood is not uncommon and allows the woodworker to remove small debris and unfinished edges from cuts. This technique can be dangerous and should be reserved for professionals only.

In general, there are two types of woodworking lathe turning: faceplate turning and spindle turning. Spindle turning involves setting a long piece of wood between two spindles on the headstock and tailstock, as mentioned above. The end result is long and tubular, like a table leg. Faceplate turning involves fixing the wood to one faceplate, which is then attached to a spindle on the headstock of the woodworking lathe, which allows the woodworker to create a product that is shorter and wider than spindle-turned wood. Wooden bowls are often faceplate turned.

Discussion Comments


@kentuckycat - You're in luck, because they do make mini wood lathes, and they are pretty easy to find. I have seen them at the home improvement stores around me. My friend does similar projects to what you seem to be working on, and he uses the same thing.

They can usually hold blanks a little longer than a foot, so anything bigger than that and you might be in trouble. The big advantage is that mini lathes are a lot less expensive. When I have seen them, they are usually around $400 compared to $1000+ for a full sized one. The mini lathes also fit on the workbench like you wanted.


This might be an odd question, and I have just started my search, but is there anywhere you can buy a mini woodworking lathe? I've decided I would kind of like to start working on some various projects where I think it would be nice to have a lathe. The problem is that what I would be turning wouldn't be particularly large, since I mostly make like things. Nothing like tables or furniture. Also, I'm not sure that I would even have the space left to dedicate to a full sized lathe.

Since I wouldn't be using it that much, the wouldn't need a really expensive piece of equipment, just something that I could pull out and use whenever I needed it, and preferably something that could fit on my workbench.


@jmc88 - You're right as far as attaching the wood to the lathe goes. Both ends have points that dig into the wood and keep it secured. To account for the points in the wood, most people will add an extra inch or so to their blank that they don't do anything to. After they are done with turning whatever it is they are making, they will use a table saw or mitre saw or something and chop off the ends that have the marks in them. That leaves them with the finished piece without any divots on the ends.

As far as the chisels, they aren't the same kind you would use around the house. To prevent what you are talking about, woodworking lathe tools usually have beveled ends that don't catch the wood and let the woodworker take off very thing layers of wood at a time.


I have seen people use lathes on TV, but there are a couple things I never really understood about them. First off, how exactly do you get the wood to stay attached to the lathe? To me, it always looks like the wood is just kind of floating there. My guess is that there has to be something that drills into the wood to keep it in place, but then the question I have is, how doesn't that damage the wood?

The other thing I wondered about was the actual lathe tool. I have a set of chisels sitting in my toolbox, but I have a hard time seeing how those could be used on a lathe. It seems like the second the chisel came in contact with the wood, the force would push the chisel away if you weren't really strong.

Maybe those are silly questions, but I've never really been able to figure it out from watching people do wood turning.

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    • A wooden bowl made on a woodworking lathe.
      By: Juan Jose Gutierrez
      A wooden bowl made on a woodworking lathe.