A wood lathe is a power tool for your workshop or garage that rotates a piece of wood around a horizontal axis so you can cut, sand, drill, turn, and face the wood to form it into a finished shape. Common wood lathe projects include chair or table legs, spoons, bowls, cups, and even pens, with many more advanced projects available to you once you feel experienced enough to take them on.
The best wood lathe for your workshop will depend on the amount of space you have, the power output you need, and the type of woodworking projects you want to take on. In general, mini or benchtop wood lathes are best for small workspaces, midi wood lathes are for medium workspaces, and full-size wood lathes require standing space in your workshop, so they take up the most space.
No matter what size you choose, make sure you invest in a high-quality wood lathe that will perform as expected and last for years. Take a look at the wood lathes and wood lathe accessories below selected as the best products in their respective categories.
There are several companies making these machines, and the number of options can seem overwhelming especially if you are just starting out on the craft. That’s why we’ve done the work for you to come up with this shortlist of the best wood lathes you can buy. Take a peek at our high-quality suggestions in this guide and take your pick.
What is a Wood Lathe?
A wood lathe is a machine that carpenters and woodworkers use to form pieces of wood into a particular shape. Whereas many devices, like saws, cut wood in a straight line, a wood lathe allows you to create bows and curves in your wood.
When using a wood lathe, you’ll attach a piece of wood to an arm that spins. You control how fast the wood spins. The best wood lathes allow you to change the speeds considerably. If the machine turns too slow, you won’t be able to make cuts, especially if you’re using a thick piece of wood. If the machine spins too quickly, you won’t have any control of the wood.
As the machine spins, you can use various tools to make impressions in the wood. You can use wood lathes to create smaller products, like chess pieces. Or, you can use it to make things like bowls. If you’re looking to put curves into your wood, a lathe should do the trick.
The machine can save you time, as you would otherwise need to carve the wood by hand. Additionally, you’ll find that when using a wood lathe, your pieces come out much more evenly-carved than they would be if you used your hands.
Choosing the Right Wood Lathe For Your Needs
If you don’t think any of the above tools will do it for you, we’ve covered all the best wood lathes available in 2020 down below in our guide. Take a closer look at the features of each product – which may include advantages as well as disadvantages. At the end of the day, you are the one buying this product to work on your wood, and every person’s needs differ.
First of all, it might be confusing to know whether you need a wood lathe, or a mini wood lathe. The reality is, almost every wood lathe you will be looking will be minis. Typically, a mini unit is defined as one with a DBC of less than 20″ and a Swing Over Capacity of 12″ or less (more on these terms in the section below). There are also midi lathes, a less common, slightly larger wood lathe (anything greater than 20″ and 12″) but this list focuses on mini lathes, the most common type of lathe available. Of course, you can always buy a bed extension if you find you want to extend the length of your wood product.
When choosing tools, specifically choosing between the best wood lathes on the market, there are several things to remember. What type and width of wood will you be working on? What kind of warranty does the company offer? How big is your budget? How much space in your workshop do you have? What other tools do you need? Consider these as you peruse through the list and pick the best wood lathe for your needs!
Factors To Consider
The wood lathes can look like a complex intimidating machine, but it’s really not that complex, and there are only a few key components you need. Let’s look at a few important things to look for while you shop for a wood lathe.
The horsepower the engine produces is the heart of the machine. You can change speed with pulleys and other methods, but horsepower is responsible for the torque, and without enough torque, your project will continuously bog down when you press your tools against it.
Unless you are going to limit yourself to creating pens and pencils, we highly recommend a lathe with at least one horsepower to provide enough torque for the project.
Distance between Centers
The centers hold your wood in place, and the distance between them tells you how long your wood can be. Most of the tools on this list have a distance between centers of about 16-inches, but it can vary considerably, and in some cases, you can also extend it by adding additional pieces to the lathe.
Since a larger distance between centers means you can tackle a bigger project, we recommend getting the biggest you could find. If you know you only want to create smaller objects like ink pens or chess pieces, then the shorter distance between centers may be in order.
In most cases, high RPMs will result in a faster workflow and a smoother finish. If the lady doesn’t move fast enough, the tools won’t cut well, and they could grab the wood, causing chips. Higher RPMs are always better but make sure added horsepower is also part of the deal.
The ability to change speed is a critical part of how a wood lathe works, and there are several methods for changing the speed, including dials, changing pulleys, or adjusting the tension. We found that dial adjusting speed is the best way to go because it’s the easiest, and you can often do it in real-time. The other methods are not difficult provided you have proper instruction, but they are better suited to projects that remain at the same speed long term.
Our Top Picks
These top picks of wood lathes are the best in show when it comes to quality, price, and reputation. Use this list to help you find the best wood lathe for your workshop.
A bench-top lathe is an ideal choice for beginners, students, hobbyists, and DIY’ers. This version of a wood lathe is portable, reasonable, and can be used only for turning small pieces of wood. Our first bench-top lathe recommendation on this list is the impressive W1704 from Shop Fox.
If you are looking for a portable, lightweight wood lathe to keep on a desk or bench, you should go for the W1704. It packs a decent punch with its 1/3 hp motor. The variable speed ranges from 700 to 3,200 RPM. You can rest assured that this machine will excel at turning pens, rings, and small bowls.
We especially liked the thoughtful inclusion of a 5.75-inch faceplate that threads on to the headstock. It allows you to turn objects like bowls that cannot get the support of the tailstock.
The WEN 3424T wood lathe is perfect for those who are looking to start a career in turning. WEN have long built power tools which are budget-friendly, and the 3424T is no different in this regard.
One of the first lathes in the WEN 342 series, it’s still quite powerful – with an impressive list of variable speeds, backed by a 4.5 amp motor for power.
It’s affordable, yet WEN have added the features you’d expect to find on a lathe, constructed in their own unique design. Let’s begin with a quick overview of the WEN 3424T wood lathe.
The JET JWL-1221vs is one of the best wood lathes, and is packed with value. As you can tell by the photo, this thing means business. The beautiful cast iron JET unit is not only attractive but also functional. While you can use it with the stand (pictured) its versatile dimensions makes it ideal for a benchtop lathe in your shop too. JET is a trusted brand of manufacturer of tools, and their wood lathe is no exception.
With a motor that produces 1 horsepower and the digital speed control this JET wood lathe provides power with precision. Variable from 60 rpm to 3600 rpm, the digital rpm module dials in your speed giving you the most control of any lathe on our list. It has a swing over bed of 12 inches and between centers capacity of 21 inches, which you can even extend with the bed extension if you so choose. The tool rest is easily adjustable, not sticky or clunky like some can be.
The unique belt tension system (patent-pending technology) provides power and precision. The tailstock of the Jet also includes an acme thread, yet another unique trait. Overall, the JET JW-1221vs is a well-designed machine, one of the best wood lathes on the market, great for the hobbyist and professional alike. If you want to learn more about this lathe, you can read our full JET review here. Plus, a five year warranty backs JET products, so you can’t go wrong with that!
The Mophorn 10 x 18 Inch Wood Lathe Is an 81-pound machine that can deliver between 760 and 3,200 RPM. It gives you 18 inches between the centers with a ten-inch swing, well suited to creating chair legs and other similar projects. It features 6-inch tool rests for working the wood and the durable cast iron construction will last many years.
The problem with the Mophorn is that it’s very underpowered. They don’t list the horsepower on the package, but we can tell you it bogged down continuously, and we would put it on par with other models that feature an engine under one horsepower. There were also no instructions to help you get started if you are new to using a woodworking lathe.
With a powerful 1 HP motor, this product is a very capable machine. Having the ability to run at around 1750 rpm, any job will be completed in no time. It has a decent-sized swing over bed. Being a compact ‘midi’ lathe, this product does not fall short on any abilities.
The lathe has a swing size of 9.25 inches. For your kind information, you can extend the bed to a staggering 42 inches. This means that you can use this lathe to turn long pieces of wood. One good thing about this product is that the manufacturer has not sacrificed any aspects.
This is a very powerful lathe in comparison to most others in the market. Although it will lack on heavy load, it is good enough to do moderately heavy work. The torque on the headstock spindle is adequate to turn heavy materials smoothly and with great consistency.
Having a 3-speed motor allows you to fine-tune the spinning force on this lathe. The first gear can take up to 250 to 750 rpm, 600 to 1350 rpm, and lastly, the smallest gear from 1350 to 4000rpm. It also has an electronic speed controller knob on the side with which you can set the speed while in operation.
What warranty comes with a wood turning lathe?
Warranties for wood turning lathes range between 1 year and 5 years. You will often find that this is a “home use” warranty or a “limited” warranty so it is important to check exactly what is covered before you make your purchase and consider the work that you are going to be doing!
How much assembly is required for a lathe?
Benchtop lathes require minimal assembly. They come pre-assembled from the factory. This is common for midi lathes that do not require much space. Larger lathes require a fair bit of assembly.
Are wood lathes dangerous?
No, but they may be dangerous if you fail to operate them in the right manner. Usually, wood lathes can move up to 4000 rpm to more depending on the machine. However, it would help if you were careful while using the lathe.
What wood is best for wood-turning?
Beech. It’s a hardwood, wherein most species don’t have a distinctive grain pattern and have a very light color. Some woodworkers may think that it is a disadvantage, but some appreciate its plainness. Nevertheless, Beechwood is durable and abrasion-resistant, so it is suitable to make bowls and other related items.
As a beginner in woodturning, you may find yourself struggling to choose the right wood lathe that can kickstart your woodturning career. Given the plethora of wood lathe brands and models in the market today, choosing becomes a bit tricky and confusing. Yet, if you are cognizant of the above-mentioned essential factors when choosing a lathe for beginners and the most recommended wood lathes for beginners, you can indeed zero in on the most appropriate model for your needs.
The right wood lathe for beginners will enable you to learn the basics of woodturning. Later, when you have learned the rudiments of this craft, you can transition to more expensive and feature-packed wood lathes to raise your skills in woodturning a notch higher.