I'm an engineer and have designed several parts that are made on metal lathes. I'm wondering why metal lathes aren't used for turning. In particular I'm wondering why woodturners don't use a tool holder on a stage or tools that resemble metal lathe tools. What is the advantage to manually holding your tools and using a tool rest? Without knowing much about woodturning I would assume that it's next to impossible to get repeatable/super accurate results (or perhaps better stated I'd assume it must take years of experience to get the hand eye coordination down to get good results). Perhaps the "one of a kind" nature of the process is part of the appeal?

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    Because it takes the fun out of turning? – LosManos Sep 25 '15 at 5:36
  • I only have space for one power tool, so it would be a small engineering lathe and a tool rest in a quick change toolpost holder, and a selection of chucks/centers. That should be enough to allow small wood turning. – Criggie Apr 27 '19 at 3:23
  • I’ve been wanting to try and use a chisel holder on a wood lathe for a while now, I’ve looked a bit online but didn’t find any tool holders that are made for wood lathes. Does anyone know maybe where I should look? Do you know if maybe a metal lathe tool holder would work? I don’t want to buy one on amazon if it won’t even fit my chisels. I joined this community right when I found this thread after searching google for weeks lol so any guidance would be greatly appreciated ❤️ – Jack Le Roy Page Aug 20 '19 at 5:07

I'm wondering why metal lathes aren't used for [wood]turning.

In my mind, it comes down to 3 Cs: cost, convenience, and creativity.

Cost: From what I've seen metal lathes cost more than wood lathes when you consider similar capacities and features. This is not surprising given the additional tooling necessary to work a metal lathe. One might argue that buying woodturning tools can also be expensive compared to buying HSS or cobalt metal lathe keys. However, the metal keys still need to be ground to different shapes to achieve different profiles, so there is still plenty of cost associated with the metal lathe tools.

Convenience: Setting up a metal lathe can be a pain, especially compared to a wood lathe. You have to get your tooling set up all in the right places and adjust your tools to feed in the proper direction, at the proper rate. Wood lathes, you just chuck your piece, set the tool rest, and go.

Creativity: I challenge any metal lathe user to create a Windsor chair leg more efficiently than an experienced turner. Sure, the metal lathe user could make the first one and set up a template for his keys to follow, but I suspect that doing so would result in a fairly rough finish with a lot of woods. Good turners can make a chair leg that's finish-ready (no sanding) with just a skew chisel.

Having manual control of the cutting tool means that you can feel when the wood is having issues cutting, which could be a sign that it's about to fail, that your edge is dull, or that you're just using the wrong cutting angle. You're more intimate with the actual piece and can better feel what's going on, instead of plugging it into a machine.

Also, with the cutting tool in your hands, you can much more easily make changes to your design on the fly just by flicking your wrist (this is an exaggeration, don't flick your wrist when turning or you'll suffer a catch). I know the way I work a lathe, having to have a metal lathe tooling setup have to play catchup to my brain's creativity would be incredibly frustrating.

It's worth noting that one may combine both worlds in a way. I've made a couple Oland Tools (image below) that make use of metal lathe keys. It's nifty since you can change out the tool heads easily and have quite a few profiles open to you. Basically, you drill a hole in the end of a metal rod large enough to fit an HSS key and hold it in place with a set screw.

oland tool

Also, this is not to say that a metal lathe can't be used. Lots of smoking pipe makers use them due to the greater precision.

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  • For what it's worth, websearch will find illustrations of how to make your own versions of the carbide-insert turning tools, using replacement cutter inserts from the official versions; that's another homebrew replacable-tip option. – keshlam Sep 27 '15 at 22:00

Two factors are :

Speed : metal lathes tend to run at lower speeds, often 1000rpm and lower. This is less prominent with modern lathes and carbide tooling, but with HSS and carbon steel tooling you have to limit the cutting speed to avoid overheating and softening the tool. (It's fun when that titanium billet work-hardens and your drill bit suddenly starts glowing red...) I understand woodturning works better at higher speeds, giving a finer finish.

Wood dust contains abrasive silicates : you don't want that stuff grinding away the bed on your precision metal lathe, if you want to achieve 0.0001 inch accuracy on metal afterwards!

Incidentally it's not completely unknown to turn metal freehand, with a toolrest and gravers ... watchmakers lathes are set up for this. Metal removal rate is minuscule, but that doesn't matter because the workpieces are tiny to start with.

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To start I'm pretty sure that metal lathes and wood lathes have different speeds they tend to use. The two materials are very different.

Metals can take a level of accuracy impossible to achieve in wood. Just sanding a piece on the lathe can take off mm to give it a nice finish. So metal working lathe tools are going to be extreme overkill for your average wood project. On top of that wood swells and contracts and bends depending on it's environment, so it is just as much an art form as it is science. I've actually had bowls warping on the lathe just leaving it sit for an hour while I ate lunch.

Also there are duplicators out there that can be mounted on a lathe for making pieces "identical" to each other. they do exist. It also means finding pieces that are similar and dried correctly to the right moisture content to help keep them stable.

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  • That all makes sense, but I'm still left wondering why manually holding tools is preferred to using a tool holder that you can position to an exact location. I would think that if you wanted to turn a blank to an N inch diameter cylinder such a tool holder would be super helpful. You would be able to keep the tool a fixed and exact distance from the axis of rotation and just move it up and down the lathe. Seems like it would be hard to accomplish this by sliding a tool up and down a rest. Ditto for repeating features of different depths etc. – Doov Sep 24 '15 at 21:49
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    @Doov there are tools that allow that when it's needed. but I look at it closer to creating a clay pot, it is an organic process. and while I can't make an exact 6" cylinder, I can make one pretty close with straight sides. Though I don't have much use for that in my turning. I'll see if I can add more to my answer later. – bowlturner Sep 24 '15 at 22:00

The "organic" nature of woodturning may be part of it -- its a kind or powered carving, after all, and many folks like the feel of wood responding to their hands.

The fact that wood is softer than most metals may also have a lot to do with it.

So may the fact that tolerances are completely different. Even when an "exact fit" is desired, it's not down to mils as metal often is.

There are jigs for doing more precise woodturning. They're mostly for special cases or large-scale production.

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The main difference that I have seen is the material removal rates of manual metal lathes are much less by design than can be accomplished by hand on a wood lathe. Like try getting a 100+ IPM traverse rate on a manual lathe compared with holding the tool in your hand.

Same can be said with a manual mill and handheld router.

Though for CNC lathes there are much less differences between CNC metal and CNC wood lathes, machine rigidity requirements are probably the biggest difference there.

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Brendan Stemp an Australian Woodturner uses Metal work Lathe to produce recorders due to the accuracy needed, from my understanding he uses a fairly dense or hardwood for these. His Youtube Channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYJ4e0XACGJQjJvfmVUcE-Q

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