My shop is mostly complete, but one gap is a wood lathe. I have lived without one, but I could use some custom turnings from time to time and have avoided turning bowls etc. although I would like to add that skill to my arsenal. I am a a retired hobbyist so high production capabilities and heavy use will not be needed, but I want to make sure that the lathe can do all the basics. So what features are best and what tools and other accessories are most useful? Also, I am looking at used equipment so other than the motor, what key components should I scrutinize for problems?

  • Variable speed motor is probably one of the things I would most change about my lathe. Changing pulleys is a pain. Also, make sure you have a long enough bed for the type of work you want to do.
    – grfrazee
    Mar 7, 2016 at 14:08
  • Lathe accessories can be expensive. A set of lathe chisels and gouges can cost as much as a mini lathe. A chuck can be upwards of $300 -- you don't absolutely need one (baseplates work) but they do make some things easier. Extra baseplates are useful for homebrew chucking solutions. A longer bed, or bed extension(s), let you tackle longer turnings; more swing height let's youveork on wider ones; a swivelling head and additional tool support permits working on bowls that don't fit over the bed. More weight means better cuts but you can bolt down a lighter lathe.
    – keshlam
    Mar 7, 2016 at 16:36
  • I'm working on an answer!
    – bowlturner
    Mar 7, 2016 at 20:23

1 Answer 1


There are lots of things to look for in a lathe. But you need to figure out your parameters. Size is probably the first and most important consideration. A mini lathe is designed for smaller things, most commonly pens. Granted there are many things you can turn on them, but they have a small turning diameter and generally short beds.

There are midi-lathes, and they are larger than the mini's and thus can turn larger items. Most midi lathes have a swing ~10" in diameter. Which means if you are lucky, you can turn a bowl 9.5" finished diameter. Most midi lathes have bed extensions to increase the length of spindle work they can do.

Mini and midi lathes (to my knowledge) are all bench top models and thus can be 'put away' when not in use.

Then we have full sized lathes. Some models are bench top, but most are floor models. If you go with a bench top likely you will need to bolt it very securely to a very sturdy bench if you try turning larger pieces.

While the weight of a lathe can be a pain for moving it around, a heavy lathe will make you happy once you start turning large or awkward pieces. It helps reduce vibrations and shaking, Most floor models are designed to allow for weight to be added between the legs to help absorb vibrations.

Now, some of the features that might or might not be important to you on a lathe. All of these things are available on different models and you need to decide what features are important to you.

  1. A movable head. Some heads will spin 180 degrees, other will slide to the end of the bed. In both cases, this allows for off bed turning, allowing for much larger diameter turnings, it does however require an outboard tool rest

  2. A variable speed 'rheostat' type control. Infinitely variable speed between a max and min. This allows for more control and is easier to dial in a faster speed short of bad vibrations.

  3. reversible motor. I find this a luxury I can't live without, since I find it significantly reduces the time I spend sanding a piece, my least favorite part.

  4. indexing, Being able to lock the piece at set angles. This is primarily used for fluting enter image description here

There are whole answers for how to attach your wood to the lathe, with screws, chucks, faceplates and drive centers. Each allows for different types of turning. But most lathes come with at least a drive center and a faceplate.

There are also all the chisels/knives. I already answered about chisels for a beginner here. Though there are many more.

There are also many other tools available out there, duplicators, coring systems, texture tools, steady's etc.

as far as looking at a used lathe.

  1. The motor of course should still work and be relatively smooth. (for the right price you can get a new motor though!)
  2. The bed should be smooth and clean, when the motor runs not under load there shouldn't be any rocking or jumping of the lathe.
  3. When the rest is locked down it should be firm and not move around.
  4. if you have an empty faceplate on the lathe with it running, you shouldn't see any wobble.
  • Mini lathes often have a bed extension too that you can add on to extend its reach. I purchased a similar one for my Jet mini lathe, and it's been a wonderful addition.
    – grfrazee
    Mar 9, 2016 at 17:02
  • @grfrazee Wasn't sure if the mini's had extensions, but makes sense. If you do a bit of spindle work I'm sure they are great.
    – bowlturner
    Mar 9, 2016 at 17:03

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