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I don't know enough to even google.

Basically, you see those cnc laths; the cutter on those. What are those called?

My goal is to craft or purchase a cutter that can be held in place at set distance, then I move that back and forth over the piece. I am making slightly lopsided pieces and I think I do not have the mechanical skill to keep the cutter at the same distance as I go over the piece.

I am just a hobby guy that has no clue.

In my mind I can see a way to do this, but hopefully there are better ways.

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    Faceplate or spindle turning? – Ast Pace Aug 7 '16 at 20:59
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    You don't need CNC. Search for "duplicating lathe" to see how folks used to automate this with not much more than a spring-like cutter riding the side of a template. – keshlam Aug 7 '16 at 22:34
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    Spindle turning. And thanks for the tip on duplicators. Maybe that's the ticket. – D_M Aug 8 '16 at 17:00
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    The reply above is correct. You could also search for copy lathe. Lots of pictures on google and Pinterest for ideas – John Whitlock Nov 2 '16 at 7:25
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The problem that you describe is common in spindle turning when the turning piece is too flexible. A condition referred to as whipping occurs when you press your too into the workpiece it flexes or slightly bends.

I can't say exactly how stiff a spindle must be in order to avoid whip, but if you can see the piece bend by pressing it with the force that you would apply when cutting, you are in for trouble.

There are ways to keep a spindle from bending. They basically entail bracing the spindle from the back side. You can buy devices called "steady rests" which are used commercially and some form is used by pool cue manufacturers. I just Googled "steady rest lathe" and found that they are apparently available for well under a hundred dollars (US). All three wheels are adjusted to be in contact with the spindle.

Steady-rest from PSI

From personal experience, I can tell you that a duplicator is not the way to go, unless you also have a steady rest.

When using the steady rest, you will do your cutting where the rest isn't, so you will need to move it from time to time.

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I think you are looking for carbide insert lathe tools. Easy Wood Tools makes some, but there are cheaper versions available. You could clamp some kind of stop to the tool that butts up against the tool rest to keep you at a set distance from the work piece.

The carbide insert tools are used "square" to the work piece. You don't need to twist or angle it, so it makes it really easy for spindle turning.

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