What features should I look for in purchasing a quality mid-sized lathe? The lathe is to be used for both spindle and bowl turning.—Anon

Jon Siegel replies: First read my article from June 2008 (Vol. 19, No. 5) The Old Saw, Today’s Lathes—what’s right and what’s wrong.

You mention that you are using this lathe for spindle turning, but you do not say what length you require. For example a mini or midi lathe will have a length capacity of 13˝ to 20˝, but this is not long enough to make functional furniture parts, baseball bats, or anything like that. However most of these small lathes offer optional bed extensions—but keep in mind that such an arrangement is not as rigid as a one-piece bed.

If you intend to turn bowls, you will need a lathe with at least 12" swing (swing = maximum diameter of work). As your skill level improves you will probably want more.

One problem with many lathes is that the lowest speed is not low enough. This is particularly true when starting out with a bowl blank that is not balanced. For this kind of work, you will need to start around 200 RPM. So speed control is extremely important, and the best lathes have variable speed motors in two or three speed ranges. If you make bowls, you will also need the motor to reverse (for sanding in both directions).

Here is a checklist from the 2008 article that would apply to either new or used lathes:

  • Variable speed motor with lowest speed less than 200 RPM.
  • Solid one-piece bed (not short sections bolted together).
  • Massive headstock and tailstock with a large footprint on the bed.
  • Standard spindle threads & Morse taper.
  • Massive and rigid tool rest.
  • Robust spindle lock.

Dave Emerson replies: In a lathe for bowl or faceplate turning, weight is everything. The heavier the lathe the larger the bowl you’ll be able to turn. With a lighter lathe there will be too much vibration for you to turn smoothly.

Peter James replies: I assume that by mid sized, you are referring to the 10" or 12" by 18" to 20" bench top lathes that have become very popular. Most are very well sized for turning pens and other small items and for turning small bowls, but not bowls up to the 10" or 12" diameter swing they claim. Swing is double the distance from the center line of the lathe spindle to the bed. These lathes are almost always powered by DC motors and are usually underpowered for turning large items. The tool rest shank on most of these is only 5/8" and really not strong enough for the forces applied in turning large diameters.

One midi lathe, a Rikon, does have a 1" tool rest shank. A large majority of people who buy a midi lathe soon realize that it really is not big enough or have enough power to do what they want and end up buying a larger lathe with electronic variable speed, a larger motor and built heavier.

If you want to do more than pens and bottle stoppers and don’t want to spend a lot of money, look at some of the used lathes that are out there. Not all are good, but there are some good ones. It may take some time to find the one you want. Buying a lathe is just the beginning. Remember that you will need a selection of turning chisels, a means to sharpen them and will probably want a chuck and other accessories.

Claude Dupuis replies: Buy the best you can afford. Check the want ads for a used one. Their are several good mid size lathes available. Jet and Nova come to mind. Both can be seen at Woodcraft. I think they have one of each they use for demos. Try them both.

Turning