Makers Central Hub

Using A Wood Lathe

Makers Central Team

Makers Central Team

May 30, 2019

A wood lathe is used to create functional components for pieces of furniture, decorative items such as bowls and candlesticks, and even old-fashioned toys such as yo-yos and spinning tops. Lathes range in size from small hobby models that fit neatly on a work bench to much larger industrial-sized machines that weigh hundreds of pounds. But all of these machines share certain basic elements. We’ve provided some instructions on how to use these unique pieces of equipment.

Before working with any lathes, we highly recommend taking the appropriate safety precautions. Including wearing a full-face mask, gloves and a smock. You should not operate the Lathe if you notice excessive vibration.

First of all, you need to select a lathe that’s suitable for your particular project. Benchtop lathes are perfect for turning small projects such as spinning tops and ink pens, whereas the larger machines can be used to make the spindles for handrails and other furniture. Below are some of the different wood lathe specifications:

  • The bed length – the distance between the centres, or the maximum length of the stock that can be turned.

  • The swing – the largest diameter of stock that can be turned over the lathe bed. Some lathes have a swivelling head, which gives even greater capacity when the head is positioned away from the lathe bed.

  • Horsepower – the amount of torque created by the lathe motor; this determines the maximum weight of an item that can be turned without overloading.

  • RPM – revolutions per minute at which the stock turns. Most lathes have variable speed capabilities. A very low speed range can be used to start a piece of odd-shaped, unbalanced stock by avoiding excessive vibration; high-speed machines allow a fine, smooth finish to be achieved.

  • Weight and composition – Heavier machines have cast iron beds and steel frames, which provide a solid work platform; but these can be difficult to move if they’re being operated in a crowded workshop where they’ll also be stored away when not in use.


Next, you need to choose the lathe operation you’ll be starting with. A simple first task would be to turn an angular or irregularly shaped piece of wood into a true cylindrical shape –  this is usually the first step in forming a spindle or any other type of cylindrical item.


It’s important to select the correct cutting tools for your project. The term for a lathe tool is a chisel or gouge. Chisels have long, round, curved handles that provide a firm grip and plenty of leverage to allow the turner to control the cutting edge very accurately with minimal effort. Common wood chisels are not fit for this purpose as they’re too short and made from weaker carbon steel. The majority of turning tools are made from HSS (high speed steel) which hold their cutting edge longer. Below are some of the turning tools you might use:

  • Gouges have specially shaped cutting edges for particular cuts. Bowl gouges have a concave, curved cutting edge, and these are used to form the smooth, curved surface of a bowl. Vee or knurling gouges are used to cut grooves or knurls into wooden spindles.
  • Scrapers are the flat or slightly curved chisels that are used to remove wood from flat or cylindrical-shaped pieces, or to rough out a shape.
  • Parting tools are the thin, vee-tipped tools used to cut off work pieces.


To make the most of your lathe, it helps to learn its components. A basic wood lathe has a bed, a headstock, a tailstock and a tool rest. Below we’ve listed the functions of each part.

The headstock holds the drive train, which includes the motor, pulleys, belts, and spindle. This is located on the left end of the lathe. The spindle and the spur centre are mounted on the end of the headstock, facing the tailstock. Or, the face plate assembly will be mounted here for face turning such as bowls and plates, or for other flat or face work. Headstock.jpg

The free spinning end of the lathe is called the tailstock. This consists of the tailstock spindle and either revolving centre or cup centre, and also a handwheel or other device for clamping or securing the work piece between each lathe centre.

The tool rest resembles a mechanical arm, and has a metal guide bar that supports the chisel as it’s used to turn the work piece. This can be adjusted by sliding the length of the bed at its base. There is also an intermediate arm, which swings from a parallel to a perpendicular position in relation to the lathe bed. The upper arm holds the tool rest bar itself. As many as three swivel joints are found in this type of assembly, and these are tightened with a setscrew or clamp so that they remain completely secure when turning is in progress.


Before proceeding with lathe work, always read the user manual for any specific instructions, features and detailed safety information. Always keep the manual handy for reference, for example, if you decide to buy accessories for your lathe, to double check maintenance instructions, and also if you need reference to the capacities and specifications of your machine.


Now you can choose a suitable piece of wood for your project. As a beginner, it’s advisable to use a hardwood such as Sycamore, Cherry or Ash. Alternatively, good-quality, tight-grained Pine is also suitable.You need to look for a piece that has a fairly straight grain, and only a few, tight knots. It is important to make sure you never turn a split piece of stock, or one with loose knots, because these can separate during turning, becoming projectiles that will travel at a dangerous speed.


You need to square the stock. This means that you need to rip it into a fairly square shape. So, if you begin with a piece of lumber roughly 2X4, rip it so that it’s 2X2. Then, as you chamfer or bevel the square corners, you’re creating an octagonal piece – this reduces the amount of wood that will need to be removed to achieve the cylindrical shape you want.


Cut the stock to the length you want. As a beginner, start with a fairly short length – less than 2 foot (0.6 m) long for an intermediate, medium-sized lathe, will be ideal. Longer pieces are difficult to true, and you will soon find that maintaining a uniform diameter along the length of a longer piece takes a great deal of work.


Mark the centre of each end of your stock using either a centre finder or by taking the intersecting point of two lines marked from corner-to-corner of each end, then position the stock between the lathe centres. The tailstock should not be locked in position at this point, so you can slide this until it pushes the revolving centreinto the tail end of your work piece. Now use the hand crank to tighten the tailstock spindle, which will push the stock into the spur centre, mounted on the headstock spindle. It’s important to make sure the work piece is held securely, and that all of the clamps are tightened so that the work piece cannot fly off the lathe as you’re turning. You must also make sure any tools or keys used for adjusting the lathe or accessories are removed before turning the lathe one.


Position the tool rest parallel to the length of the work piece. You want to keep it as close as possible, but far enough back so that the work piece can rotate without hitting it. A good working distance is about 3/4 of an inch but the closer the tool rest is to the work piece as it’s turning, the more leverage and better control you will have with your chisel.


With the lathe still turned off, free spin or hand turn the work piece to check it’s not hitting the tool rest. This is a good habit to get into, to always turn a work piece by hand before turning the lathe on, to make sure it has sufficient clearance.


Choose the chisel you want to use for the turning operation. A roughing gouge is a good choice to begin with to turn a square or irregular-shaped work piece down to a cylindrical shape. 12-(Roughing-Gouge).jpg Practice holding the tool on the tool rest – your left hand (again, if you’re right handed) should be on the metal blade behind the tool rest, and your right should be near the end of the handle. Keep your elbows in and brace them against your body so that you have better control of the tool.


Now you can turn the lathe on, keeping it at its lowest speed setting. First, place the cutting edge of the tool on the rest, still keeping clear of the rotating work piece. Check your grip, then slowly begin to ease the tool towards the work piece. Move in perpendicular to the work piece, until the bevel edge is just touching the wood. Moving too quickly or forcing the tool will cause it to jam into the wood – the wood will either break off, you’ll lose your grip on the tool, or the lathe will stall. This is one of the most dangerous steps when you begin turning.


Learn to feel the resistance of the cutting edge and pay attention to the size of the chips being cut from the work piece. When truing, you’re aiming to cut small chips, less than a 1/4 of an inch in length.


Start to move the cutting edge parallel to the rotation of the work piece, still making a light cut along its length. If you’re using a roughing gouge or similar, you can cant or pitch the tool edge so that chips are thrown at an angle from the work piece – this prevents you from becoming covered in them as you turn. If you twist the tool slightly, you can observe the flight path of the chips and adjust this to make them fly away to your left or right.


Continue to push the tool into the stock gradually, in passes, removing roughly equal amounts of wood with each pass. Eventually, this will cut away any angular corners, leaving your work piece round. With practice, you’ll achieve a good, cylindrical shape.


While you’re still a beginner, stop the lathe frequently to monitor your progress, check for any stress cracks in the wood, and clear the debris that will begin to accumulate on the lathe bed. You can, if you wish, use a pair of calipers to check the diameter of your work piece along its length so you achieve the diameter you want.


Increasing the lathe speed and holding your cutting tool so that it is barely in contact with the wood, smooth the finished and round work piece. Then move the cutting tool slowly along the length of the work piece. The slower your tool movement, and the finer or lighter the cut, the smoother the finish.


If desired, you can sand the work piece when you’ve finished cutting. Using caution, you can sand the stock by hand while it’s turning. Turn the lathe off, swing the tool rest to the side, and select a suitable grit and type of sandpaper. Now turn the lathe back on and hold the paper just lightly against the wood, in the lower quarter, constantly but slowly moving it back and forth to make sure you don’t remove too much wood from one area on the work piece.

Products featured in this article:

Record Power Coronet Herald Heavy Duty Cast Iron Electronic Variable Speed Lathe

DML250 10″ 5 Speed Cast Iron Mini Lathe

DML320 Cast Iron Electronic Variable Speed Lathe

See Record Power’s Full Range of Woodturning Lathes Here:

See Record Power’s Full Range of Woodturning Chucks and Jaws Here:—spares

Record Power’s Social Media Channels:






  • Nick Zammeti

    Hey new pictures and links now added guys . have fun .

    Nick Zammeti Makers Central Member 06th July 2019 at 9:36 pm
  • Shopdogworkshop

    Nice guide, my son who has never wood turned but I am going to instruct found it very informative.

    Shopdogworkshop Makers Central Member 05th July 2019 at 5:50 pm
  • Other Stage Creations

    Great guide! A little ‘wordy’ though. Some pictures to help visualise what is being described would go a long way to helping people further. 🙂

    Other Stage Creations 03rd July 2019 at 12:15 pm

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