Wood Lathe 101: The Definitive Guide For Beginners

woodturning lathe basics

Turning wood is one of the oldest crafts. 

However, with the development of technology in woodworking. 

Manual turning, which requires many years of skill, is becoming less popular. You can find wood lathe being used by most woodturners now.

Some master woodturners compare working on a wood lathe with playing a musical instrument and it seems correct to me. 

I strongly feel (based on many years of personal experience) knowing and overcoming the fear of “playing the instrument” is the key to success when you are trying to start woodturning.

These are the nagging fears that will be constantly back of your mind when you are starting -

  • Fear of injury
  • Fear of spoiling the workpiece
  • Fear of failure to fulfill work on time
  • Fear that work will not be accepted
  • Fear of I’m not gonna make it
  • Fear of screaming in your right ear "Are you going to have lunch?" 😛

Be mentally strong and ignore these negative thoughts

Table Of Contents

The Different Sizes Of Wood Lathe And Which One Is Suitable For You?  

Lathes usually come in three sizes Mini, Midi, and Full-Size. Every turner's need is different and the best size of lathe will depend mostly on the work you will do. 

Let’s have a look at each of them and decide which one is for you.

1. Mini Lathes - Best For Beginners & Hobbyist

Mini lathes have 8-10 inches of swing over the bed and 12-15 inches between center. The price range for mini lathes is around $200-600. 

We can also call it a pen turning lathe. Most of the people start their woodturning journey with a pen. You can also do small bowls, mini boxes, and spindle turn bowls.  

It’s the most affordable option for a beginner woodturner who wants to find out if they really want to get into woodturning. It’s also an excellent choice for kids.


2. MIDI Lathes - An Excellent Choice For Most People

MIDI lathes are in between Mini and Full-Size lathe. It has 12-14 inches of swing over the bed and 

The price range is between $600-$1500. Most MIDI lathes come with the stand. 

Of course, you can put this on top of your workbench if you have opted for the inexpensive option that doesn’t come with stands.

These are excellent choices for most people.

Small platter, Medium-sized bowl (around 12” in diameter).


3. Full - Size Lathes - Best For Serious Amatures & Professional

The full-size lathe was used to be the workhorse of professional woodturners and trade schools. However, nowadays amature woodturners are using the full-size lathe who are really into woodturning. 

It has 22 inches of swing over the bed. You also have the option of adding a bed extension to a full-size lathe. That allows you to turn anything about 10 feet long! 

So it’s best for any furniture spindle you can think of and architectural turning. 

Full size lathes costs between $3500-$9500.

These lathes are versatile. You can make anything with a full-size lathe from large bowls to a pen. 

If you are really into woodturning and can afford the price. A full-size lathe is the best option for you. Check our detailed comparison guide on five of the best full-size wood lathes.



Price Range 

Recommended For


Pens, small bowls, mini boxes etc.




Small platter, Medium-sized bowl (around 12” in diameter)


Excellent choice for most people

Full Size

Can make anything from large bowls to a pen


Serious amature & professional 

How Do I Choose A Wood Lathe?  

If working with wood is just a pleasant hobby and you do not have a whole workshop at your disposal with a full arsenal of all tools. 

Then choosing a lathe becomes crucial for you. 

There are several parameters. 

And paying attention to them will increase the chance of choosing the best wood lathe for you.

So, What Should I Look For When Choosing A Lathe For Woodturning?

Most often hobbyist woodturners prefer to buy compact and affordable mini wood lathes to satisfy their creative itch. 

Of course, in terms of accuracy and engine power, they cannot be compared with powerful industrial counterparts. 

But the price of such lathes is a deal maker.

Whatever size lathes you choose these are the things you should always consider:

1. Maximum Allowable Dimensions Of The Workpiece: 

Check the maximum diameter of worpiece that a lathe can take. In the documentation of the Lathe, the turning diameter (the maximum size of the workpiece in the transverse direction) and the length of the bed (the maximum allowable length of the workpiece) must be indicated.

2. Power: 

Roughly speaking, the more powerful the Lathe, the better.

But with increasing power, the size of the Lathe also increases. So you need to find a middle ground.

3. The Material Of The Frame: 

For stability, Lathe with a frame of steel and a bed of cast iron is the best option. 

However, the weight of such lathes is quite large, so if you need to move it frequently, it is better to choose a lighter model.


Lathes in which the bed and case are made of light alloys can be easily transported from place to place with your own hands without assistance. However, they do not have such stability as steel.


4. RPM Adjustment Range:

All modern lathes have the functionality to adjust the speed. The attention should be paid to the upper and lower limits of the speed range. 

Rule of thumb is -

Low revs are suitable when you need to rough process a workpiece in the form of a parallelepiped. 

And high ones will be used during finishing when you need to get a smooth surface.


5. Tool Holder:

This allows you to securely fix the tool and during operation to move it in 2 directions (along the workpiece and in the transverse direction);


6. Front Headstock: 

In conventional lathes, it is located on the left (if the turner is right-handed). It includes a drive mechanism and a spindle, the center of which rotates during operation, forcing the workpiece to rotate as well.


Instead of a spindle, a faceplate can be installed at the end of the headstock.


7. Tailstock: 

It is used to fix the second end of the workpiece, its end rotates freely so that nothing will interfere with the rotation of the workpiece.

What Kind Of Cutters Do I Need For Woodturning?  

Types of cutters needed for woodturning

Even to make simple turned legs for a wooden table, you will need several different types of cutters.

These are the cutters you should have in your arsenal as a beginner woodturner:

1. Semicircular Cutters:  

They will be needed for rough processing. 

For example, to turn a workpiece from parallelepiped to a cylindrical form. 

Semicircular cutters can also be used for finishing, cutters of a small width (not more than 20 mm) can be used to create decorative grooves in the workpiece, and wide models (up to 50 mm) are used to process large concave surfaces;


2. Flat Cutters:

They can be used for chamfering, rounding. The cutting part has a 2-sided sharpening and forms an angle up to 70ᵒ with the side face -


3. Shaped Cutters: 

For processing internal surfaces (such products as turned wood vases cannot be made without this) shaped cutters will be needed.

4. Hook cutters may also be used.

Pro Tips

  • If a suitable cutter is not at hand, you can always DIY from an old file. An error of a couple of degrees during sharpening will not seriously affect the result of work.
  • Sometimes you have to manually modify purchased tools.
  • For example, when it is necessary to cut the workpiece when using a conventional cutter, the side internal parts are rather rough.
  • You can fix this easily by just sharpening on the sides of the cutter.

The Working Principle Of A Lathe  

working principle of wood lathe

You can easily shape wood into different forms with a Lathe. 

Be it a chess piece, an elementary candlestick, or balls for bed decor. The lathe allows you to make any wooden product.

So, How Does Woodturning Happen? 

The workpiece which is usually round is attached with one or two headstocks above the working surface of the Lathe (the bed). 

To process the workpiece -

We simply start the engine and bring the cutting tool to the workpiece 

Which removes excess wood.


Two Types Of Cutting Tools Commonly Used For Removing The Excess Woods:

  • Incisors - sharp and straight knives for turning;

  • Chisels - have rounded-shaped blades for scraping.

The rule of thumb is:

The cutters are used for softer wood species. 

Meaning the fibers of which can be easily cut, after which the sawdust is removed. They are also used for thin recesses.

Chisels are handy for handling hardwood.

Types Of Work You Can Do On A Lathe - 

Types of work you can do on a lathe

When turning wood, the following methods are used:

  • Turning. Instruments - a knife, a jamb, in different countries their names,

  • Peeling or scraping - a semicircular knife, oval, etc.

  • Selection or curettage - various kinds of ovals, hooks - mainly for turning for dishes,

  • Trimming (mainly a knife is used),

  • Cutting parts (cutting knife)

  • Dowel production (blunt knife, dowel cutter, etc.).

Basic Techniques For Working With The Lathe 

You can easily damage your workpiece or worst case get injured by only setting the cutter at a wrong angle. So it’s important to know the basic techniques of working with a lathe. Also the choice of wood blanks matters.

What Are The Basic Things I Can Do To Have A Smooth Woodturning Experience?

basic techniques for working on a lathe
  1. Always work with a cylindrical surface. Don’t fix a quadrangular workpiece in the Lathe. Even at low revs, It will impact the cutting tools. It is best to rough-cut the corners with an ax and achieve a shape that is close to a cylindrical one.

  2. Carry out roughing the surface until the size of the allowance is equal to 2-3 mm. Only after that proceed to finish or changing the cutter

  3. If you are hollowing out the wood, then do it before external processing with constant monitoring of wall thickness;
  4. After giving the desired shape, cut off the finished product with a cutting tool, and polish it.
  5. The final stage is to impregnate your work with protective compounds. This allows you to achieve two goals - to show texture and protect the wood. 

How Do I Choose The Best Wood For Turning On A Lathe?

choosing best wood blanks for wood turning

Often you can find recommendations of starting to work with softwoods (linden, poplar, etc.) when you’re starting.

Such wood species can be advised if you’re planning to produce something decorative that does not perceive a serious load during operation. 

But for more serious work, you need stronger wood, for example, wooden turned legs for a table are better made from oak, pine, but not linden, aspen or poplar.

Separately, it is worth dwelling on the quality of the workpiece.

The wood should be intact, without any hint of defects. 

It is also advisable to exclude wood workpieces in which there are knots. No matter how firmly they sit in the array. 

When rotating at high speed, such a knot can fly out at high speed and you can get injured even if you have safety glasses on.

The same can be said for cracks as well. 

You won’t know exactly how deep it goes and how the workpiece will behave. It is likely that during processing it will simply crack at the most crucial moment.

It is also advisable to remove the bark before processing. If you leave it, then there will simply be more garbage in the workplace. 

Add to that the bark is fragile, because of this it is easy to make a mistake when turning the workpiece.

How Do I Set Up A Wood Lathe? 

Setting up wood lathe

1. Ensure the live center is slid in the headstock: 

Slide the live center in the headstock and dead center in the tailstock. The headstock center and tailstock centers must be in alignment to produce accurate and precise work. 


2. Guide the live center and dead center:

Use a guide bar to ensure that the centers are held in place. Make proper adjustments between the centers while they are held in place.


3. Use a dial indicator on the stand and put the stand on the carriage:  

This is needed to check the live headstock center for accuracy. While the carriage guides the tool bit when adjusted properly. Ensure pressure is applied towards the bar with your dial indicator, then move the carriage along the bar. If you follow this, your result will be accurate.


4. Place the tool bit on the tool post: 

Put the tool bit on the tool post by placing the tool holder to the left of the compound slide. This will prevent it from vibrations and breakages.


5. Ensure the tool is aligned with the dead center: 

Use a screw on the dead center to align the tool with it. This will help to adjust the amount of pinch given to the wooden material.


6. You are set! Attach the wood to your lathe:

You can use a spur chuck to put materials on the lathe. It is a drive center which does not spin freely on bearings. The chuck is driven by the headstock.

To fix the workpiece on the “headstock” I use a bolt with 6 spikes (in a circle) and a removable center (no inserts into the shaft more than the shaft diameter, no cones, and cartridges for metal), 

The spikes and center are selected so that they allow 22 mm drilling, and when the load is increased and the tool is gripped, the fibers are torn (the workpiece does not rotate); 

On hard rocks, with an increase in load or grab, the workpiece, shaft, belt stop rotating, 

Since the area of the belt’s touch on the motor is less than on the shaft and there is not enough force to break the thorns. 

Also, when braking, the engine (for me) rolls onto the belt and continues to rotate in a stationary belt, since the engine speed is in limbo and is about 100 rpm. higher shaft speed.

For this load, I use a 520-watt electric motor. 900 rpm weight 10kg. with a maximum turning diameter of 360 mm. 

At 2 speeds of 800 rpm, the shaft can be stopped with the palm of your hand.

Now that the lathe is set up, and you are sure that everything is in place, we will be relaxed and start to practice on the lathe.

Pro Tips

  • Put lubricants on the bed:  Make sure you add lubricants to make every moveable part slide smoother.
  • Check the belts: Set your belt so that they are on the required speed for the operation you are carrying out.
  • Use the screw chuck to attach wood to the lathe. 

Things To Keep In Mind While Practising On The Wood Lathe

things to keep in mind when practsiing on wood lathe

When practicing, do not set for yourself any deadline to finish the project. Intermittently work for 1-1.5 hours. 

From my experience after 6 hours of work productivity decreases.

Any turner, like a baker, will know how much he will produce parts (per hour, per shift). 

With the growth of skill and increase in the number of repetitions of turning the same parts productivity can increase 10X.

Reducing the grinding time will greatly increase productivity. Usually, a beginner turner spends up to 50% of the work time grinding. 

Peace of mind significantly increases your accuracy and 2-3 spoiled blanks can spoil the whole day (with large and complex sizes of the part).

Success and approval are important for a beginner turner. Correctly assess your capabilities. Do not use a workpiece longer than 5 diameters. 

I started with handles for files, simple chess pieces, candlesticks with a diameter of up to 30 mm Combining lathe with carpentry. 

For a children's toy, the diameter of the products is at least 25 mm - so as not to be swallowed (mushrooms, nesting dolls, pyramids).

By making useful household items, you will always find support from your loved ones and gain basic turning skills. 

Try turning different tree species on small workpiece diameters up to 30 mm. The first study then work (on a specific tree species). Thus you will gain experience and new skills.


  • Electricity and fire are always dangerous
  • There should not be any strangers or animals around the lathe. Position the lathe so that the sudden appearance of an outsider close to it is impossible.

Finally, Let’s Start To Turn Wood On A Lathe

work on wood a lathe cadlestick
The turning process is quite complex and consists of several components: selecting the workpiece and tool, determining the speed of rotation of the workpiece, directly turning and subsequent finishing. 

Sometimes the finished product requires varnishing, intermediate polishing, and drying. 

First, let’s select the workpiece:

The rules are simple, the first thing is to determine the dimensions of the product in its finished form.

Suppose we need to grind a candlestick. 

Deetermining The Workpiece Dimensions

There is a drawing where all dimensions are indicated, length - 45 mm, diameter - 48 mm at the base, and 35 mm - the diameter of the top where the candle will be inserted. 

The workpiece is selected with the calculation - the length is plus 8 cm if your wood lathe is equipped with a cam chuck, and the length is plus 4 cm spindle with a faceplate. 

Then the thickness of the workpiece should be with a margin of 20 mm. 

That is for a given diameter of 48 mm, the workpiece will need a diameter of 68-70 mm.

Workpiece Hardness & Textures

Wood hardness is important when choosing a workpiece. Beech, ash, pear, apple tree, cherry, oak, hornbeam, walnut, etc. are ideal.  

In addition to hardness, material texture matters. Woodturning works give good results if the wood has beautiful textures. 

Solid grades in the finished product will not look good. 

For example, beech, hornbeam, and pear have a texture with a slightly pronounced pattern. 

On the contrary ash, apple and walnut differ in a very interesting bright pattern, especially in the transverse and diagonal sections.


Inserting The Workpiece Into The Lathe:

Now we will install our workpiece in the Lathe 

One end is clamped in the cams, and the other end is propped up by the center of the tailstock. 

The center can be rotating or motionless. 

In any case, its nose should reliably support future candlestick. 

It is necessary to tighten the back gauge from time to time. 

Keep in mind that turning woodwork at home requires increased attention and accuracy so that the workpiece does not accidentally fly out of the machine. 


Next, Selecting The Rotation Speed: 

For turning a product with a diameter of 38 mm, the optimal spindle speed is 350 - 450 rpm. 

For grinding and polishing the product, the speed will need to be increased approximately twice. 

First, you need to grind the workpiece along its entire length to level its surface and get the right smooth cylinder. 


Do The Marking & Grinding

A flawless even surface is needed for marking. 

All dimensions from the drawing are transferred to the surface of the workpiece. 

To do this, measure out all the indicated lengths and apply marks with a pencil. 

Then we start the lathe and on the rotating part we apply a pencil at the marked points, we get smooth circular borders. 


After this, you can begin to grind

At the same time, it is necessary to constantly monitor the process. 

It is better to measure once again, 

So as not to err in the calculations.

How Do I Work Safely On A Wood Lathe?

When turning a wood blank, it is not possible to get injured unless you openly poke a knife into the workpiece 🙂

A gouge or chisel can, theoretically, be thrown over the workpiece (right or left). To the right - not dangerous, but the left - “iron” always rotates and it can be dangerous.

I only consider it to be perfectly safe for turning when the workpiece is hammered into the headstock.

To reduce the risk of injury during turning, I apply (and advise everyone) the following rules:

  1. Never sharpen from a square if a workpiece with a diameter of more than 30 mm.
  2. Chop all angles with an ax, 10 mm cut planes are enough (from chips);
  3. Do not crush the workpiece with the cone (center) of the tailstock,
  4. Cone temperature no more than 60-70º С - otherwise the workpiece will crack from heating.

In Conclusion

Turning wood is a fascinating and creative thing, with the right approach it can bring a lot of pleasure.

Wood is not only a material for the manufacture of beams, boards, and other building elements.

It is also a thing for creativity.

Artistic processing of wood allows even a seemingly ordinary piece of wood to get a real masterpiece.

A lathe is a very useful thing in a woodshop. Even the compact mini lathes will quench the thirst for creativity.

You can independently make a lot of useful and beautiful things for the home, from balusters to decorative dishes. 

You can also learn this craft without constant help.