The Definitive Guide to Buying Lathes

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The Definitive Guide to Buying Lathes

Every handyman can benefit from having a lathe in their workshop. These incredibly useful instruments are used to shape pieces of wood and metal into everything from furniture legs to automobile parts. Best of all, the lathe is relatively easy to use, and even novices can get started making simple pieces of equipment within a few hours. However, the biggest problem beginners, and even professional machinists have, is trying to decide what lathe to buy.

Lathes are sold in tool shops, home improvement stores, and online at websites like eBay. They come in different sizes, use extra features, and work for special purposes. A buyer needs to determine what kind of work he or she wants to do with the lathe, as well as how much space is available in their workshop before committing to buying one. Remember, when it comes to lathes, functionality is far more valuable than price, especially if the initial investment results in a high-quality product.

Lathe Types

An unskilled worker who sees a lathe may not realise what it does, and even think that the machine looks strange with its spindles and levers. Lathes have been around for centuries, and there are even examples of models that were made as long ago as the 15th century, coming up for sale every now and then. In its simplest form, a lathe is an instrument that turns wood or metal through a spindle. As the material turns, the woodcutter, or machinist, can work using a variety of shaping tools.

There are two main types of lathes: wood and metal. As their name suggests, wood lathes are used for shaping wood, while metal lathes shape metal. Woodcutters can work with a metal lathe for more precise turning, but machinists cannot use a wood lathe to shape metal. Therefore, if a buyer sometimes works with both materials, he or she is better off purchasing a metal lathe. Woodcutters who only work with wood should use a wood lathe.

Portable or Bench

The vast majority of all lathes are bench tools. This means that they are permanently placed on the workbench and do not move anywhere else. Therefore, it is highly important that buyers take into account the size of their work area when shopping for a lathe, since buying one that is too large for the space leads to uncomfortable cramped conditions.

Bench Lathe Features

Bench lathes typically have more power and torque. They sit directly on a workbench, or flat area that can bear their weight. In strength, they are second only to stationary models that come with their own stand, and some models allow the height of the stand to be adjusted with the height of the workbench. These are very large models, therefore they are capable of working with bigger pieces of wood or metal.

Portable Lathes

Wood lathes, however, are usually smaller than metal ones. Therefore, it is possible to find a portable wood lathe to use as well. This is helpful for woodcutters who have smaller workshops, or do their work from the back of their truck. When buying a portable lathe, always make sure that its construction can stand up to being moved around throughout the day. Many of the less expensive lathes were created using substandard metal, and could fall apart when carted around in the back of a truck.

Sizing Lathes

Sizing lathes can be a difficult proposition due to two different measuring mechanisms. The English standard is to measure a lathe by throw times length. The throw is the area from the centre of the chuck down to the bed, while the length is the area between the two centre posts of each lathe. For example, an 4 x 24 inch lathe, or 10 x 60 cm is able to work with an item that is less than 60 cm long and has a diameter of 20 cm. The 20 cm size is not clearly marked because the English method only measures the chuck height, which splits the diameter in half.

The American method, on the other hand, measures the full diameter, called the swing, of the material. In the above example, the same lathe would be marked 8 x 24 inches, or 20 x 60 cm. These two competing methods of sizing make it difficult to determine what the actual swing of the lathe is when purchasing online without paying close attention. Do not make the mistake of seeing a lathe for sale and assume that it actually has a 40 cm swing.

Lathe Power

Lathes work on different power levels depending on their size. Portable lathes are the smallest both in structure and power, while bench models are larger and stationary lathes that are the biggest ones of all.


Power (hp)

Weight (lbs)



30 to 100


0.5 -1.5

100 to 200


1.5 - 3

200 +

Not all woodworkers or metalsmiths need large lathes, and in many cases a smaller model may even be preferred. Those who work with delicate metals and wood can get away with using a smaller lathe that can precisely hold a tiny instrument.

Lathe Motors

Because lathes use little actual horsepower, modern models come with an electric motor. In some cases, the lathe uses a rechargeable battery while others need to be plugged into the wall. The disadvantage of buying a large lathe that runs on a battery is that the power runs out quickly, so this is not a good choice if the buyer works on large jobs consistently throughout the day. The disadvantage of purchasing a corded model is that in a very small workplace, the cord tends to get in the way.

Lathe Features

A buyer should also examine a lathe for features that are needed for particular purposes. Not all lathes have these features, and those that do vary in quality across different brands.


The backgear function restricts the speed of the spindle, reducing how many times it turns, but greatly increasing the torque. Woodworkers do not need lathes with this function, and even some metalworkers can get away without one. However, the extra strength of the backgear feature allows even the strongest metal to bend itself around the whirling spindle due to the immense forces at work. Mechanics who often work on durable face-plated metals constantly use the backgear function.

Screw Cutting

Like the back gear function, screwcutting slows down the spindle, increasing torque and making the metal more flexible. This allows the user to cut holes into the metal for screws. Operators can control the speed of the spindle by operating several levers alongside the lathe. Less expensive models do not have this option, which means that the operator has to manually adjust the pitch rate of the gears for screw cutting.


Lathes either use a flat bed, or come with one in the shape of a V. In most cases, the bed shape has only a minimal impact on the functionality of the lathe. The English style uses a flat bed, while the American version uses a rounded one. Other models lack a single bed at all, opting to use two bottom bars that connect the different centres together. If the buyer is going with a portable lathe, then try choosing one with a bed that is not too heavy for everyday lifting.

How to Buy Lathes on eBay

The good news about buying lathes online from a website like eBay is that since these products are built for strength, they typically last for a long time. This means that it is possible to find top-quality used lathes that do not break the bank when you buy them. However, this does not mean that all used lathes are still in good condition. The buyer must always take care to ascertain the condition of the item before making the final purchase.

You can search for lathes on eBay by typing 'lathes' into the search engine. If you need a lathe that is specifically made for woodcutting, then type 'woodcutting lathe' into the box and explore the results. You can also shop by different brands, such as 'HSS lathes' by directly typing the manufacturers name into the search engine. Play around with the search engine until you get a feel for how eBay's website works. Once you are able to quickly locate products that you want, you can then spend more time examining each listing to see if it matches up with your needs.


Lathes are professional tools that even occasional hobbyists can enjoy. They are used to shape metal and wood for a variety of purposes by using a spinning mechanism. As the item on the lathe spins, the torque increases and it becomes more malleable. Lathes are often sold in either metal or wood versions, but a woodcarver could go with a metal lathe if he or she prefers. These machines also come in different sizes which affects their overall power and speed.

Portable lathes are the smallest and least powerful, but they are more versatile than the larger bench and stationary lathes. A hobbyist likely only needs a portable lathe while the heavier bench and stationary models are best left for professionals who have extra room in their workshop. Buying the correct size is another crucial consideration. By taking the time to do a bit of research on lathes, customers can purchase the model that is right for them at an affordable price.

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