What’s the best metal lathe? Well, what’s right for you is different than what your neighbor needs. We review several excellent metal lathe machines we feel are worth your money.
Intro | Best Metal Lathe
Today CNC cutting has replaced the metal lathe in many professional engineering shops. Though for once-off projects, a traditional metal lathe is still the best and even most professional shops keep them around. Unlike computerized cutting and milling machines, you don’t need a CAD (DXF) file with an accurate image of the product that you want to cut when using a manually operated metal lathe. It also doesn’t take very long to set up a conventional metal lathe.
For those of us who enjoy customizing vehicles in our spare time, a metal lathe is a wonderful thing to have in the garage. You can fabricate any part you wish and go back to refine or modify it as many times as you need to. This allows us amateurs to become our own engineers and experiment with different ideas. There are many other crafts-people who enjoy the creative versatility that a metal lathe has to offer. As DIY enthusiasts, a metal lathe allows us to make custom tools for specialized applications. You can also make kitchenware, basically anything that you can think of. The lathe is not only used for metal work, they also cut wood and other materials like plastics, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Professional Metal Lathe | High Precision | Shop Fox M1112
This article is going to provide a buyer’s guide on how to go about choosing the best metal lathe. But, before going into all the many details of how a lathe works and what to look for in these machines, I’m going to provide a detailed review of some of the best metal lathes. If you already know enough about lathes, you just want the low down on which models are the best in terms of specs, quality, and price. For those of you who are new to these tools, the rest will follow. I’ll be answering common questions, like how does a metal lathe work and how to choose the best metal lathe.
Within the context of this review, we’re going to be looking at the best metal lathe for the small to medium shop. This will be DIY users and smaller professional shops that produce a limited volume of specialized custom products and parts.
Best Variable Speed Benchtop Metal Lathe
- Variable speed allows for operation anywhere from 100 to 2500 RPM in either direction
- 5/16-inch capacity tool post accepts up to four tools at once
- Threading dial indicator helps turn screw threads anywhere from 15 to 52 TPI
- Operate either manually or with the adjustable auto feed rate
- Turn metal up to 84 cubic inches in size.
- 3-jaw chuck
- MT3 spindle taper
- MT2 tailstock taper
- 2-1/2 inch cross slide travel (65 mm)
- .79 inch spindle bore (20 mm)
- 2.16 inch compound slide travel
- 3/4 HP motor (4 amp)
- .0039 to .00787 inch longitudinal feed rate (.1 to .2 mm)
- Tool rest
- 3/4 HP motor
As we’ve come to expect from WEN, the WEN 3455 benchtop metal lathe is affordable and offers a lot for your money, especially when it comes to quality. So this is not the most sophisticated metal lathe, but is still a very competent machine. For the home shop, you’ll get fantastic use from this tool and it’s affordable enough. Not many DIY enthusiasts will need more than this lathe has to offer, so why pay more unless you’re looking for more?
The WEN 3455 definitely looks the part, with perfectly machined components, solid rails, and excellent gears. The ¾HP (4A) electric motor can compete with the best with ample power for a 7” X 12” metal lathe. This means that have 7-inches swing with a space of 12-inches between centers, a working capacity for pieces up to 84 cubic inches. For a compact benchtop metal lathe, this is quite reasonable.
It’s a two-directional lathe with excellent variable speed control from 100RPM up to 2500 RPM in either direction. To give you perfect control over your speed selection, there’s a lever that engages either low-speed control (0-1100 RPM) or high-speed (0-2500 RPM), a dial at the side allows you to control the rotation speed within the selected (high or low) speed ranges. This switch setup makes it very quick and easy to change the spindle speed whilst working and it has a safety stop switch within easy reach in an emergency situation.
Tooling and working capabilities are excellent. A three-jaw chuck provides the grip that you want when holding the workpiece in position and it has an optional auto-feed that you can adjust as you like. The tool post has a ⁵⁄₁₆ capacity and can accommodate up to four cutting tools at a time. Turning screws is made easier thanks to the onboard thread indicator. This gives you the ability to turn either metric or imperial screws from 15 to 52 TPI with accuracy and ease of operation. It’s fitted with an MT3 spindle taper, MT2 dead center tailstock taper and a 0.70” (20mm) spindle bore. You have a 2.5” (65mm) cross slide travel and a 2.16” compound slide travel. The longitudinal feed rate is 0.0039” to 0.00787” (0.1 – 0.2MM). So you have the versatility and accuracy that you want for basically any cutting application.
Even though the WEN 3455 is on the cheaper end of the scale when it comes to a quality benchtop metal lathes, it displays superior workmanship and a high standard of materials used. You can find similar machines with a larger working capacity, but you’ll be paying more for this. If the working parameters of this metal lathe meet your requirements, it’s going to be your best option for its price. WEN are excellent when it comes to service and the 3455 metal lathe has a 2-year warranty.
Size : 10″ x 22″ — Best Benchtop Metal Lathe
Applications : making parts for models, engines or for repairs around the home or shop. Use your imagination. Great for a wide range of applications and industries.
- Hardened and ground V-way bed
- Six speed range: 150, 300, 560, 720, 1200 and 2400 RPM.
- Threading capabilities of 33 inch threads from 8 to 72 TPI and 26 metric threads from 0.25mm to 3.5mm.
- Oil-bath gearbox
- Tool box with service tools
- Number of longitudinal feeds: 9
- Chip tray and backsplash
Documents for the Grizzly G0602 :
The Grizzly G0602 is a big step up from the WEN3455, looking at the price, this is to be expected – this metal lathe is about twice the price of the WEN model. It’s a larger lathe and can, therefore, accommodate larger workpieces. It has a greater tooling variety and is, in all aspects, a more sophisticated machine.
The basic size spec of 10” X 22” is a far departure from the 7” X 12” WEN 3455. The Grizzly G0602 has a swing over bed of 9½” and swing over cross slide of 6⅛”. The distance between centers is 22”. So, from specification this alone, it’s obvious that you work with much larger metal pieces using the grizzly. Along with this increased capacity, it will obviously have a more powerful motor, this being 1HP (13.6A) 110V.
Rather than a variable or infinite speed control, the Grizzly has 6 set speeds, so you’re setting your speed at an exact RPM: 150; 300; 560; 720; 1200 or 2400 RPM. Adjusting the speed is a fairly complex process and involves changing the pulley configuration for any of the speed settings listed. Fortunately, the user’s manual describes things perfectly with photographs and detailed instructions. There’s a table on the machine to aid in selecting the correct configuration for the desired speed. Once you’re familiar with the process, it’s not difficult to do – it just takes a bit of time to loosen the pulley, change the belts and re-tighten everything. Setting the feed rate is also a process that takes some getting used, but this is also detailed very well in the instruction book that comes with the machine.
In fact, the manual is excellent in every detail and covers everything from initial startup and testing procedures, down to fitting tools and making all the necessary settings. If you’d like to know more about the operating procedures read the manual. The on/off and reverse selection switch is easy enough to understand and it has a large emergency shutoff switch for your safety.
All the specs for the Grizzly G0602 are an indication of the greater variety of tasks that you can perform with the lathe: Spindle bore is 1” (2.5MM); spindle thread is 1¾” X 8 TPI and it has an MT4 taper. It provides for a maximum ½” tool size with a 5” 3-jaw chuck, a 6½” 4-jaw chuck and an 8” faceplate a 4-way tool post. Both the steady rest and follow rest have a ¼” to 2” capacity. It has 9 longitudinal feeds. All of this takes the Grizzly G0602 into a more professional league as one of the best metal lathes.
Thread cutting is also very versatile with a total of 33 threads in inches (range: 8-72 TPI) and 26 metric threads, ranging from 0.25MM to 3.5MM. Though you should note that the feed does not reverse, so you won’t be able to cut left-hand threads.
Some other specs that may be of value to you are the lead screw (¾” – 12 TPI); compound travel of 3½”; cross slide travel of 6½”, carriage travel of 8½” and tailstock quill travel of 8½” (tailstock is MT3). This is quite a long list of detailed specs that can take a bit of getting used, but it boils down to a great range of working capabilities with very fine accuracy. If you’re going to be machining larger pieces of metal and need to do more detailed and accurate work, it’s quite obvious that the Grizzly G0602 is the machine for the job. You get a large toolbox with the Grizzly that keeps all the tools you need for changing the components and pulleys as well as the various cutting tools that come with the machine. It’s nice to have all this stuff stored in an organized fashion. You also have a selection of stands available as optional extras.
This is a big and heavy metal lathe, weighing 447 LBS and looks to be of industrial-grade quality with an oil-bathed gearbox. While Grizzly may not be a brand on the top end of the scale, you’re getting a very sophisticated metal lathe for its price. Unlike the cheaper lathes, this machine gives many of the working capabilities that you’ll expect to have in a professional shop. It has a 1-year warranty with all the standard limitations.
Learn more by visiting the Grizzly site.
Size : 7″ x 12″ — Best Mini Metal Lathe
- Variable Speed
- 16 TPI Reversible Leadscrew
- Forward and reverse in all speeds
- Chip Tray & Backsplash Guard
- Threading Dial Indicator
- Standard & Metric Graduation
- Made in an ISO 9001 factory
Documents for the Grizzly G8688 :
In very much the same league as the WEN 3455, the Grizzly G8688 is a small 7” X 12” metal lathe and much simpler to use than the complex bigger machines. As a manufacturer of budget tools, WEN is my preferred brand of the two, though the Grizzly is the cheaper option and has almost identical specs to the WEN equivalent. For a cheap, but very capable lathe for the home shop, the Grizzly G8688 is probably the most affordable that you’ll get before you go to too cheap and end up buying a piece of junk. I certainly wouldn’t call this metal lathe cheap junk. Rather, it’s an affordable tool of a good quality standard. At the same time, I wouldn’t consider it to be a heavy-duty machine. For that, you’d have to pay considerably more. This is perhaps the best metal lathe for the beginner or occasional hobbyist, as it offers everything you need to get started at a very affordable price.
The overbed swing is 7” and the distance between centers is 12” – exactly the same as the small WEN lathe. It comes with a 16MM bore chuck and the spindle bore is 20MM with an MT3 nose taper. The tailstock taper is MT2 with a travel of 2½”. Cross slide travel is 2¾” and it can accommodate a maximum tool bit size of ⁵⁄₁₆”. It can cut standard (inches) thread from 12 – 52 TPI and metric threads of 0.4 – 2MM, with18 thread pitches for inches and 10 for metric. So when comparing the working specs between the Grizzly G8688 and the WEN 3455, there’s virtually no difference.
The motor is also the same size (0.75 HP) and the variable speed control works in a very similar way to the WEN. It has a lever to alternate between high and low RPM with a dial to adjust the speed at these two levels. This gives you a speed range of 0-1100 RPM at the low range setting and 0-2500 RPM at the high setting.
For a small compact benchtop metal lathe (weighing only 75 LBS), the Grizzly G8688 can be described as a bargain. It’s as cheap as you’ll find for this caliber of machine and has all the specs and features one could want from a small metal lathe. You get the standard Grizzly 1-year limited warranty on this product.
Best professional-grade mini-metal lathe.
- 5″ 3-jaw chuck
- Cross slide table
- 11 change gears
- 2 dead centers
- 4-way turret tool post
- Eye shield
- Forward/reverse switch with emergency stop
- Overall size: 44″L x 23″W x 17-1/2″H
Documents for the Shop Fox M1016 :
If we’re going to be comparing specs, then Shop Fox M1016 can stand alongside the Grizzly G0602 as a small to mid-sized metal lathe. It is slightly smaller than the Grizzly and has a less powerful motor. Despite the slightly lower spec level, the Shop Fox M1016 is more expensive than its Grizzly rival. Though I’m sure most will agree that the Shop Fox brand is considered to be more industrial grade and is more likely to be found in a professional shop and in the home shop of a more discerning DIY enthusiast.
With 9¾” over bed swing and 21” distance between centers it has a slightly smaller material capacity than the Grizzly G0602, though we’re not talking about much here – 1” on the length between centers and you actually get a quarter inch more for the overbed swing. So they can be seen as very similar in this regard. Over saddle swing is 6”. The Shop Fox has a smaller 0.75 HP motor and this does make it less powerful, though some of this may be compensated for in the gearing, but less power will always be a bit of disadvantage for thicker harder materials.
It has 6 speeds for the spindle (150, 240, 490, 750, 1200, and 2400 RPM). Changing the speed is also done by reconfiguring the pulley setup. A chart is provided on the lathe to guide you and the instruction book provides excellent instructions for those who are new to this. The automatic feed rate, thread range and reverse thread cutting is adjusted by gear changes – this is also perfectly explained in the manual and there’s a chart on the machine to guide you. The feed ranges are 2 @ 0.005” and 0.1”. It has a 12 step thread range for inches (8 – 40 TPI) and the metric thread range is also 12 step (0.4 – 3MM). If you’d like to download the user manual.
The compound travel is 2¼”, cross slide travel is 4¼” and the tailstock barrel travel is ½”. The spindle bore is ¾” with an MT3 taper. The tailstock taper is MT2. So all the specs make it a similar metal lathe to the Grizzly G0602 and it’s similar in the way it operates. The 5” 3-jaw chuck and faceplates are made really easy to change by using a lock plate with slotted oversized holes, allowing the studs to pass through easily by simply turning it counter clockwise. The four-way turret tool post also saves time by allowing you to mount several tools and rotate it as needed.
The Shop Fox M1016 can be seen as a professional grade metal lathe and, of the machines in this review, it’s my personal favorite. This is partly for brand’s reputation and a general impression of quality and superfine accurate adjustments on the metal lathe. It also has a better warranty than the Grizzly lathes, 2-years as opposed to 1-year.
How does a metal lathe work?
While a metal lathe has many complex adjustments, its basic operation is simple. It is used to cut and shape metal, though lathes are also used for other materials like wood or plastics. The piece of metal that is being shaped rotates and one uses different tools that press into the metal as it turns. As the cutting tool makes contact with the metal surface it cuts into it. The shape of the tool determines the shape of the cut and the depth that you cut into the metal can be controlled with complete accuracy, allowing you take very little metal off as it rotates.
There are a wide range of cutting tools that can be used with a metal lathe. The most common of these are:
- Facing tools creates a smooth face on the metal surface. This can be used perpendicular to the rotational axis of the piece being shaped or it can be angled.
- Fillet tools round the edges of the surface and one can also use chamfer tools to cut angled edges.
- Boring tools cut holes into the metal. This can be only partially into the surface or all the way through. Most metal lathes also allow one to cut threads for bolts and screws.
There are a number of components that are crucial to the proper functioning of the metal lathe.
The spindle has attachments that hold the workpiece while it rotates, allowing the operator to cut into the workpiece as it turns. Because metal lathes are expected to work extremely accurately with tolerances of 2-microns or less, the spindle is held in position by a precise bearing.
There a number of ways that a workpiece can be attached to the spindle, like chucks and faceplates. The spindle is often hollow to allow longer pieces to fit through it. Generally, the lathe spindle is tapered, this is usually a Morse Taper (MT), which allows for hollow tubular tapers to be used in order to reduce the size of a tapered hole.
In order to cut metals of any type, the spindle needs to a lot of torque and this is provided means of an electric motor that runs through a gearbox and usually a set of belt driven pulleys. The speed at which the spindle rotates is controlled by either changing gears or the configuration of the belts driving the pulleys. This gives a ratio that increases the torque as the speed is reduced. In the same way as a car’s transmission controls the speed and torque from the engine.
The spindle, gears, and speed control mechanisms are contained in the headstock and this needs to be strong and rigid. The forces when cutting metal and the vibrations need to be contained, so if the headstock is not strong enough to handle these factors, there will movement on the workpiece. Any movement, other than the rotation of the spindle, will result in inaccuracies and distortions in the final product.
The tool bits are held by a tool post on the carriage and this is controlled either by a manual hand wheel or an automatic feed shaft. For easier operation, many metal lathes make use of a quick change tool post that can hold several different tools at one time. Instead of changing the tool bit, one can rotate the tool post to use one of the other bits.
The carriage handwheel allows the operator to move the tool bit either perpendicularly to the workpiece (facing) or longitudinally (turning). The movement of the carriage is controlled by a cross-slide or a compound rest. The cross-slide mechanism is controlled by a feed screw and allows for a perpendicular angle to the main axis (facing). For more precision cutting and controlling the depth of screw and taper cuts, the compound rest offers finer control of the carriage movement. The carriage and headstock are connected by the bed which is a heavy table.
For cutting threads, the carriage is driven by a feed screw and a lead screw. These run through a gearbox that changes the ratio in order to get the correct thread size, type and direction.
On the opposite end of the lathe to the headstock, a tailstock is fitted. This is a stationary spindle that can be moved longitudinally – along the bed toward the headstock. The tailstock can hold drilling and other tools that like tapers. It is controlled by a by a lead gear and hand wheel to cut into the workpiece parallel to the axis.
How to select the best metal lathe
Speed control is of utmost importance. Depending on the type of cutting tool you’re using, the material being cut and its thickness, one will need a big variety of speed settings. This is usually done by means of gears, belts, and pulleys that you change manually for the required ratio and this determines your speed. Smaller metal lathes will often have a single gear, operated by a lever and a speed control dial. This is not as accurate as doing things manually and, unlike pulleys and gears, you won’t get the same increase in torque when using a speed control dial. Basically, for smaller projects, a speed control dial is fine. But for a larger metal lathe, where better control over the power output is required, the manual gear and pulley system is the best.
Obviously, power is important, and, for this, you need a good electric motor. Metal is tough to cut so even a small benchtop lathe will need a motor of 0.75 – 1 HP.
Multiple thread options will give you the best versatility when working with different size materials. You’ll choose the size of the metal lathe that you want based on the type of projects that wish to undertake – this would be the distance from the center and the swing. Though this could be determined by your shop space and often, your budget. Larger metal lathes cost quite a bit more.
Secondary factors can include a safety guard over the spindle, but I don’t how valuable this actually is. You should always wear eye protection when using a metal lathe and the extra protection of a guard actually just complicates things and can be restrictive. A good safety shutoff switch helps a lot in an emergency. Chip trays and a backsplash help keep things tidy and will make it easier to clean up after you’re done.
For the rest, stick to reputable brands that are known for quality. A metal lathe is a complicated machine – full of gears and screws that need to remain 100% accurate. So build quality and suitable materials used in manufacturing the lathe are very important. You can never tell when looking at a metal lathe, what kind of quality has gone into the materials used and the machining. It really is a matter of trust and anyone who knows tools, knows that are brands that you can trust – their reputations are built on this.