Note : We’ve written a fresh 2023 buying guide for the best wood lathes. Go read it now. In the meantime we’ll be updating this article shortly as many products are no longer available. Thanks for reading.
How do you select the best wood lathe when new to the hobby? To help you, we’ve selected three affordable wood lathes in the midi range, meaning that they are not large industrial machines. More the type of wood lathe used by hobbyists and small workshops. Since these are midi sized wood lathes, I’ve decided to explain some of the terms used in selecting one. It should help with selecting the best wood lathe that’s suitable for your project list.
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Intro | Best Wood Lathe
One of the selection criteria when looking at wood lathes is the weight. This is important because it absorbs some of the vibrations during initial turning operations. When you start with a workpiece, it is only roughly shaped and unbalanced. As you make progress, balance improves. A heavy lathe can absorb more of the vibrations and can, therefore, handle heavier pieces.
The swing over the tool rest base is the maximum diameter of a workpiece that can fit in the lathe when using the tool rest. It is also referred to as the swing over the banjo. Another common specification is the swing over the bed or swing size. This is the diameter of the largest workpiece that can swing on the lathe with the tool rest out of the way. You could turn platters and shallow bowls up to that size in diameter.
Baileigh WL-2060VS | Professional-Grade Wood Lathe
The distance between centers on a wood lathe determines the longest workpiece that you can mount between centers. It is an important measurement if you plan to turn table legs. Table legs should be 29” long, so you will need a lathe with 29” between centers. The lathes that we’ll be reviewing are not long enough to do this. Fortunately, two of them can be extended with bolt-on extenders. Some folks will reason than an extension is no good, because mating it perfectly is not possible, but I tend to disagree. A decent cast iron unit from a trusted supplier, that’s bolted on well, can be as effective as any long bed.
Gap-bed-lathes are lathes that have a gap between the bed and the headstock. With this type of lathe, you cannot move the banjo to the left of the workpiece. All three of our lathes have beds that are flat between the headstock and tailstock.
Indexing positions are available on some wood lathes. This is used to place markings, drill holes, or to attach features or decorations equally spaced around the workpiece. Basically, this allows you to have the features placed at specific angles on the workpiece. A pin is used to lock the spindle so it cannot move whilst applying the feature.
Wood lathe manufacturers offer varying ranges of speed changes, depending on how the lathe is configured. A range of at least 300 to 3600 RPM is fine. The slow speed is used when you start off with a new piece. A piece that is being prepared for turning is not fully rounded. You first need to cut down the corners, so it is usually out of balance. Whilst gouging the rough piece, you cut lightly and carefully at a low speed until the piece is round. Higher speeds are used for finishing and for small diameter work-pieces.
Affordable Benchtop Wood Lathe | SHOP FOX W1704
The forward and reversing function allows you to achieve a superior finish. Sanding a turned piece with the grain causes the wood fibers to lay down and remain rough. If the lathe can be reversed, the sanding will smooth the wood fibers. It’s a better option than re-mounting the workpiece backward, which is not always possible.
The tool rest length and shape determines how far along the cut line you can move the tool whilst supporting it on the tool rest. Some manufacturers sell their lathes with more than one tool rest, and specialized curved tool rests are also available.
The head spindle thread size is normally indicated as 1″ X 8 TPI. It simply means the thread diameter is 1” and it has 8 threads per inch. This helps you determine which accessories will fit the lathe.
A Morse Taper (MT) is a tapered spindle used on lathes and drill presses to mount tooling. The headstock of your lathe has a hollow housing with a Morse Taper that is designed to fit a male ended arbor. MT1 and MT2 have the same taper per inch, but the length and diameter of the Morse Tapers are different. The one does not fit the other. To reuse accessories with a Morse taper, you must be sure they will fit your new lathe. One of the wood lathes in this review uses an MT1 Morse Taper, the two bigger units use MT2 tools.
Reviews — Best Wood Lathe
We selected a small, diverse group of wood lathes for this review. All in a benchtop format with variable speeds and operating at a 120 volts. They range from 45 to 121 pounds in weight:
- WEN 3420 (Best wood lathe if you’re on a Budget), 45 pounds, Workpiece size of 12 x 8 inches.
- Delta Industrial 46-460 Midi wood Lathe, 97 Pounds, Workpiece size of 16.5 x 9.56 inches.
- JET JWL-1221VS Wood Lathe, 25 pounds, Workpiece sizes of 20.5 x 9.45 inches.
Take note that these lathes can’t accommodate an outsize workpiece, as you can’t swing the headstock.
WEN 3420 Review
Best wood lathe if you’re on a Budget — 8″ x 12″ Variable Speed Benchtop Wood Lathe.
- Adjust the variable speed anywhere from 750 to 3200 rotations per minute
- Includes 5-inch faceplate for turning bowls, cups and other non-spindle workpieces
- Attack workpieces up to 12 inches long and 8 inches wide
- Features a 2A motor, a MT1 spindle and tailstock taper, and two interchangeable work rests
- Backed by a two-year warranty.
- Adjust the variable speed anywhere from 750 to 3200 rotations per minute
- Soft start motor maximizes safety and helps protect the machine from damage
- Two-year warranty
- Tool Rest Length : 4-1/2 or 7 in
- Dimensions : 26 x 10 x 12 in
Includes : WEN Wood Lathe, MT1 Spindle, MT1 Tailstock, 5-Inch Face Plate, 4-1/2-Inch Tool Rest, 7-Inch Tool Rest, Knockout Rod, Flat Wrench, Headstock Spur Center, Tailstock Cup Center, Two-Year Warranty
This is the only wood lathe on our list that cannot be extended by bolting on an extension. It will limit you to turning shorter pieces up to 12 inches, but the lathe offers an affordable start to woodturning as a hobby. Its 8” swing will enable you to turn plates and bowls up to 7” in diameter. It’s great if you’re buying on a budget. You will gain experience and spend many joyful hours turning beautiful objects.
Turning speed on the Wen 3420 can be adjusted with the variable speed drive anywhere from 750 to 3200 rotations per minute. The lower speed on the lathe is a bit on the high side. So it may be problematic when starting to turn a heavy piece. The weight of this wood lathe is also less than half that of the Delta wood lathe. It may limit you to smaller pieces and lighter, softer wood.
The WEN 3420 uses an electronic speed control. The wood lathe also has a Soft start feature that maximizes safety and helps protect the machine from damage. It starts slowly and gradually increases speed. To increase the speed, you simply turn a knob. There is no indication of the selected speed, so speed selection is determined by vibrations. Using the correct lathe speed should allow the blanks to be turned with little or no vibration. When starting off with an unbalanced blank, vibrations are usually caused by speeds high enough to vibrate the lathe. I recommend that you set the speed at its lowest, as you progresses you can increase the speed. But accept that you will mostly work at half the maximum speed, especially when turning a 7” bowl.
The WEN 3420 lathe uses an MT1 spindle and tailstock taper, with a maximum length between centers of 12”. It includes a 5” faceplate for mounting the workpiece when turning bowls, cups, and other non-spindle workpieces. The distance from the center of the spindle to the cast iron frame is 4-1/8″. To make a bowl 8″ in diameter, the turning stock must be round before you start, and perfectly mounted. I consider the Wen wood lathe to be limited to a 7” bowl. This is a small lathe for small turning projects.
The Wen 3420 does not have a reverse feature, it only turns forward. Polishing your work with sandpaper may require that you re-mount the workpiece backward. I noticed that most people use the Wen for turning wooden pens, small knobs, pegs and other small objects. With small objects, the reverse feature may not be too important.
Users mention that the motor tends to stall when turning square stock round. The 2 Amp motor, delivering at the most 240 Watts, is another indication that it is limited in what it can handle.
The lathe is supplied with two tool rests (4-1/2″ and 7″), providing support needed for chisels and tools during operation. The easy-to-use lever clamping system makes adjustments to both the tool rest and the tailstock simple and precise. The WEN wood lathe also includes a flat wrench, a headstock spur center, a tailstock cup center, and a knockout rod. The lathe is backed by a two-year warranty, and support is offered nationwide.
Delta Industrial 46-460 | MIDI-Lathe
12″ Midi-Lathe Variable Speed Wood Lathe.
- Powerful 1 HP max, 1,725 RPM Motor
- Large 12.5″ swing capacity provides the largest capacity in its class
- Electronic Variable Speed with three-pulley speed ranges provide the required speeds needed to turn a project without changing belt position
- Forward and Reversing function : Rotating the turned piece in both directions is the only way to achieve a super smooth finish. Saves you lots of time. Very easy: Simply flip the switch.
- Patented belt tensioning system for easy and quick speed changes and sets the belt at the correct tension every time for maximum power transfer and longer tool lifE
- 6 groove belt provides superior power to turn large objects
- Indexing pin to lock the head stock spindle in 24 different locations for fluting and other decorative applications
- All cast-iron construction provides stability and is extremely durable
- Over Headstock On/Off switch provides easy in use access
- Ball-bearing live center
- On board storage for easy access to adjustment tools
- Heavy-duty, steel knockout bar
- Includes 6″ and 10″ tool rests and 3-inch face plate
- Backed by a five-year warranty
- CSA Listed
Includes : 12-1/2-inch variable-speed midi lathe, 6-inch and 10-inch tool rests, chrome 3-inch face plate, tool rest base, knockout bar, live center, wrenches, and manual.
At 97 pounds, the Delta 46-460 wood lathe is more than double the weight of the Wen 3420. Its swing over the bed is more than the longest workpiece the Wen can handle between centers. It’s not in the same class, so do not compare it to the Wen but rather to the Jet JWL-1221VS.
The Delta also has an electronic Variable Speed control combined with three-pulley speed ranges. With three sets of speeds, there’s no need to change the belt position too often. The lowest speed is 250 RPM, and it ramps up to 700 RPM with the speed control before a belt change is needed. The next two pulley sets offer 600 to 1800 RPM and 1350 to 4000 RPM. This provides every speed you could possibly need for any wood lathe project. A recommended speed selection table is included in the owner’s manual that will help with speed selection. No form of speed indication is provided, so it comes down to using recommended speeds and observing the vibrations.
The all cast-iron construction and speed ranges offers the stability and weight needed. It’s always possible to obtain a vibration-free speed for ultimate productivity. For polishing the finished workpiece, the forward and reverse function is operated with a simple flip of the switch. But keep in mind that the lathe must be stationary before changing direction.
The Delta has an excellent belt tensioning system enabling very fast speed changes. The belt is set at the correct tension every time which prevents slipping, thereby extending tool life. A powerful 1 HP max, 1,725 RPM single phase brushed motor drives a 6 groove belt and pulley system. It provides adequate power to turn large objects.
The max distance between centers is 16 1/2 inches, but it will also vary depending on what type chuck or tailstock center is mounted. Its 12 ½” swing capacity provides enough space to turn bowls and plates up to 12” from rough stock. The swing over the base of the tool rest is 9 9/16”, making it possible to safely turn a 9” by 16” workpiece as an absolute maximum. A sturdy cast iron extension is available for the Delta 46-460 wood lathe that doubles the bed size. You could easily turn dining-table legs 9” by 29” to make a rock-solid table. A Ball-bearing live center is provided for the tailpiece. Other accessories include a 3” faceplate, as well as a 6” and 10” tool rest.
The headstock spindle can be locked in 24 different locations for fluting and other decorative applications with an indexing pin. The drive spindle thread is 1”-8 TPI right-hand thread. The head and tailstock Taper is a #2 Morse taper. The tailstock spindle travel is 2 ¼”, enough for fitting a workpiece between centers.
The on/off switch, forward/reverse switch and the electronic speed control are all within reach and clearly visible over and behind the headstock. Onboard storage is provided for adjustment tools to ensure they do not get lost.
The warranty on new Delta 46-460 wood lathes is valid for Five years.
This heavy and stable unit is one of the best wood lathes, and when mounted to a sturdy workbench it is vibration free in use. The chrome finishes look good and give the lathe a quality feel.
Learn more about Delta products by visiting their site.
1 HP, 12″ x 21″ Variable Speed, 115-Volt — Best wood lathe for the money.
- Flexible speed control : 60-3600 RPM variable speed
- Optimally designed speed ranges
- Forward to reverse is a smooth transition
- Innovative ratchet style belt tension system (patent pending)
- Integrated, spring loaded spindle lock
- Conveniently located controls and DRO
- Acme thread in tailstock
- 24 integrated indexing positions
The JET JWL-1221VS lathe has three speed ranges, providing smoothly variable speeds from 60 to 3600 RPM. Speed selection is controlled by a combination of the electronic variable speed dial and the position of the belt using one of three pulley sets. A chart on the pulley access door makes pulley selection a breeze. With a speed range selected, you then rotate the dial to set the speed. A digital readout clearly displays the RPM. This is the only one of the three with an indication of the speed you’re using. It’s a handy feature.
You pull up the start/stop switch to the start the JET JWL-1221VS lathe, and you push it down to stop. It has a removable safety key, so you have complete control over who uses your lathe. As always, I’m excited to see a feature that helps protect inquisitive young children from harm. The key must be reinserted to start the lathe. Should a power outage occur during operation, the lathe will not restart when power is resumed. You have to flip the paddle switch off and then back on to start the lathe. Yet another great safety feature. Spindle direction can be changed in a smooth transition controlled by the machine, without turning off the lathe. There’s no need to stop the machine before reversing the lathe, making it a safer operation. Safety in use was clearly high on the engineer’s list of priorities.
This wood lathe has a complete and informative owner’s manual, even teaching you how to do woodturning. It also shows you how to use the tools and all the naming conventions for turning profiles. For a beginner, this is a fantastic guide. A recommended speed range table and a troubleshooting guide are included. This is the most complete manual of the three wood lathes, and well written.
An innovative ratchet style belt tensioning system is used to prevent belt slippage. Better than making regular adjustments to keep the belt tight, but it should still be checked during maintenance.
An integrated, spring-loaded spindle lock holds the spindle when mounting the faceplate. This is another feature that simplifies changes at the headstock. There’s no need to use two tools whilst trying to hold on to the spindle.
Should a malfunction occur on the lathe, the digital readout will display an error code, as well as an alarm signal that will continue until the issue is resolved. Fault codes indicating the area of concern is a helpful feature, much better than staring at a lathe and wondering what’s wrong.
The Jet wood lathe has 24 integrated indexing position that keeps the spindle locked in place with a steel pin. It adds to the versatility and ease of use, even if seldom used.
The Jet JWL-1221VS has a 12-1/2″ swing over the bed, and the swing over the tool rest base is 9-9/20″. With this wood lathe, you can turn a 12″ bowl or plate and work on a 9″ diameter workpiece between centers. The distance between centers is 20-1/2″. Should you need a longer bed, the Jet can be extended to 40″. Like the Delta, it will enable you to turn a 9″ diameter workpiece up to 40″ long.
The 1 HP motor has enough power to handle this sort of load and conveniently plugs into a standard 120V socket.
Spindle bore is 3/8,” and the spindle taper is a Morse Taper #2. The spindle thread size is 1″ with 8 threads per inch pitch.
JET JWL-1221VS wood lathes carry a five-year warranty, supported by authorized service centers located throughout the United States.
This is a solid wood lathe with excellent features and well presented. It is a good starter lathe that can be extended and used for wood-turning up to 40″. It has all the safety features you need, and is the only lathe in this review to include a speed indicator. It’s the heaviest of the three at 121.25 pounds, and a neat stand can be purchased for the whole unit. It is definitely the one I would select as the best wood lathe of the three.
Learn more about JET products by visiting their site.
Advice | Wood Lathes
The cutting speed on a wood lathe is the speed at which the work moves past the tool. The Feed rate is the distance the tool travels during one revolution of the workpiece. Combined, they determine the surface finish, power requirements, wear on the tool, and material removal rate.
You should always start your wood lathe at the slowest speed in the range selected on the pulleys. This particularly important when you have a rough blank mounted, that’s when you start at the slowest speed available on your lathe. A vibrating workpiece can work loose and can cause a serious injury. Always select a speed that does not create vibrations.
Large diameter blanks will have more centrifugal power and will create more dangerous vibrations than a small diameter blank. If you are turning a pen or even a dowel, you will work close to the maximum speed. Remember that you are using a tool to cut the wood that you are turning, and the cutting speed is important.
On the Jet wood lathe, the turning speed is indicated as the spindle speed. To calculate the proper spindle speed for woodturning, you divide the desired cutting speed by the circumference of the work. But you will always have to experiment with feed rates to achieve the desired results.
The following is a general guideline to help you determine the proper cutting speed. When using this method, always select the slowest speed first and then ramp up the speed. If you multiply the diameter of the workpiece in inches, by the RPM of the lathe, it should be a number between 6,000 and 9,000.
Determine the RPM setting
To calculate the desired RPM, you simply divide 6,000 (or 9,000) by the diameter of the workpiece in inches. You will derive two settings, the minimum and maximum suggested RPM. The best starting speed for a 10” piece will be 600 RPM and the maximum, 900 RPM. For a 5″ bowl, the range is from 1,200 to 1,800 RPM.
The surface speed of the 5″ bowl at 600 RPM is about 9425 inches/minute, or 785 feet/minute. This will be the speed at the outer diameter of the piece. As you move toward the center, the speed decreases.
To get a good surface finish, you use higher speeds and a very light cut. The tool is advanced rather slowly. When sanding, the cut is even smaller and wider, so an even higher speed is required.
Tips | Selecting Tools
I recommend that beginners carefully select a small group of high-quality tools to start off with. Good tools are well worth the extra money. Select high-speed steel tools and ignore the carbon steel ones. It is especially important while you are learning. High-speed steel tools stay sharp noticeably longer and are easier to use. You will also optimize the return on your investment. Some inferior woodturning tool sets are exceptionally difficult to use. A good tool set will help when you start off and enable you to learn quicker. Do as much reading as possible or join a group to learn from the experienced members.
To my mind a good starter set would consist of the following tools:
- 3/4″ Spindle roughing gouge
- 3/8″ Spindle gouge with fingernail profile
- 1/8″ Parting tool
- 3/8″ Bowl gouge
- 3/4″ or 1″ Round nose scraper
- 3/4″ Square ended scraper
- or a 3/8″ Beading and parting tool
Remember that it depends on what you plan to do and on how skilled you are. This is purely a rough guide.