Skill Set: Understanding the Lathe

Woodworking Workshop
Skill Set: Understanding the Lathe

We asked another woodworking maker we admire, Ben Light, of B.Light Design, to come share some of his expertise with us. He wrote this wonderful introduction to lathes. Thanks, Ben. -Gareth

The Lathe
The lathe is often an overlooked and under appreciated piece of hardware. I find this hard to believe, because it can produce work unlike any other tool. Wooden bowls, furniture, lamps, tool handles — basically anything round. For those thinking about getting into woodworking, the lathe is a great place to start. It’s relatively safe, compact, and turning (the process of using the lathe) can be incredibly satisfying.

Typically, there are two types of wood turners, those that only use the lathe when it is absolutely necessary and the fanatics. I am proud to say that I am one of the latter. Amazingly, a project can go from rough log to show room ready in just a few hours. Useless wood scraps can be turned into beautiful things. The lathe is a perfect tool for both artists and craftsmen. Fluid in-the-moment pieces can be created as well as precision pieces based on detailed blueprints. I am completely addicted to this wonderful device.

The Basics
The lathe dates back to ancient Egypt, it’s the original power tool. But unlike a drill or table saw, the lathe spins the work piece while the tool stays stationary. The basic components are the bed (the base everything sits on), the head stock (the motorized end that spins the work piece), the tail stock (the supporting end), and the tool rest (where you rest your chisels). A work piece is mounted to the headstock, the motor spins it, and chisels are used to remove material and shape the piece. It is impossible to explain proper turning technique in just a paragraph or two. I suggest picking up some how-to books and watching video demonstrations (YouTube has some great ones). Better yet, get a skilled turner to show you the ropes.

Faceplates, Drive Centers, and Chucks
If a work piece is properly secured to the headstock, the lathe can be one of the safest power tools in the wood shop. Typically this is accomplished using faceplates, drive centers, and chucks. A faceplate is a flat disk that attaches to the work piece via screws, a drive center uses a spike to “grab” the wood, and a chuck compresses on to the piece, similar to a drill. All three do the same basic job, attach the wood to the lathe.

There are numerous types of chisels used for turning. Gouges are used to rough out a piece, scrapers for finer details, and parting tools for trimming. Like all things lathe related, there are many options, and these are just a few of the chisels available.

Turning chisels are specifically designed for the lathe and should not be used as typical wood working chisels, and vice versa. You can get a starter set of chisels for cheap, but you get what you pay for. If you catch the turning bug, I highly recommend investing is some quality chisels.

The universal rule of chisels applies here: keep them sharp. Sharper chisels equal better results. Lathe chisels dull quickly from use, a bench grinder is usually kept close for repetitive sharpening.

Finishing A Piece
Another reason to love the lathe — finishing is a cinch. When you are done shaping with the chisels, remove the tool rest and pick up some sandpaper. The lathe works as a power sander. For the best sanding results, use the fastest motor speed possible. You should never use anything rougher than 220 grit paper when sanding on the lathe.

Applying finishes (oils, stains, wax) is just as easy. With the lathe off, wipe on the finish, wipe off the excess, turn on the lathe, and buff the piece to a high gloss. The lathe is also a power buffer.

Eye protection should be worn at all times while turning. In fact, I recommend a full face shield. Wood chips and shavings can fly all over the place. A dust mask or respirator is a good idea as well, the lathe can create a lot of dust.

Motor speed is also a key to safety. When beginning a new piece always start at the slowest possible motor speed. As the piece become more round, speed can be increased.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the lathe can do. There are multiple attachments/jigs (store bought or hand built) that add new dimensions to wood turning and numerous techniques you can try. There is so much more to this under appreciated piece of machinery than just wooden bowls and table legs.

I hope you give this versatile tool a chance and get yourself a lathe. But be warned, once you start you’ll never turn back (sorry).

Bio: Ben Light is a New York based designer and maker who has way too many turned lamps in his apartment. Ben may love his lathe just a little too much.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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