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Wood Lathe vs Metal Lathe: Which One Do You Need?

Wood Lathe vs Metal Lathe
Written by Willie Osgood

The biggest difference between a wood lathe and a metal lathe is that you can use your metal lathe to do woodturning but the vice versa is not possible.

Let’s dig deeper and see how they compare so you can easily make the right choice according to your needs and budget.

What is a Lathe?

A lathe is a machine commonly used to cylindrically drill, bore, cut, shape, and turn materials like wood, steel, aluminum, iron, and other metals.

It works by rotating the workpiece through a motor connected to its head. There are different types of cutting tools available to get different types of finishes.

What is a wood lathe?

What is a wood lathe

The wood lathe is a type of lathe that gives different cylindrical shapes to wood products. You can also use it to shape plastic but it’s not good for materials harder than wood or plastic.

Small in size and simple in function, you don’t need to mount the machine to work with it. The speed is controlled manually and the head is easily detachable within a short time. It is mainly used to make bowls, pens, goblets, table legs, and bottle stoppers

There are several types of wood lathes. Some are heavy-duty and some are beginner-friendly.

You will get small, medium, and full-sized wood lathes when the small (benchtop) version is the most perfect option to start off with.

What is a metal lathe?

What is a metal lathe

A metal lathe is more powerful than a wood lathe as its purpose is to deform metals like steel, aluminum, and iron. This is a sturdy machine and the high rotation power makes it perfect for any type of metal shaping work.

This is a complex machine and its process is done by automation programming. You just need to set it according to your needs.

Metal lathes feature a hardened cutting tool that mounts to a rotating surface and presses the workpiece while the lathe holds the piece.

One of the most significant advantages is that you can also do woodwork with it.

Wood Lathe vs Metal Lathe: How Do They Differ?

Wood and metal lathes have similarities like using the same system where the workpiece is attached to the lathe and a rotating cutting tool presses it to change the shape.

But there are also differences that every craftsman should be aware of.

Comparing factors Wood lathe Metal lathe
Applications Wood and plastic Metal and wood
Size Smaller Larger
Use Wooden bowls, pens, rings, table legs, bottle stoppers, and goblets. Any metal work like rings, hammers, and threads
Structure and function Simple Complex
Power Less More
Motor range From ¾ to 2 HP From  ⅛ to 3HP
Weight Lighter Heavier
Operation Easy Hard
Accuracy Less High
Precision Less precise More precise
Turning process Hand-controlled Switch-controlled
Professionals Woodworkers Machinists
Experience Beginner-friendly Some experience needed
Maintenance Less More
Price Less expensive More expensive

Applications

Wood lathe

As the name indicates, a wood lathe is for woodwork. You can do deforming, sanding, drilling, and turning for symmetrically designed wood products.

Although not powerful enough to handle harder materials like metals, you can do plastic work with it without any problem.

Metal lathe

With a metal lathe, you can easily shape and carve heavy-duty metals like steel, aluminum, and iron. In fact, you can also do woodwork with a metal lathe.

Size

Wood lathe

Wood lathe is smaller in size compared to the metal lathe. It has less functions and manual handling, which decreases its size.

This type of lathe can easily fit on your benchtop as it doesn’t need too much space. As a result, you can buy it without worrying about where to accommodate it.

Metal lathe

A metal lathe is a complex machine with an automated function, which makes it bulky in weight and bigger in size. In most cases, you have to have a workshop to place these machines.

Portability

Wood lathe

As a wood lathe is smaller in size, it is easily portable. However, you may need to give some physical force to carry it.

You can use your lathe as a mobile machine as you don’t need to mount it to any surface.

Metal lathe

A metal lathe is not that portable due to its larger size. Mainly used for stationary purposes, you have to mount it to any surface before you do your woodturning work.

Way of using

Wood lathe

A wood lathe is manual in action no matter what type you buy; even the premium ones are manual.

Metal lathe

Metal lathes have many automation processes as they come with programmed components. This helps you in the case of speed control and turning angles.

Accuracy

Wood lathe

It is highly possible that you will make some mistakes as it is totally manual in action aside from being less accurate and precise. You have to be more careful and attentive when you use this tool.

Metal lathe

A metal lathe is computerized, hence there is almost no possibility of errors. You just need to set it according to your need and everything goes smoothly as it is pre-programmed.

Small pieces can also be carved for machineries as the lathe is highly precise and accurate.

Health issues

Wood lathe

Although a wood lathe is not so complicated to use, it is always safe to take precautions.

The rotating wood can still injure you if there is a direct contact and the wood dust can get into your eyes. Always wear safety goggles to safeguard yourself.

Metal lathe

You need to be careful when using your metal lathe because of its very high rotational power. As the working piece is metal, the spark and metal dust can even blind you.

The noise this device creates is also not good for your ears. Follow the safety tips below to be on the safe side.

Price

Wood lathe

The simplicity of this type of lathe makes it less expensive. You just need to invest around $300 to get a satisfactory wood lathe experience.

Metal lathe

High power, high complexity, and advanced features make metal lathes really costly. But that’s bearable considering how many things you can do with this machine.

Types of wood lathe

According to size

Mini/Benchtop: These types have the lowest distance (20 inches or less) between centers (DBC). They also have 12 inches or less of SOB (Swing Over Bed)

Midi: These types have a different range of DBC and often come below 20 inches in size. But they typically have 12 inches or above of SOB.

Full-size: These lathes are generally four feet high. They are the largest in size and have a very wide DBC, ranging above 45 inches in length. Their SOB diameter mostly exceeds 15 inches.

According to function

Pen turning lathe: These are benchtop lathes used for small projects like turning a pen.

Center Wood Lathe: These types of lathes are the most widely used lathes. The best part is you can transfer the workpiece to another machine without sacrificing accuracy.

CNC Wood Lathe: They are computer operated and mainly used where a large number of wood pieces need to be processed with accuracy and complex design.

Turret Lathe: The name came about as they have hexagonal rotating turrets. They are mainly used for reaming, drilling, and boring. But they are also suitable for mass production.

Copying Wood Lathe: This is also known as the imitation turning lathe. Here the stylus is used to shape wood according to a template. It’s better at creating repetitive irregular shapes.

Automatic Wood Lathe: These lathes can turn automatically according to the processing order. They can feed, retract the tool, and turn the finished product automatically.

Vertical Wood Lathe: The name came as their’ main axis is vertical. But they have horizontal beds. They are good for workpieces that have small lengths but large diameters.

Types of traditional wood lathes

Strap Lathe: These were the oldest types that required two persons for operation.

Bow Lathe: These were improved versions of the strap lathes as only one person could operate them.

Types of metal lathe

Conventional Engine lathe or Center Lathe: The most common among manual lathe machines, they are mainly used for end face, turning, knurling, grooving, and threading.

Inverter lathes or Speed Lathes: They have inverters installed to control main spindle motors. They have high spindle speeds and are mostly used in the polishing process and metal spinning.

Turret lathe or Capstan lathe machines:  They are semi-automatic lathes and are mainly used for turning part’s repetitive production. The specialty of these machines is they can perform multiple cutting processes without the need of installing and uninstalling the tools.

ToolRoom Lathes and Bench Lathes: Tool room lathes are a special kind of conventional engine lathes, which offer high speed and more precision.

Bench lathes are named like this because they are fitted on workbenches and mainly used for working with small turning projects.

Tracer Lathes – Automatic Copy Turning Lathe: When CNC lathes were not that much available then tracer lathes did the profile cutting jobs. They can produce many kinds of profiles and cylindrical shapes.

Horizontal Lathes and Vertical Lathes: They are mainly used for shaft work, grooving, rounding, profiling work, Inch or Metric threading work, pipe threading,  drilling work, and many other jobs.

Vertical lathes are only used for heavy-duty and high-power cutting processes. They are for heavy workpieces which a horizontal lathe can’t work with.

CNC Lathe:  They are computer controlled and can operate many complicated tasks with multiple processes at once. They also can carry out many operation procedures quickly, which saves a lot of time.

Mega-bore Lathe / Hollow Spindle Lathe: They have large spindle bores, which allow for fast repetitive work. You’ll find their applications in bit steel rollers, shaft work, pump and motor repairs, larger swing flanges, oil country pipe threading, and hydraulic cylinder work.

Oilfield / Oil Country Manual & CNC Lathes: They are computer operated as they can be easily programmed by CNC operators to do complicated work. They are mainly used in long shaft OD and ID work, oil country pipe threading, and hydraulic cylinder work.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Wood Lathe

Pros

  • Simple to use
  • Beginners friendly
  • Many models available
  • Pulley system rotational control
  • Easily portable (benchtop versions)
  • Small size
  • Light weight
  • Less expensive

Cons

  • Lower rotational speed
  • No automated process
  • Cannot be used with metals
  • Not precise
  • Lower accuracy
  • Hand control

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Metal Lathe

Pros

  • Powerful rotation
  • More accurate
  • More precise
  • Automated functions
  • Hard cutting tool
  • Low maintenance
  • Sturdy build
  • Can be mounted

Cons

  • Working process is complex
  • Need some experience to operate
  • Bigger in size
  • Less portability
  • More expensive
  • Slower spindle

Safety Tips When Using Lathes

  • Wear protective glasses
  • Wear respirators
  • Avoid wearing long sleeves
  • Clear out your place before starting the machine
  • Clean your workplace
  • Avoid long neck ornaments
  • Make your workplace child-proof

Wood Lathe vs Metal Lathe: Which one to choose?

As the purpose of these two lathes are completely different, it’s obvious which one is for whom.

Wood lathes can’t do metal work but metal lathes can do woodwork. There is no doubt that a metal lathe has more usability though you will be spending a lot more on this machine.

If you are a woodworker and don’t do metalwork at all then a wood lathe is your best choice.

About the author

Willie Osgood

An Avid Metalworker

Willie doesn’t really consider himself an artist, rather a craftsman involved in practical trades. Yet, most of his projects require him to make interesting and fine objects. Being the eldest son of a carpenter, his background is 100 percent rooted in crafting. He found the art of blacksmithing quite appealing since his teenage years… that fire, the sound of swinging hammers, and those long and shiny blades that came out as a finished product. Soon he literally became obsessed with metal – the way it moved, worked, and changed when heated or cooled.

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