A Lesson in Lathes

The “extreme” power tool for many serious woodworkers is a wood lathe. A lathe is also one of the oldest woodworking tools. A bow-powered lathe was thought to have originated in ancient Egypt. I have a chest made by an ancestor, well before the advent of powered tools, and it features beautifully turned posts, evidence of the skills of early craftsmen. Luckily, I also inherited a full set of “antique” turning tools many years ago. A lathe can be used to create many different objects ranging from furniture legs, to candlesticks, and other decorative turnings. A lathe can also be used to turn large objects such as posts, tiny, fancy writing pens or it can be used to turn wooden bowls and other items. Lathe turning takes a bit of skill and practice, but it’s easily learned and one of the most enjoyable woodworking techniques.


Understanding Lathes

All lathes are of the same basic design, although size and quality vary. A lathe turns a piece of wood stock while a tool held against the spinning stock removes wood, creating a symmetrical shape. The size of the lathe is based on the length and diameter of stock that can be turned over the lathe bed. You will need a lathe with 36 inches between the centers to turn most table legs. Sizes can range from “mini” 10-inch models to models with up to 40 inches between centers. Most lathes are denoted by the “swing,” or largest-diameter of stock that can be turned over the bed. This means a 15-inch lathe will turn a 15-inch diameter item, with 7 1/2 inches of clearance between the bed and the spur center. Lathes are commonly available with a swing ranging from 10 to 17 inches. The size of the swing is most important in bowl and other large diameter turnings.


Some older lathes had outboard spindles allowing for turning on the outer end of the head. Many quality lathes today feature a swiveling headstock. This allows you to turn the headstock outward and turn large diameter bowls. Some more economical lathe models feature tubes to hold the headstock and tailstock. Lathes can generate a lot of vibration, especially during the roughing out step. Lathes with a cast-iron bed provide more support than tube models. Different speeds are needed for different operations. The more economical models feature step pulleys and belts. To change speeds you move the belts on the pulleys. Higher quality models are variable speed, allowing you to dial in the speed you desire.


Different turning speeds are needed for different operations. A variable speed lathe allows instant changing of speeds.


Basic Turning Steps

Basic turning consists of two operations; spindle turning and faceplate turning. Spindle turning is done between the centers for furniture legs, candlesticks and other items. Faceplate turning is done with the stock mounted on a faceplate, which is inserted into the main spindle. Two specific types of techniques are used for both of these operations; cutting and scraping.


An indexing head on the Craftsman lathe allows for indexing turnings for such chores as fluting columns.

Woodworking chisels are available in six common configurations — gouge, skew, parting tool, spear point, flat nose and round nose. The chisels used for cutting include the gouge, skew and parting tool. The chisels used for scraping include the flat nose, round nose and spear point. Sharp, quality chisels are a must for productive, easy and safe wood turning.


 Quality turning tools are also a must. Shown are both the latest modern tools as well as some I inherited. Lathe tools haven’t really changed over the years.


Basic Spindle Turning

Make sure you read and understand the operator’s manual that comes with your lathe and follow all safety rules. If you’re inexperienced, the basics of lathe work should be learned turning a small spindle. Choose a piece of stock 2-by-2-by-12 inches in length. Using a straight edge and pencil, mark diagonal lines from corner to corner on both ends of the stock. Make a saw cut about 1/8 inch deep on each diagonal line of one end. This is to allow the spur center to hold the stock.


First step in spindle turning is to mark diagonally across the corners on each end. Make a saw cut on the marks on one end for the spur center.

Position the point of the bearing center directly over the intersection of the two lines on the opposite end and tap it with a wooden or plastic mallet. A piece of wood can also be held over the end of the center to protect it as you tap it in place. Remove the bearing center and drive the spur center in place on the opposite end, making sure the spurs align with the saw cuts. Then remove the spur center.


Tap both the spur center and live bearing centers in place to create a “seat” for the centers.

Place the centers in place, the spur into the headstock and the bearing center into the tailstock. Use a piece of wood to lightly seat them in place. Do not drive them tightly in place. (Some lathes have fixed centers instead of bearing centers. In this case, place a bit of wax or oil in the center hole of the stock to lubricate it.) Position the stock between the centers and lock the tailstock in place. Then move the bearing center into the wood by turning the tailstock hand wheel. Make sure both centers are properly seated in the holes previously made. Turn the stock by hand to make sure it is centered properly.


Insert the centers in the headstock and tailstock, and then position the spindle blank between them. Turn the wheel on the tailstock to tighten the blank between the two centers.

Adjust the tool rest so its outer edge is about 1/8-inch distance from the outer corners of the stock. The rest should also be about 1/8-inch above the center line of the stock. Turn the stock by hand to make sure it doesn’t contact the tool rest. It’s important to turn at the proper speed. Roughing requires a slow speed. For example roughing a 2-inch square turning of about 18 inches in length should be done at 1,100 rpm. Finishing can be done at higher speeds of 2,000 rpm for that size. The Craftsman lathe shown has the speeds stamped on the front at the speed dial and a size and speed chart on top.


It’s important to have the tool rest properly positioned for safe and easy operation.

The different tools can be held in one of two methods, depending on whether cutting or scraping techniques are used for cutting. One hand, depending on whether left- or right-handed, is used to hold the tool down on the tool rest, guiding the end of the tool along the shelf of the rest with the heel of the hand. The opposite end of the chisel is held with the hand palm down. Make sure you hold the chisel firmly in place with both hands. Chisels can be “wrenched” out of your hands, damaging the work piece or creating a danger to the operator.

Proper position of the tool rest and angle of the chisel are important. The bevel at the end of the chisel should always be positioned against the work piece. If the rest is too low, and the angle of the chisel is held more horizontal, it causes the point of the chisel to dig in, creating chattering. If the rest is too low and the chisel is held too high, there is the danger of the chisel being kicked back out of your hands.

In most instances the gouge is used for roughing the stock to round. Position the gouge with the cup upward and facing slightly toward the other end of the rest. Carefully and slowly feed the end of the gouge into the stock until it just begins to touch the stock and remove a bit of material. Then move the gouge steadily along the rest. At the end of the stroke, turn the gouge slightly back toward the opposite end, but with the cup still up, and draw it back in the opposite direction. Repeat these steps until the stock is round. Move the tool rest as needed to rough different portions of the stock and to maintain the 1/8-inch distance between the tool rest edge and the stock edge.


The first step is to rough the blank into a round, cutting off the corners. Use a gouge tool for this step and position the hands as shown.

Once the stock is in the round it is sized at the various diameters. The tool is held somewhat differently for these scraping techniques because more control is required. In this case the tool is held with the palm of the tool-rest hand facing up. The wrist is still held down and the side of the index finger slides along the tool rest as a guide. This allows you to use the fingers of the tool-rest hand to assist in positioning the tool.

Mark the locations of the beads, coves and turns. Use a parting tool held in cutting position to cut grooves in the stock at the locations desired. Use a pair of outside calipers at each location to make sure the measurements are correct. The speed can be increased for smoother cuts once the stock has been roughed out. 


Once the blank is in the round, mark the location of the various beads, coves, tapers and other design factors with a sturdy pencil.

Once you have the stock sized at each diameter, use scraping tools to shape the stock between cut diameters. A skew chisel can be used to round off the sides of the beads, while a round nose is used to cut coves. To shape concave and convex shapes use the skew and round-nose as needed.   


Use the various shaped turning tools to cut the spinning blank into the desired shape. Change the tool rest frequently to maintain the proper position.

Small-diameter and long pieces should be backed with a steady rest to prevent them from whipping. You can make up your own, or purchase manufactured rests. Woodcraft Supply has an excellent spindle steady rest.

Once the piece has been shaped, it can be sanded quicker and easier while on the lathe. Be careful as the sandpaper can become quite hot, and sanding on a lathe creates a lot of dust, so make sure you wear a dust mask.


Once the shape desired has been created, sand and polish it while spinning it on the lathe.

Duplicate Turnings

If you have to turn several pieces in the same shape, make a template of stiff cardboard, thin plywood or a thin piece of wood. You can then hold it against the turning (with the lathe off) and check for proper shape. A quicker and more precise way is to use a lathe duplicator. The Craftsman Wood Lathe Copy Crafter duplicates spindle or shallow bowl turnings and can duplicate from either a prototype or a template. It can also be used for taper work up to 38 inches in length.


Split Turning

One unusual turning technique is split turnings. Stock is glued-up to create a square blank with paper glued between the pieces. Once the stock is turned the pieces are split apart along the paper line using a sharp chisel. Half or quarter turnings are created in this manner. One common use is in period furniture where one quarter turned and fluted columns are used in pieces such as Philadelphia highboys. Again, an indexing head on the lathe can make it easy to lay out the flutes.


Face Plate

Face plate turning is done by first mounting the stock on a face plate that has a taper to fit into the headstock. Wood plaques, plates and small bowls or even rounded, ball-style furniture feet can be turned using this technique. While the stock is still in the square, mark diagonally from corner to corner to locate the center of the back of the stock. Then use a compass to mark the outside circumference of the piece to be turned. Using a bandsaw, rough cut the stock to this shape and size. A large, square stock is dangerous and hard to rough to the round. Using a bandsaw first makes this step easier, safer and quicker. Use screws to fasten the stock to the face plate (from the back of the face plate). Allow extra depth at the back to cut off the screw-hole area. Another method is to glue the stock to a waste stock with paper between, turn to shape, then split off the waste stock. Begin the turning by roughing the bandsawn outside to perfect round. Then you can use a scraping tool to make the various cuts, such as cutting the inside, rounding the lip, creating beads or coves around the outside or other shapes.


Bowls, boxes and other shapes are turned with the blank fastened to a faceplate that is fastened in the lathe.

It’s extremely important to continue moving the tool rest to provide proper support for each tool position. A rounded bowl-turning rest is best for turning deep bowls and other shapes, especially for the inside area. These have a rounded tool rest that allows for getting closer to the stock with the tool. The Woodcraft Supply Lathe Tool Rest System has a small and large bowl rest with different size posts to fit different lathe tool rests. Craftsman also has a bowl-turning rest for their lathes.         


Outboard Turning

Larger items that can’t be turned over the lathe bed can be turned on a lathe with an outboard feature. The headstock is turned 90 degrees to the bed. The stock is mounted on a face plate, and the techniques are the same as for over-the-bed face-plate turning. Bowl-turning rests are required for this technique. They swing out from the tool rest mounted on the lathe bed, and over to the front of the stock. Due to the work size often used in this technique, use caution, proceed slowly and keep speed to a minimum. Experiment with soft woods of a smaller size before attempting larger, hardwood projects. If you are really interested in turning bowls, vases, boxes and other similar projects, check out the special tools available from Woodcraft Supply. Lee Valley LTD also carries a full line of inside hollowers as well as a full line of quality turning tools and equipment. 


Some lathes can be turned 90 degree for outboard turnings. Woodcraft Supply Bowl Turning Rest makes it easier to follow the rounded shapes of bowls with the tools.


Specialty Turning Tricks

One fun tactic is to glue-up spindles or flat-work for plates or bowls of contrasting wood colors. When turned, the different segments produce unusual patterns. Small items such as chess pieces or furniture knobs can be turned on a screw plate. A number of lathe chucks are also available that allow you to grip smaller items for turning. The stock first has a tenon sized to fit inside the chuck. You can also make up your own wooden chuck for these types of turnings. Again, create a tenon on the work piece and drive it into the wood chuck, which is screwed to a face plate. Turn the piece, and then drive the tenon out of the chuck.


Wood blanks can be glued up with a piece of paper between them, turned and then split apart to create decorative split turnings for furniture and cabinet decoration.

A lathe can also be fitted with flap sanders, drill chucks, polishing wheels and other accessories to expand the use of the tool and make it more versatile.

I do, however, have a warning — wood turning is addictive. Once you get the feel for it, you’ll be looking for excuses to make more projects.


Safety Rules

1. Do not wear loose clothing.

2. Wear protective hair covering to contain long hair.

3. Wear safety glasses complying with U.S. ANSI Z81.7.

4. Wear a face mask or dust mask.

5. Keep your hands away from chuck, centers and other moving parts.

6. Disconnect tool when changing attachments.

7. Do not force cutting tools.

8. Never leave lathe running unattended.

9. Make sure work piece is firmly mounted, turn lathe off if work piece splits or





Craftsman Variable-Speed Lathe 

The lathe featured in this column is a Craftsman 15-inch variable-speed model. This heavy-duty model has a single-piece cast-iron base, and cast-iron headstock and tailstock housing a 2-horsepower maximum developed induction-run motor. The hand wheel on the headstock yields variable speeds from 400 to 2,000 rpm. The headstock swivels from 0 to 90 degrees for outboard turnings up to 20 inches in diameter. One of the features I especially like is the indexing head. Twenty-four indexing stops at 15-degree intervals lock the head for groove cutting with a router. The unit comes with 6- and 12-inch tool rest, 4-inch faceplate, spur and bearing centers. The lathe is shown mounted on a Craftsman lathe stand.


Lathe Manufacturers





(800) 476-4849



Woodcraft Supply

(800) 225-1153


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