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View beaudex's profile

Metal Lathe vs. Wood Lathe

by beaudex
posted 06-12-2008 06:54 PM

29 replies so far

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4493 days

#1 posted 06-12-2008 07:31 PM

I have both one metal and two wood lathes.

There’s no reason you can’t use the metal one for wood. I do. It’s perfect for getting things exactly the same.


1. yes
2. not at the exact same time :-) otherwise yes.
3. yes, a tool rest. Depending on what is there already.
4. no.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 4379 days

#2 posted 06-12-2008 08:17 PM

I don’t have hardly any turning experience. But when a very small metal lathe came into our tool shop I decided to “test” it out. I turned these:

Click for details

The thing about using a metal lathe is that it is like using an Etch-a-Sketch to turn wood (you don’t hold the turning tool by hand). There is an X dial and a Y dial that move the tip and it takes quite a bit of unnatural coordination. It makes some things easy (like making a perfect barrel) and some things harder (like natural seeping curves). But it can be done!

-- Happy woodworking!

View Mark Shymanski's profile

Mark Shymanski

5623 posts in 4217 days

#3 posted 06-13-2008 11:14 PM

I also had wondered if it was possible to use a metal lathe for WW. Now I know, good question, good answer!

-- "Checking for square? What madness is this! The cabinet is square because I will it to be so!" Jeremy Greiner LJ Topic#20953 2011 Feb 2

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 4392 days

#4 posted 06-15-2008 01:39 AM


Essentially, a metal lathe is a “programmable” lathe but the wood lathe is not. What I mean by that is that you have mechanical help in describing a trajectory for the cutting head, without the need to hold the tool in your hand.

Advantages of metal lathes:
1. You do not need a very steady hand or a very strong grip to machine any material, no matter how hard
2. You can machine perfect (simple) curves. For example, a perfect cone or cylinder

Disadvantages of metal lathes:
1. Expensive
2. Much lower capacity (swing over bed) than wood lathes
3. Complicated machines. Too many things to worry about

The wood lathe is a lot more appropriate for artistic work, in which you do not want to work with a prescribed shape but to follow your instinct. For example, it is fairly hard to do a perfect cylinder or a sphere (you basically need jigs to do that), but the turning is a lot more straightforward. I almost never think about the shape when I turn wood, I just do along with the “feeling”.

I can see two ways to use a metal lathe to turn wood:
1. Do what Blake did and play with the X-Y controls to get a shape. While it will work to some extent, the shape will be choppy (unless you have extraordinary skills).

2. Retrofit the metal lathe with a tool rest used for a wood lathe so you can use it like a normal wood lathe (not sure if you can find such a toolrest).

Unless you are very space constrained, I would strongly suggest you buy a wood lathe and a metal lathe. It is very likely that the metal lathe will cost you 5-10 times more than the wood lathe of the same capacity. If you are unsure you want to do a lot of metal work, go with the wood lathe for now.


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View peruturner's profile


317 posts in 3867 days

#5 posted 02-04-2010 04:20 PM

Grizzly have some pretty good metal lathes under $1000.000 dollars and even one with a tower to bore and others things for abouth 750

View Raymond's profile


683 posts in 4232 days

#6 posted 02-04-2010 07:43 PM

Hi there, i have both metal and wood lathes. I have used the Metal Lathe on wood and it works very well. I the drawings to make a tool rest for a metal lathe which would make turning on the metal lathe much easier. I also use my milling machine alot on wooden projects. I’d get both if you can. if not I’d consider the metal lathe you can at least work wood with it but it is hard to work metal with a wood lathe. Just my 2 cents.

-- Ray

View barryvabeach's profile


159 posts in 3548 days

#7 posted 02-05-2010 04:05 AM

Derek, I don’t have the room for both and bought a mini metal lathe, and use it on occassion to turn wood. As others have said it will work. Things to consider is that if you are turning wet wood, you will want to get all the shavings off the metal on the metal lathe otherwise you might have rust problems ( IIRC most of the metal on a wood lathe is painted or coated in some way) While it isn’t too hard to turn things like chisel handles, or other round stock you can get in the chuck, wood lathes come with a drive center – swapping that out on a metal lathe would take some time and it isn’t something you will want to do often. I bought a tool rest and made a fixture to hold it in place and suggest you do the same if you want to use wood turning tools. If you are thinking of buying a metal lathe – understand that the price you see listed is 1/2 to 1/3 of what it will cost you – as delivered, it won’t really do anything – to make it do much metal work you will need to buy tooling which can quickly meet or exceed the cost of the lathe itself ( look at QCTP, inset tooling, dial indicators, micrometers, etc) If you can stomach that, I’d say go for it, it is cool to have a metal lathe cause there are just some things you can make that you couldn’t touch otherwise – I have made numerous threaded bits for my other tools.-

View beaudex's profile


65 posts in 4143 days

#8 posted 02-08-2010 03:47 PM

Hi Everyone,

Just thought I would let you know that your responses have been invaluable. I never did manage to get the original metal lathe however it is still on my wish list and I assure you that I will be taking all of the advice from this forum into account.



-- Derek Tay, Venerate the Tree Design

View xeddog's profile


253 posts in 3512 days

#9 posted 03-02-2010 09:47 PM

I saw this thread and I just HAD to respond with my $.02. While a metal lathe CAN be used for turning wood, it is not the machine to use in today’s wood turning world. I have a 9” South Bend metal lathe that I tried turning wood on. While I was able to turn a couple of ash tool handles, it wasn’t really a fun experience and it required a lot more hand finishing afterwards. So here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

1. Metal lathes are supposed to be precision machines and are designed with tolerances in the VERY low thousandths of an inch, and many are within a few TEN-thousandths. You don’t need anywhere near that precision for wood.

2. Someone already mentioned the possibility of rust caused by the moisture in wood. That is NOT a possibility. It WILL rust. So you will need to THOROUGHLY clean the machine when you have finished turning wood because of the high moisture content of wood. Even “dry” wood will cause rust and that is bad bad bad for a metal lathe. That means not only cleaning the ways, but all lead screws and inside the apron. It also means today, not next week, and not tomorrow.

3. Spindle speed is way to limited. I have a 9” South Bend lathe which is a relatively small machine. It tops out at 1270 rpm, and at that speed it is screaming like a banshee. Depending on what you want to turn, that spindle speed may just be plain inadequate. The smaller the diameter of the turning, the more speed you may need. Pens come to mind. Many people use a speed of 3000+ for turning and polishing pens. In general, the bigger the lathe, the slower the max spindle speed will be.

4. The swing is too limiting. A good used 14” wood lathe with some tools can had for $500 or less. A decent 14” metal lathe will cost you a lot more than that.

So after trying this myself, I went out and found a 14” Delta wood lathe with a decent amount of tooling and spent less than $350. MUCH happier now. Use a wood lathe for wood and a metal lathe for metal. It’s the law (or at least otta be). :-)

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4493 days

#10 posted 03-02-2010 10:19 PM

I feel the need to respond to xeddog’s comments.

1. Yes, metal lathes are very accurate. You could turn wood as if it were metal using the dials. But you could also get a tool post and turn wood as you turn wood on a wood lathe. The accuracy is there if you need it.

2. In my opinion rust is not a short term concern. Anyone that takes care of the metal working machinery will keep a light coat of oil on all the unpainted surfaces so any wood would tend to soak up the oil not the other way around. I have a metal mill that I have been using for wood now going on 15 years. I have left sawdust on it for weeks at a time and there is not one speck of rust on it. Same with my 10” metal lathe.

3. I agree. A metal lathe might no have the speed you need for all wood projects.

4. I agree. To get a large swing on a metal lathe will be very expensive. If you don’t plan on turning large objects then this will not be a concern.

To sum it up, a metal lathe will work just fine for wood within it’s limitations. The major advantage is that you can turn wood on a metal lathe but not metal on a wood lathe.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View 1yeldud1's profile


301 posts in 3546 days

#11 posted 03-02-2010 11:43 PM

As a tool maker – yes you can turn wood on a metal lathe – if I would need to wood on a meatl lathe I would try to use shop aprons, large towels, table cloths, anything to cover the working features (lead screws, gears, ect) to try to keep as must dust off the metal as possible. The wood wont hurt the lathe but it is a “bird dog” to get fine wood dust and chips off oilly metal.

View Raymond's profile


683 posts in 4232 days

#12 posted 03-03-2010 12:16 AM

I have just reciently been using my Atlas Metal Lathe for wood turning. I needed 50 3/4X 4 1/4 and 25 1/4X 4 1/4 disks for wheels on a project. I tuned them in batches of 5 wheel sets 10 3/4 pieces and 5 1/4 pieces stacked together with a 1/4 threaded rod holding the stack together. I first center drilled the 1/4 rod, then stacked my pieces on it, tightned two nuts down, chucked it in the lathe and machined the wood stock down to 4.25 making each wheel identical. I could have done it on the wood lathe, but this was faster and they are all the same. Yes there was tons of chips, but it cleaned up well. And a little oiling and it was back to normal.

-- Ray

View Steve_K's profile


2 posts in 3480 days

#13 posted 04-03-2010 05:53 AM

In a pinch I have used the back side of a standard tool holder mounted in the tool post on my metal lathe but would like to make a more “friendly” tool rest. Does anyone have a tested design?

View barryvabeach's profile


159 posts in 3548 days

#14 posted 04-03-2010 04:08 PM

Steve, Little Machine Shop sells a rest that bolts into the tool post of the mini lathe. I bought it and didn’t like it much, so I just built a really clumsy tool rest. I cut a straight piece of wood with a bolt through the middle threaded onto a piece of flat stock to catch on the underside of the ways. I then bolted a piece of wood on top of that with a slot and a wingnut, so the top board could move towards the work or away, and mounted the LMS toolpost to that with a screw to allow be to change the height of the rest. In all it is pretty clumsy, but I only use it to turn tool handles, and rarely use it, so I didn’t spend much time on it.

View beaudex's profile


65 posts in 4143 days

#15 posted 04-05-2010 04:46 PM

Well, This thread was started close to 2 years ago and I cannot believe there are still posts being added. Clearly this is a topic that sticks around. Ironicaly I got my hands on a very sweet deal of a metal lathe this past weekend. I spent the majority of the weekend cleaning it up (was in great shape just dusty) I am clearly out of my league with this item, I will post pictures soon.

I wonder if there are any experts out there, I was hoping I might be able to get my hands on an manual online but cannot find anything about the manufacturer. The company on the side of the machine is C.I.I. any thought out there?

Also, Steve and Barry you almost read my mind, I will need a tool rest. My thoughts were to turn a big solid tapped post with the rest then screwed into the top and some kind of metal plate on the lathe bed?

Barry, in your picture it looks as though you chucked the wood right into the metal chuck, how did you do this with a square piece of wood and a 3 jaw chuck? or do you have a 4 jaw chuck?

I will likely in the next while be starting another thread about beginner questions so those experts out there I could use your help.

Cheers and thanks in advance,


-- Derek Tay, Venerate the Tree Design

View ondablade's profile


105 posts in 3703 days

#16 posted 04-06-2010 12:43 AM

I’ve been thinking these thoughts too, as i do a bit of engineering as well as cabinet making. Another capability the metal working lathe has is a powered lead screw which drives the tool post and cutter lengthwise along the workpiece – at a set movement per revolution of the chuck which is set by the specific gear set you install.

This opens the way to screw cutting (cutting threads), as well as using the feed to deliver a nice regular finish on the workpiece surface.

Overall the metal cutting variety needs to be far stronger and more rigid, as well as needing to be more precise.

Given the issues to do with RPM and bed clearance/turning diameter maybe somebody will come up with a dual purpose lathe??? :-) Joking mostly as it wouldn’t be that easy (e.g. a detachable head could easily lead to major rigidity problems when metal cutting), but only to a degree…..


-- Late awakener....

View barryvabeach's profile


159 posts in 3548 days

#17 posted 04-06-2010 03:18 AM

Derek, I bought the LMS which includes a spur drive, but you have to take off the chuck and put it back on which is a pain. I don’t know if this is a good practice, but I take my square stock and mark centers on both ends, then put one end in the 3 jaw chuck, center punch the other end and put it on the live center. Yes I know it won’t spin true, but I only work the last 1 inch or less of the end near the tailstock end till it is round, then I turn off the lathe and reverse it end for end. The rounded end then fits in the 3 jaw chuck fairly well – though try not to tighten too much since it will leave indents. This works pretty well for tool handles ,which is the only wood turning I do. Your idea about a tool post is a good one, mine is pretty weak, and is very short so it needs to repositioned, which is a little tough to do. If I did more wood working, I would make something more substantial. BTW, I bought the HF HSS lathe tool set for ww and am pretty happy with it for the price. As to an online manual, there are a number of South Bend manuals on line, here is a link to a clone ,as well as a whole course of instruction on lathe use on youtube.

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

23362 posts in 3610 days

#18 posted 09-02-2013 06:07 PM

I have a couple of both lathes and I started turning wood on my Southbend metal lathe. I made a banjo and tool rest and only had these small Fisch tools but it worked fine. You can also turn wood using the compound and regular high speed tool bits. I often do that when I need a real good fit between parts or real square cuts.

I turn a part on my wood lathe with a 1”-8 thread, then I take the chuck and the part off together and change the threaded plug in the back of the chuck to 1 1/2-8 and screw it on the metal lathe and bore it of turn it very accurately. I made a concentric circle cutting board ( on the metal lathe with about 6 set ups to accurate bore the holes for the next piece. I could not have done that as good at all on the wood lathe.
I do not turn wood on my good Southbend lathe because I don’t want that fine wood dust. It soaks up the oil and becomes a sludge. I always clean the metal lathe real good and oil the ways immediately after turning wood on it.

A metal lathe is very hand in woodworking. You can make your own tools on it and brass ferrules, pins bushings, etc. A milling machine expand tool making even further!!


-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View MrRon's profile


5712 posts in 3748 days

#19 posted 09-02-2013 06:49 PM

I too have both metal and wood lathes. I have a 3 jaw universal chuck on the metal lathe so I can use that to chuck up small pieces. The metal lathe doesn’t have the speed range needed for turning wood other than very hard woods. I would never turn soft wood on a metal lathe. It needs speed for good cuts.

View REO's profile


929 posts in 2578 days

#20 posted 09-03-2013 02:28 AM

View Loco's profile


210 posts in 2254 days

#21 posted 09-03-2013 09:14 AM

Wood lathe = Flintstones Metal lathe = Space shuttle.

-- What day is it ? No matter. Ummmm What month is it ? No moron. I paid for a 2 x 6. That means Two inches by six inches. I want the rest of my wood.

View hydro's profile


208 posts in 2256 days

#22 posted 09-03-2013 02:33 PM


I’ll throw in a couple of thoughts and some experience here. I currently have an 11” Rockwell metal lathe, and in the past have owned wood lathes. They are not the same animal but you can adapt the metal lathe for cutting wood rather easily.

1. If you use the carriage and tool post, you can fabricate wood cutting tools that work quite well. Regular metal tools will cut wood but will leave a rough finish, they tend to displace the material whereas a good wood cutting tool will shave it away. I use my lathe to turn cylindrical parts to close tolerances for use in things that I build. As mentioned above, you need to clean up ALL of the dust as soon as possible as it will gum up the lead screw mechanism and can get under the way wipers and make a mess. Not a big deal but it takes time to clean up.
2. In a post above there is a makeshift tool rest attached to the ways which looks like a good idea. You would need to run the carriage all the way to the end of the ways and move the tailstock in front of it. For this to work you would need to have a long bed in order to get any useable working length. I would also fabricate a cover for the ways and lead screw to protect them from dust buildup.
3. I use a spur center held in the three jaw chuck to drive the work, and a cup center chucked into the tailstock. With the metal lathe you can make these parts easily. Once the work piece is round you can chuck it directly to do boring, and counter bore work.
4. All of the work mentioned above is more or less dimensional and not “artistic” in form. To do the artistic work it would be difficult to set up a metal lathe to get the clearance and speed needed. If that is what you are looking to for, do yourself a favor and buy a dedicated wood lathe.

-- Minnesota Woodworkers Guild, Past President, Lifetime member.

View REO's profile


929 posts in 2578 days

#23 posted 09-03-2013 03:38 PM

Guess I need to be a little more The bulk f the turning I have done has been on modified metal lathes. close to fifty years. My dad started a wood turning business in the late forties with a converted atlas lathe. over th years he had up to six of them,...turning wood. The atlas as the video suggests is one of very few small older lathes that came originally with roller bearings in the headstock. most of the older small metal lathes came with plain or sleeve bearings. The roller bearings are made to take the speed demands of wood turning. Being designed to turn metal they are very ridged which is a complaint about many low cost wood lathes. They adapt easily to copy work. If you want it is quite easy to make an adapter to fit the crossfeed to use for a tool rest. As in the video the cross feed is used or holding a standard cutting tool ground to better perform with wood cutting. I would have to categorically disagree wit those who think that one cannot be artistic with turning wood on a metal lathe!the cross feed screw is replaced with a lever so that for cross operations the slide can be moved easily and quickly with out screwing it in and out to follow a template or free hand. The set up makes it impossible to “get a catch”. All of the same operations and a few more for someone creative can be done the same way on a metal lathe as the wood ones. As for swing it is calculated the same as for a wood lathe. people think about the cross feed taking up space, the banjo takes up space too. the true working diameter is the space between the crossfeed or banjo and the center of rotation (x2). both wood and metal lathes are made out of steel or iron so I find it hard to understand the “rust”argument unless you have a lathe with stainless ways which are available for a price. After 30 plus years in the woodworking industry and about three hours of work reinstalling the crossfeed screw and replacing a couple broken handles three of the lathes were sold to people for metal work.

I got into metal work in part to support my dads woodturning business with specialty jigs and fixtures, sometimes whole machines for specific operations. I have had my own machine shop for 37 years sometimes in the same building as my dads wood shop. I have a special passion for wood turning. It was my fathers occupation for 67 of his 91 years.

View Jackpage43088's profile


1 post in 620 days

#24 posted 08-20-2019 05:48 AM

I’ve been wanting to try and use a tool holder on a wood lathe for a while now, I’ve looked a bit online but didn’t find any tool holders that are made for wood lathes. Does anyone know maybe where I should look? Do you know if maybe a metal lathe tool holder would work? I don’t want to buy one on amazon if it won’t even fit my chisels. I found this thread after searching google for weeks for wood lathe tool holders. Are there any metal lathe tool holders that are commonly compatible with a wood lathe ? so any guidance would be greatly appreciated ❤️

View MrRon's profile


5712 posts in 3748 days

#25 posted 08-20-2019 04:10 PM

I’ve been wanting to try and use a tool holder on a wood lathe for a while now, I’ve looked a bit online but didn’t find any tool holders that are made for wood lathes. Does anyone know maybe where I should look? Do you know if maybe a metal lathe tool holder would work? I don’t want to buy one on amazon if it won’t even fit my chisels. I found this thread after searching google for weeks for wood lathe tool holders. Are there any metal lathe tool holders that are commonly compatible with a wood lathe ? so any guidance would be greatly appreciated ❤️

- Jackpage43088

Delta, I believe used to have a compound setup that was an accessory for the wood lathe. Unlike a true metal lathe compound, this one was just bolted to the wood lathe ways and couldn’t move along the lathe axis, only cross movement could be made; not very useful except for small turnings.

View HokieKen's profile


10862 posts in 1643 days

#26 posted 08-20-2019 06:59 PM

I’ve never seen such a beast available for sale commerically. However, there are lathe duplicators that could probably be used to do what you’re trying to accomplish.

-- Kenny, SW VA, Go Hokies!!!

View ruthpitts's profile


2 posts in 54 days

#27 posted 09-06-2019 08:32 AM

I’m a hobbyist and DIYer and I’m looking for a mini metal lathe for using in both metal and wood job. But I wonder if a metal lathe do a job as good as a wood lathe when working with wood job? Should I have a metal lathe only or need another wood lathe for wood job?
I see some reviews posts about mini metal lathes and I’m considering the BestEquip lathe (from this post). Any advice?

View HokieKen's profile


10862 posts in 1643 days

#28 posted 09-06-2019 12:43 PM

This whole thread should answer your question Ruth. You need a wood lathe for turning wood. Metal lathes just aren’t suitable. I’m not familiar with that mini-lathe but it looks pretty standard for that style.

-- Kenny, SW VA, Go Hokies!!!

View Planeman40's profile


1452 posts in 3265 days

#29 posted 09-07-2019 12:56 AM

If you are interested in buying a used metal lathe I strongly advise watching some metal lathe rebuild videos on You Tube. You will see how a rusty piece of junk can be made into a like new beauty! Most of the metal lathes in these videos are bought for around $500 and many for much less. The methods of rust removal are the best part.

I have a 1940s vintage 12” Delta wood lathe (great lathe!) and a 7” Maximat metal lathe with milling column I bought new back in 1969.

-- Always remember: It is a mathematical certainty that half the people in this country are below average in intelligence!

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