Metal Lathe vs. Wood Lathe

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Forum topic by beaudex posted 06-12-2008 06:54 PM 39179 views 2 times favorited 29 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View beaudex's profile


65 posts in 4117 days

06-12-2008 06:54 PM

Topic tags/keywords: turning lathe

This is a question for you guys out there who also have some machinist training out there. I may have the opportunity to pick up a metal lathe for a very decent price (cheaper than a wood lathe). I currently do not own a lathe nor have I ever used one an so I am wondering a couple of things:

1. Can you easily use a metal lathe for wood?
2. Would I also be able to use the lathe for metal at the same time I was using it for wood?
3. Would I need to have accessories made for the lathe i.e. a tool rest or would the stock lathe suffice?
4. Could using the metal lathe for wood damage it for using it on metal?

I would appreciate any suggestions you may have on this issue.



-- Derek Tay, Venerate the Tree Design

29 replies so far

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4467 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 4353 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 4192 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 4367 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 3841 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 4206 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 3523 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 4117 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


252 posts in 3486 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 4467 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 3521 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 4206 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 3455 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 3523 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 4117 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

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