Choosing Your First Metal Lathe

If you’re the type person, who wants to go beyond woodworking or perhaps try your hand at building a small steam engine or IC (internal combustion) engine you most likely will be looking for a metal lathe. Choosing a metal lathe is somewhat intimidating, especially for the first time buyer. A simple web search will yield all kinds of opinions and choices. One thing you quickly learn is there can be fierce loyalty to brand names, country of origin, size, and sometimes-even color!

So I may as well get in the fray and submit my ideas. However, be forewarned, I have a few dogs in the fight. Over the past 20 years I’ve owned an American and Asian lathes, in fact I’m on my forth lathe right now. I hope that during the past 20 or so years I’ve been able to pick up a few tidbits that may help you in your choice.

First, let me break tradition. Most people will tell you “any lathe is better than no lathe.” However, I don’t necessarily agree with that. I believe, a worn out lathe is nothing but trouble, ESPECIALLY for someone who has never used a metal lathe before. Therefore, before we start talking about size, heritage, or color, if this is your first lathe, please seek out a lathe that is at least in “good” condition, not some worn out hunk of cast iron.

Next, let’s look at sizes. The size of lathes in the Unites States is measured in terms of the diameter and the lengths, in inches, of the material that can be turned. For example, you will see lathes that are sized as 6 X 18, 7 X 14, 12 X 36, etc. That means a 6 X 18 lathe can theoretically turn a 6-inch diameter piece by 18 inches long. In reality, it will be somewhat smaller since you have to allow slight room for the lathe tooling. BTW, our English friends would measure the same lathe 3 X 18 since they measure from the center of the lathe spindle (3 X 2 = 6). One last thing about size: Get one big enough. I’ve seen and known, folks who buy too small and then have to upgrade within a year or two.

The next critical decision is deciding on manual change gears or quick-change gearbox. I’ve had both and believe me a gearbox with useable speed changes is a tremendous time saver. However, the key word here is usable. I’ve seen (and owned) lathes that the low speed was good but the high speed was excessively slow and vice versa. Moreover, I’ve owned manual change gears that, while it takes about 5 minutes to change gears, the speed selection is spot on. Pluses and minus, just like life. After 20 years, here’s my conclusion. If you can live with the selection of speeds on the quick change, go for it. However, don’t let it be a deal breaker, the lathe I currently use most is a manual change and I really don’t miss (most of the time) the quick change as much as I thought.

Now for the big question-USA or Asian? What a can of worms this is. Once again, I’ve owned both. Bottom line: Today’s Asian lathes are not a bad tool. For a long time, folks considered them a ‘kit’ of sorts that once bought you took the machine apart, cleaned everything, smoothed casting marks, usually replace bolts with USA stock and put it back together. Today things are a lot different. The last lathe I bought was a Lathemaster 9 X 30. All it needed was uncrating, cleaning the shipping grease off and start turning. It took less than an hour from the back of the truck to switch on and ready to run. And the Lathemaster is truly a fine machine and a pleasure to use.

Final thoughts: Look for a solid machine, ask lots of questions on the many home shop forums out there and make a decision. Just like life, nothing’s perfect or easy, and it’s the same when choosing a metal lathe. Nevertheless, go for it. Choose one that fits your needs and after you have a year or so under your belt, then you’ll make a better decision next time.