May 26, 2021

Woodworking on a Lathe | What You Should Know

Woodturning is a form of woodworking that is done on a lathe. You can do it on small or large lathes, and it is commonly used to make bowls, candle holders, plates, and other items. The wood can be turned on the lathe and then sanded and polished to give it a special look. If you are turning small items, you can set the lathe to a high speed of more than 4,000 rpm. This high speed allows you to shape the wood into its final form quickly. It is a delightful way to earn money or pursue a hobby.

What is a Lathe?

A lathe is a machine that rotates a workpiece to perform multiple operations, such as cutting, sanding, drilling, facing, and turning. It uses tools applied to the workpiece to create an object with symmetry. Shaping wood is made easier with the lathe machine. 

The reason why we use the lathe machine is to get rid of unwanted parts or materials. That does not mean damaging items but modifying old pieces into beautifully shaped pieces. Lathes come in different sizes as they specialize in multiple fabrics and techniques. Lathes make machinery parts, musical instruments, and kitchenware. 

As much as lathes come in different forms, they work with a holding and rotating mechanism. Amongst the multiple lathe machines are the center lathe, speed lathe, bench lathe, special lathe, and the CNC lathe machine. Two supporting tools that hold the workpiece are called centers or faceplates that revolve. To commence the cutting operations, the cutting tool is fed parallel or at right angles. 

You have to hold the cutting tool firmly not to lose grip. The lathe has a headstock on the left side. It comes with control levers for speed, spindles, and feed controllers. The tailstock is on the right side, and the bed is where all parts are bolted. These include a carriage that is between the headstock and the tailstock. It comes with a saddle, an apron, and a tool holder.

Pro Tip: See our Free Lathe Checklist.

How to work on a Lathe?

It would help if you secured a piece of the wood stock in the wood lathe machine. Make sure it is tight, so it does not fly off the lathe during operation. The tool rest has to be in position if you operate the machine from a comfortable position. The distance between the cutting tool and the wood stock should not compromise your comfort. 

When you turn the wood lathe on, you must start operating at the lowest speed setting. That is perfect for a first-timer as it allows you to feel the resistance that pushes against the cutting tool. As you get used to the machine, you may set the lathe machine to a level appropriate for the stock you are working on. 

When the material starts rotating, use your cutting tool to start cutting the stock, shaping it the way you want. Do not be carried away, losing track of the shape you are making. Do not keep the cutting tool close to your wood piece when not cutting; you have to wait for the lathe machine to stop before touching your workpiece. 

Using a tool to center the wood

Find a center of the piece of wood on each end. Use a center finder to face it down onto the workpiece as you follow the lines on the tool. Mark the blank part, and you will realize that the lines do not meet. 

There is a square part in the center at the intersections of the lines. That is where you have to focus. Fold the piece over and repeat the process. Take your punch, mark between the center lines, and firmly push down the tool to make a hole. The center is marked in red. Repeat the procedure on the other side as you turn it over. 

Take the tailstock, move it to the point center, and put it inside the hole we made. Drive the point center down and put it back in the spindle. Tighten down the tailstock, and turn it in to secure the piece of wood. Your wood piece is now ready to turn.  

Turning a faceplate

A faceplate secures a mechanical attachment between a lathe and a wood bowl blank using screws. It is not a complicated tool, and it is sturdy. The faceplate does not come with moving plates. Two components make the faceplate, and they are the threaded neck that attaches to the lathe headstock threads. 

You need a perfect size supported by the faceplate. Use the rule of thumb for the size of your wood piece. The faceplate should be 1/3 the diameter of the bowl blank. If you are not sure, an oversized faceplate is ideal. 

The face plate’s threaded neck is shorter than the headstock spindle threads. That leaves a gap between the faceplate’s end and the headstock’s shoulder. The threads should give enough room for movement. There has to be a secure connection. 

Sideways movements are impossible when the lathe faceplate is advanced and seated to the shoulder of the headstock spindle. It has to seat, and you are allowed to use a lathe washer to fill the gap. The washer has to be placed between the faceplate and the headstock before the faceplate is mounted. That prevents vibrations. 

Safety Guide

  • Appropriate dressing is vital. Take off your jewelry.
  • Before you make adjustments, switch off the lathe machine.
  • Do not attempt to change spindle speeds until the lathe machine stops running.
  • It would help if you avoided sharp cutters and drills when not in use.
  • Always wear protective eye protection.
  • Remove chuck keys and wrenches before you start operating the machine.
  • Protect the lathe with a wooden block when installing a chuck. 
  • Do not use your hands to remove chips.
  • Do not measure your work while the lathe is still running.
  • Protect the lathe ways when grinding.
  • Wear protective hearing that suits the level and frequency of noise for that particular task.
  • Wear respiratory protection for dust production. 
  • Do not wrap sandpaper around your workpiece.
  • Do not lean on the lathe.
  • Your lathe has to stay lubricated. However, improper lubrication leads to excessive wear and dangerous operating conditions.
  • The lathe ways should not be tables for other tools.
  • Always check the lead screw and gears to avoid metal chips lodged in the gearing mechanisms.
  • Check for broken pins or parts.
  • Before attempting to lift the lathe, refer back to the instructions.
  • Necessary adjustments are made before you start using the machine.

Tips for a woodworking lathe

Choose the right lathe

Every task has its specific lathe machine. A mini wood lathe operated from a workbench is for turning pens and small ornaments. A giant lathe wood machine is for large tasks. To make it easier, focus on the components and functions that make up the lathe. 


You have to go for a safe lathe wood machine since it is a dangerous tool. Start slow until you are familiar with the device. Wear the necessary protection that keeps your eyes, skin, body, and ears safe. I recommend a face shield and tight-fitting clothes.


Proper lighting improves visibility. You see activities taking place as you operate the machine. You have to pay attention to the details of the workpiece to avoid mistakes. A portable lamp will be ideal. It helps you see the item from multiple angles.


Know how to keep your chisel sharp and how to use it. You should see the function of each tool you are using. Sharp chisels allow you to work effectively. A blunt chisel catches up in the wood. That is dangerous to the user.

Use of body weight

To make clean cuts, lean in with your elbows and braced against your body. Use your body weight to make a smooth cut. That makes a difference from using your hand and arm.

Master the basics

As much as the art of woodworking takes years to master, I advise you to start with the basics. Take as much time as you have to work on the basics and learn to practice multiple techniques with time. That builds your confidence and shapes your skills.

See our review of the best wood lathe.

David D. Hughes

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