How to Use a Wood Lathe: Step By Step Guide For Beginners

Most of the beginners find a wood lathe complex to use.

And if you are also a beginner, the chances are you are no exception.

No worry.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through the step-by-step process of woodturning.

Trust me, by the time you are finished with this article, operating a lathe will seem like kid's stuff.

So, let's dive right in....

Select a Suitable Lathe for Your Task

If you are a beginner, start with a small lathe. I'd suggest that you buy a bench top lathe as they are perfect for turning small projects.

Although, in order to turn the spindle used in furniture, you'd need a larger appliance.

Get Acquainted With the Components of the Appliance

Before you start using the lathe, you need to first get familiar with the nuts and bolts of the device.

Now, a standard wood lathe should include headstock, tailstock, tool rest, and a bed. Let's break down each of them-

Headstock

The headstock contains the motor, drive train, pulleys, belts and the spindle. You will find this on the left end of the lathe.

Tailstock

It is the free spinning end of the wood lathe.

The tailstock consists of the cup center and tailstock spindle and other features to make sure that the workpiece is secured to the lathe centers.

The Tool Rest

It supports the chisel employed for turning the workpiece. You can adjust the tool rest by sliding the length of the bed.

There are three swivel joints in the assembly. And each of them is tightened with a set screw to keep it secure while the turning process is going on.

Make certain that the tool rest is positioned just below the center of your material, so the tool will cut at about the center of what you're working on.

Bed

Nearly all the lathes contain a bed, which is a usually a horizontal beam. It connects to the headstock and allows parallel movement of both carriage and tailstock with the axis of the spindle.

Choose the Right Tools for Your Project

There are various types of chisels. They can feature long, round and carved handles in order to provide you with a solid grip and substantial advantage. They enable you to control the cutting edge perfectly with minimum effort.

Let's take a look at some of the lathe tools.

Gouges

There are several types of gouges such as spindle gouge, bowl gouge, and swept back grind bowl gouge. They serve different purposes and their cutting edges are specifically shaped to make particular cuts.

Parting Tool

Parting tools are very thin.

With it, you can separate the finished product from the waste material.

Skew Chisel

You can employ Skew chisel for trimming and finishing.

Hollowing Tools

You can create hollow forms on bowls by employing a hollowing tool.

You can use a hollowing tool with a swiveling scraper to work on small projects.

Read the Entire Manual

Reading the manufacturer's manual is certainly worth your time. For this will inform you about the features, instructions and safety precaution you are required to know.

Moreover, it can come in handy while buying accessories for the wood lathe. As it will tell you about the specifications and capacities of your device to help with the purchase.

Pick a Fine Piece of Wood for Your Project

If you are a beginner, you should start with softwoods such as balsam fir or southern yellow pine. They are easier to turn than hardwoods such as oak.

Don't make the mistake of turning a split piece of wood or one with loose knots. As they can split up while turning and become missile flying at a great speed.

None the less, make sure that you are wearing a face shield while turning the material as this thing can spit out a lot of chips. After all, you have to protect your eyeballs. Right?

Bring the Wood to Your Desired Shape

First, you need to square the stock. Then you can bevel the square corners and make it an octagonal piece. It will substantially reduce the amount of wood needed to be removed while giving it a cylindrical shape.

As a beginner, you should start with short stocks (less than 0.6 m). For longer pieces are difficult to work with and takes a lot of effort.

Outline the Center of Each End of Your Stock and Place It between the Lathes

You need to mark the center of each end of your workpiece before you place it between the lathe centers.

Then, slide the tailstock until it touches the end of your stock. Afterward, fasten the spindle by using the hand crank. It will push the workpiece into the spur center.

Ensure that the stock is completely secured; else it could fly off the lathe while turning.

Don’t forget to remove the lathe keys before you begin

Place the Tool Rest Parallel To the Length of the Stock

The tool rest should be placed parallel to the length of the stock. It should be at a distance of 3/4 of an inch from the stock so that the workpiece can rotate without hitting the tool rest.

However, the distance shouldn't be too big.  Remember, the closer you place the tool rest to the workpiece the more control you are going to enjoy with your chisel.

Give the Workpiece A Spin by Your Hand

It's a precautionary procedure to check whether the workpiece has sufficient space to turn freely.

Get a Chisel for the Turning Operation

If you desire to create a round shaped workpiece out of a square stock, then a roughing gouge would be your best bet. For it is ideal to get this sort of job done.

Now, you should practice holding the tool against the tool rest. Place one hand of yours on the metal blade behind tool rest while the other one should be kept near the end of the handle.

Now Turn the Wood Lathe On 

Start the machine at the lowest speed setting.

Now place the cutting edge of your chisel on the tool rest and push forward it toward the workpiece gradually.

You want to move the chisel at a perpendicular angle toward the stock until it touches the workpiece.

Don't move too quickly. Moving quickly can cause the tool to break off or make you lose the grip on the chisel.

Observe the Size of the Chips being Cut from the Stock 

You need to keep an eye on the size of the chips while truing. You want to cut small chips. In fact, the chips should be less than 1/4 of an inch in length.

Move the Cutting Edge Parallel to the Rotation of the Stock

You need to move the cutting edge of your tool parallel to the rotation of the material. While using a roughing gouge, you can pitch the cutting edge so that the chips are thrown at an angle away from you.

Keep Pushing the Chisel into the Workpiece Gradually

You have to continually push the tool into the workpiece, in passes, so that you can remove nearly the same amount of wood with each pass. This will help the workpiece to get a cylindrical shape.

Stop the Lathe and Check Your Progress (Repeatedly)

Over time, you will be experienced enough to finish your project without stopping frequently.

Nevertheless, as a beginner, you should stop after every few minutes and check your progress. It will help you to improve your accuracy.

You can use a pair of calipers to examine the diameter of your stock along its length as you don't want to finish with a wrong diameter.

You should also look for stress cracks in the workpiece. And if there's debris, clear it before it starts to accumulate on the lathe bed.

Increase Lathe Speed to Smooth the Finished Round Workpiece

In order to smooth the workpiece, you will have to bump up the lathe speed.

Hold the chisel in a manner that it barely touches the workpiece and move gradually along the workpiece's length.

The tool movement should be very slow. The slower your tool movement, the smoother the finish will be. 

Sand the Workpiece

When you are finished with the cutting, you can sand the workpiece by hand while turning with proper caution.

Then turn the wood lathe off and remove the tool rest. Next, choose an appropriate grit and type of sandpaper for this operation. Now, turn the machine back on.

You have to hold the sandpaper very lightly against the workpiece and move it back and forth so that you don't remove too much wood from one place.

Safety Precautions That You Must Take

  • Never wear loose-fitting clothes.
  • You need to clean up  wood shaving constantly as they are a potential fire risk
  • If you have a long hair, tie it back.
  • Use ear protection when required
  • The tool rest should be close to the workpiece
  • Start the device at a low speed
  • Avoid wearing any kind of jewellery
  • Before you turn the lathe on, rotate the workpiece using your hand to make sure that it clears the tool rest.

Bottom Line

As you can see that the whole process is exceedingly easy. Hence, you should have no trouble in using a wood lathe.

Moreover, over time it will get easier as you practice more and more.

I tried to cover all the aspects of a lathe so that you can begin woodturning with full knowledge of the device.

Let me know if the article was of any help. Thanks!

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