The basic idea of the lathe—a tool that combines rotation and cutting to smooth and shape materials—is thousands of years old. There is even evidence that the Romans and other ancient cultures used lathes as far back as the third century BC. Modern lathes, including computer numerical controlled lathes, or CNC lathes, bring new power and impressive versatility to these ancient and time-honored shaping tools.
A lathe spins a piece of raw material along one axis, either vertical or horizontal, while cutting tools or other implements are used to shape it. The earliest versions required two operators—one to turn the lathe and another to work with the material. The development of foot-powered wheels and water wheels were a big step forward because they allowed a single person to both turn the lathe and shape the material. When motorized lathes that used electricity came along, they brought a whole new level of power—and possibility—to this age-old tool.
Lathes can be tiny, such as the handheld versions used by jewelers and watchmakers, or enormous industrial machines that take up entire rooms. Wood and metal are common materials worked by lathes, although glass and other materials can be shaped by a lathe as well. Lathes also take advantage of modern automation, especially in industrial production processes.
CNC lathes are computerized versions that can create highly detailed work.
Designs for finished pieces are developed using CAD software, which analyzes the piece and creates a set of detailed instructions for the computerized lathe to follow. This is hugely beneficial when a large number of items need to be made to exact specifications, or when the design is especially complex and detailed. CNC automation also saves time during many manufacturing processes, especially as part of a larger automated system.
What Do Lathes Make?
Lathes are useful for making all kinds of products and parts, particularly anything that is shaped as a cylinder or sphere. They can create furniture pieces, such as table legs and chair backs, baseball and softball bats, wooden or metal pen bodies, decorative bowls and cups, lamps, chess pieces and more. Industrial lathes make parts for cars such as brake drums, and when you have your brake rotors machined, that’s also done on a lathe. Replacement parts for machines and engines can be lathed, especially with a combination of other tools. Whether they’re being used by a hobbyist or a professional as part of a small workshop or large metal shop, today’s lathes are powerful tools that find a wide range of uses in the hands of skilled operators and craftsmen.