Even if you don’t know much about manufacturing as it pertains to machining, you have likely heard of a metal lathe since they are prominent in most machine shops, right behind the ever-present milling machine in popularity.
However, although you might know of them, you may not understand much about lathes, and it’s essential that you do, especially if you’re a business owner, plant manager, or supervisor tasked with buying one.
Let’s start from the beginning and get you up to speed with the basics before getting into the intricacies of these versatile and productive machines, and then we’ll cover some buying tips to ensure you’re prepared and informed for your purchase.
What is a Lathe Machine?
Although most of us connect the lathe directly to the industrial revolution of the mid-18th century, you might be surprised to know that a lathe is an ancient tool, with evidence of its existence dating back to Ancient Egypt around 1300 BCE. Greek woodworkers around this same period also used lathes.
Throughout history, the lathe has been a machine tool for turning operations, creating cylindrical shapes like spheres and cones. Today, lathe machines are an essential part of most machine shops since lathe work is usually an integral part of the machining process. Recently, the CNC lathe machine, a precision machine tool machinists employ for various metalworking projects, has become the go-to lathe for machining high-volume components that require accuracy and repeatability and the most complex projects.
Whether you are shopping for a manual engine lathe or power lathe, a mini-lathe that fits on your workbench, or a multi-axis CNC lathe, you’re making a substantial investment, and there are things you should know before you purchase it. So, consider the following:
What are the Three Types of Lathes?
Although lathes can fit into several categories, there are three basic types of lathe machines: the traditional engine lathe, the computer numerical control (CNC) lathe, and the mini-lathe, or benchtop, often sold at distributors such as Amazon. You may find all three types in a modern machine shop, but there’s little doubt that the CNC lathe has become an indispensable machine tool because of its high-speed turning capabilities and high precision.
Machinists use CNC lathe machines to complete various metalworking projects, usually those high-volume components that require accuracy and repeatability. In contrast, traditional engine lathes have been mostly relegated to short runs, repair work, and secondary operations. Mini-lathes have become the favorites of hobbyists and smaller operations where space is at a premium.
What are the Functions of Lathe Machines?
Lathe functions typically fall into two categories: industrial and artisan machine tools. Industrial uses could include a small machine shop making replacement parts for old cars or farm equipment to large corporations producing everything from heavy machinery to aerospace components.
On the artisan end of the spectrum, craftsmen use lathes to create unique pieces from various materials, including metal, wood, plastic, glass, epoxy, etc. For example, skilled wood lathe operators can transform a rectangular block into a chair or table legs. At the same time, an experienced machinist can turn the inside diameter of a rifle barrel, maintaining tight tolerances.
Fully automated CNC metalworking lathes have multiple heads holding various types of tooling, allowing numerous operations to be processed on one setup without further human involvement. Even traditional engine lathes have access to quick-change tooling systems that significantly reduce set-up and tool-changing times.
Toolroom lathes are smaller, more accurate machine tools on the industrial side. As the name suggests, they are often found in a shop’s toolroom with other accessories like a tool grinder. A toolroom lathe is a lathe optimized for tool-and-die work and other precision parts with features not found on less expensive lathes, such as a collet closer and taper attachment.
What Features Should I Look for in My Next Lathe Machine?
Most two-axis lathes come with a spindle, chuck, lathe bed, and carriage, but they might omit a tailstock as a standard feature. So, if you anticipate turning long, smaller-diameter shafts, a moveable tailstock is essential for supporting the workpiece at the end opposite the chuck and headstock. Without the tailstock’s support, you’ll likely get chatter marks or taper, making the shaft unusable. It also allows you to drill and ream holes in the center of your part.
Heavy-duty cast-iron bed and base
A heavy lathe machine enables deeper cuts, greater rigidity, and less vibration. For the longevity of the machine tool and the highest precision, always choose a lathe with a heavy-duty cast iron base rather than one made of welded steel.
Some lathes allow you to remove a portion of the ways below the chuck, creating a “gap.” This gap enables you to turn larger diameters since it increases the clearance for a larger swing diameter. It’s a feature you should consider.
Large diameter bore hole through the machine
When the workpiece must extend through the back of the chuck, the spindle through-hole diameter determines the maximum part diameter. Some lathes are designed with “big-bore” options, which is a feature you might need if you work on long shafts with larger diameters.
A steady rest is a ring with several adjustable jaws fastened to the lathe’s ways to support the workpiece. Typically the frame of the steady rest is split, with the top half of the ring being hinged, and it closes around the shaft, providing stability.
Should I Buy a Lathe Machine or a Milling Machine?
Today’s multi-axis CNC machining centers tend to blur the lines between lathes and milling machines, but they are two separate and distinct machines for most practical considerations.
If you walk into most machine shops and other manufacturers, you will see lathes and milling machines on their shop floors. Although each machine follows the same machining principle of removing material from a block of material, how they shape the part differentiates between them.
The primary difference between a lathe and a milling machine is the relationship of the workpiece to the cutting tool. On a lathe, the workpiece spins about its axis, and the cutting tool does not rotate. The process is called “turning,” resulting in a cylindrical-shaped part. Operations performed on a lathe include turning, boring, ID/OD grooving, threading, drilling, and parting.
On the other hand, the milling machine’s cutting tool rotates about its axis while the workpiece remains fixed. This setup allows the tool to approach the workpiece from various directions for creating complex parts. The milling machine has the advantage of versatility since its tooling options are nearly infinite.
Although lathe machines are limited in their use, they are superior for cylindrical parts. If you see the need for round parts in your operations, the lathe will outperform the milling machine, increasing productivity and quality.
What are Some Reputable Brands that Make Lathe Machines?
Typically, this list could be divided into manual and CNC lathes, but let’s start by mentioning a reputable machine tool offering both types in one machine:
- CNC Masters: The 1440 CNC Lathe can revert to manual control quickly and efficiently, eliminating the need to write a CNC program for short runs. Their affordable machines are built in the USA.
- Hardinge: Founded in Chicago in the 1890s, Hardinge is an American machine tool manufacturing company with a long history of quality. Headquartered in Pennsylvania, it has a presence in 65 countries.
- Okuma: Okuma is a Japanese machine tools brand that has been in business for over 120 years and has built a solid reputation. They have become well-known in North America, with many distributors throughout the states.
- Haas: Haas is another American machine tool builder with a reputation for quality and affordability.
- Mazak: The Mazak company was founded in 1919 and has become a global organization manufacturing quality lathe machines.
CNC Lathes vs. Non-CNC Lathes: Which Do I Need?
Both machines remove material by spinning it in a chuck or collet, transforming it into a cylindrical shape using a fixed cutting tool. However, how this is achieved is vastly different between the two.
CNC lathes take instructions from a computer and do the machining automatically, while manual lathes require a machinist or skilled operator to manipulate the controls and determine the various parameters. Mastering those manual lathe skills results from years of experience and proper training, yet there is always human error.
CNC lathes require a trained programmer using computer systems to control the parameters, such as the feeds, speeds, and depth of cut, to produce an accurate part in a fraction of the manual lathe’s cycle time.
Which of these lathes you need depends mainly on the type of work you do and your budget. If you are taking on small volumes of relatively straightforward machining, you should do well with a manual engine lathe. Until recently, manual lathes were the only option, and skilled lathe operators were doing impressive amounts of high-quality work.
On the other hand, CNC lathes will machine your most complex parts and components quickly and accurately. And if you have a high-quantity order, the CNC lathe will turn every piece to consistent dimensions without the intervention of a skilled worker and do it much faster than its manual counterpart.
Remember that the CNC lathe will be several times more expensive than the manual model, so your budget will factor into your decision.
Full-Size Lathes vs. Mini Lathes
When you’re trying to determine if a full-size or mini-lathe is the better option, space becomes a deciding factor, as does the size of the work you want to have in your shop. Look at your situation: Are you working from your garage or in a small workshop out back? Or have you just bought a 10,000 square ft. building and need a lathe to complement your other equipment?
A mini-lathe will fit in the corner of your garage or on a workbench, conserving what little floor space you have. However, the type of work you can take on will be limited by the length and swing of the smaller machine.
On the other hand, a full-size lathe will allow you to turn the same tiny parts as the mini-lathe but also allow you to work on heavier and longer parts, providing you with more opportunities to grow your business.
How Much do CNC Lathes Cost?
As mentioned earlier, a 13 x 35.25 CNC lathe from CNC Masters with all the bells and whistles you’ll need to get started is priced at $10,695. Small CNC mini-lathes are $2,000 to $9,000, while most two-axis models range from $15,000 to $50,000. Large production lathes can go as high as $300,000 or more.
Buying Tips: 8 Things to Consider Before You Purchase Your Lathe
We’ve discussed what a lathe is and some of the technical parts. Here are the eight tips to consider before you make your next purchase:
1.) Determine the Size of Lathe Machine You Need
Lathes are measured in swing and size, often given as a pair of numbers (i.e., 12 x 20). The first number, the swing, is the distance between the center of the headstock and the lathe bed. It’s the maximum radius of a workpiece that can be mounted between centers on that lathe machine. If the radius on your workpiece is 15 inches and your lathe has a swing of 12 inches, then the workpiece is too big to fit between centers on your lathe.
The second number is the distance between the headstock and tailstock and is often referred to as bed size. In the example above, the bed size would be 20 inches.
2.) Ensure Your Machine Shop Can Handle It
Even lathes with small beds can be relatively large, weighing hundreds of pounds. Floor-mounted, heavy-duty lathes can be even larger, possibly weighing thousands of pounds depending on the size. Before buying one, measure your floor space and ensure the lathe machine’s footprint doesn’t exceed that area.
Lathes machines come in all sizes, from small bench lathes to large, room-sized industrial CNC lathes. Consider the type of lathe operations you anticipate, and position your new lathe machine on your shop floor accordingly.
Make sure your company has enough power for it! Lathes require a lot of electricity, and you probably already have the necessary power capacity if you purchase a new metalworking lathe for your machine shop. But if you’re adding a smaller mini lathe or benchtop lathe machine to your home workshop, double-check the energy requirements.
3.) Learn the Basic Parts of a Lathe Machine
Ever wondered what a CNC lathe machine is? A lathe machine is typically composed of four primary parts:
- The lathe bed can be either fixed or pivoted. The lathe bed holds and supports the structure of the lathe. The workpiece is mounted in jaw chucks fixed onto the headstock. The workpiece can also be mounted between centers in the headstock and tailstock, allowing it to spin freely above the lathe bed.
- The headstock holds the workpiece in place during machining. It consists of gears and pulleys instrumental to controlling speed.
- The tailstock supports and provides the clamping action for long pieces of material.
- The lead screw of a lathe machine advances the lathe’s carriage in sync with the rotation of the spindle. Its most important contribution is making threads with a specially designed turning tool.
When the headstock and tailstock hold a workpiece, it is “between centers.” Sometimes, the lathe bed has a removable piece below the headstock to allow turning operations on a workpiece that exceeds the lathe machine’s stated swing radius.
There are several types of lathes, and engine lathes and turret lathes are your standard powered lathes. Most lathes work with various materials but are often divided into metal or woodworking lathes. Even though they may be high-quality machine tools, wood lathes are typically not as heavy-duty as their metalworking counterparts.
4.) Understand the Lathe Machine’s Capabilities
Before buying a lathe, it would be wise to figure out what type of lathe work you intend to take on and ensure the new lathe is designed for those lathe machine operations. For instance, if you’re buying the lathe machine for turning operations on a 48” long crankshaft, don’t buy one that maxes out at 44”.
People have been using lathe machines for centuries. They were first used for woodturning and woodworking, but in the 1800s, Henry Maudslay modified the lathe for metalworking, adapting to industrial settings during the Industrial Revolution. Engine lathes and CNC lathes have increased in size and power over the years. Still, they also have advanced versatility with the advent of Computer Numerical Control technology and are multi-axis, meaning they can handle more complex tasks.
The workpiece rotates on a spindle with a lathe machine, while a cutting tool, mounted on a tool post and fixed on a cross slide, completes the turning operation on the workpiece. This rotating spindle is why lathe machines are ideal for anything with a cylindrical shape. They can also thread, drill, reaming, boring, sanding, and knurl.
Today’s precision lathes are vital for aerospace, automotive manufacturing, furniture making, and toolmaking. Because of their versatility, lathe machines can handle many tasks. Many have variable spindle speeds and tool holders that allow operators to change the tooling mid-operation.
Modern toolroom lathes also have high versatility, especially with CNC lathe technology. These machines can perform complex machining operations that other machine tools cannot handle. Along with milling machines, lathe machines rule the modern machine shop.
5.) Choose a Belt Drive or Direct-Drive Spindle for Your Lathe Machine
The spindle on metalworking lathes is either belt-driven or direct-drive, but the belt-driven type is part of the classic generation of lathes. Direct-drive spindles provide variable speeds much faster than the belt-driven type, resulting in shorter cycle times. With a direct-drive spindle speed lathe, you could go from 0 to 6,000 rpm in half the time of a lathe machine with a belt-driven spindle speed. That being said, belt-driven lathes are still an acceptable option and provide the power and accuracy required by many machinists.
6.) Look at Spindle Speed, Horsepower, and Torque
Modern CNC lathes are designed to handle a specific range of diameters. Most machine shops buy a machine for a maximum workpiece diameter. For example, if you’re cutting 2-inch-diameter bars, the lathe machine will be designed for turning operations on smaller diameters using 6,000-rpm spindle speeds and the correct amount of horsepower and torque.
On the other hand, larger lathe machines will have higher torque because of the weight of the workpiece in the jaw chuck. Bigger workpieces require slower spindle speeds and more torque.
7.) Consider the Turning Tools You’ll Need for Your New Lathe Machine
Although your lathe machine is a big-ticket item, it’s not all you’ll need to purchase. Your lathe will probably come with a jaw chuck, but you should have a faceplate for certain types of lathe work. You’ll also need various cutting tools, including, but not limited to:
- Carbide turning tools
- Boring bar
- Chamfering tool
- Facing tool
- Parting tool
- Grooving tool
- Thread-cutting tool
- Knurling tool
8.) Buy a CNC Lathe That Gives You the Most Value for the Price
CNC machines are expensive but incredibly powerful machine tools that add speed and versatility to any machine shop or home workshop. CNC Masters offers two CNC lathes that meet all the speed lathe and precision lathe criteria. These CNC lathes are built in the USA and come with excellent customer support.
- Powerful size 34 Z-axis micro-stepper motor within 1500 in/oz. of torque
- Very accurate with micro-stepping motion
- X & Z Direct Drives without timing belts to adjust
- X & Y Zero Backlash Ball Screws with Pre-loaded ball nuts to eliminate play
- Full 2-axis coordinated motion control on bipolar motors – true interpolation
- Transition between CNC lathe and engine lathe modes
- Digital readout display of the X & Z counters in English or metric
- CNC Masters custom software is included
CNC capabilities transform complex manual turning applications into an easy-to-program language to run a complicated part accurately on production runs.
- Versatile machine that instantly converts from CNC lathe to traditional engine lathe mode
- 40″ Distance between centers with a 14″ swing over the lathe bed
- Full 2-axis coordinated motion control on bipolar motors – true interpolation
- Home Reference sensors on the X & Z Axis
- 2 HP main spindle motor
- Digital readout display of the X & Z counters in English or metric
- CNC Masters custom software is included