Lathes, Mills, and Woodworking – A Machinist’s Guide to Key Terms

The world of woodworking is a world of its own.

You’ll find different terms and different machines when it comes to cutting wood as opposed to cutting metals. Some tools can be used on both – some lathes and milling machines are easily adapted to both materials. But woodworking carries some terminology that can be confusing for people coming from a metalworking background.

Material differences

Wood is organic; every piece is different, every species of lumber will respond slightly differently to common woodworking processes and methods. Hardwoods and softwoods have different properties, meaning that a skilled woodworker needs to constantly fine-tune their approach based on the material involved and the specific project.

That variety and complexity is precisely what makes a finely crafted piece of woodworking so valuable. Good woodworking requires both art and craft – and the tools to match.

Tool terms

In woodworking, a wood mill or sawmill is the initial stage of the lumber making process. Raw logs are processed in giant sawmills, converting them into shaped pieces of standard lengths.

Then when that lumber reaches the workshop, woodworkers commonly turn to tools like a CNC router to produce a finished or nearly-finished piece. A wood router operates on roughly the same principle as a CNC milling machine. The cutting tool is suspended from a gantry hanging above the bed of the mill or router. The workpiece is mounted on the bed, and the cutting tool moves along two or sometimes three axes. The process is referred to as “milling” when dealing with metals. For woodworking, the older word “rout” – meaning “to carve out”- is used, giving its name to the machine itself.

In metalworking, milling machines are machine tools used to produce finished pieces. In woodworking, wood milling machines refer to the initial stage of lumber processing.

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Lathes vs. mills

The process gets a bit more complicated when you start to consider the milling/routing process and traditional lathework.

High-speed lathes, also known as turning centers, rely on a fundamentally different cutting process. The workpiece mounts via a chuck or collet to a spindle which rotates rapidly. The cutting tool is fixed to a moveable post or arm and brought into contact with the rotating workpiece, removing material evenly around the circumference of the piece.

Lathes are used for both woodworking and metalworking. In fact, lathes are some of the oldest machine tools and were used for woodworking for centuries before being adopted for metalworking during the Industrial Revolution.

Can you “mill” wood or metal using a lathe? Not exactly, since the underlying processes are different. However, sometimes “milling” is used in a general sense to refer to the removal of material, also known as subtractive machining. Like mills, lathes use a subtractive machining process. It’s possible that in woodworking, at least, you might occasionally hear someone refer to using a lathe to “mill” a piece of wood.

Woodworking, metalworking, and modern machine tools

With both wood and metal, craftsmen have more tools to work with than ever before. DIY mini milling machines and lathes bring industrial-strength power to home workshops. Engraving machines allow extra flourishes in the finishing process. Drilling machines and drill presses give extra versatility in the machining and woodworking processes.

With modern machine tools, even the beginning craftsman has access to advanced carving machines, equally at home on both metal and MDF.

And of course, there’s the growing power and flexibility of modern lathes. Advanced lathes and turning centers frequently employ CNC technology and may have tooling heads that are capable of mounting rotating cutters. In other words, high-end modern CNC lathes can often behave like metal milling machines or wooden routers. The workpiece can be fixed in place and the cutting tool rotated, just like a milling machine.

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That versatility means that the line between traditional lathes and mills or routers is blurring slightly. It also means that advanced modern lathes provide craftsmen with more options than ever before. By using carbide router bits and adjusting various settings, skilled machinists can turn CNC mills into wood cutting CNC router machines.

CNC Masters Lathes – Peak Versatility

CNC Masters offers two high-end turning centers. Each one provides a range of features that are easily adapted to nearly any situation – and nearly any material.

1340 CNC Manual Lathe Machine

With a 13″ swing over the lathe bed and a 40″ length between spindles, this machine can handle small- to mid-sized workpieces with ease. The CNC provides complete two-axis automation for the spindle, allowing most operations to be easily automated. This is a top-flight, mid-size, variable-speed lathe, capable of handling the hardest materials but equally at home on complicated woodworking projects.

And if you need a bit more control or want to “feel” your way through a project, the 1340 lathe can be quickly reverted to full manual control. No need to stop and reset the entire lathe; you can simply halt the current program and finish the operation manually, operating the lathe like a giant power tool.

The result is a highly versatile lathe, equally at home in an advanced woodworking shop or a machine shop, able to handle one-off custom CNC cuts or full manual control.

1440 CNC Manual Lathe Machine

The CNC 1440 Manual Lathe fits the power of a much larger lathe into a compact, efficient package. It’s slightly larger than the 1340 lathe but equally versatile. The addition of CNC to the base design of a manual lathe means that often-repeated operations can be fully automated quickly and easily.

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At the same time, like the 1340 lathe, the 1440 can be toggled from CNC to manual control with the click of a button.

Both lathes can cut both metal and wood. The programming software included with all CNC Masters CNC lathes will let you grasp the basics of CNC programming quickly.

These lathes are the perfect answer for shops and production facilities that need robust lathes and cutting machines fully capable of everyday use but without the size and price tag of large-scale industrial models. The ability to toggle between manual and CNC modes allows anyone to operate these lathes, from machinists learning CNC to skilled manual lathe operators.

CNC Masters Machine Tools

All CNC Masters machine tools come with a comprehensive warranty.

About Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters, a leading supplier of CNC mills, milling machines, and CNC lathes. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn.

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