A lathe is a power tool that is designed to perform various functions, including cutting, drilling, knurling, sanding, among other operations. The device rotates the workpiece about its axis to let you cut, drill, shape, and turn wood pieces, metals, among other materials.
Lathes are typically categorized by the type of work they can perform. These include woodworking lathes, metalworking lathes, duplicating lathes, patternmaker’s lathes, glass-working lathes, cue lathes, etc. However, wood and metal lathes are the most versatile machines, and it is not uncommon to find these two in most workshops.
In this post, we will be comparing wood lathe vs. metal lathe, especially regarding the features and benefits of each.
Ideally, a wood lathe is specially designed to handle woodworking operations. It is the oldest variety of lathes, and it is used to cut, drill, sand, deform and turn wooden workpieces.
On the other hand, metal lathes are newer than wood lathes, and they are used for metalworking applications. They are designed to handle common metals, including steel, aluminum, iron, and more.
Pros and cons
- Light and simple
- It is also quite affordable
- Convenient hand-held cutting tool
- It does not take much space
- Less powerful as compared to a metal lathe
- It is not ideal for tough materials but works great for wood and plastics
- Pretty powerful
- Sturdy construction
- It is also quite versatile-you can use a metal lathe to cut metals, wood, among other materials
- Most models use a computer to regulate the speed
- They are more accurate than their wood counterpart
- It is a bit complex for novice users
- Quite expensive-it is not ideal for small business
Key differences between metal and wood lathe
As the name suggests, a wood lathe is only suited for wood applications and producing functional furniture components. It is ideal for making wooden and plastic bowls, decorative wood products, candlesticks, toys, plates, baseball bats, chair legs, pens, wooden rings, musical instruments, etc.
On the other hand, metal lathes are ideal for metals and more complex materials that require precision. Example of products that can be fabricated with a metal lathe includes screws, gun barrels, crankshafts, and more. Additionally, a metal lathe accommodates both metal and wooden materials, so you don’t need to get a separate machine for your wood-based applications.
Another key difference between wood and metal lathe is the design and features. Most wood lathes come in a simple design to accommodate operators of any skill level. Further, a wood lathe features an adjustable tool rest (usually a metal rail) that accommodates different shaping tools.
Additionally, wood lathes are usually hand-held and are designed to run at variable speeds between 200 and 1400 RPM. Most jobs can be operated at about 1000 RPM, but large workpieces require slightly lower speeds.
Metal lathes are by far sophisticated and more powerful than wood lathes. They use a hardened cutting tool to manipulate the workpiece that is often fixed on an adjustable tool rest. A metal lathe can have multiple cutting tools, which come in various shapes, including triangular, diamond, square, and round.
What’s more, you can operate the tool rest manually or automatically to cut or shape the workpiece to the desired size and shape. More advanced models feature a computer-controlled motor for a computerized operation that’s best suited for large-scale production of parts.
Computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines are becoming a popular choice because of their ease of use and improved accuracy. These lathes are operated electronically through a computer, which is displayed at the machine. Such machines also allow you to carry out basic operations such as milling and drilling from the same machine.
Typically, wood lathes are lightweight, but the size may vary depending on the workload. However, most of them are portable enough to allow you to carry the machine with you if you need to perform the projects elsewhere. They are considered light than their metal counterpart, and they are best suited for DIY use, including hobby projects. Additionally, most are bench-mounted, so you can mount your tool on any work surface.
Most metal lathes are floor standing, and they weigh more than 1000lbs. This translates to sturdy construction, and they are ideal for projects that need to be done and completed from one station. However, the negative side of this is that it will be difficult to move your tool or carry it along with you to different workstations.
Typically, wood lathes tend to be cheaper since they are smaller and more straightforward to operate. Metal lathes, on the other hand, offer more features and functionalities that attract an additional cost. Also, metal lathes come with complex systems and can be classified as industrial-grade machines, which comes at a price. However, they meet your requirements pretty well and deliver high precision and accuracy. Furthermore, you must be willing to invest more if you want better quality.
Metal lathe vs. wood lathe- Which is best for you?
Lathes have made it easy for woodworkers and fabricators to recreate different pieces of art for various purposes. They are ideal for woodturning, metalworking, glasswork, metal spinning, and more. The good thing is that you can pair your lathe with other power tools such as a drill press to introduce more functions into the design.
Both wood and metal lathes come in a range of sizes and models, so it comes down to your needs. A wood lathe is designed with basic features to let you take on most DIY projects, especially if you are just starting out woodturning. However, as you progress, a wood lathe might limit you, and this is where a metal lathe comes into play.
A metal lathe allows one to take on both wooden and metal workpieces with utmost accuracy and precision. However, it requires basic training before handling the tool, and it is more expansive, but this translates to extra power for high-end projects and manufacturing applications.
At the end of the day, you’ll need to figure out how often you need to use the machine. If you intend to use the tool occasionally to make basic furniture parts, a wood lathe is a good starting point. On the other hand, if you need to take your skills a notch higher, then you’ll need more power and the weight of a metal lathe. Additionally, understanding your needs and getting some training will help you choose the lathe that will suit your purpose for a perfect job.