Lathe Love: What Is the Main Purpose of a Lathe

December 26, 2021

The lathe machine is nothing short of a staple in the industry. With over 18,000 machine shops in the US, the lathe plays an essential role in manufacturing today.

Well, you could be benefitting from the same technology. Let's talk about what a lathe is used for and why you need one in your shop or at home!

What Is a Lathe?

A lathe is a common machine used to create cylindrical, spherical, or otherwise round objects out of a number of different materials, most often wood and metal.

These tools make it very easy to create symmetrical objects out of various pieces by rotating a block at fast speeds to remove uniform amounts of material from them.

Early models of the mechanical lathe date back to 1300 BCE in Ancient Egypt, and the first fully-documented use dates back to 1751.

However, newer electric models have only been used for a few decades and are the standard used in most machine shops today. Those are the models we'll focus on.

What Does a Lathe Do?

Lathes quickly rotate a block or piece of material and allow you to remove a consistent amount of material around the perimeter of the piece. In woodworking, this is known as "turning".

While the lathe rotates the workpiece at a uniform axis, workers can cut, sand, drill, or turn the piece to their liking.

Mechanical lathes must be powered by human intervention. These use gears to help spin the material at the desired speed but require manual intervention.

However, electric lathes can be set at different speeds for different projects, and they often come with many different attachments to assist with popular crafts.

In general, wood lathes and metal lathes are meant to turn workpieces into rounded objects, whatever they may be. Common uses include:

  • Bedposts
  • Table legs
  • Bowls
  • Wheels
  • Lamps
  • Dowels
  • Pens
  • Platters
  • Furniture parts
  • Candlesticks
  • Baseball bats

The list goes on. Lathes are excellent for creating a diverse array of rounded materials and it's fascinating to see how they work.

How Do You Use a Lathe?

The two ends that hold the material are called the chuck and the spindle. The chuck grips onto your material, driving the rotation from the motor, and the spindle holds the other end in place. Always ensure that the chuck and spindle are holding tightly to the material before starting.

You then place the guard close to the material, but not in the way of it. Before turning on the lathe, spin the material around with your hand to ensure it won't touch the guard.

From there, you can turn on the lathe and use various chisels to remove material in a cylindrical fashion. The lathe will rotate the material for you at a fast pace and you just have to graze it with a sharpened end to take away the unwanted material and create the intended shape.

The chisel should be held in place on the guard, grazing the workpiece until you stop hearing or feeling the material being chiseled. Only move your chisel slowly and carefully, while maintaining a firm grip to prevent injury.

Important safety tips: When using a lathe, always stand slightly to the side of the rotating material. Although you should always ensure the materials are held tight before operating, you should never assume they won't fall off. In the event they do, don't find yourself in the line of fire.

Also, similarly to a drill press, ensure you don't have any dangling jewelry, hair, clothing, or drawstrings. Lathes spin quickly, posing a serious hazard if something is caught. Also, don't forget safety goggles to prevent shavings from injuring your eyes!

Why You Should Buy a Lathe

Now that you know what a lathe does, you might consider adding one to your shop. If that's the case, here are some of the key benefits.


Whether you're making table legs, bowls, or lampposts, lathes will allow you to make them beautifully out of any material you want. Few machines allow for the same diversity of objects you can create on a lathe.

Niche Work

Can you think of another tool in a machine shop that offers the same end product as a lathe? When you need to use a lathe, there is no other tool that creates such precisely round objects.

Tools Last Forever

If you're a good craftsperson and you take care of your tools, then your lathe tools are bound to last a lifetime. There is a need for an initial investment in chisels and attachments, but with proper care, you'll never have to buy them again.

Less Room for Error

Humans are notorious for error when it comes to creating round objects, but we're excellent at spotting when something isn't round. A lathe is the best way to ensure uniformity, consistency, and roundness with your project.

If you're trying to make bowls with a file and a chisel, it will be noticeable.

Professional Look

There's a reason why woodturning is such a popular category for online videos. The precision and uniformity are satisfying to watch and offer instant gratification that's hard to match with any other tool.

Start Turning!

Now that you know what a lathe does, you can start creating well-rounded masterpieces of your own. Lathes are highly satisfying and highly productive machines that should have a place in any machine shop.

Stay up to date with our latest manufacturing news and feel free to reach out with any questions!