Good inexpensive starter lathe


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As the title says I am looking for a good inexpensive starter lathe. I want to be able to turn pens and small vessels. What are your guys suggestions. I saw the thread on starter tools so I will refer to that for tools. Thanks in advance. Would like an indexing head also.

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Harbor Freight sells the same lathe as Penn State (and the Grizzly, the Rockler, and a few other brands I'm sure) for less money, especially if you use the 20% coupon:

http://www.harborfreight.com/5-speed-bench-top-wood-lathe-65345.html

It's a good lathe for what you want to do, Unless you want to step up to a JET or Delta midi lathe with variable speed, I'm not sure I would look much further. It has all the desirable qualities for what you want to do. #2 morse taper, 1"x8TPI spindle thread, 10" swing over the bed and 18" between centers. It has enough HP and (barely) enough speeds to handle turnings of that size.

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The expense of getting started isn't necessarily the lathe itself, but the tools and accessories that go with it. That said, if you are looking for a lathe under $1000, I strongly suggest looking at midi with variable speed. The Delta also has a reverse which really helps with the sanding process.

As an example of where the variable speed comes in very helpful, last night I turned a bowl from a 8"x8"x4" block. I roughed it out on the band saw. Since the piece is no where near balanced, I set the belt to the slowest range, and set the variable speed to the lowest setting, which ultimately spins the piece at 250rpm. I then power up the lathe and slowly increase the speed until I find out that I feel comfortable working with and that the piece wont shake itself loose from the lathe. As I work on the piece and get it more and more balanced, I start gradually increasing the speed. The first belt position gets me up to 750 RPM. Once I get up that high, I do switch the belt to middle position, and set the variable speed to around 800 RPM. As I progress getting the blank rounded, and start shaping it into a bowl, I work my way up to about 1000 RPM.

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I too have been thinking about getting a small lathe just for the fun of it. Maybe make some bowls for the craft fairs I've been entering. There are some real gems at Harbor Freight and some real duds as well. Reading all the reviews it appears that the lathe mentioned above could be one of those gems. It is my understanding that some of the Harbor Freight Central Machinery items come from the same cast molds as Jet and Delta. Something to think about and I think the price is fantastic if you just want to dabble in turning.

Thoughts?

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I actually own this lathe. Like most, I thought turning looked cool and wanted to try it out on the cheap. I have upgraded just about everything I have purchased (tooling, chisels, etc) except the lathe. I did have an issue with my first one overheating, but HF took it back. The replacement has been rock solid. My wife actually uses it more than I do and it gets daily action. I do plan to upgrade, but not because this lathe isn't good enough. As I mentioned my wife is addicted to turning and I would like to get some time in as well, so another lathe is in order. It could very well be another one of these. I'm not sure the casting is the same as the JET/Delta, but it is the identical machine to many other brands I mentioned above with complete part interchangeability. It just happens to be A LOT cheaper.

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I started out with the Delta midi and used it for 2 years, then moved to a full sized Jet for the next 8 years. One more upgrade to a Oneway SD (bad hips) and I will be done. There is probably some truth the one casting for many different brands but a lathe is more than the casting. It is the quality of the bearings, the alignment of the head and tail stock, smoothness of moving the banjo, secureness of the locking mechanism. There is a lot that can be different and much of it will show in the quality of the turning. ie; how much sanding you have to do, general vibration, stock getting lose. BUT if you are not sure you want to turn, then it is a good way to start and you can invest more in the tools that you will need. In my opinion you also need full sized tools, not midi tools to have the best experience.

BRuce

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am new to turning (haven't started), but it is something I have wanted to get into for some time now. I have been researching lathe's and tools for months and thought I would share some of what I have found that may help others along the way.

First I was convinced that I had to start with a "Mini" or "Midi" lathe for budget reasons. This isn't necessarily the case. The big issue I have with most Midi's is that they can only handle up to 10" of clearance. I doubt I will spin anything bigger for a long time, but with some research and patience I think I could get a machine capable of more for when the time comes. Also, 1/3-1/2 hp motor is pretty weak for anything larger than a pen or small spindle (or so I have been told).

The Harbor Freight Conundrum!

Long story short, they sell lathes for far less than anyone else (especially if you can get to a store and use their 20% off an item coupon).

I think I have all but settled on their 12x33 lathe.(though please talk me out of it if you disagree!) Everyone loves to hate HF tools (and for many good reasons), but if you look hard, and I did, you will find overwhelming success for a handful of their products…this lathe being one. I read, literally dozens of reviews (not on sellers sites, those are 80% BS). Some love it, others hate it, but no one will refute the fact that it is the same unit as the JET 1236. There are many, many places that state they are identical, and I could not find one, with facts, stating otherwise (plenty of lofty opinions, but not too many facts). Several people say that JET uses better quality internal parts, but no one could say specifically what part(s). Ex: part X is different in the HF vs JET. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't??? Shame on JET if they do sell a better product, and are not marketing it better to make it obvious.

Why this model? It has the clearance in its normal locked position to get a fairly large vessels spun (12"). Also, you can pivot the head to allow for almost unlimited turning size, since it will not be over the banjo (not sure that's the right name for the bottom of the lathe). This is a safety concern, but with some precautions, it can be handled safely. The second big bonus is that it has the option to reverse. My understanding is this is very helpful for sanding. I can say, sanding, is one of my least favorite chores for any project, I can't image I will enjoy it any more on a lathe. So any help with sanding is a big bonus for me. Both ends accept MT2 which I have found many people complaining about with the "Midi's". Apparently most other company’s accessories fit MT2, and many midi's accept MT1 sizes. It also comes with a stand, which by every account I could find is pure garbage. I planned to build my own stand anyway, so no biggy for me, other than having to carry it to the trash. With the unit costing a little over $200 with the 20% off ($216 atm), I can easily buy some very nice accessories (new chuck, chisels, etc) rather than paying for a seemingly expensive paint job.

Tools:

I have seen chisels/gouges from $35 a set up through $350+ a set. Personally, I want cheap chisels to start with. I have no experience sharpening, so they will force me to practice, and won't cost me any arm and a leg when I inevitably destroy one.

I would love any feedback good or bad. I am getting ready to pull the trigger and buy the HF lathe, so if you think it’s a mistake, or a good buy, let me know. I am sure others may face the same dilemma.

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If you don't like sharpening, I'd recommend the Easy Wood tools. (I believe Shannon does, too...)

Figure that if you are going to turn, you are going to sharpen. Ain't no way 'round it. So I'd plan on getting a grinder at the same time as your lathe (if you don't have one already). I purchased the basic HSS 8 piece tool set that Harbor Freight had at the time, and I've used 5 of the tools. Even created my own version of the Wolverine so I can sharpen the gouges. While it was good experience (because those tools refuse to stay sharp), I'd spend a little more on better tools next time.

The irony is that turning seems to be the one category of woodworking that guarantees you need to replace your tools. It almost is worth making your own tools.

If you decide to make your own, you need very little knowledge of metallurgy to get started - just someone you can trust to get the good materials to you. Get a basic shaft - or turn one - and replace the tool steel periodically. Some heat treating, some grinding, and you're all set. For a quick start, check out David Springett's _Woodturning Wizardry_. I believe this book covers how he made some of his tools to do some of the projects inside. You don't need to get this fancy, but it's one (of many) places to start.

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And if you don't mind looking for older tools, you can find a cast iron bed that does not have a motor, and supply your own. My grandfather's old lathe was this style, and I just need to replace the belt to use it. Only problem I have is that it has a 6" swing, but a 36" bed... so vases are out. (I'm okay with that; I plan on leaving it set as the buffing lathe anyway.)

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Found this lathe on Craig's list. What do you guys think? I don't think it's worth the $395. You think it's worth purchasing or just go new? If yes on the purchase how much?

http://humboldt.crai...3341858818.html

I think it's worth purchasing. Keep in mind, I'm cheap. I think the whole set-up is worth probably $150-$225... again, I'm cheap. There's probably way more value in this than I'm willing to pay.

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I come from the land of only buy your tools once. While I understand the questioning if you are going to like turning, let me throw this at you...

Are there any classes you can take so you are only in $50 instead of the $400? Will that be enough for you to decide if you like it?

If you buy that lathe, please figure in how you are going to stabilize it. The base is just bent sheet metal. You want a lot of weight near the base (the furthest point inline but away from the center). If you don't, you are going to have a hell of a time utilizing that 12" swing (or the 36 or so outside swing).

But, my big question is this...what do you want to turn? What makes you want to try it out? Are you trying to turn baseball bats? If you are looking to turn pens and christmas ornaments, then the effort you are going to go through with the big lathe is excess. The reverse spinning isn't as critical as learning how to make a proper cut...in which case you may not need to sand at all. HF sells a benchtop lathe for half the price and is 10x18. That is plenty big for most projects. No, it doesn't have the power as a big lathe, and yes, it will limit some things, but remember why you said you want to buy it. You said you want to try it out. On top of that, I don't recommend "trying it out" on a 12" x 36" log to see if this is any fun.

I think you are doing what we all have a tendency to do...say you want to try something, then start tool shopping and instantly go to how much tool can I get for the price. I would ask you to go back and think about why you want the lathe and make sure you are addressing that question as best as you can. Sometimes, having a backhoe isn't the best tool when all you need is a shovel.

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Chris, I bought the HF turning tools to start with (the HSS ones for around 45$, NOT the carbon steel). I am very pleased with them. Sharpening is easy. Get yourself a slow speed grinder. If you aren't cheap like me, buy the wolverine jig too. Woodcraft often has a package deal for both the grinder and the jig. If you are cheap like me, make a sharpening jig. There is a lot of good examples of how to do it online. Look at captain eddies's youtube videos for some great ideas, Sharpening is a piece of cake for me now. The HF lathe tools are actually decent quality HSS. The handles aren't the best, and I wish they were a lot heavier sometimes, but the tools take and keep an edge VERY well. Once you really get into turning you will see what tools you actually need, and if the HF tools aren't quite cutting it, you can replace them with higher end stuff. I did buy a Sorbeys roughing gouge. I still use my HF gouges, but I changed the grind on them to make them more suited to turning end grain.

Edit - I actually have the 10x18 HF lathe and I really like it. The larger one is not even a consideration. The lowest speed is 600 RPM - which I think is still way too fast for anything I would consider turning outboard. The only large turning I have done was in a class and it was about 13", but the lathe was spinning at less than half that speed until I got the piece round.

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Are there any classes you can take so you are only in $50 instead of the $400? Will that be enough for you to decide if you like it? I did consider a class or two (and still may). I know I will enjoy it the first 10-15 times I do it. So a class would only serve to wet the appetite. I certainly could use the training from a class, but with my work and family schedule, classes are tough to get to.

If you buy that lathe, please figure in how you are going to stabilize it. I am planning to either build a custom stand or mount it to my work bench. The bench is about 12' x 3', with heavy storage underneath. I'd guess the bench is ~300 lbs empty, well north of 600 lbs with all my junk on the shelves below. It is also anchored to the concrete wall (basement shop), and I can anchor it to the floor if needed.

But, my big question is this...what do you want to turn? That is the million dollar question. Unfortunatley, my answer is always...what don't I want to turn? Everytime I read a forum there is a new project that comes to mind for turning. I know me, and while my first projects are going to be small,some pens, then small vessels, long term it will get bigger and bigger. I know if I go with a midi, my wife's first request will be a vessel that is just bigger than the midi can handle. Murphy's law. I would also like to be able to turn table legs. Since wood vessels aren't supposed to be used in the dishwasher, and see a lot more useful turns on bigger items like Salad bowls, fancy platters etc. that you only use occasionally. Those are the big things I am worried about not being able to do with the midi.

...then start tool shopping and instantly go to how much tool can I get for the price. I actually have the opposite tendency. My cheapness often overrides my common sense, and I buy short term and then regret it. I am trying to pysch myself into buying a long term tool, but not go nuts investing thousands of dollars. It seems like a reasonable comprimise in my crazy head, but who knows.

The lowest speed is 600 RPM - which I think is still way too fast for anything I would consider turning outboard. I am new to turning, and I was under the impression that the higher speed turning is risky because of the machine getting out of balance. I was hoping to counter act that risk by significantly over building the lathe base. I haven't seen a whole lot of lathe's in my (less than $1000+) that spin slower than 500-600 rpms. (It seems the smaller ones have higher minimum rpms. This lends me to believe there is a solution, though perhaps less than ideal.

Thanks so much for the feedback. I have a lot to think about, and I really appreciate any advise!

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To be a million % honest, I have yet to need a large lathe...despite two very prominent facts....1) I REALLY want a big boy lathe with a 24" swing. 2) I can't find a consistent supply of wood that big that would warrant it.

One other thing I forgot to mention is that you could/ should join a turning club or find a mentor. I have a GREAT mentor. He has a lathe that can handle anything...over 1000 lbs of weight under it. Still, he turns most things under 12" or so. But, if I came across a chuck of wood, we could make a day of it and turn in his shop. A turning club can help you with that too. They will also teach you how to sharpen your tools or how to properly make various cuts or help you fix a problem. Hell, most guys will let you borrow some wiz-bang new tool so you don't get caught up with 50 gauges and only use a handful....and everyone reading this post knows exactly what I am talking about.

And just for some context, I am not the type of guy to want to hang out with other folks in the shop. It's MY shop and MY time is valuable (not financially, but something more personal) when I am in it. Even with that said, a community of folks that can help you is a must.

Any way, it looks like you are giving it solid consideration, and that is all anyone giving you advise can ask for. Good luck! And remember we are here to help if we can.

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I will look into a turning club, I honestly had no idea such a thing existed. I am not too hopeful though, because of my location (very rural).

I have the opposite problem when it comes to wood supply. As stated above, we are in a small rural community and we bought a 10 acre plot of land to build our dream home someday(probably when I stop buying power tools ;) ). That lot is ~2 ac of wooded/streamed land. So I regularily have large trees that have succomed to nature that I would like to mill into something other than just fire wood (Lots of Maple and Oak). There is also an awesome hardwood dealer/mill just a few miles from my home, so I have nearly unlilmited access to lumber of all sizes and species...a good problem to have, but an expensive one!

Thanks again for the advise!

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If'n yer gonna start green turning....

Turning dried wood and turning green wood have two different approaches. (The second involves a lot of rain coats and cloth diapers...) So if you are going to turn wood that falls, you get the fun part of prepping lumber for later turning... something I am nowhere near comfortable with yet. (I've found cloth diapers work great to wipe up much of the moisture that sprays from green wood, but I'm not going to do it all that often.)

The nice / drawback thing about wood turning is that tools are the one expense you will have on a regular basis, depending on how much you turn. Unlike many saws where you simply replace the blade, or sharpen the teeth, you have to worry that the constant sharpening will reduce the tool length. So if you turn a lot with a gouge, you might find that you replace the gouge faster than the rest of the tools in your set. For me, it's my 1" skew, but the benefit is the tool is a nice flat piece, so I can make my own... eventually. The reason this is a drawback is the more you turn, the more frequently you replace the tool. (This is probably why the Harbor Freight set is still reasonably priced and decent quality... it gets frequent sales because it gets frequently replaced...) Sure, it's nice to splurge on a "good tool" once in a while. I have yet to do so on a common tool, instead focusing on some of those specialty areas. (Got a texture tool from Sorby on the payment plan now.)

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Good to know! At the moment, I don't plan to turn, while the lumber is green. I have aged lumber already cut on the land that has been drying >1 year at this point, and is tarp'd, so it should be relatively dry. The hardwood dealer I frequent kiln dries all their stock to about 8%. I am intrigued by a another post on the forums about building a homemade kiln (neat youtube video) that I may venture into as well if there is a special piece I wish to use that is still green.

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Turning Green is great fun....well, let me rephrase. The turning part can be a real mess, but it is a heck of a lot more forgiving. But that is neither here nor there...just a reminder (and you should do this anyway) to put some kind of wax (I use Renn wax) on the machined part of the bed to prevent rust.

The fun part is what happens AFTER you turn. That's when the magic happens. As the bowl dries, it will distort all willy nilly and you get some really interesting results. Richard Raffan preaches that it's ok to finish a green bowl and then just let it do what it does. Fantastic results.

OR

As JHop suggests, you can rough turn it, make a giant mess, and then plan on turning it later. That's a lot less fun, but you will lose fewer blanks.

Here is a link to some helpful info...

http://www.customwooddesign.com/turninggreenwood-1.html

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  • 4 years later...

OK so it looks like I will open this topic up again. I'm new to turning and I'm also looking into purchasing a lathe. Never turned wood before but I have four years of wood school and five years working in a commercial wood shop(Just not recently). Im also looking at the possibility of purchasing the Harbor freight lathe. I've looked on craigslist and the pricing has just gotten so out of hand its somewhat crazy. 20-50$ cheaper than buying new is just a little crazy to me. 

What my ultimate goal is, I would like to make martial arts weapons. But that will be somewhere down the line and plan on starting much smaller. Like Chisel handles and bowls and working my way to larger things. Maybe spinning Bannister spindles after I learn a bit more. After I learn the smaller stuff and work my way into the larger stuff, and correct me if I sound foolish. But smaller martial art staffs can be up to four feet long and from what I have read there are large bed lathes. Would a large bed lathe need to be purchased or is there an option to extend the bed out of a smaller lathe(ie Harbor freight)? I have a very large, sturdy, workbench where I would be able to secure such a lathe. But would like to know if it's possible or am I looking for more trouble than its worth? Just to blow your mind a little more, the larger staffs can be up to nine feet and tapered on both ends. 

Please feel free to be extremely direct with me if possible. 

Thank you,

James...!!

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The biggest question is budget.  You can get quality lathes at most price ranges, <$500, <$1200, or more. 

If you want to do mainly spindle work (tool handles, pens, table legs), then yes, bed length is a major concern.  You can get a quality smaller lathe for under $500, but you'll have to invest in bed extensions.  Some brands will allow multiple extensions to be added to a lathe.  Extensions are a fairly economical route compared to buying a bigger lathe outright (About $90- $125 per extension, depending on the brand).  There are also plans out there for shop built extensions.  With your experience, I'd imagine getting a custom extension built would be a doable project.   Since you mention using the lathe on a workbench, rather than a dedicated stand, a midi lathe is about where you are talking. 

For swing over bed sizes though, I haven't seen many benchtop lathes bigger than 12".  This becomes an issue when turning bowls and the like.  My lathe is only 10", and I'm not happy with that limitation.  I'd like to be able to turn bigger bowls, but the lathe just can't handle it.    If the headstock rotated out (outrigger), then most of those concerns would vanish, as I could turn the piece in the air, not over the lathe bed. 

Another feature many lathes offer is reversing drive, as in the piece can be turned in both directions.   Very advantageous when trying to hollow out bowls and the like, as you can stand in a proper position and still access the piece safely.  My lathe does not do this, but I have found since my lathe is fairly light, I can pick it up and turn it around on the bench.  This has the same effect as reversing, but may help on the cost of the lathe.

For the 4ft or so pieces, a decent midi lathe with extensions should suit you fine.  The cost will be kept reasonable, and it can break down for storage if needed.   For the really big stuff though, a lathe with a 9' bed will cost you some money.  A economical approach to this might be to use a midi lathe on your bench, and have a tail stock (aligned properly) mounted on the far end.  You could easily build a movable tool rest that would secure to the bench itself.  In this fashion, you could skip buying the multiple extensions, or a huge lathe, and have it setup to what you need.   You would definitely need steady rests to help stabilize anything of that size regardless of the type of lathe your using, as a spindle that thin (relative to it's length) might start to "whip" out of center. 

Izzy Swan on youtube has a bunch of videos that might give you some inspiration, along with other sources.  But when you break it down, all you need (for the spindle turnings) is a way to turn the piece, hold the piece on both ends, and a place to rest your tool.  I've seen people build lathes out of a mounted hand drill. 

But if budget isn't really a concern, then a single lathe capable of 120" pieces would run at least a few grand. 

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Not a lathe expert, but in general, turning between the spindles is the starting point, so doing things like round staffs is pretty basic. If you start with a blank that is already close to your final dimension and mitered into an octagon, it is really pretty simple. The only two challenges are minimizing any catches and getting a consistent thickness. Both are very do-able. 

However, I can't really imagine turning something spindly and 9-10' long on a regular lathe. It seems like a recipe for disaster, as a catch somewhere in the middle third could snap the rod and send a piece flying, and even more likely, the stress of your tools would cause a failure at the head or tailstock. Perhaps if you started with something much larger, to give you something more substantial for your centers to engage with, but it gets a little silly, if you are turning a 4x4 down to a 1" diameter dowel. I'm curious if anyone else has experience for something like that, but the whole idea seems unlikely to produce adequate results and dangerous. As far as whether it is a good idea, is your primary reason to save money? Unless you are selling these things or burning through them like crazy, I can't see getting a giant lathe and tools ever being the cheap option. :)

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There is at least one member that drops in occasionally, and does the martial arts staffs and such. He might notice this and drop a comment, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the best way to shape a fighting stick of any kind is with one of these:

1cd8e1477fbec3e6a7ee10a778eb3725.jpg

While a turned spindle may be straight and smooth, the grain is not necessarily so. In this application, choosing grain that flows with the shape is critical to the strength of the weapon. A stave, riven from a straight-grained billet of wood, and carefully shaped with blades and scrapers will be as strong as it can possibly be. A turned spindle is very likely to not be so strong. Especially at extended lengths. Also considering many of the fighting implements have a curve aling the length, and a non-cylindrical cross section.

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