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Ever wonder how people make baseball bats, pool cues, or table legs perfectly round with shapes and decorations? The answer is woodturning, which means rotating wood while sanding or cutting, usually done on a lathe. As woodworking tools go, lathes can get expensive, here is why.
Lathes are so expensive because the cast iron bodies, motors and parts used to build them are costly to produce. There is a lot of labor involved machining parts and calibrating the final assembled lathe adding to the cost. Shipping also plays a role.
Different-sized lathes will differ in price, but if you want to get a quality machine with all the right parts and safe to use, it is best to dig deep. Let’s find out why lathes are so expensive by looking at how they work and some of the components that are used, especially in woodturning.
The Costs and The Brands
Lathes come in different sizes with different functionalities, which influence the price. Your low-end lathes will cost you about $200 – $400. These lathes are small and don’t come with all the bits and pieces that you can expect with mid-range or high-end lathes.
Mid-range lathes are bigger, with more bells and whistles, costing anything from $400 to $800. These lathes are ideal if you are more serious about woodturning and are looking for a broader range of possibilities.
Finally, high-end lathes are for factories or professional woodturners and are sold for thousands of dollars. These lathes can be massive, and some of them are digitized for the greatest precision and intricate detail.
As with any other form of equipment, device, or gadgets, brands do matter. Yes, you do pay more for a well-known brand, but you are not just buying a machine. You are also purchasing a reputation that carries a guarantee of quality and excellence.
The most notable brands in the lathe business are Rikon, Nova, Laguna, Grizzly, Delta, and you can never go wrong with a Jet lathe. Any woodturner would recommend a Jet — if you have the budget for it (source).
The Parts and The Precision
If you aim to buy a lathe, the most important thing to consider is what your end goal is. Is woodturning just a hobby for you, is it for a small business, or are we talking large-scale manufacturing?
Either way, big or small, there are some critical parts of a lathe that you need to look at when thinking about buying one.
Start at the Base
Cast iron, which is quite a pricy metal, is the best material for the base or the bed of a lathe. The bed lies horizontally, and all the other components of the lathe sit on this.
A lathe must be stable because, when it is turning wood, any vibrations or movements affect the outcome of the product.
With a heavy, solid cast-iron bed, you know that you’re lathe won’t be wobbling or shaking while it is spinning wood because it has such high capacity to absorb any shock (source).
Measure It Out
Next, we need to look at how long your lathe needs to be to do the work. On one end of the lathe bed, you will find the headstock and, on the other side, the tailstock. The maximum space between these two parts determines the longest piece you can turn.
So what you want to make will indicate the length of the lathe you need, and this will, of course, influence the price as well.
Your lathe also needs to be the correct height. You don’t want to be bending over the machine while you are working with it. A tabletop lathe is perfect for height because you can just put it on a table, but these are limited in size.
Another option is to put your lathe on bricks or anything else to give it more height, but that could mess with stability, so it is probably wiser to buy a cutter that is the correct height for you.
Get The Motor Running
So the whole point of getting a lathe is so that you can make things from wood that would otherwise be difficult and time-consuming to do by hand, which is where the motor comes in.
Lathe motors also come in various sizes and generally have different speed controls. The heavier or bigger the motor, the bigger pieces you can turn. It also gives you much more versatility in creating your products when you can control the speed at which it’s turning.
Again, the bigger and more powerful the motor, the more money you will have to shell out.
Resting Your Tools
When turning wood, you will use a variety of tools to create different shapes, grooves, and textures, which requires various bits and bobs that you push against the spinning wood.
Now, for the sake of safety and precision, tools must be held in place, and this is where the tool rest comes in. You have to lock the tool rest in place, making sure that it is 100% secure.
A loose tool rest is very dangerous and can severely hurt or injure you, so make sure that you have a reliable tool rest that you can tightly insert so that it doesn’t move an inch while you are turning your wood piece.
Other Bits and Bobs
With a stable lathe that is the right size for your requirements and tight-fitting tool rest, all you need now is to make sure you have all the right tools and other fittings for the lathe.
There are a variety of tools, including chisels, bowl gouges, spindle gouges, and parting tools. Some say that a skew chisel is challenging to work with and try to avoid it, but it creates an excellent sanding effect, and you can use it to create beautiful details on your wood.
Make sure that you use chisels made for woodturning. Handheld chisels will not be steady enough; the spinning wood will most likely rip the standard handheld chisel right out of your hands. You can get seriously hurt.
If you want to make stunning wooden bowls to use for fruit or other decorative purposes, you’ll want to get a bowl gouge. Parting tools are, yes, you guessed it, applied to part wood. If you’re going to remove anything from the main piece or clean up corners, you will need this handy tool.
You will use spindle gouges to start with the initial shape of your wood as well as beads and coves. Then, of course, you need a scraper to create a smooth finish after using other tools on the wood (source).
Other things to keep in mind are the space that you have to work in compared to the size of the lathe and how accessible the power button is; if something goes wrong, you want to switch this puppy off asap, and you need to consider the type of maintenance that lathes need.
All of these could cost you later if you don’t consider them upfront.
The Demand and The Materials
We have a very good idea of what lathes look like and how they work, and we can see why they are expensive. Another aspect to look at is the demand for lathes.
Woodturning is a specialist art that asks for careful training, quality machinery, and special safety regulations. Safe lathes, with all the precautions in place, will be more expensive lathes.
Woodturners also need training and schooling to be able to turn wood into furniture or musical instruments, which needs to be precise to fulfill their functions. Can you imagine a woodwind instrument that is not perfectly made and makes odd sounds (source)?
So good woodturners are hard to find, and the right kind of lathe is worth every penny.
Due to the relatively low demand for wood lathes, they are not produced on the same scale as other tools. Mass production leads to greater efficiency and lower costs.
However, once you have the lathe, understand how it works, and have the right materials, the beautiful things you can create are limitless.
You will be able to create lamps, thimbles, legs, and pegs for tables and chairs, bowls, sculptures, chair seats, musical instruments, ornaments, bowls, pens, chess pieces, to name just a few.
And you have a wide variety of wood from which to choose. Red Cedar is a favorite that makes stunning furniture. You can also try Fir, Redwood, Birch, or Ash.
Experts say that it is best to use dry wood because, if the wood is wet, it can tear or create splinters on the spin. Dry wood sands better and gives a more excellent finish than when the wood is wet.
Lathes are expensive machines, and woodturning is a unique art. It is not difficult to see why. For a proper lathe that is the right size, made from quality materials to ensure precision and safety, you might have to fork out more cash.
It makes sense to pay with money rather than pay with your fingers or other precious parts. Woodturning can be very rewarding if done right, but there is a catch. Wood that is spinning at a rapid pace, with sharp tools pushed against to carve intricate details and smooth the rough sides can be very dangerous on a less-than-standard machine.
So lathes are expensive because they are high-quality machines that help you shape wood in ways you could never do by hand, safely.