My Journey As A Creative Designer - Woodworking and Beyond #255: I Need Some Lathe Advice

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Blog entry by Sheila Landry (scrollgirl) posted 02-13-2011 02:22 PM 4763 reads 0 times favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 254: Evolution of a Design Part 255 of My Journey As A Creative Designer - Woodworking and Beyond series Part 256: Thinking - An Important Step In Designing »

I was very pleased at all the positive feedback that I received from the project yesterday. It really got me thinking about an entire new direction of designing.

However, I am not going to try to kid you – I know absolutely nothing about lathe work. All I know is that you spin a piece of wood and use a chisel to remove material. That’s it.

I don’t know how many of you remember me talking about my good friend Cari who first introduced me to the scroll saw. Her dad was an engineer and very instrumental in teaching us things. He didn’t teach us by doing them for us, rather he gave us the tools and information and let us give it a go.

There was one time when I was making an Independence Day teddy bear. He was dressed all in red, white and blue like Uncle Sam. I thought it would be cool for him to hold a wooden rocket, which would also be painted red, white and blue and Cari’s dad suggested we make one for him on the lathe.

He set things up for us and gave a quick demonstration. He then let me give it a try myself. I must be honest and tell you that my rocket looked more like a mushroom than a real rocket. Getting the feel for even simple carving using the lathe was difficult and a bit more scary than scroll sawing. After a couple of tries, I kind of gave up, as Cari’s attempts were much better and she offered them to me to use for my bears. I never really went back to it to try again.

Looking back, I realize that perhaps it just wasn’t the right time. However, with seeing how Bob incorporated lathe work into one of my scroll saw projects, I now can think of so many things that I would like to design which will include lathe work. I find myself wishing that back then I had shown more of an interest and paid more attention when I was offered the opportunity. But perhaps the time just wasn’t right back then.

As I stated previously, the trip to New York is not only a chance for me to teach and meet people, but it will also be a great opportunity for me to learn things too. I hope to come back home with at least the basic knowledge of what I need to know regarding working on the lathe. At this moment, it seems quite overwhelming.

I need to really evaluate things and try to figure out how I can make this work on my very limited budget. After all, the trip is going to be an expense, as is the inevitable shopping that goes with it. Even though I am being well-compensated for the show (something that I haven’t had done before) that is only three days out of what is beginning to look like a more than two week adventure. I have to really be careful and choosy as to what I spend my money on.

Hopefully, I will receive some good advice as to how to get started in this venture. I know the wonderful people that I am visiting will advise me , but I also welcome any words of wisdom that you all have for me regarding getting started and set up to do some lathe work. I am probably going to look for a smaller lathe, at least until I see how it goes, but I don’t want to get something that I will outgrow too quickly.

I would appreciate any and all thoughts you have on this matter. It would be good to hear how you all started and what you think would be necessary to get me going and on the right track.

As for today, it is kind of an in between day. I have several odds and ends that I want to finish up and it seems like the perfect day to do so. I like these relaxed days sometimes, as there is little pressure and it feels good to get all the loose ends tied up. I am going to enjoy it to the fullest.

I wish you all a wonderful day. Take the time to enjoy it!

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

8 comments so far

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18283 posts in 3697 days

#1 posted 02-13-2011 04:48 PM

Have you thought about giving more bang for the buck for your customers? You could include both versions of the Valentine’s Day tray in the pattern. One could just be a bonus draiwng without all instructions and completed photos. Maybe a tray sized pattern, then a larger one for use on the lathe or maybe three sizes for a 3 tiered shelf with the top being the canlde tray? All it would take is a resized photo copy or 2; 1.5x, 2x and 3x. This might broaden yiou pattern appeal to turners?

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 3019 days

#2 posted 02-13-2011 05:09 PM

Hi Sheila.

Hopefully, you will really love the lathe. It is so immediate. You can get lost in it.

The biggest choice is what size things you are going to turn. You come up on the size limitation where the workpiece just won’t fit in the lathe.

Also, are you going to turn between centers or are you wanting to do turning like platters and bowls?

I have one like this:

It is not really high end but it has a few nice features. The headstock can turn the other way to turn larger pieces. It also has a variable speed (although it is a kind of funky mechanical system).

You can also do a lot with small lathes.

The two numbers you get to look at are the swing (the biggest diameter you can turn) and the bed length (how long a piece you can do. The length is not really as critical as you might think because you can make things in sections.

The high dollar items with lathes are the chisels and the work holders.

The spur centers for driving the workpiece are important. You can also use a jaw chuck to hold the work. You will really want a live center (the piece that holds the other end with bearings).

The way the chucks and centers mount are either threaded on to the headstock or with a tapered fit (usually a morse taper) A small lathe will have either a #1 morse taper or #2.

Small work is easier with small tools. High Speed Steel (HSS) and carbide tools are nicer to work with when you are learning than carbon steel tools because until you get the feel for it, you will overheat carbon steel tools and loose the hardness.

If you are going to turn small stuff, one thing to think about is something like a little taig lathe that you can set up for turning wood or metal. (lee valley sells them)

Another place that has interesting things for turning is Beal Tool. He sells some really nice turning accessories.

Don’t be too afraid of just getting a small lathe to start. They are a small investment and if you really enjoy turning, it is nice to have a small and a large lathe to choose from depending on the work.

It really depends on your budget but the lathe itself can be the smallest investment. They are pretty low tech devices and you can do a lot with very little.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View BarbS's profile


2434 posts in 4107 days

#3 posted 02-13-2011 07:07 PM

Hi Sheila- how exciting! I want to jump right in there and ‘turn you on’ to turning. But my advice would be, take this slowly and don’t buy right away. The best thing you could do is attend a club meeting and talk to members; they will often have demos at their meetings and allow you to handle the tools, and guide you from the beginning. I found one AAW guild at St. John’s NL, the closest one to you, though on a map it looks a bit difficult to get to. If you are interested in contacting them, their website is ‘Avalon Woodturner’s Guild’ at
Also, while at your show, ask about a local guild (American Assoc. of Woodturners) or if any meetings are scheduled while you are there. There really is no better way to get started.
If starting on your own, David has good advice. The lathe is the least expense of the undertaking. You’ll want a lathe chuck, priced anywhere from $200 way up, depending on your lathe, and a live center (often comes with the lathe purchase; check) and a spur center. The gouges are expensive, but any steel will cut wood, so the top quality gouges are for buying later, after you’ve learned to sharpen correctly and won’t be wasting the steel on them. When I first purchased a Jet min-lathe (a real keeper; most turners who start with one, never sell it) I bought a set of tools in a box from Grizzly. They are very thin compared to better tools, and require greater support on the tool rest (they don’t effectively work when reaching far over the tool rest) but I still use them in small, tight spaces. For gouges, I’d recommend the ‘house brand’ at Packard Woodworks You’ll also want an 8” slow-speed grinder to sharpen. If you join the AAW, they have an inexpensive ‘Sharpening’ video I found very helpful. Sharpening gouges is the beginner’s first bug-a-boo to get over.
That ought to be enough to get you investigating this! I think for what you’ll start off doing, a mini-lathe of some kind would be ideal. Most have a 10” to 12” swing (possible diameter of turning) and a 16” to 20” lathe bed. In Canada you have General products you could look at. I’ve heard they are very good.
It will look like a huge investment when you put it all together, but believe me, once you’ve acquired the necessary tools, the rewards are immense! I put off getting into turning for several years because of the expense involved, but I’m ever so glad I did it. And I would do it all over again, first, in preference to all other woodworking tools. Good luck with this idea!


View Bearpie's profile


2601 posts in 3039 days

#4 posted 02-13-2011 07:21 PM

Sheila, A very important feature for me is lathe speed. Not important as to how fast it will go but critical as to how slow it will go and how much torque it has at the low speeds. My first lathe was a Sears Craftsman 2hp variable speed 15” x 38”. This machine is good if you are going to turn spindles, candle sticks, small stuffs. The lowest speed this will run is 400 RPM which is way too fast when you are turning green wood like I do and shapes that are irregular. So until you get your piece symmetrical you will have a lot of “wobble” and the machine will walk the floor! 400 rpm is way too high for such work. Also the belt drive on this machine sucks. I can barely touch the work piece with my chisel and the lathe slows down and I have to wait till speed builds up again. I finally got a new Powermatic 3520 which is a big machine and saw a world of difference. the slowest speed is 50 rpm and has plenty of torque. Ironically it also has a 2 hp motor that I have not been able to stall and has a knob that allows me to increase speed to precisely the speed I want.

Just make sure your lathe will have that feature. Of course I am sure you will have to pay for features like this but do your research and get the best you can afford even if you have to spend a bit more than you really afford. It will still be cheaper to buy your first lathe the first time and not the second time around like I did! The Powermatic was expensive but worth every penny!

Good luck in your search and I do hope you find a gem! Don’t forget to check Craigslist for bargains. You might find a real nice machine. I found a few machines there. However you might have to wait a few months to find one there.

Erwin, Jacksonville, FL

-- Erwin, Jacksonville, FL

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2941 days

#5 posted 02-13-2011 09:28 PM

Thank you all so much for all the information. I am certainly going to do some research, as well as take some classes before I get anything. It may have to wait several months or more, but I think that at least looking into it is a good idea so that when I am in the States, I can see what it out there. It will give me a good opportunity to see things up front, and with your input and helpful ideas, I will at least have an idea what to look for.

I just want you to know that I appreciate it a lot.

Sheila :)

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View William's profile


9949 posts in 2864 days

#6 posted 02-14-2011 04:29 PM

I consider myself a beginner at turning wood, but I still have to stress again what Bearpie said. Be sure to get a lathe that has a real low speed at it’s lowest setting. I am on my third lathe right now. One was just to cheaply built and didn’t last. The second had a low speed of well over a thousand RPMs and scared the hell out of me. The one I have now is much betterm but I still wish I could slow it down more.
I, like you, manly want to learn woodturning so I can incorporate it into some of my other projects. Certain aspects of turning though makes me nervous. One of the most important lessons I have learned so far is this, even with cheap chisels, sharp tools will cut good at low speeds just as well as they will at high speeds. The only thing a faster speed does is help you get done faster. As for speed, the faster something is turning, the faster it can sling it across the room, and from my experience, usually the direction is towards your head.
Oh, one more thing I would like to suggest to you and anyone else wanting to turn, a full face shield. Safety glasses are great, but a full face shield doesn’t cost much and can save your @$$ when turning on a lathe. I can personally vouch for that.


View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2941 days

#7 posted 02-14-2011 04:52 PM

Thanks too, William:
I am also concerned about the safety aspect. I have heard of many incidences where people have been hurt doing lathe work – many right here on Lumberjocks. I have a great respect for the tool and that is why I don’t want to go into working with it lightly. The face shield is a good point, and something that i will definitely look into. Also, it was good to hear from both you and Erwin about your experiences with the lower speed. I wouldn’t have known to look at that.

All of this is a great deal of help. :)


-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 3019 days

#8 posted 02-15-2011 12:21 AM

Just to double up on what William said,

If you are turning something big, slow speed is still pretty fast. I normally turn mostly spindles stuff and I really didn’t even think about the speed for bigger stuff. If you are doing big bowls and such, plan on having a LOT of weight holding your lathe down. Several hundred pounds of ballast can be conservative.

This may be ahead of time but also consider if you plan on doing bowls and such think about getting one of the engine hoists (Like they take car engines out with) for lifting up big blanks. The blank for a big bowl or platter can be over a hundred pounds. I am talking about something like this:

This is way beyond what you are thinking about right now but it can quickly get to that kind of thing with turning. Especially if you are turning green wood. Holding a big blank of wood while trying to attach it to the lathe can be a big job.

Also, chainsaw and axe for rough trimming.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

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