A lathe is a cutting and shaping tool that comes in two basic varieties. Traditional wood lathes cut, shape, sand and polish wood objects, while modern metal lathes are designed for cutting and polishing metal. Despite these designations however, each of these tools can often be used with both wood and metal items. To understand the differences between wood and metal lathes, examine the features, uses and advantages of each of these tools.
Both wood and metal lathes are typically constructed from iron, steel or aluminum. Each features a metal chuck at one end and a metal pad or bracket at the opposite end. Users insert objects into the lathe so that they fit securely between the chuck and the bracket at the opposite end. When the lathe is switched on, the chuck spins, causing the object to rotate. A variety of bits used for cutting, polishing or sanding can then be applied to the object as it rotates within the lathe.
Wood lathes generally require manual operation, while metal lathes are computer-operated. Both contain a motor that causes the chuck to spin, but wood lathes contain very few additional electronic parts. Much of the cutting and polishing process on a metal lathe is controlled by a programmable electronic system.
Because it contains few electronic components, a wood lathe is typically more affordable and easier to use than a metal lathe. It is also less likely to break down, as it consists of a relatively simple mechanism. Woodworkers guide the bits on a wood lathe by hand, which provides a great deal of flexibility in terms of artistry and design.
Metal lathes are designed for precision and control. They can make perfectly precise cuts and notches, even on very small items such as mechanical and electrical parts where precision is critical. Metal lathes also tend to be more heavy-duty, and are strong enough to handle the toughest materials.
Wood lathes tend to provide less strength and power than metal lathes, and are much less precise. Because they are operated by hand, they require more physical strength and skill than a metal lathe, and can take time to master.
Metal lathes contain a large number of electrical components, which means they are more likely to break down or require maintenance and repairs. The programmable operation system can take time to learn, and offers very little flexibility in terms of design.
Wood lathes come in table-top and floor-mounted varieties. Most homeowners require only a small table-top version, while larger woodshops may invest in a floor-model. Metal lathes are typically larger than wood units, though there are exceptions. Small metal lathes for home or small businesses are available, though large floor-mounted units are the most common.
Both wood and metal lathes are chosen by size based on the scale of the items they can accommodate. For example, a lathe listed as 6 inches can spin an object up to 6 inches in length. While the smallest units are designed for spinning pens, larger models can spin objects that are several feet in length or even longer.
Wood lathes can be used to cut and shape wood. While they are strong enough to shape or polish metal, they don't have the strength to cut or notch most metal objects. Wood lathes are frequently used to create table and chair legs, rails, pens or even baseball bats.
Metal lathes can cut and shape both wood and metal, though bits should be changed when switching between wood and metal. These lathes are often used to make machine parts, fasteners and metal art. They are also used to polish or buff metal rails or tubes.