Benchtop lathes can take up as little as 12 square feet of floor space, the size of many small closets. Quite a few models can be had for under $300, and the other accessories you will need (turning tools, face guard and the like) will cost under a hundred dollars. So, for about the price of a portable planer, jointer, or mitre saw, you can enjoy the craft of turning.
Before buying a lathe it’s a good idea to become familiar with the various components of this rather uncomplicated machine. Benchtop lathes are part of the portable machinery family. They are small enough to be mounted on a work table, and can be somewhat easily moved around the shop. Like all portable machines they are plug and play, operating off a standard 15 amp circuit. Lathes are quiet in operation – you can happily use one in a basement or garage without upsetting your family or neighbours. Benchtop lathes come in a range of sizes and configurations, from the tiny ‘miniature lathe’ (under 8″ high and 24″ long), to the ‘maxi lathe’, like the General 25-100M1, which comes in at a hefty 106 pounds.
There are two kinds of turning that you can do on the lathe: spindle turning, also called ‘turning between centers’, and face plate turning, also called ‘bowl turning’. A spindle is essentially an elongated round object, such as a chair leg or pool cue. You can turn both spindles and bowls on the benchtop lathe. The lathe has two ends, a ridgid base (the bed ways), and a motor.
On the one end of the lathe is the headstock, comprised of a spindle and flywheel, along with a pulley and v-belt. The spindle is the main rotating shaft to which work-holding devices are attached, such as the spur center or face plate. You attach stock to the spindle for bowl turning. The spindle is mounted on precision bearings and passes through the headstock. A pulley is attached to the other end of the spindle, with a v-belt connected to the motor shaft to provide rotational force. The flywheel allows you to manually rotate the spindle. You will notice that a hole goes through the flywheel to the end of the spindle.
Sometimes the spur center is difficult to remove; insert a round punch bar into this hole and gently tap out the spur centre. The distance from the center of the spindle to the top of the bed determines the maximum diameter of a work piece that you can turn on a lathe. This is called the swing. If you plan to exclusively turn bowls and the like, then you’ll want the largest swing you can get.
You adjust the speed on the lathe by loosening a belt tensioning knob and moving the v-belt from one step to another on the pulley. Of course, there are benchtop lathes that come with variable speed, but you’ll pay a premium for them.
E1 – Hole for punch out bar
E2 – Pulley
E3 – V belt
On the other end of the lathe is the tailstock, comprised of a quill, quill handwheel and a spur live center. Notice that while the headstock is stationary, the tailstock slides along the bed ways. The quill lock lever locks the tailstock in position at any place along the bed, while the quill handwheel allows you to manually turn the quill. You mount long stock in between the tailstock and head stock for spindle turning. As for the spindle on the headstock, there is a hole that goes through the quill to enable you to drill into the end of work. The longest piece of work that can be held between the spur center of the headstock and the live center of the tailstock is called, logically enough, the ‘distance between centers’. On a typical benchtop lathe this distance will be from 10″ to 15″. This is fine for turning tool handles, small legs, door handles and the like, but too short for table legs, bed posts or pool cues.
Turning tools require a solid surface against which they rest while cutting into stock. The tool rest sits atop a moveable carriage, which locks in position at any place along the bed. There are a range of specialized tools rests that you can purchase.
The ridgid base of the lathe, called the ‘bed ways’, holds the headstock and tailstock together, along with the motor and the carriage. It also provides the necessary weight to stabilize the lathe.
Most lathes will come pre-packaged with a faceplate, a flat metal plate that is mounted on the spindle to hold irregularly shaped work. It’s often used when turning bowls and platters. Stock is attached to the faceplate with screws. A spur center and live center usually come with the lathe as well; these hold stock between the spindle and quill.
While we consider the lathe to be one of the easier shop machines to use, it is important that you understand how to use it, and take the necessary safety precautions.
It’s good practice to use small stock for your first turning, progressing to larger and more complicated projects. Ensure that you don’t allow loose clothing or hair to dangle in front of the lathe; they can easily get caught up. A face shield is a good investment, along with a respirator when you’re sanding. After you mount stock on the lathe, and before you switch the motor on, always turn the spindle wheel by hand to ensure that the stock revolves freely. Make sure you are standing to the side before you turn the lathe on; if anything comes off you’ll be out of the line of fire. Always start with slow speeds for large stock or awkwardly shaped stock that may be out of balance.
We like the all cast iron construction of the General, which reduces vibration to a minimum. This is much preferable to aluminum. In use, we didn’t need to bolt the lathe to the bench top. The fly and quill wheels are a nice size, and the levers easy to manipulate. Adjusting spindle speed is a snap. The ½HP induction motor is smooth and quiet, affording 6 spindle speeds from 480 RPM to 4,023 RPM. A nice touch is having the speed selection instructions on the plastic v-belt cover. The spindle thread is a standard 1″ – 8 TPI, which will enable you to use a wide range of aftermarket accessories. The on/off switch is in an optimal location, right up front. At 6 ½” wide, the General’s tool rest is a good size. It rotates smoothly, and the carriage is quick to engage and disengage. You can turn stock up to 7 ½” over the top of the tool rest carriage, and up to 10″ over the bed.
Excellent for such a small lathe. The maximum length of stock you can turn is 15″, though you can purchase an optional bed extension to expand the distance between centers to 45″. This is a great feature that enables you to expand the utility of the General as you develop your turning skills. The General represents very good value in a bench top lathe.
In an upcoming article we’ll examine lathe tools and other work-holding accessories. We’ll also take the General midi lathe through its paces.