August 21, 2022
A visual assessment of the wood and metal lathes would reveal that these two machines are like brothers. The metal lathe, of course, is the bigger one, while the wood lathe is the smaller one. Moreover, the mechanisms of these two lathes are almost the same. Yet, upon closer look, you will notice some remarkable differences between these two lathes.
Of course, the main difference between the wood and metal lathe machines lies in their designs. The wood lathe is designed for shaping wood, while the metal lathe handles metals, though it can also take on wood and other hard materials like plastics. Besides, it is more versatile than the wood lathe.
What Is a Wood Lathe?
As mentioned above, the wood lathe gets configured to work with wood. You can use it to cut, drill, sand, turn, and form wood pieces. It is a machine that rotates a wood piece about an axis. As the wood piece rotates on an axis, you can perform various operations on the wood, such as sanding, cutting, knurling, deforming, drilling, facing, and turning. By performing these operations, you can create a valuable wood product out of raw wood.
The wood lathe is smaller and features a more simplistic design than the metal lathe. Its speed gets controlled by a simple pulley system. Besides, it doesn’t exhibit excessive power as with the metal lathe. Yet, it can manipulate wooden pieces well. Similarly, it affords the following advantages and disadvantages:
- Simple to use and easy to learn for beginners
- Allows for easy rotational control with its effective pulley system
- Designed for specific purposes
- Lightweight compared to metal lathes
- Easier to carry around than metal lathes
- Exhibits lower rotational speed
- Not applicable for use with metals and heavier materials
What Is a Metal Lathe?
The metalworking lathe or metal lathe is a large type of lathe designed to make precise machining of hard materials. It gets primarily designed for metal. Yet, with the availability of plastics and other hard materials, the use of metal lathes has dramatically expanded.
This machine tool is rigid and can remove material from a rotating workpiece. The metal lathe’s design varies depending on the desired application of the machine. However, you will see in most metal lathes the following basic features: headstock, carriage, bed, and tailstock.
The metal lathe is solidly constructed and features broad bearing surfaces for better stability. Besides, it offers excellent precision in design.
The metal lathe is extremely powerful. It can aggressively manipulate the workpiece and deform it even if it is aluminum, steel, iron, and other metals. Hence, this machine gets often utilized in metal manufacturing applications.
The metal lathe is complemented by a hardened cutting tool, secured to the rotating mounting surface. Just like in the wood lathe, the metal workpiece is stationary on the lathe as it rotates while the hardened cutting tool chips or presses against it.
The good thing about metal lathes is that you can use them with wooden pieces. The wood lathes, however, cannot support metal workpieces. Below are the pros and cons of the use of metal lathes:
- Perfect for deforming metals
- Provides powerful rotational motions
- Sturdy and solid and doesn’t require much maintenance
- Automated, allowing for the precision of cuts.
- Features a complex system and mechanism
- Not recommended for beginners
Significant Differences between Metal and Wood Lathes
Aside from knowing the general characteristics and the pros and cons of the use of the wood and metal lathes, it will also help if you’re familiar with the main differences between these two lathes:
One of the apparent differences between these two lathes is in their applications. The wood lathe is reserved for wood forming or woodturning, while the metal lathe is for metals. With a wood lathe, however, you can perform various applications like sanding, turning, drilling, and deforming.
On the other hand, metal lathes can deal with metal and other hard materials like aluminum, iron, plastic and other metal materials. Besides, you can also use it for wood. A metal lathe can carve industrial tools from heavy metals like aluminum and steel. Its rotational power is very reliable, allowing you to tinker with metals easily.
Metal lathes are far more expensive than wood lathes. The reason is that the metal lathe has additional tooling and overwrought designs, which are needed to work well with metal. Furthermore, you will still need to buy other tools for your metal lathe, which can add to the cost of using a metal lathe.
Besides, you must ground the metal keys into different shapes to have other profiles. Hence, the costs of operating a metal lathe are far more expensive than a wood lathe.
Wood lathes, of course, are costly likewise compared to other woodworking tools. But they are cheaper than metal lathes. The average price range of wood lathes is from $600 to more than $1,000. Metal lathes, however, can cause several thousand dollars.
Aside from being bulkier and heavier than the wood lathes, the metal lathe has other features that differentiate it from the wood lathes. With its size, the metal lathe will take more space in your workshop. Besides, it has complicated pieces and uses many working components. Hence, it is not advisable for use by beginners.
On the other hand, wood lathes have simple designs and use simple components to complete the woodturning tasks. They are also easy to operate. Even beginners can quickly learn how to handle them.
The metal lathe is undoubtedly the most accurate of these two lathes. It has a design that provides more precise results because it deals with metals. The metal lathe has computerized programs that you can configure based on your requirements and needs.
On the other hand, the wood lathe only requires concentration and focus. Moreover, you need to manually operate and set up the wood lathe, which doesn’t run on some computer programs. Plus, you use the hand tools manually to shape wood.
With both these machines, you can be very creative. Yet, with the wood lathe, you can have a good feel of the material you are working on and know the issues the wood is undergoing during the woodturning process. Thus, you will know if there are signs that the cutting tool will fail or is dull.
Besides, you will quickly know whether you are utilizing an incorrect cutting angle. So, with the wood lathe, you can develop an intimacy with the workpiece you’re shaping.
Since you’re holding the cutting tool when woodturning, you can quickly alter your design simply by repositioning your wrist, which means you got complete control of the working process and do not rely on some preprogrammed design.
On the other hand, when you operate the metal lathe, you run it hands-free, meaning you are not intimately connected with the material you are working on as you would be with a wood lathe. Yet, in the hands of a creative worker, the metal lathe can transform a bare metal sheet into an absolute masterpiece.
Portability and Ease of Transport
Regarding portability, the wood lathe would be easier to move around. But it still depends on the model you are buying. If you got a benchtop model, you could quickly move it from one place to another; though it may require enough muscle workout on your part, it is doable and more manageable than transporting a metal lathe.
On the other hand, the metal lathe is more of a stationary lathe machine. Besides, you will find it hard to move on your own since it is bulky and more rigid.
Convenience of Use
When it comes to use, the metal lathe is easy to use, but setting it up is challenging. The cutting tool must be stationary while it chips away a tiny part of the metal you would like to shape. On the other hand, the wood lathe doesn’t need an elaborate setup.
You can utilize the hand crank to tighten the tailstock spindle to push your stock onto the spur center, mounted on the spindle of the headstock. Make sure the wood piece is secured, and the clamps tightened. Once you’ve set up the wood, you can turn on your wood lathe and start fiddling with your wood piece.
Both machines offer what they intend to do and accomplish. The wood lathe can transform formless wood into a beautiful work of art. On the other hand, the metal lathe can fashion a metal piece into the design you would like to achieve. Yet, the metal lathe can also work out a wood piece. Thus, if you have a metal lathe, you will no longer need a separate wood lathe.
The metal lathe is a versatile one because it can do a lot of things. Hence, your material options are not limited when using the metal lathe. Lastly, being a universal tool, the metal lathe will be a better option if money is not an issue for you.
Liam is a 37-year-old woodworker and interior designer who loves to make every furniture project an art piece. He is very experienced in furniture design and woodworking project planning.