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    Lathe Basics

    A lathe is a simple but wonderful tool that has been around for centuries. It basically spins a workpiece while you hold a cutting tool against it. Any work done on a lathe is called “turning.” If you want round, shaped pieces, like bowls, knobs, or chair legs, there is really no other good way to make them than on a lathe.

    Of course, not everyone makes chairs with round legs, and you can buy round knobs if you need them, so not everyone needs a lathe. They sure are fun, though, and they come in a variety of sizes for all budgets.

    There are two types of turning: faceplate and spindle. Spindle turning is just that: turning long, spindly things like table legs and chair rungs.

    Turning on a Lathe

    The work is held between centers. One center, called the drive center, has spurs on it to grip the workpiece and is held in the headstock of the lathe, the part that is attached to the motor. The other center just allows the work to spin freely, and is held in the tailstock, which slides on the bed of the lathe so you can snug it up firmly against the end of the workpiece.

    The tool rest also slides along the bed of the lathe, and is what supports your tool as you apply it to the workpiece.

    Spindles usually start as long, square sticks called “blanks,” and the first thing you do is use roughing gouge to turn that square stick into a cylinder. Then you use a pencil to mark a few key landmarks on the workpiece, and use narrower gouges and other tools to create the tapers, steps, beads and coves that you want. You use a caliper to see when you have turned a certain element or section to a given diameter.

    Faceplate turning is the other option, and involves screwing a bigger chunk of wood to a faceplate or holding it in a chuck so you can turn a bowl, platter, or something else where you don’t want the tailstock of the lathe in your way.

    Faceplate Turning

    A lot of the same tools are used for bowl turning.

    Richard Raffan Turning  

    There are a few other ways to hold work, like a drill chuck or screw chuck for small knobs and things, and a mandrel for holding pen blanks (pen-turning is a great way to get started with a small lathe), but the great thing about turning is that you can get a project done quickly, and you can sand and finish it while it spins!