What Is a Turning Lathe?

Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

A turning lathe is a machine which cuts a block of material into a symmetrical object. It is used in such applications as metal working, glass working, and wood turning, as well as to make parts as simple as table legs or as complex as engine parts and propeller shafts. The lathe can cut material on external and internal surfaces. This results in parts that are contoured and symmetrical about a single axis.

The driving mechanisms of a turning lathe are in its headstock. This holds the motor and gear train, which allow the headstock-mounted spindle to turn. On the opposite end of the machine is the tailstock, where the material to be processed is held. The working material can be held at both ends when using a turning lathe, which is known as between centers, or be held at just one end by collets or chucks.

Turning lathe parts vary based on the type of lathe that is used. An engine lathe has a moving carriage, on top of which there is a rotating cross slide. The spindle serves as the mounting area for tools, but with a wood turning lathe, the piece of wood being processed turns instead of the tools. Lathes used for metalworking have tools hard enough to shape metal, and one for glass working rotates the work piece while other equipment carefully controls the temperature.

Three main specifications for the lathe’s performance should be taken into account when buying a turning lathe. The cutting speed is how fast the work moves past the cutting element, while the feed rate refers to the speed of the tool in respect to the work piece. How much material is removed while the piece turns is called the depth of cut. The type of cutting tools used, their angle, and the overall condition of the lathe are also important aspects of the tool.

A major specification of the turning lathe is whether it is horizontal, which is most common, or vertical. Lathes that are arranged vertically are able to cut large work pieces up to six feet in diameter. It is important to understand what the turning lathe will be used for in order to determine the appropriate configuration. High-production operations require machines that are able to keep up with the demand, and which could be accompanied by gantry systems for large pieces or turrets to move tools into position.

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