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- a brief guide to wood lathes is at the bottom of the page -

What makes the perfect workshop? I think we can all agree on a warm, dry space with a well-lit bench of stout construction, a strong vice, a good selection of quality hand tools and a bench drill (USA = drill press). However, beyond that what you really need - is a lathe. As the only machine tool able to produce a replica of itself, the lathe can not only turn, bore, grind, drill and generate screw threads but even, with a few simple modifications, be converted into milling machine - or even a shaper - capable of producing flat surfaces. It can be adapted to make the most precise of circular components or, with suitable cunning, set up to machine a crankcase or rebore a cylinder. With a lathe in your workshop you will not only be able to save a great deal of money but also complete jobs to a much higher standard. For example, would you like exactly 1.5 turns of threads protruding neatly from every nut on your classic motorcycle or car? Do you need to loose 2 lbs from your racer by thinning bolt heads and drilling into their stems? Turn distance pieces to locate one part against another without stress when the bolts are tightened? Build a model of a radial, rotary Bentley aero engine? With a lathe those jobs – and a hundred others - will be simplicity itself (OK, the Bentley might not be so easy …..). If your interest is watch, clock or instrument making look at this section.
Until the1980s small lathes were always difficult to find, with even worn examples commanding high prices. Today the situation is, happily, much easier, and prices - in relation to earnings - far lower.

As ever, with any mechanical device from automobile to washing machine the main considerations are: will it do the job - to buy new or used - and how much to pay? As in other fields, the market is now awash with cheaply-built machines from China – that country having largely displaced the former leaders, Korea and Taiwan, in the manufacture of these products. Machine tools from all these countries offer a lot of “metal for the money”, however, although they often look the part, a cursory examination will reveal that the smaller ones, intended for amateur use, still lack several vital elements amongst which the most important general ones are quality of materials; care in assembly and set up and, more specifically, tumble reverse; slow-speed backgear  and a wide range of spindle speeds. While, in recent years, many of these imported machines have been considerably improved, unfortunately there are still many examples that fall woefully short of an acceptable standard. Proper British and American small lathes (but not most modern "European" or Far Eastern examples) normally include all or most of these essential features. However, they are expensive to provide and, by including them, the makers reduce their competitive edge on price. However – and this cannot be overstated – these features do make an enormous difference to the usability and functionality of any lathe. The result is that a second-hand but properly-specified British, American or European machine can be worth as much as, and sometimes more, than a new Far-Eastern example. The well-known maxim: "Regrets about the low-quality last far, far longer than the celebrations over the low price" applies especially well to machine tools. An expensive, well-made lathe will far more pleasant to use, have increased versatility and eventually prove much easier to sell – while also recouping a greater percentage of its purchase price. Surprisingly, spares and accessories for the older English machines are often easier to find as well: many are still supported by their makers, there are third-party companies specialising in their manufacture and lots of bits on eBay. Incidentally, in years gone by, makers and distributors would prepare special "show-finish" machines to attract the more gullible buyer’s attention in showrooms, trade fairs, exhibitions and model-engineering shows. Fortunately, the present incumbents of the trade appear not to appreciate this little trick, or perhaps they lack the energy to do it; but just in case they wise-up, beware.
Clicking on any self-help web site run by owners who have a cheaper, imported machine inevitably throws up a set of “rebuild instructions”, together with hints and tips for overcoming their other (often extensive) problems. When these sites start with articles explaining: "How to make a set of useful accessories" (as they do with properly-made lathes) - and makes no mention of putting the original machine to rights - we will know things are improving on the quality front.
The following pointers should help you to select a suitable machine:

When you see a lathe branded as, for example, 4" x  24" what does this mean?
The "English" method of sizing a lathe is to quote the centre height - or "throw" - the distance from the centre of the chuck to the nearest point on the bed. In this case the centre height is  4" and the distance between centres (the maximum length of material the lathe can accommodate) 24". With a “bigger-and-better” attitude the Americans of course quote the largest diameter of a workpiece that can be turned clear over the bed - termed the "swing" - and so, in the example above, the American sizing would be 8" x 24". Some American makers, South Bend for example, also quoted the bed length as part of the specification; however, this is an irrelevant figure - it neither tells you the longest piece of material that can be turned, nor the length of the lathe. How big to go? Well, bigger is not necessarily better - and moving larger machines can be an expensive proposition. For most home machinists and small repair workshops something between a 3” x 15”  and 6” x 30” machine will be ideal. However, whilst the former would be light enough to lift off the bench yourself, the latter would need an engine crane and a trailer to get home.

Lathe beds:
Arguments have raged long and hard over the best profile for a lathe bed and the claimed merits of "English" flat and "American" V ways. On smaller lathes there can be no doubt that it simply does not matter which you have. Claims favouring one over the other are just that, claims. In practice you will be able to discern absolutely no difference in performance between them. Round-bed lathes of various sizes, and with single or twin bars, have always been available - with some designed down to a price (the round bed being simple and cheap to produce, often from a length of standard bar stock) but others of very high, almost toolroom quality.

Headstock bearings:
Arguments are often advanced in favour of a roller-bearing headstock over the plain-bearing type. Whilst it is true that the lighter lathes made before 1945 often had very marginal bearing capacity (the rest of the lathe was usually pretty marginal as well), machines constructed since then have, almost without exception, been provided with a headstock and spindle assembly well able to handle all the loads and speeds it is likely to encounter. The headstock on the popular 3.5” x 19” Myford Super 7 is a good example: the front bearing is a tapered bronze bush, whilst the left-hand end of the spindle is carried in a pair of ball races held in an adjustable sleeve. The tapered bush carries all the cutting loads and keeps the spindle in accurate alignment - the ball races merely support the spindle, allowing it to turn, whilst their housing provides a way of adjusting the front bearing clearance.
Some German VDF lathes were made in two forms; one was the "commercial" version, which used a roller-bearing headstock, the other was the "Super-precision" variant - and that had a plain-bearing headstock. VDF (a consortium of makers) were held in high regard for the quality of their machine tools - and if they fitted plain spindle bearings to their best machines, then you can be sure they had done the necessary research and had the utmost confidence in them to do a superior job.
There is, however, one very definite advantage in using ball or taper roller bearings in a headstock - the ease of replacing them. Whilst a well-used plain-bearing set-up may suffer wear to both the bearings and spindle (and require very expensive rectification) with ball and roller bearings it is just a case of modest expenditure and careful mechanical work to return a headstock to as-new condition.

Backgear and screwcutting: (Back Gear Screw Cutting = BGSC)
As its name implies, "backgeared" is a set of gears mounted at the back of the headstock (although in practice they are often located in other positions) that allows the chuck to rotate slowly with greatly-increased turning power – the usual reduction ratio used being around 6 : 1.  At first, the ability to run a workpiece slowly might seem unnecessary but a large-diameter casting, fastened to the faceplate and run at 200 rpm (about the slowest speed normally available on a lathe without backgear), would have a linear speed at its outer edge beyond the turning capacity of a small lathe. By engaging backgear, and so reducing the spindle speed but greatly increasing the torque, even the largest faceplate-mounted jobs – brake-drums and discs for example - can be turned successfully. As a rule a spindle-speed range that starts from 20 to 70 rpm, and extending to around 800 rpm, will prove to be satisfactory for the majority of tasks undertaken by mechanics, experimental engineers and model makers. If the range goes to 1200 rpm or so (or even 2000 r.p.m), then so much the better, but speeds beyond this are, in reality, rarely needed – except for polishing.

An operation that also requires slow speeds, typically between 25 and 70 rpm - especially if the operator is a beginner, or the job tricky. A higher bottom speed means that screwcutting (especially internally, into blind holes) will be very difficult, if not impossible. These lathes are advertised as "screwcutting", but what that really means is just a power feed along the bed. Even if you go to the trouble of making up a pulley system to reduce the spindle speeds, you will find the torque required when turning large diameters causes the belts to slip. The only solution is a gear-driven low speed: a proper small lathe, with a backgear fitted, not only becomes capable of cutting threads - but can also tackle heavy-duty drilling, big-hole boring and large-diameter facing. In other words, it is possible to use it to the very limits of its capacity and strength. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and some specially fitted lathes – the beautiful American Hardinge HLV for example - where, because of adjustable stops and quick-withdrawal mechanisms, screwcutting is possible in safely at 1000 r.p.m.
On cheaper lathes screwcutting is done with “changewheels” – so called because each change of pitch requires the gear train to be reset. However, on more expensive lathes, a screwcutting gearbox can be employed where changes of pitch or feed rate merely require one or more levers to be repositioned. A powered traverse along the bed is known as a “sliding feed” and may, on some lathes, be accompanied by a mechanism that gives powered movement of the tool across the bed – so-called “power cross-feed” or “surfacing”. Whilst a gearbox-equipped lathe might seem the obvious thing to have, it does generally (but not absolutely) limit the operator to those pitches contained within the box. However, whilst a changewheel lathe can be made to generate almost any pitch within (very) wide limits, on balance the ability to switch quickly from rapid to fine-finishing rates of feed means that a gearbox-equipped machine will always be favourite.

Slide rests and toolposts:
Most lathes likely to be encountered will have a “compound slide rest” – that is, a slide that moves across the bed and a separate “top” or “tool” slide bolted to it that can be angled round. Some older lathes combined both functions into one unit, but these types are difficult to use and, because of the way they are constructed and held (by one bolt), introduce unwanted flexibility. If you can find a lathe with a T-slotted cross slide so much the better. All Myford lathes have them, as do many Boxfords – and if the latter are without they can be bought from a third-party supplier. The T-slotted slide is largely a peculiarity of the “English” lathe and can be employed not only as a boring table but also to mount such useful things as a milling slide and a rear toolpost. As a matter of economy most lathes are supplied with either a single-tool holder or a 4-way toolpost. Both can be surprisingly versatile with the cheap, single holder often being adaptable to hold a variety of oddly shaped tools for special jobs. However, for the majority of ordinary turning work a quick-set toolholder will be an invaluable addition. These comprise a central block on which fit height-adjustable toolholders, the precise settings of which can be locked. The idea is to have a selection of holders, each with its own tool, that can be swiftly interchanged as required. The units come in a variety of types from impossibly expensive Swiss models to reasonable-priced UK and European examples and cheap but efficient imports from the Far East. Email for details of units we can supply.

Tumble reverse:
This is a simple but ingenious gear mechanism, usually built into the changewheel gear train that, when moved into mesh (usually by the raising or lowering of a lever, or rotation of a knob), has the effect of reversing the direction of travel of the carriage and hence the cutting tool as well. In its “neutral” position it also allows the headstock spindle to rotate freely and quietly without having to drive the changewheels and leadscrew. Ideal when using the lathe in the spare bedroom next to the nursery.

Gap bed:
This is a valuable feature that, combined with backgear, enables a small lathe to do work well beyond its nominal capacity. Sometimes the gap is a simple step down in the bed below the chuck; sometimes a section of bed is removable. In either case, although the machine is more expensive to produce, it does provide the user with a most useful facility. If the lathe is 4.5" or more in centre height (a 9" swing) then, for amateur use at least, the provision of a gap bed becomes less important.

Today all lathes have a “Morse” taper in headstock and tailstock. The size of this taper is important and, for other than tiny work, at least a No. 2 is required – and, as the tailstock is often used to hold a drill chuck - even better if it can be a No.3.  Most Viceroy and the smaller Colchester and Harrison lathes are so equipped and consequently very handy for heavy-duty drilling jobs. If the taper is a No. 1 Morse it will be a source of constant frustration.

Drive systems:
Early small engineering lathes of the late 19th and early 20th century were driven by either a round leather "rope" (running in what look to modern eyes like small V-belt grooves) or, more efficiently, flat belts. By 1914, the flat belt had become the industry standard (though round belts continued to be used on watchmakers' lathes) and, even though V belts became widely available during the 1930s, many makers persisted with the flat type until the end of the Second World War. Endless flat belts are renowned for smooth, vibration-free running, especially around small-diameter pulleys, yet for efficient power transmission the pulleys do need to be set some distance apart. Flat belts with a joiner - often called alligator clips - suffer from a clacking noise as they run and, at high speed, can induce vibrations marks into the turned surface. After the War an increasing demand for compact, bench-mounted machines with the motor and countershaft mounted directly behind the headstock forced manufactures to adopt V belts; their superior grip on short centres was thought, on balance, to outweigh the disadvantages of vibration round small pulleys at (infrequently-used) higher speeds.
Although V belts are now considered essential for small lathes there are still modern toolroom lathes, grinders and high-speed drilling machines that continue to use the flat type. Even some large, geared-head lathes of recent years employ them to transmit power from motor to headstock in an effort to cut vibration and get away from the annoying difficulty of having to find several V belts all exactly the same length. If you have ever tried to replace the multiple V belts on a large machine, and been exasperated by the resulting gear chatter and vibration as two or three unequal-length belts fought each other for supremacy, you will see why. When the author replaced his Colchester Student lathe with a more modern example, he was delighted to discover that the makers had given up the "unequal struggle" as well - and reverted to using a single, wide, flat belt made by Firestone.
If the older, smaller lathe you are considering has a flat belt, don’t worry; fitted with a new, correctly aligned endless flat belt, it will be every bit as good as a V-belt machine and quieter, smoother and safer into the bargain. By the way, the pulleys over which flat belts run are not (as you may have noticed) flat. They have a pronounced dome towards the middle, the function of which is to keep the belt running centrally. If you make up your own pulleys, make sure they are domed - otherwise you will be "doomed" to failure.
Only watchmakers, spinning and woodturning lathes are generally driven directly from the electric motor. Most others – to obtain a suitable speed range for metal cutting - use either electronic variable-speed drive or a traditional countershaft where a small pulley on the motor (running at around 1400 r.p.m.) drives a large pulley on a separate shaft to turn it at around 500 r.p.m. Mounted on this shaft is a replica of the pulley on the lathe spindle, but arranged so that on the middle speed the lathe runs at countershaft speed and on the other two at double and half that rate. This results in a speed range of 1000, 500 and 250 r.p.m. in direct drive and (in the 6 : 1 reduction backgear) 166, 83 and 42 r.p.m. - a range commonly found and an almost ideal solution.

Plain lathes:
There is one type of lathe that you may come across, the plain-turning or training lathe, where caution is required. We need to distinguish here between small watch, clock and instrument-maker’s lathes and bigger machines. The tiny, precision lathes designed to handle small and very accurate work by skilled professionals are, almost exclusively, plain turning; what we are discussing here are larger machines, between 3 and 6" in centre height. Several types have been manufactured and all are likely to be encountered. An American expression, "Bench Lathe" (now defunct except in its plainly descriptive form) gives a useful indication of one variety - beautifully made, precision plain-turning lathes of between 3 and 5 inches in centre height. These were offered by once-famous US makers such as Stark (the originators of the type), Ames, Hjorth, Potter, Pratt & Whitney, Rivett, Cataract, Wade, Waltham, etc., as well as by European manufacturers including Holbrook in England, Schaublin, Habegger and Mikron in Switzerland and G.Boley, Boley & Leinen and Lorch in Germany. Surprising numbers of these machines are about – even the American ones – and all lack a gap in the bed, backgear, slow speeds and screwcutting. However, they can make a useful standby machine and, of course, are ideal for the manufacture of small parts to very fine limits.  Another type, and much more likely to be found, is the “training lathe”; these were based on an established screwcutting design, but stripped of backgear and power feeds, fitted with a low-powered motor and designed to teach basic skills on a cheaper, less-easily damaged machine. In the UK the most prolific makers of this type were Boxford with their T and TUD models, Viceroy (with a variety of types) and the Raglan “Loughborough”. On a plain lathe all movements of the tools are hand-operated and although this might not seem to be a serious disadvantage for the casual user -  it is. Remember, every knob, lever and other control on a lathe saves you from having to replicate its action by hand. Although auto-electricians, who need to do simple, short, repeat jobs might find a plain lathe satisfactory, almost nobody else will. The one exception to this rule might be to employ a plain lathe as a second machine, either appreciably larger or smaller than the main one.

Combined lathes and milling/drilling machines:
There have been, in the past, many ingenious attempts to manufacture a "universal" or "combination" machine tool based around an ordinary centre lathe. Some were even special machines that broke away from the conventional concepts and attempted a truly radial solution based on what was, in essence, a slotted surface plate to which could be attached numerous (expensive) accessories. These allowed an astounding variety of operations to be carried out including turning, vertical and horizontal milling, conventional and radial drilling, shaping, precision grinding, tapping, indexing, dividing, gear cutting, sawing, engraving and horizontal and jig boring, etc. Unfortunately, despite some very ingenious and clever engineering they all, without exception, failed to capture the imagination of sufficient numbers of customers to make them viable - and were quietly abandoned. Some specialist examples, for shipboard and military use for example, did find a niche market for a while; however, the serious compromises inherent in their design - and their subsequently inferior performance - ensured they remained little known.
Today, variations on machines of this type are still produced - but offered exclusively as cheap imports for amateur use. However, one particular version - it mounts a milling head on top of a lathe headstock - is little more than a joke. On most of this type it is instructive to move the milling head as close as possible to the "table", and then see just what an impractical proposition the whole idea is. In addition, you need to consider the complete unsuitability of a lathe bed to act as the support for a milling table, as well as the enormous length of the chatter-inducing overhang between cutting tool and supporting column. Some of the better-quality European machines, notably Emco with their Emcomat and Maximat 7, 8.4, 10 and 11, had independently powered milling/drilling heads mounted on the back of the lathe bed - and were a successful solution. If you have a very limited amount of room a combined machine may be all you can accommodate - but really, if you want a milling machine, buy a separate unit. One type that has proved very popular is the Taiwanese-built "Mill-Drill"; this was imported and badged by a number of sellers (in the UK Sealey, Warco, Whitecote, Excel and Ajax, etc.) and, although comparatively crude, is a effect milling and co-ordinate drilling machine.

Feel, fit and finish:
Any used lathe, (and new ones, of course) should, when properly adjusted, have a certain "silky feel" to the controls. Treat with grave suspicion any new machine that has backlash in the feed screws, play between carriage and bed, or in the cross and top slides - and whose headstock spindle does not rotate smoothly. Even fragile plastic knobs on the end of controls levers can be frustrating; these should be substantially made and able to be wound on until dead tight - without falling apart. In addition, although a poor-quality cosmetic finish might not seem to matter, if the makers of a machine tool, which, by its very nature is supposed to be a superior product, are bold enough to put on the market an ill-finished job, imagine what they are prepared to neglect about the bits you can't see. A good tip with any lathe is to wind off the cross slide and tailstock and look at the quality of the machining. Some Far-eastern lathes have been found with slides so badly finished - and with such irregular contact patches - that it was impossible for them to move smoothly or be locked down securely.

A small lathe will be usually be fitted with an electric motor of between 0.33 and 3 h.p. running from either a 1-phase or 3-phase supply. The former can be connected to a domestic electricity supply – the latter cannot. However, a 3-phase motor need not put you off, today they can be powered from a “converter” or “inverter” Whilst the former is inexpensive, the inverter type now costs hardly any more and is far superior. It takes 1-phase current from the home supply and changes it to a 3-phase - whilst also (and very usefully) allowing the motor speed to be varied. Most inverters also have an "over-speed" function, DC injection braking and other clever electronic features. Because most inverters put out the same voltage as they take in e.g. 110v or 240v, it's usual to connect the inverter direct to the motor, so getting round problems with the rest of the machine’s electrical system that might contain coils or transformers that need to be supplied with 440, 220 or 110 volts. However, once the inverter is set up and the motor running there is no harm in trying the original "power-in" connection on the side of the lathe to see if the original switchgear can be used successfully. If you do, and it can’t, don’t be surprised. Most 3-phase motors are wired in what is called a "STAR" configuration to run at 440 volts, or 380, etc. depending on the country of use. Happily, most can be easily be switched over to a DELTA configuration for use with lower voltages of, typically, 110, 240 or 250 volts, etc. Removing the terminal plate on the motor often exposes a little chart showing you how to rearrange the links and what the various voltages are.  If the links are not obvious, or you have any at all doubts about how to proceed, any good motor-repair shop will be able to arrange the wiring for you. A good quality inverter by Siemens - and it’s worth spending a little extra for a reliable, proven unit - will cost between £145 and £300 (at 2008 prices).
A word of warning: do not be tempted to use too powerful a motor. Any dig-in, or other accident, will be made much worse with potentially serious consequences. Lathes up to 3.5-inch centre height will run happily on 0.33 to 0.5 h.p. From 3.5 to 5-inch 0.75 to 1 h.p. is usually sufficient with only industrial 6 to 7-inch lathes requiring more.

Heath and safety:
Any work with a machine tool involves an element of risk. You are soft; the machine is hard, fast and sharp and does not take prisoners
– read some essential hints and tips about safe use. It’s not exhaustive, but might help avoid trouble. Never approach a machine tool with a casual attitude. At the most basic level, before starting work wear tight-fitting clothing; remove anything loose; fasten away long hair and ensure buttons are fastened and zips closed; wear eye protection and, if the thing you are turning is giving out unknown fumes, a mask.

Checking for wear
To track down a really good lathe needs a little care and time. While virtually all the wearing parts - cross-slide screws and nuts, headstock roller bearings (but not plain bearings), broken gears, etc., can be replaced or remanufactured, one crucial element cannot be so easily fixed - a worn bed and saddle.
For example, on the popular Myford ML7 and Super 7 lathes, bed wear can be estimated by examining the bed's front vertical shear - that narrow band which runs along the front face (and, on other older, cheaper lathes, the front face of a V-edged way) . On early ML7 and Super 7 lathes the beds were milled and the machining marks very evident. As a bed wears these marks are slowly polished out - and it is but the job of a moment to examine the strip and compare the area near the chuck (where the greatest wear takes place) to that near the tailstock, where the marks may remain almost as they left the factory. Later Myford beds (and other makes) were ground, with a much finer finish, but even so the same rules apply: if the original grinding marks are visible near the chuck the chances are all will be well.
An essential practical test to confirm your observations is to position the carriage so that the toolpost is within 50 mm (2") of the chuck, grasp the front and back of the cross slide and attempt to twist the whole carriage on the bed. If it does twist - and so is very easy to move up and down the bed using the carriage handwheel, any gib strips will have been set on the loose side. Now try to move it all the way to the tailstock end and try the same test there. If the rock disappears it means that the bed is worn. What if the owner has adjusted the slides so that the bed is a good fit at the headstock end ? In that case, as you try to move it towards the tailstock, it will become stiff and, in the worst cases go no more than halfway before locking up completely.
As some lathes, especially those with V and flat bedways, often have non-adjustable "keeper plates" at the front of the saddle and no means of taking up any slack and wear is harder to detect. However, no matter what design of bed is used, there is one certain way to gauge wear - find the saddle lock, usually a bolt head on the top of either the  front or back saddle wing, and tighten this just sufficiently so that, near the chuck the carriage can be moved with just a trace of drag. Now, try to move the carriage towards the tailstock - if the bed is worn the movement will become increasingly stiff (V-bed lathes often develop a wear step near the chuck, but as this can be filed out by an unscrupulous owner, be sure to carry out the saddle lock test).

In summary:

Essential Features in a Small Lathe
Tumble Reverse
Provision to fit T slotted cross slide
2 Morse taper in tailstock
Set-over tailstock for taper turning
Gearing to handle on apron traverse

Desirable Features in a Small Lathe
Quick-set or 4-way tool holder
Gap bed (up to 3.5"/90mm centre height)
At least 0.5"/13mm hole through spindle
Dial-thread indicator for screwcutting
Spindle lock to aid removal of chucks
Automatic disengage to saddle drive
Provision to mount collets
Graduated tailstock barrel

Non-Essential but Useful Features in a Small Lathe
Screwcutting gearbox
Power cross feed
Clutch to headstock spindle drive
1" (26mm) or larger hole through spindle
Coolant equipment
Graduated handle to leadscrew end
Availability of lever-action tailstock
Electronic or mechanical variable-speed drive


Makes and Models:

For model, experimental, home-workshop, automotive or motorcycle work the choice is simple: look for one of the following easily-found “modern” models. There are many others of course, but these are the most common. The further down the list you go the stronger, better equipped and more versatile they become (and heavier and larger too, of course). If your interest is watch, clock or instrument making look at this section.
One very effective way of locating a lathe is to place a “Wanted” advertisement. This can be done on the website and has proved surprisingly effective for both UK and overseas requests.

Suggested Makes & Models:


Myford ML10, ML7 or Super 7 – spares and service backup off-the-shelf

Cromwell Precision
Emco Maximat 7 or 8.4 & 8.6  
Boxford 4.5 or 5-inch
South Bend 9-inch (USA)

Emco Compact 10, Maximat V10 or V10P
Delta Rockwell 10-inch (USA)

Atlas and Craftsman 10 and 12-inch (USA)

Boxford 280

Boxford 330
South Bend Heavy 10 (USA)

Viceroy TDS, 280 or Synchro - or any version based on these types

Raglan “Little John” or "5-inch"

Sheldon 10 to 13-inch (USA)

Harrison L5A or Harrison "11-inch" or Harrison 140 (though the L5 has a rather small spindle bore)

Kerry - either the older AG or more modern 1124 series
Delta Rockwell 11-inch (USA)

Emco Maximat 11

Willson “Slant Bed”
Churchill Cub (especially the Mk.3)

Clausing Type 4900, 5400 & 6300 (USA)

Logan lathes (most models USA)
Colchester Bantam – all models from early to late in geared-head forms

Harrison M250
Colchester Chipmaster – a strong variable-speed lathe based on the Bantam
Delta Rockwell 14-inch

Harrison M300 (a more modern machine than the L5, L5A and 140)

Colchester Master Mk. 1 or 2 (in the USA the Clausing 13-inch equivalent)

Colchester Student Mk. 1 or 2

Colchester Student or Master 1800 or 2500 

Colchester Triumph (in the USA the Clausing 15 to 17-ich equivalent)

For further details of all these machine – and others – go to: ARCHIVE


Mechanical Condition:

Hunting down a good lathe of any make is, of course, a problem, and for me to give you specific advice about condition is difficult. However, in general:
- don't shop by brand but specification to suit your needs, condition and accessories

- check the bed for damage or wear steps near the headstock - or "cut-in" lines where the saddle has worn it. Some slight damage is inevitable - but chunks torn out are not. Although chips and small marks may not affect the accuracy they do indicate careless use
- find the nut that locks the saddle to the bed. Tighten it just sufficiently to let the carriage move near the headstock. Now move the saddle towards the tailstock. If it slides all the way the bed-to-saddle fit is excellent - if it jambs after 300mm (12 inches) or so, the bed is badly worn
- trying to lift the saddle off the bed will tell you nothing. Some lathes have no keeper plated between the underside the saddle and the bed (and actually there is no need for them) and lift will not indicate wear
- lift the control levers on the apron and headstock up and down to check for shaft play - a good indication of general wear and difficult to disguise without lots of dismantling
- engage the leadscrew clasp nuts and check to see if the saddle can be pushed up and down the bed slightly. If it can, showing wear in the clasp nuts, the lathe will have been working hard
- hear the machine run on every speed
- let the lathe run on top speed for a least 15 minutes to check for an increase in noise or rumblings - easily disguised by cold or thick oil
- check the "backgears" on the headstock if visible (don't forget to rotate both spindle and backgear shaft). On lathes like the Boxford, where the gears are hidden away inside, take a small torch to inspect.
- engage the backgears and check for noise. They are never silent but should run without too much noise.
- try EVERY position of the feeds and screwcutting gearbox (if fitted) and check that each works
- extend the tailstock spindle for 60% of its travel and check for up and down and in and out play
- check the cross-feed screw for backlash. This is one of the most used part of the lathe and it will be unsurprising if some play is not evident. However, it's common for the screw and nut to be replaced several times during a lathe's lifetime so one without play does not necessarily indicate a little-used lathe.
- if you can, turn a test piece - and take a second pairs of eyes with you - it's surprising what a "detached" observer can pick up.
- like buying a car, don't be in rush, there are lots out there and a good one will come along eventually.


Wood Lathes (UK)

A very good quality, solidly-built wood lathe is not difficult to find. Prices tend to vary between £300 for a machine with basic equipment and in sound order, to over £1500 for a very smart example complete with lots of useful and expensive extras. Because there is almost nothing to go wrong with a wood lathe - only the spindle bearings and motor are likely to fail,  buying one needing attention - perhaps  change of motor from 3-phase to single phase (or running from a Phase Inverter),  or replacement of the headstock bearings - can still be viable proposition. By repairing the lathe its value will increase proportionally and it will, if well maintained, always be an easy machine to sell on at a good price. The age of the lathe is irrelevant to its value; whether 5 or 50 years old if it's in clean, sound, working order prices will vary little.

On the second-hand market you are likely to encounter the following proven machines. There are others, of course, but these are the most common. They are, in order of desirability:

Wadkin LS, RU and RUH - very heavy machines intended for professional use.  Other models of Wadkin, the 6-inch BZL etc., were all much lighter and suitable for serious amateur use.
Harrison "Graduate" - underdrive stand and very heavy iron construction. This is the pick of the bunch for the keen amateur.
Harrison "Jubilee" - the forerunner of the Graduate. Heavy metal-plate construction with iron bed ways. Always mounted on an underdrive stand.
Coronet "Major" - single-bar bed. A very well made heavy lathe that is universally popular
Coronet: modern lathes with twin-bar bed. These have been made for many years in a variety of sizes - and with a confusing number of model designations. Originally the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 were listed - and all represent exceptional value for money being made in Sheffield, reasonably priced and very strong. Today much the same sort of range is manufactured
Myford ML8 - often stand-mounted but also sold for bench fitting
Coronet "Elf" or "Minorette" (single-bar bed) 

All the above were, when new, available with the usual range of accessories. All could be had with a compound slide rests for light-duty metal and precision wood turning, and most - apart from the Jubilee, Graduate and Wadkin - with a wide range of heavier additions to turn them into "wood-machining" centres - for example: saw bench, planer thicknesser, bandsaw and mortising attachment.
These machines are often advertised on my For sale & Wanted Page at: - however, another way of finding one (and often being presented with a choice) is to place a "Wanted" advertisement on the same page:

Something along the lines of:  Wanted: good quality, heavily-built wood lathe for home use. Any make considered including Harrison Jubilee and Graduate, Coronet Major, Coronet No.1, No. or No. 3, Myford ML8, etc.
For the coverage, the costs are modest: £30 per advert for up to 150 words and - the great advantage - a display duration of 6 months and the facility to have the words changed later, any number of times, at no further cost - for example, if you find what you are looking for you can change the advertisement to ask for accessories, or even something completely different.

Handbooks and Manuals:
You’ve bought your lathe and don’t know how to use it? Arm yourself with a copy of “The Amateur’s Lathe” and “Lathework a Complete Course”, several lengths of aluminium bar and do some practice. Also, when all else fails – read the machine’s Instruction Manual. You can find an alfabetical list here alphabetical list here and an online ordering system here. Even the sales literature can be informative, and a Parts Manual can be a great help in dismantling and assembling unfamiliar mechanisms. If you don’t have one for your machine, may be able to help.


For data about the construction and use look at:

Safety is an important consideration (machine tools do not take prisoners): read:


Further reading also includes magazines such as the UK-published “Model Engineer” and “Model Engineers’ Workshop” – the latter being an excellent source of common-sense articles that detail a host of useful and widely applicable engineering process.

Machine tools do not take prisoners – read some essential hints and tips about safe use. It’s not exhaustive, but might help avoid trouble.

For some interesting and amusing advice on checking over a used lathe try:

If you are a beginner (or even experienced), you will enjoy the following publications - all are full of essential information presented in an easy-to-understand form:

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BACK in PRINT - delivery from stock.
The essential  lathe book that gives a complete breakdown of all the facts about its parts and function a beginner to the machine needs to know. Carefully written articles guide the prospective owner through the process of choosing a suitable lathe and how to use it successfully with further instruction leading to more advanced exercises and projects.

£12.75 UK + air-mail post overseas
Order online here


An ideal companion to "The Amateur's Lathe" this very useful book covers both basic and advanced use of the lathe and other machine tools - millers, shapers and drills - as well as extending its scope to include a multitude of other workshop tasks and processes. This is wonderful information - and especially valuable if you have not tackled a particular job before. Presented in an easy-to-follow style, with clear illustrations. £12.75 UK + air-mail post overseas
Order online here


A DVD set of the world's largest collection of lathe (and other machine-tool) illustrations, descriptions and specifications. Never before drawn together in one place, this reference publication has proved to be of immense value and interest to machine tool-enthusiasts, home machinists and professional engineers. Over 450+ different brands, 9000+ pictures and 2000+ pages.
All the Files are in HTML so the discs work in both PCs and Macs. £30 + Air-mail post overseas
Order online here

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