A lathe is a fundamental tool for various manufacturing needs. It comes in two options—a metal lathe or a wood lathe.
Both work in the same way by rotating the workpiece against a cutting tool to shape the material. This is called “turning.”
The primary difference is that metal lathes are meant for shaping metal, while wood lathes are meant for shaping wood, but can they be used interchangeably?
Can you use a metal lathe for woodworking? The simple answer is yes. A metal lathe has the power to shape and transform metal, so it is more than capable of being used on a softer material like wood, though this may result in a rough surface. The reverse is not true, however. A wood lathe cannot be used on most metals.
If you have a metal lathe rather than a wood lathe and need to do some woodworking, learning how to use the metal lathe for wood projects can save you a great deal of effort and expense.
To get the most from your lathe and achieve the best results, there are a few important things to know.
Using a Metal Lathe for Woodworking
Metal lathes have a lot more power than wood lathes, more than you technically need for woodworking.
Consequently, using one for woodworking is a bit different than if you were to use a wood lathe.
Metal Lathe for Woodworking – What To Know
Using a lathe that is more powerful than you need for a wood project might mean that it’s harder to use and offers less precision.
Some woodworkers who use metal lathes say that while it works, it works much better for some projects than others.
Smooth curves and a smooth surface may prove difficult when using wood on a metal lathe.
Since it is meant to cut much harder material, the metal components of the lathe will easily tear into wood and result in gouges and ridges.
Benefits of Using a Metal Lathe for Woodworking
If you have to choose between a metal or wood lathe and can’t have both, the advantage of a metal lathe is that it can be used for all your projects, not just woodworking like a wood lathe.
Metal lathes are also sturdier than wood lathes since they often have to support heavier pieces. This can be helpful to woodworking, especially if your piece is unsteady or exceptionally long.
Similarly, metal lathes have the option for slower rotating speeds than wood lathes, which can also aid in shaping an unsteady piece.
Drawbacks of Using a Metal Lathe for Woodworking
As we discussed earlier, a metal lathe probably won’t suit your needs if your wood project requires smooth curves, and it may also be unable to produce as smooth of a surface.
One of the primary disadvantages of a metal lathe for woodworking is that you will have to carefully and quickly clean the lathe after using it for wood.
The dust and shavings can corrode the metal components and absorb the oil necessary for them to run properly.
Some suggest that if you use the standard metal pieces of a metal lathe, you won’t be able to adequately feel and control the process.
In this case, you may need to replace or adjust some of the parts to better handle wood projects.
How to Use a Metal Lathe for Woodturning
Woodturning is a specific form of woodworking in which the piece is turned against a stationary cutter to shape it—and that’s exactly what a lathe is for.
The woodturning process on a metal lathe is almost identical to that of a wood lathe:
- Place your piece on the lathe.
- Trace a profile.
- Once you have a profile, increase the speed.
After that, you may need to sand the piece since the use of a metal lathe for wood might result in a rough surface.
When you’re done, make sure you thoroughly clean the lathe, preventing wood dust and shavings from gathering in the machine and causing damage.
Considerations When Using a Metal Lathe for Woodworking
Depending on the project, you may need to make some adjustments to your metal lathe components when using it for wood.
The chuck of the lathe is what holds the workpiece.
Since different levels of grip are required for different materials, you may need to change the chuck if you’re using a metal lathe for woodworking.
Wood lathes have a tool rest—an adjustable surface for holding tools and protecting your hands from the cutter—while metal lathes generally only have a tool post.
You will probably need to customize the tool post, purchase one, or fashion your own.
Some metal lathes do not offer as high of speeds as wood lathes, and depending on your project, lower speeds may not be able to produce the desired results.
Can I Use a Metal Lathe Chuck on a Wood Lathe?
Yes and no. Metal lathe chucks are often more complicated, designed to hold onto various odd shapes. For a simpler wood shape, these chucks might not provide proper grip.
However, it all depends on the project. Many people have success with their metal lathe chucks on wood pieces; others recommend replacing them.
What Materials Can You Use on a Wood Lathe?
Though a metal lathe is powerful enough for both hard and soft materials, a wood lathe is only capable of shaping soft materials like wood.
Since they aren’t meant for such hard materials, wood lathe tools will become blunt very quickly if used on metal.
There is an exception: Soft, non-ferrous metals can be used on a wood lathe. These include brass and aluminum.
Similar to using wood on a metal lathe however, you will need to take special consideration when using metal on a wood lathe.
It is recommended that you gain a thorough knowledge of each type of lathe and its natural applications before testing out materials the lathe is not designed for.
Simply put, metal lathes are better for metal, and wood lathes are better for wood. Your best option is to use them how they are intended.
But we all know that space and cost are significant factors, and you may have only one type of lathe and a project involving the opposite material.
So, can you use a metal lathe for woodworking? Fortunately, you now know that a metal lathe can handle all your projects and materials.
Conversely, a wood lathe can handle aluminum and brass as well as wood. The key is to do your research, use the proper tools and techniques, and always prioritize safety.