If you look at a large industrial lathe, especially one for metalworking, you might imagine that it performs a terribly complex function that requires an engineering degree to understand. And while some engineering fields do rely on lathes, the basic function of a lathe is actually pretty simple. At its core, a lathe is a machine that rotates something really fast. That “something” varies by the kind of work you want to do — whether that’s creating wooden kitchenware and table legs or working with metal. For this list, we’ve rounded up the best woodworking lathes.
A woodworking lathe turns a piece of wood, allowing the operator to place a tool against the spinning wood and cut off excess material. The user can then shape a block of wood into a smooth and even piece. The rotating mechanism is great for making any kind of cylindrical shape, and many cylindrical things you buy in the store are made by lathes. Whether it’s a candlestick, a screw, a pool cue, or a baseball bat, lathes make all sorts of cylindrical objects. But they’re not just limited to cylinders. With a bit of skill and some creativity, woodturning on a lathe can be used to make bowls, vases, chairs, and even miniature works of art. Modern lathes depend on electricity and motors, but lathes have been in use since the days of Ancient Egypt.
A lathe consists of many components, but there are a few basic parts that are worth knowing. The bed is where all the other parts are attached. It doesn’t perform any mechanical functions itself, but it’s sort of the backbone of the machine. The tool post is where the tool you’re using is held. The chuck holds the workpiece (aka, the thing you’re trying to shape), and the spindle holds the chuck. The headstock holds the spindle and chuck, and the tailstock is typically used to keep the other side of the workpiece in place.
These options below are all benchtop varieties, so you can use them in your garage or work space without taking up too much room. Whether you want to make a beautiful work of art or a functional table, these are the best lathes to get.
1. Delta Industrial Variable-Speed Midi Lathe
This tabletop lathe from Delta is designed for a variety of woodworking applications. It has a powerful 1,725 RPM motor and a 12.25-inch swing capacity. The swing capacity refers to the maximum size of the workpiece that the lathe can accommodate, and 12.5 inches is the largest in this class of lathes. The motor runs forward and in reverse, allowing the user to get the smoothest and most even result possible. The cast iron construction makes it durable, too.
Pros: Durable cast iron construction, large swing capacity to accommodate bigger pieces of wood. Electronic variable speed for more precise control. Reversible motor direction.
Cons: Replacement parts can be hard to find.
2. JET Variable Speed Wood Lathe
This powerful woodworking lathe from JET has an impressive range of speeds. It can turn between a slow 60 RPM and an ultra-fast 3,600 RPM. It also smoothly transitions between forward and reverse for more precise control and smoother results. It has a digital display that indicates the RPMs, which adds to the level of precision and control that this machine offers. It also has an indexing head on the spindle.
Pros: Very broad RPM range, between 60 and 3,600. Easily adjustable speeds. Digital display for RPMs. Ratchet-style belt-tensioning system.
Cons: Can have issues with shipping damage.
3. SHOP FOX Benchtop Lathe
For a more compact (and affordable) lathe, consider this option from SHOP FOX. At just under 50 pounds, it’s small enough for workstations of any size. Despite its small size, it still delivers on speed and control. It offers between 700 and 3,200 RPMs and an 8-inch swing diameter. Its compact size makes it ideal for smaller projects such as making wooden pens or other small wooden objects. A faceplate is included for working on projects where the tailstock can’t be used, such as making bowls.
Pros: Compact and affordable option for small workstations, ideal for smaller applications like pens, rings, and small bowls. Cast-iron construction and widely variable speed control between 700 and 3,200 RPMs.
Cons: No reverse function.
4. WEN Benchtop Mini Wood Lathe
Another good option for small workspaces is this compact wood lathe from WEN, which weighs only 43 pounds. It has variable speed control, allowing you to go between 750 RPMs and up to 3,200. The included 5-inch faceplate allows you to work on projects that are not attached to the tailstock. Also included are two different sizes of tool rests. There’s a 4.5-inch option and a 7-inch option. Plus, a flat wrench, a headstock spur center, a tailstock cup center, and a knockout rod are included as well. The 2-Amp motor starts slowly, allowing for more safe operation and reducing damage to the motor.
Pros: Affordable small lathe with variable speed control. Additional accessories are included, making it great for beginners. Decent RPM range: 750 – 3,200.
Cons: No mounting holes to mount it to a workbench.
5. Nova Comet II – Midi Lathe
This medium sized lathe from Nova has a fairly large RPM range — between 250 and 4,000. While there are options on this list with a lower minimum RPM, this pick has the fastest top speed of lathes featured here. Like some of the larger and more expensive options on this list, Nova’s lathe has a forward and reverse feature, giving the user more precise control and allowing for a smoother finished product. 12-inch swing-over-bed diameter is generous enough for larger projects. Additional accessories include a faceplate, tool rest, spur drive center, live tailstock center, and a knockout bar.
Pros: Most powerful option in terms of highest RPM — maximum is 4,000, which is several hundred more rotations per minute than the closest competition. Helpful accessories included.
Cons: Can take a while to ship.
6. Mophorn Wood Lathe Bench Top
This woodworking lathe from Mophorn is powerful enough to tackle a variety of projects, but compact enough for a tabletop workstation. It’s made out of durable cast iron. The motor is 550W, and it starts slowly to preserve the motor and to ensure safety. You can change the speed, and the RPM range is 500-3,800 RPM. There’s also an easy-to-read digital display that indicates the current speed. The rubber feet on the bottom of the unit add stability to whatever surface it’s placed on.
Pros: Affordable lathe with a wide RPM range of 500-3,800. Digital display indicates the current RPM. Made from durable cast iron.
Cons: No reverse.
7. Excelsior Mini Lathe
This mini lathe from Excelsior is made from cast iron, giving it durability and resistance to vibration. It has five speed presets, ranging from 760 to 3,200. Despite its compact size, it’s capable of working with some larger objects, including wide 10-inch bowls and long pieces of wood, around 17 inches. The headstock comes with a spur center with a knockout bar, and the tailstock has a ball-bearing live center. It also has rubber feet, making it easy to set it down without it wobbling or damaging the surface it’s on.
Pros: Variable range of 760 to 3,200 RPM, compact enough for tabletops but can still accommodate larger pieces of wood.
Cons: While some lathes are infinitely variable within their RPM range, this option only has five presets.