Photos by manufacturer; Lead photo by Brian Hargreaves
Very often when a person catches the ‘woodturning bug’ they are concerned about the cost of buying a lathe to get started. The question arises, “I really don’t want to spend a lot of money, what if I find out later that I don’t want to pursue this hobby any further?” That is a fair question and it deserves some research, and that is what I did for this article. I talked to most of the manufacturers personally to obtain the most current information available.
Some manufacturers call their machines ‘mini-lathes’ while others call them ‘midi-lathes’. Generally the two names are synonymous. I’ll use the term ‘midi-lathe’ in this article for simplicity.
In most cases midi-lathes can be put right on a workbench or on a small stand to get you started with your new hobby.
During my research for this article I found that the industry standard for midi-lathes is moving towards electronic variable speed machines rather than a pulley and belt style midi-lathe that has two grooved step pulleys with up to six steps. One is mounted on the lathe drive spindle and the other on the motor shaft. They are placed in opposite directions on their respective shafts and the power from the motor is transferred by a grooved belt. To change speeds, the belt has to be moved up or down the respective steps. Access to the compartment on some of the lathes to move the belt is cumbersome to work with but this type of lathe is the least expensive since there are no electronics to buy. The electronic variable speed feature allows the woodturner to adjust the turning speed of the lathe by rotating a knob. The General is the only one that has a digital readout showing the operating lathe speed. The advantage of this feature is basically that it saves time and effort. When a wood block is being rough-turned into round shape, it must spin at a low speed to reduce vibration. As the piece becomes round, the speed can be raised to obtain a smoother cut surface. Later, as the sanding and finishing process starts, the lathe should be running slower to avoid creating friction heat in the wood, which can cause cracks. This feature makes this all a lot easier, and therefore a lot more fun. Most lathes with variable speed drives have two three-step pulleys that create three speed ranges. The lower range provides more torque (power) to make the initial cuts in the wood, while the two higher ranges allow more speed to make the final smoothing cuts.
This article will follow the industry trend and compare the specifications and features of electronic variable speed midi-lathes. I will refer to the pulley and belt style lathes as a lower priced alternative where applicable. Where all lathes compared include a particular feature, it will be referred to in the article rather than the chart. I do not intend to select a particular machine as the ‘best’ since the selection of a lathe is a very personal decision made by a woodturner based on the type of turning, the size of the pieces to be made and, probably most important, the cost. By using the chart printed in this article a woodturner can pick out the lathe that fits their requirements and budget a little easier.
Model: General International 25-200 M1 VS Electronic Variable Speed Range: 300 - 3600 RPM Belt & Pulley Ranges: 3 Digital Speed Display: Yes Motor: 1/4 HP, 110 V, 8 A, 2500 RPM Tool Rests Included: 6" (152 mm) Swing Over Bed: 12" (304 mm) Swing Over Tool Rest Base (Banjo): 9 1/4" (236 mm) Bed Length Between Centres: 17 15/16" (440 mm) Bed Length w/ Optional Extension: 49" Stand: Available Belt & Pulley Manual: Yes Net Weight: 146 lbs. (66.5 kg) Warranty: 2 Years - Limited MSRP: $770.00 Manufacturer's Web Site:general.ca
Model: General International 29-114 M1 VS (will be available in early 2010) Electronic Variable Speed Range: 250 - 3600 RPM Belt & Pulley Ranges: 3 Digital Speed Display: No Motor: 3/4 HP, 110 V, 5 A, 1950 RPM Tool Rests Included: 6" Swing Over Bed: 14" Swing Over Tool Rest Base (Banjo): 10 3/4" Bed Length Between Centres: 17" Bed Length w/ Optional Extension: 40" Stand: Available Belt & Pulley Manual: Yes Net Weight: 93 lbs Warranty: 2 Years - Limited MSRP: $580.00 Manufacturer's Web Site:general.ca
Model:Delta 46-460VS Electronic Variable Speed Range: 250 - 4000 RPM Belt & Pulley Ranges: 3 Digital Speed Display: No Motor: 1 HP, 120 V, 1 PH, 1725 RPM Tool Rests Included: 6", 10" Swing Over Bed: 12 1/2" (318 mm) Swing Over Tool Rest Base (Banjo): 9 9/16" (243 mm) Bed Length Between Centres: 16 1/2" (419 mm) Bed Length w/ Optional Extension: 42" Stand: Available Belt & Pulley Manual: Yes Net Weight: 97 lbs Warranty: 5 Years - Limited MSRP: $699.00 Manufacturer's Web Site:deltaportercable.com
Model: Vicmarc VL-100 SM (Made in Australia) Electronic Variable Speed Range: 10 - 3000 RPM Belt & Pulley Ranges: 3 Digital Speed Display: No Motor: 240 V, .55kW/.75 HP motor (Features Variable Frequency Vector Drive System) Tool Rests Included: 80 mm (3") & 150 mm (6") Swing Over Bed: 250 mm (9 3/4") Swing Over Tool Rest Base (Banjo): Not Specified Bed Length Between Centres: 350 mm (13 3/4") Bed Length w/ Optional Extension: 850 mm (33 1/2") Stand: Not Available Belt & Pulley Manual: Yes Net Weight: 128 lbs (58 kg) Warranty: 5 Years - Limited MSRP: $1,600.00 Manufacturer's Web Site:vicmarc.com
Model: OneWay 1224 Electronic Variable Speed Range: 0 - 4000 RPM Belt & Pulley Ranges: 2 Digital Speed Display: No Motor: 1 HP, 220 V AC Variable Speed Inverter (110 V available as no-charge extra) Tool Rests Included: 11" Stainless Steel Swing Over Bed: 12 1/2" Swing Over Tool Rest Base (Banjo): 9" Bed Length Between Centres: 24" Bed Length w/ Optional Extension: 48" Stand: Included Belt & Pulley Manual: No Net Weight: 300 lbs Warranty: 2 Years - Limited MSRP: $2,695.00 Manufacturer's Web Site:oneway.ca
Model: Rikon 70-200 EVS (Distribution is currently being set-up in Canada, see Rikon website for details) Electronic Variable Speed Range: 400 - 3850 RPM Belt & Pulley Ranges: 3 Digital Speed Display: No Motor: 1/2 HP with AC Inverter to control torque Tool Rests Included: 8" Swing Over Bed: 12" Swing Over Tool Rest Base (Banjo): 9 1/2" Bed Length Between Centres: 16" Bed Length w/ Optional Extension: 40" Stand: Available Belt & Pulley Manual: Yes Net Weight: 86 lbs Warranty: 2 Years - Limited MSRP: $699.95 Manufacturer's Web Site:rikontools.com
I will first describe some features that I feel are basic and should be considered essential when choosing a machine, especially by a new woodturner. Once a machine has met these basic requirements, there are some enhanced features that make a woodturner’s life a lot easier. These features can be selected based on the woodturner’s needs, wants, and of course their budget.
The place to start when considering a machine is the base. It should be heavy in order to absorb the vibration that can cause a lathe to dance all over the workshop. Most of the midi-lathes available have a cast iron base. OneWay’s 1224 machine has an engineered tubular steel base that is the same style as in their larger machines.
The next area to consider is the headstock; that is the end of the lathe from which the machine is powered. All the lathes compared have a No. 2 Morse Taper in the in-board (inner) end of a hollow spindle and a thread configuration of 1" dia. x 8 TPI (threads per inch). These standard features and dimensions allow a woodturner to easily attach faceplates, chucks, spur centers, etc., to mount the piece of wood for turning. All of the machines I compared came with at least one faceplate, and a spur center. None of the manufacturers include a chuck. Having a hollow headstock shaft allows the MT 2 accessories to be removed with a knockout bar, which is included as a standard accessory. All of the lathes I compared offer an indexing feature on the headstock spindle. This allows the woodturner to ‘freeze’ the spindle at specific locations to allow the woodturner to cut flutes or other lateral decorative features in a spindle or bowl. Some manufacturers suggest using this feature as a spindle lock to hold the spindle while removing a face plate or chuck. Some woodturners feel this is a bad practice since it can damage the indexing holes, making them inaccurate. The General model uses a hole in the spindle where a steel bar is inserted to hold the spindle while removing these accessories.
Motors and Bearings
Some lathes have a different type of bearing configurations in the headstock that can affect the smoothness of its operation. Some have two, some have four, some have ball bearings, and some have tapered roller bearings. As you probably have guessed, the lathes with the more sophisticated bearing configuration are the most expensive.
The motor on all of the machines except the Vicmarc run on normal house voltage (115 Volts, AC) and ranges from ½ HP to 1 HP on the machines I compared. The Vicmarc has a 240 Volt Motor, which requires that power source or a step down transformer. The OneWay has a 220V option available at no charge.
Another important area of the lathe to consider is the tailstock. That is the part of the lathe that holds the piece of wood against the accessory installed on the spindle. It needs to be sturdy and preferably made out of cast iron in order to absorb vibration. The tailstocks on all the lathes compared here are made out of cast iron. The mechanism to clamp it to the bed (ways) of the lathe has to hold firmly so the tailstock will not slip back as the handwheel is being tightened. It must also have a firm clamping mechanism to prevent the ram, or quill from loosening off. These two mechanisms are usually a cam type clamping device. The quill travel length on the machines I compared ranges from two to three inches, which I feel is acceptable. The quill travel difference only plays a part when using a drill bit holding accessory in the tailstock. A deeper hole can be drilled without moving the tailstock if the quill travels farther. The tailstock should have a hollow shaft with a No 2 Morse taper to mount the centering devices, preferably a live center. A live center has a point that centers on the piece of wood and a bearing inside to allow it to spin as the wood turns. All the lathes compared include a live center accessory. All the machines I compared, except the Vicmarc, have a self-ejecting tailstock, which allows the live center to be removed without using a knock-out bar.
The tool rest holder, or banjo, which fits between the ways of the machine, needs to be strong. A cam clamping device to hold it in place on the ways allows quick adjustments during the turning process. The tool rest(s) supplied with most midi-lathes are made of cast iron and the post diameter varies. A larger post diameter is better to avoid flexing when a turning tool is placed on the tool rest. A cam-type clamping device is also necessary on the tool post to allow quick adjustments. In my opinion, the cast iron tool rests are okay but they can snap when hit by a tool during a catch in the wood while turning. Being of relatively soft metal, they also tend to get nicks in them that cause matching marks in the wood being turned. These nicks should be removed from the tool rest with a file so they will not have to be removed from the wood later by sanding. There are some after-market steel tool rests available, which are harder and allow the tool to glide along the tool rest better. However, the better ones are more expensive.
An important point to consider when buying a midi-lathe is the size of blank that can be placed in the lathe. This is determined by the swing dimensions for faceplate or chuck work, and the distance between centers for spindle work. A bigger bowl blank can be mounted in a lathe with a larger swing, while a longer spindle blank can be mounted in a lathe with a longer distance between the centers. The General machine is the only one in the comparison that has an outboard turning feature. The headstock can be turned 360° to allow the woodturner to work from the outboard end using the supplied tool rest. In my opinion, this feature is useful if you intend to make large platters or trays.
However, given the size and weight of this lathe, vibrations could become a concern as you reach its maximum capacity.
As a woodturner’s budget gets higher, there are some enhanced features that are available to make his/her life a lot easier. Some woodturners like to have the capability to reverse the lathe's rotation. This feature is most valuable for sanding off the wood fibres that bend over during the forward sanding process. Some woodturners feel it is more ergonomic to cut the inside of vessels on the back side of the piece. This can be done when the lathe is turning backwards. You do have to be careful that the piece does not spin off the spindle since the threads are not holding the piece on. Some lathes are equipped with a set screw that fits into a groove or lip on the spindle to stop the piece from loosening off. This feature is handy but is not considered a necessity by some woodturners. Only the OneWay and Delta lathes in this comparison offer this feature.
It seems to me that more and more lathe manufacturers have recognized that many woodturners have only a small area in which to practice their newfound hobby, and that a small lathe is practical. As a result they are spending development time and money developing machines with more standard features for this market. As you can see from the information provided above, the features that are available for woodturners to have fun with their midlathes is quite extensive. As the budget increases, the features available become very enticing.
All of the manufacturers mentioned in this article have websites that contain a wealth of information to help you decide which midi-lathe is best for you. These sites include a list of their dealers. I suggest that you confirm the details as the manufacturers all say that their specifications are subject to change. Also, some of the manufacturer’s specifications were listed differently in different sections of their own specification sheets.
After you decide which lathe meets your requirements, you need to remember this is only the starting point. You will need accessories, turning tools, a grinder, wood, finishing materials, etc. I think you get the idea. The lathe is only the beginning of a very satisfying and addictive hobby.
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