Introduction to Buying Tools for Woodturning
By Joshua Farnsworth
Turning furniture parts on a spinning lathe is extremely satisfying and fun to see the wood take shape so quickly. But woodturning also has a steep learning curve, but for the woodturning skills and for understanding which lathes and woodturning tools are needed to get started in turning wood.
Table of Contents
- Choosing a Lathe + Lathe Accessories for Woodturning
- Parts of a Lathe + Lathe Accessories for Woodturning
- Choosing Tools for Woodturning
- Woodturning Accessories to Buy
- Woodturning Videos
- Leave a Comment or Ask a Question?
Dumbed-Down Woodturning Advice
Now let me clarify my credentials for the topic of woodturning: I am not a skilled wood turner. For me woodturning is a supplementary skill set, not a primary skill set. Some people focus totally on woodturning. I, on the other hand predominantly turn spindles & knobs for furniture and handles for hand tools. So I won’t be talking about bowl turning or other advanced woodturning niches. There are a lot of people who can speak more intelligently than me about woodturning, and if you’re one of them, I’d love to have your opinion added to this wood turning tool buyer’s guide (please comment below). But one thing I am good at is simplifying and summarizing, so if you’ve felt overwhelmed by the advice of more intelligent sources, and need things dumbed-down a bit, then you’re in the right place!
Choosing a Lathe + Lathe Accessories for Woodturning
There are a ton of options to look at when acquiring a lathe for woodturning. Newer lathes have a lot of incredible features, including variable speed control, digital displays, etc. Really old style lathes, like treadle lathes and spring pole lathes don’t offer any modern technology, but they do offer simplicity and physical exercise (way better than goat yoga). My two heavy cast iron lathes are somewhere in between. They were built prior to World War 2 and have required some work to get them just how I want them, but they do what they need to do: turn a piece of wood between to center points. And though they are low tech, they do have some cool features. But my favorite feature is how well and solid they were built.
Parts of a Lathe + Lathe Accessories for Woodturning
Above you’ll find a simplified diagram that shows the different parts of on of my wood lathes, along with a basic description of the different parts of a lathe. The numbers in the diagram correspond to the sections below. I’ve also shared my experience of piecing together the different parts of my vintage lathes, which may be helpful to you. Some lathes differ a bit (especially treadle lathes and spring pole lathes), but most will basically have the same parts:
1. Lathe Base
This is the bench or legs that support the lathe. “Bench top” lathe models don’t have a base, but rely on the lathe sitting on the top of a workbench. All other models come with a dedicated base. The first lathe I purchased (used for $250) was a Pre-World War II Tauco lathe (international version of the Delta Rockwell lathe). It was manufactured in the United States, but sold in New Zealand. So over the years, as it was transported by the original owner’s son back to the United States, the heavy base was left behind. But this was no problem for me, because I was able to custom build my lathe base, with a comfortable height (see it in the photo above). When setting up a lathe, having a comfortable height is quite important so your turning motions are natural and unstrained. I prefer to have the spindle somewhere around the height of my naval. This is not a hard fast rule, but just a height that I’ve found gives my arms a nice 90 degree angle when standing straight. If your lathe is a bit low, then you can put a couple floor pads under you to give a little extra height. If your lathe is a little low, then you can either build your own stand or add blocks under the current stand. Just make sure it doesn’t cause your lathe to be unstable.
2. Lathe Motor
The lathe motor turns the belt, which spins the spindle V-belt. Most new and vintage lathes will come with a motor, and it’ll likely work just fine. My first vintage lathe didn’t come with a motor (again, it was also left in New Zealand). And my second lathe (also vintage) came with a 3-phase motor, which I couldn’t use with my electrical setup in my workshop. So while I was putting together my first lathe, I did a lot of research on finding the best motor for a lathe like mine. Talking with mechanically-inclined friends and other woodturners, I decided that the best motor for a lathe like mine would be a 1/2 HP 1 phase 115/230V 56 frame electric motor that runs at 1725 RPM. This is the Leeson brand motor that I purchased on Ebay (model 110086.00) for around $160 (free shipping) and it has worked great, and I expect it to do so for many years.
Another important consideration is the motor pulley that fits on the motor. This required some trial and error for me, because I needed a pulley that would fit the V-belt and also that would align perfectly with the 4 slot spindle pulley on my headstock. When purchasing a pulley for your lathe’s motor, you need to measure your headstock spindle pulley, the size of your belt, and the size of the arbor on your motor (the shaft that the pulley slides onto). In my case, I purchased this pulley: Chicago Die Casting 141 5/8 V-Groove Four Step Pulley 5/8″ Bore for 4L. It allows me four different speeds.
3. V-Belt (i.e. “Vee Belt”)
The rubber or chloroprene belt which turns the headstock spindle. Most lathes come with rubber belts, similar to what you’ll find under your car’s hood. But a friend talked me into adding a Link belt. A link belt is a chain of chloroprene links that fit together for a custom sized belt. Why did I choose to use a link belt?
- Because the headstock doesn’t need be disassembled to add a new belt, which saves a ton of time.
- Over time a rubber belt can stretch and become loose, requiring a belt change or a creative system with a stack of metal washers. With a link belt, you would just remove a link if it ever became loose.
- Link belts offer a better fit, which reduces vibration.
For my lathe pulleys I used the 1/2-inch V-belt style, which you can either buy in longer lengths or by the foot. Here is the 5 foot length that I purchased on Amazon. Link belts like this can also be used on other machinery in your workshop (bandsaw, jointer, table saw, etc).
4. On/Off Paddle Switch
The swich that controls the power to the motor. This feature may not sound all that important, but a good lathe should have a power switch that is easy to see and use, especially in an emergency. Since my first vintage lathe didn’t even have a motor, it also didn’t have a power switch. I wanted a power switch that had a larger stop paddle, in case the lathe needed to be shut off quickly. I’ve had a friend who accidentally wore a shirt with loose sleeves while woodutrning, and the shirt sleeves got sucked into the lathe. Fortunately his power switch was easy to access, so he was able to stop the lathe in time, before his whole body got sucked in! This is the paddle switch box that I bought and wired to my lathe’s motor. It was easy to wire to the motor, and mount on the leg of my lathe base. However, get some help from a qualified electrician if you aren’t experienced.
5. Lathe Bed
The solid casting that supports the headstock, tailstock, banjo, and tool rest
The assembly that holds the motor-turned spindle and pulley system. The headstock is attached to the bed of the lathe. Some headstock pulleys (like mine) have an indexing mechanism (see below) that is convenient for fluting or reeding table legs or cutting sliding dovetails for a candle stand with a router (the indexing mechanism should never be engaged while the lathe is running).
7. Headstock Spindle
The metal spindle that is rotated by the belt and pulley, and into which the tapered drive center is attached.
8. Drive Center
The removable tapered steel shaft that presses its point and teeth into the wood blank, securing it to the headstock spindle. On the other end, the drive center wedges into the headstock spindle with a “Morse Taper”. Most lathes use a #2 Morse Taper.
Most older lathes, like mine, came with a “Spur Center”, which is a 4 prong drive center as seen above. The prongs are pounded into the end grain of the wood blank. While many people still use this, a more safe drive center has emerged called a “Steb Drive” or “Steb Center” (or even “Stebcentre” in the UK). Steb Centers have small teeth around the circumference of the spring loaded point in the center:
This design acts like a clutch on a hand drill when you get a catch on the lathe. Rather that the tool catching on the wood, and ripping a big chunk out of the wood (and likely causing you to run for a change of pants) the wood stops on your tool, and the Steb Center just spins. This is especially comforting for new woodturners who are nervous about the dangers of a wood catch, especially with a skew chisel.
- This is the 5/8-inch Steb Center that I use for spindle turning and other tasks like turning chisel handles, and it works great.
- Here is another good Steb Center that I’ve had recommended to me, made by Robert Sorby
- You can search other Steb Center drives here on Amazon (note: they may not all be called “Steb”…just make sure that they look similar to the above steb drive centers).
Here is a good video that demonstrates how effective steb centers are at preventing catches:
A banjo is a locking mechanism that holds the lathe tool rest, and slides back & forth and side to side, along the bed of the lathe.
10. Tool Rest
The tool rest fits into the banjo(s) and adjusts up and down to allow support of the woodturning tool while it cuts the spinning wood. My first lathe came with three different sized tool rests, so I have always had nice tool support whether I’m turning a small cabinet knob or a long spindle. Many lathes come with a medium sized tool rest, which will work, but will limit the amount of a longer spindle that you can work on without having to move the tool rest. For example, if you are roughing a wood blank for a spindle, it would be inconvenient to not be able to move the roughing gouge along the entire blank at the same time. However, long 24-inch tool rests can be quite expensive, and require two banjos to work with your lathe.
Tool rests are usually made of metal. If you find a lathe with a tool rest, make sure to use a metal file to smooth out the part of the tool rest where your tools will glide, and remove any dings or dents. Anything but a smooth tool rest will copy the dings into your wood spindle. But if you find a lathe that doesn’t have a tool rest, you have a couple options. The more difficult option is to make a tool rest out of wood, metal, or a combination of wood and metal. Just do an internet search for ideas. But the easiest option is to simply buy an aftermarket tool rest or search on Ebay for an original tool rest that was made for your lathe. Some people even purchase a nicer tool rest to use in place of the one that came with their lathe.
One of our instructors brings his own special tool rest (B.Y.O.T.R.) when he comes to teach at my school (see photo above). He uses the Robust lathe tool rests pictured above (see them here) because of the round & smooth hardened steel rod, which doesn’t dent and gives a single fulcrum point. But here are a variety of tool rests to check out (just make sure the post diameter will fit into your lathe’s banjo):
The assembly that holds the right end of a wood blank, on the opposite end from the headstock. Like the headstock, the tailstock is attached to the bed of the lathe, but it slides back and forth depending on the size of the spindle being turned. Below are some different parts of the tailstock:
12. Tailstock Lock
This lever loosens and tightens the tailstock to the bed of the lathe. When you want to move the tailstock along the bed, just loosen this lever, slide the tailstock left or right, and then tighten this lever back down.
13. Tail Center
The removable tapered steel shaft that presses its point into the wood, securing it to the tailstock, while still allowing it to spin. Vintage tail centers were fixed “dead centers” where the wood had to spin around the metal point. I found this type of tail center to be problematic. Most people now prefer a “live center” as pictured above. With a live center, the center itself spins, which I feel gives better holding power and stability.
Live centers come in a normal point-shape, like I have (above) or in cup shape (cup live centers). I haven’t used a cup live center, but have heard that it does offer a bit more support. But My normal point-shaped live tail centers work much better than the vintage dead center that I used to use.
14. Tailstock Handwheel
A wheel or handle that extends the Quill and Tail Center back and forth. I get the tail center close to the wood blank by pushing the whole Tailstock along the lathe bed, and when it’s close, I micro adjust the Tail Center and Quil outward with the Handwheel, until it snugs the wood blank against the Drive Center. Finally I lock the whole Tail Stock in place with the Tail Center Lock (see above) and lock the Quil and Handwheel in place with Quil Lock (see below).
15 & 16. Quill & Quill Lock
The “Quill” is the tapered spindle that moves in and out of the tailstock as the Tail Stock Handwheel is turned. Then the “Quill Lock” lever locks the quill in place:
The quill lock is sometimes referred to as a “Spindle Lock”.
Choosing Tools for Woodturning
In this section you’ll read about my recommendations on which tools you need to get started in spindle woodturning for furniture making. When I first bought a lathe, I got a lot of accessories with the lathe, along with two vintage sets of turning tools. But one thing that I learned over time is that I don’t use many of the accessories or turning tools that came in the set. I only use about four turning tools. I’ve also purchased some new tools. But first let’s talk briefly about tool steel:
Woodturning Tool Steel: High-Carbon Steel vs. High Speed Steel (HSS)
I like to divide wood turning tools into two main steel types: traditional high-carbon steel woodturning tools and modern High Speed Steel woodturning tools (HSS). My vintage woodturning tools are made out of traditional carbon steel and my modern woodturning tools are made out of High Speed Steel. The main benefit of HSS turning tools is that the edge lasts longer between sharpenings than carbon steel tools, which is important because a woodturning tool touches the wood much, much more than a typical wood chisel. Also HSS tools won’t loose their temper as easily as carbon steel tools when grinding.
Because of these benefits most modern woodturning tools that you’ll find on the market today are made out of HSS. But don’t worry, HSS woodturning chisels are affordable, and aren’t usually any more expensive than new quality woodworking chisels…and you only need about four woodturning chisels.
However, if you’ve inherited or purchased an affordable vintage set of carbon steel woodturning tools, don’t throw them out. Learn to sharpen and use these tools and add some HSS tools to your kit over time, if you feel the need to do so. Remember that a lot of beautiful turned furniture was made before HSS was introduced to the market. Just make sure that you keep a good edge on your tools, and regularly cool down the carbon steel turning tools with water when grinding.
Modern High Speed Steel tools are divided further into a few different types, including M2, Kryo M2, M4, and PM. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about all the different types of High Speed Steel, and just get the most common (and thus more affordable, but not inferior) M2 High Speed Steel woodturning tools. If you’re interested in a comparison of the different modern steel types, I’m going to leave it to the folks over at Craft Supplies USA, who know more than I do about tool steel, and who are based in the town where I grew up (Provo, Utah):
What are the Best Brands of Woodturning Tools?
If you’ve read my other hand tool buyer’s guides you’ll know that I often favor antique tools over new tools. However, when it comes to woodturning tools I have to recommend that you buy new tools. Why? Because, as mentioned earlier, the new tools are made with good High Speed Steel (HSS) and even the top brands are pretty affordable. Especially since you only need four tools. I won’t be discussing the carbide tipped woodturning tools much (see the paragraph at the bottom of this article). Here are some woodturning tool brands that are considered reputable by many woodturners: