Introduction: Building Big Blue, a Home Made Wood Lathe

About: Husband to a great wife, father to my baby girl, and child of the one true king. 9-5er during the day and woodworker the rest of the time. Follow along as I offer tips, tricks, and woodworking plans. I star…

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"Why on earth would you build a wood lathe?" This was the unspoken question I heard from many people when I told friends and family about my upcoming project.

The answer to that question is quite simple, really. While woodturning has long been a passion of mine, the tool fund has long been shy of the fat stacks to buy a "good" lathe have long eluded me. Oh, plus there was the machinist friend that said "Building a lathe would be pretty easy, yeah I'll help." Well, he lied a little. Easy it may have been, quick it was not. Oh, and yes, he did end up helping... a bit :)

Without further delay, here's my tale of building a lathe.


  • 54" Swing
  • 18" Between Centers
  • 2 hp 870 RPM 3 phase motor
  • VFD controlled
  • 1300 lbs
  • 1 1/2 x 8 spindle with #3 MT
  • Back Gears
  • #2 MT in tailstock

Step 1: Process

First off was a wish list of features and specs. I wanted something I could mainly turn bowls and hollow forms on. So a big swing and variable speed were the biggest priorities. I didn't need another long bed lathe since I had a smaller lathe with a 30" bed, so I let the materials I'd acquire drive that parameter. Other than that, I planned to include many of the modern features like a cam lock for the banjo and tailstock, and no daily use adjustment points that required a wrench.

Like some of you who are reading this post about building a lathe, I then dove into research. I poured over the internet and checked out every resource I could find to look at designs and construction methods in making a wood lathe. I even researched old pattern makers' lathes and metal lathes.

While I was in the early stages of design, I began looking for materials to suit my rough sketches and notes. I knew more or less what I was looking for, so now I just had to go find it.

During this time, I consulted with one of my uncles who I share an affinity with. We both like vintage machinery and working with our hands. Clark has over the years procured an excellent array of surplus machinery, equipment, material, components, and a lot of knowledge of how to make stuff work. Basically, being in Clark's basement shop is to me like throwing today's kids in the LEGO store. So anyways, after a visit, I walked away with a truck load of steel, the headstock off an old Logan model 400 metal lathe, the quill and quill sleeve from a mystery drill press, a 90's era VFD and a 2 hp motor! That took a huge chunk out of the cost of this project!

Now equipped with a lot of rough stock, it was time to get thinking. Being a mechanical designer, I started sketching again and then modeled everything in CAD and made prints to work from. Big Blue, as she would soon be called, was underway.

Step 2: Welding, Machining, Etc.

My one regret with this project is that I didn't take lots of process pictures, so most of this is going to be show and tell without too much of the showing part...Oh well.

First up was a lot of rough cutting stock. After that I was off to weld up the bed first. I used angle iron, square tubing, and a section of C channel to create the bed. The square tubing would eventually be filled with sand to add mass and reduce vibration. Once the bed was welded and surfaced, I suspended it off the mill with an angle plate that would make Paul Bunyan feel like a little man.

This operation was to square up the end relative to the top of the bed. A large plate is then welded to this surface and is used to anchor the bed to the main pillar that supports the headstock.

Back to welding! At this point, I welded a 1" plate to one end of "Mr. Beam" to become the surface that supports the headstock. I don't have any photos of Mr. Beam before he put on a couple hundred extra pounds, but if you imagine an H beam with a 1" thick plate and a 3/4" web that's roughly 9" square, you've just seen Mr. Beam. This thing was not fun to manipulate while machining, but has certainly made up for it's initially PITA qualities. :)

With the top plate welded on, I (and a couple friends) put Mr. Beam on the mill with a 90º head attachment to true this surface to the area where the bed of the lathe would attach. With Mr. Beam still on the mill I drilled and tapped for the locating pin and bolt holes that would marry the bed and Mr. Beam.

Now that the machining was finished, I took Mr. Beam outside to weld some steel plates on the two open sides, effectively turning it into an enclosed pillar.

At this point, I fabricated a leg for the unsupported end of the bed. By welding two pieces of C channel together along with a mounting plate, I had the makings of a leg. I then added some off cuts to form mounting points for rubber feet machine levers. The last thing was to fill up the foot with sand and then weld a plate onto the bottom so that the bed and leg can be bolted together. I successfully made a 100 lb leg!

I assembled the three pieces and stood it up next to the milling machine. Now it's time to drill and tap the top plate to accept the Logan headstock. This is the only time I've used a mill to drill something not attached to the table. It was an interesting process to say the least and quite time consuming to position the mill head in just the right place before each hole was drilled and tapped. The good news is that once the entire lathe was assembled, everything lined up dead true!

If you can't tell by now, the name of the game is mass. :)

Now onto the the finer details that probably don't require as much story time. After making the "body" of the lathe, I moved onto fabricating the banjo and tool rest. I made a cam shaft that's around 32" long out of 1 1/4" 4041 steel. That thing is beefy and it works great! The banjo is made from a piece of C channel with a plate welded onto each end and also on the "open" side that rides along the bed. On top of the banjo is an 18" rod that's 3" in diameter, which holds the tool rest with a lock similar to those found on the quill of a milling machine.

Now it was time to get started on the power plant for this machine. I bought a motor mount plate instead of fabricating one and attached it at the bottom of Mr. Beam on the back side of the lathe. Given the constraints of my materials, I opted to use a countershaft arrangement and fabricated a support for it with some 1/4" H beam and steel plate. Two pillow blocks sit atop an assembly of 80/20 in which the countershaft is supported. This construction, while not very pretty, did allow for quick fabrication and the ability to easily tension the belt that connects the countershaft and headstock pulleys.

Onto making the tailstock! Once I welded a 1" thick plate to the bottom of a 6 x 6 square tube, I milled away the 1" plate to form a tenon that locates on the lathe bed and keeps the tailstock true to the headstock along the length of the bed. I milled mounting holes for the cam lock and fabricated the necessary pieces to lock the tailstock in place along the bed. With this done, it was time to drill a locating hole in the tailstock with the headstock off the lathe. But first, I had to get the motor running...

After this, I turned the quill sleeve and milled the necessary features that would attach the sleeve to the tailstock. The quill on my lathe is advanced via a rack and pinion. At this time, I also milled out the necessary material to allow for the gear to mesh with the rack on the quill and also drilled for a quill lock.

With the quill sleeve finished, I put the tailstock on the mill and indicated on the dowel pin that was pressed into the tailstock. I opened up this hole to accept the quill sleeve with the snuggest of slip fits and drilled and tapped corresponding bolt holes to firmly attach the quill sleeve to the tailstock. After a few minutes of assembly, the tailstock is finished!
This shot was taken before the tailstock was completed. It was no small victory seeing the centers line up!

Step 3: Bringing Her Home!

It was a late night at the shop doing some last minute things before I could bring the lathe home. The most fun was loading and unloading this thing from my truck without any help, but I got it in and out without incident which is great!

It was such a good feeling seeing the lathe loaded into the truck ready to come home!

Step 4: Finally Time for Paint!

At long last it's time for paint. I thought of metallic grey, orange, yellow, bright green, but ultimately settled on blue. I used tractor paint and primer I picked up from Agri Supply. I added the hardener to the paint which made it take forever to cure, but it's tough as nails now!

Here are a few shots of Big Blue being finished up.

Step 5: Headstock & Pulleys

Showing off the back gears which are in excellent shape.

Countershaft, motor, and pulleys installed

Step 6: Enclosure for VFD & DC Braking Module

A sneak peak inside the enclosure showing how I laid out the components. Read more on the Computer Case Hack to see all the details on this mini project.

Kinda look like BFFs don't they? It was so clean!

Step 7: New Motor!

It didn't take too many big Hickory bowls for me to consider a new motor for Big Blue. After some debate, I decided to stick with a 2hp motor that was a slower speed. The original motor was a 2hp 1800 rpm. The new one is 870 rpm, which means lots more torque. Also, since this lathe is set up for BIG stuff, the need to turn pens or small stuff at 3000 rpm is kinda nonexistent. Here are just a few shots from A New Heart for Big Blue.

Old motor, meet new motor!

This behemoth only slows down for the heaviest of cuts from a 3/4" bowl gouge!

Step 8: First Turning

Just to play it safe, I started out with a small dish made of Hickory. Everything went well, so now it's time for bigger stuff!

Step 9: Big Hick & Other Fun

I figured at this point, it was time to go for broke and throw the biggest heaviest piece I had on the lathe. This was about 17" x 6" and weighed over 50 lbs easily.

Ya gotta love all the colors in Hickory. This was a gorgeous piece.

This is the perfect height for hollow turning. I can stand comfortably at the end of the lathe and have good control without bending over all afternoon.

Now if I can just get Big Blue to clean up then I'll be set!

Step 10: Adding a Vacuum Chucking System

Interested in seeing how I made a vacuum chucking system for this lathe? Check out the articles below!

Build a Vacuum Adapter

Build a Vacuum Chuck

I hope you enjoyed the post and thanks for reading. Let me know if you can have questions and I'll be happy to help.

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