Introduction: Homemade Wood Lathe

About: I love to make things and challenge my mind! I started playing with Lego's when I was 2 and it led my to peruse engineering throughout school.

I wanted a lathe because of all the stuff you can make with it and how fun they looked, I knew I could get one for about $250 (excluding tools) but that was beyond my budget. So instead I decided to make one. I stumbled upon a YouTube video by Matthias Wandel and really liked what I saw and thought I could do that. I went out and made one, but with some differences. Here are the links to Matthias' project.

Step 1: History of Lathes

When I was making the lathe I was curious how it got its start and the history behind it, so I did some research.

The art of turning got its start in ancient Egypt around 1300 BCE. Archaeologists found clear evidence showing turned pieces of stone. Egyptians had made a two person lathe; one person would spin the piece using a rope and the other person would carve out a bowl, cup, weapon or tool. Thousands of bowls were found with accuracy only achievable with a lathe. For example, the vase above shows how it's able to balance on less than .15 and not fall over, because the thickness is so uniform. This shows how much time was spent on the art of turning, and how good they became at using a lathe.

Around 1200 BCE, the ancient Romans modified the Egyptian's design by adding a bow and string to assist with turning, allowing a single person to operate the lathe. The Romans shared their knowledge of lathes with other countries, but not how to use them as well as the Egyptians did. When Egypt fell in 30 BCE, their turning skills were lost too. The Roman's lathe design was used for quite a while until the middle ages. People had started replacing the bow with a paddle and pole (like a manual sewing machine), this allowed for one person to spin the piece and work on it with both hands.

At the start of the Industrial revolution, the lathe was responsible for making the first accurate machines. The lathe was able to produce accurate parts with relative ease, because of this, people were able to create more accurate tools. This is how it got its nickname, the "Mother of Machine Tools". For example, the U.K. used lathes as massive boring machines to make cannons to fight the American revolutionaries. To power these lathes, they would use horses, eventually leading to steam engines or water wheels.

The lathe has been transformed into massive machines, like CNC (Computer Numerical Control) metal lathes. These vary in price anywhere from $400 to $28,000. The world's biggest lathe (pictured above), was made by a company called Shin Nippon Koki of Japan. The rotor is able to turn a work piece weighing 400 tons. This lathe was used to make shafts for massive propellers on cargo ships. Modern lathes are small, simple and easy to use. There are wood ones that vary in price anywhere from $200 to $4000.

I didn't want to spend $4000 on a lathe let alone $200, plus I thought making one would be cooler. So this Instructable will teach you how to make a small simple wood lathe capable of making what most woodworkers would ever need it to do.


World's biggest lathe:


Ancient lathes:

Step 2: Parts

My lathe is similar to Matthias', but I decided to add some different parts to ease assembly and make it more reliable. Here is what you'll need to make what I made:

1. Poplar wood, about 10 feet, size: ¾” x 3 ¾” x 10’. This will cost about $20.

2. 4’ of pine, 1” x 8” x 4’. This costs about $20

3. Some miscellaneous scrap wood costing about $10.

4. Various hardware: 5/8th inch rod with wing nuts, nuts, washers and tee nuts.

5. Long bolts, about 6 inches long, with matching wing nuts and washers.

6. Lots of screws, both 2" and 1 1/4". All this (4, 5, and 6) totals about $20.

7. A "V" belt about 40 inches long and 1/2" thick (get this at a car parts store - this will cost about $15)

8. Pulleys, one to fit over the motor (small) and one for the spindle (large). If you have a 3D printer you can print your parts (you can find links to my designs below). If not, a library might have a printer that allows members to use it. If you can't find a 3D printer you can make the rest of the lathe and use a wood pulley, or source metal pulleys from junk yards.

9. Bearing blocks. Again, if you can 3D print them, do so. If not, you can use wood ones like Matthias did. Could be free if you print your blocks.

10. An AC motor, with switch and plug. If you don't have one (why would you) then you can check craigslist - that's where I got mine. If there's nothing then you can look at Harbor Freight or Home Depot if they have one that will work. This could cost any from $50 to $150.

CAD Models:

Step 3: Making the Base

Now you are ready to start building. I started with the base. Cut the pine board into 2, 10” pieces, then cut 2 24” pieces of poplar. With the pine board, cut angles on it to go from straight to diagonal sides. Then screw the poplar between the pine to have two rails and two sides or legs, should look like what’s above.

Step 4: Tool Rest and Tail Stock

To make the tailstock, I cut two pieces of poplar to be about 6 ½ inches long. Then a piece 3” long. Assemble the 3 pieces so they’re like a C. For the tool rest, I cut a 10” piece and a 7” piece of poplar, then a 3” piece of a 2" X 4". I then cut a slot in the middle of the 10” piece so that the tool rest can move, using a drill and jigsaw. Attach the 2" X 4" to the end of the 10” piece making an "L". Finally, take the 7” piece and attach it to the 2" x 4" (as shown). To hold the parts from the bottom, I cut out pieces of poplar around 2 inches long and cut notches in the sides so that they glide between the rails (last picture).

Step 5: Making the Head

Now we can make the left side of the lathe, aka the lathe head. I started with making another pine board the same size as the lathe's legs. Cut out 2 more 6 ½” x 3 3/4" boards of poplar, witch will be used to extend each leg. Attach one to one lathe leg and sandwich it with some scrap wood, to act as braces (first picture). Then do the same thing to the other leg that was just cut out. Cut more pieces of scrap wood to brace between the two legs, making a little box (last picture).

Step 6: Mounting the Motor

To mount the motor, I used a book to elevate it. Then I marked where to drill the main hole (for the pulley) then for the actual screw mounts themselves. You may want one hole to be a Chanel giving you some adjustability. Drill all the holes you need and mount. Add the bottom pulley, and you’re good.

Step 7: The Bearing Blocks

Then you want to mount the bearing blocks. I set the bearing blocks on the tail stock and on the head of the lathe. Then I used a rod to make them all line up. Mark and drill where they need to go. Then cut the rod to length. You want about 1 ¾” to 2” sticking out on each side of the head. Then for the tail stock you want 3" or more sticking out, allowing you to work on projects with a wide range of sizes. Then screw on your pulley to the head, and slide it between the blocks. Now wrap the belt around the pulleys and adjust motor. I adjusted it by adding or removing pieces of paper underneath it.

CAD models:

Step 8: Finishing It and Mounting Wood

Now you can turn on your lathe and finish up any loose ends. You can play around with the spacing of the pulley and adjust the motor.

At this point you might be asking yourself how are you going to mount any wood? Well I'll tell you, we can use the tee nuts and mount that at the end of whatever piece we want to turn. Simply drill a hole to fit the majority of the tee nut and hammer it into the wood. Then you can screw it in and support it with the tail stock and start to turn your piece. When turning thinner wood I would add a hose clamp around the tee nut to support it.

Step 9: Using the Lathe

When I made this, I wanted to make something that would be relatively easy and yet show off its ability. I wanted to make a handle for some files I just got. I glued two pieces of extra poplar together then started to work it down into a nice little handle. When I was working it I left about 1 1/2" on each side then made my piece in the middle. This worked well, I sanded it then cut off the blocks on each side making what you see above.

I learned the hard way how important it is to prep wood to being close to a cylinder before mounting it. If you don't, it is extremely hard on you and the lathe.

Thank you for reading this Instructables, I really enjoyed making this and I hope you will too. If you have any feedback I'd be happy to discus.