Wood Turning 101 - What You Need to Know to Get Started on the Lathe




About: Hi I'm Linn and on my Youtube Channel I have lots of great videos about building, construction and fun projects. You can also check out my site @ http://darbinorvar.com

Wood turning can seem like a mystery to many woodworkers. In fact only a very small percentage of woodworkers and makers are familiar with the lathe. I recently got a small lathe, and I thought it would be interesting to go over the basics. So when I had the opportunity to ask master wood turner Carl Jacobson a few questions, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to clarify a few things. So let's get started with some questions that I wondered before starting out and that I think others would find useful to know as well.

Step 1: Getting Started

What do you need to get started in wood turning?

You simply need something that will spin wood. A small beginner's lathe is a great option, you don't need a big, heavy duty lathe to get started. Another option is to make your own lathe using a drill or a drill press if you're feeling adventurous.

What's the difference between a large and a small lathe?

Mainly the capacity. If you want to turn larger pieces, then a larger lathe is needed. Smaller desktop lathes for example can only turn about 10 inches in diameter, whereas larger lathes can turn up to 24 inch bowls for example.

The bed length is another difference. Larger lathes have longer bed lengths, however many smaller lathes also come with extensions if you want to turn a baseball bat for example.

A larger lathe will also be more sturdy and can handle more substantial pieces of wood without shaking or become unstable. However, if you anchor your lathe properly, and make sure to use reasonably sized pieces of wood, then you won't have much of an issue, no matter what size lathe you've got.

Step 2: Tools & Accessories

What accessories do you need?

Most lathes come with a face plate, a spur center and a live center for the end and that's really all you need to get started other than the tools.

Do you need a chuck?

Well, it depends. There are a lot of people who turn with chucks and a lot of people who turn without one. Certain things are certainly easier to turn with a chuck, such as to hollow out boxes and turning bowls, but then there are many other things you can turn where you don't need one.

What kind of tools do you need?

So you have traditional tools and you have modern carbide cutting tools. The main difference between the two is the learning curve. Carbide cutting tools are easier to use right off the bat, whereas traditional tools take a little longer to learn how to use right.

You also need to sharpen traditional tools as you use them with a grinder, however that's not an issue with the carbide cutting ones, as you replace the tips when they become dull.

The two are also used differently. A traditional tool, like a roughing gauge for example is held at an angle, pointing up towards the wood as you're cutting, whereas the carbide tools are held straight.

Step 3: Steps to Using the Lathe

What are the steps to setting up the lathe?

Once you have unboxed your lathe, first of all put in your spur center and your live center, and make sure they meet in the middle on center, and that is critical if you do spindle turning. Another useful thing is putting down some W40 or other lubricant on the bed to make it everything slide smoother. Make sure to re-apply a lubricant every time you turn.

If you have a desktop lathe, make sure to bolt it down to secure it.

Also make sure to check your belts, so they're on the right speed for what you're trying to do.

When do you use different speeds?

Well, when first setting up a piece of wood on the lathe, start on a lower speed. When trying it out, if the lathe is wobbling, go down one speed. Then once your piece is centered, you can raise the speed.

Be aware, that if you're working with a piece of wood with defects in it you want to be even more careful and start the speed out slower, or else it can crack on you.

Step 4: What Type of Wood to Turn

Can you turn any type of wood?

Fundamentally you can turn with any type of wood, however it's a good idea to stay away from anything pressure treated. Also, certain tropical woods like cocobolo and rosewood and can cause some irritants. It doesn't bother all people, but some people have a stronger reaction to those than others.

Also, no matter what type of wood you're turning, it can cause problems if you turn a lot and inhale the dust. So it's always a good idea to wear a mask or a respirator.

Is there a difference how different woods turn?

While you can turn any wood, certain woods are a lot softer to turn and others are harder. Framing lumber for instance is rather soft, whereas hardwoods like walnut and maple are harder. Then certain woods like apple wood or cherry for example that are even harder than walnut, and turn nicer.

When do you turn wet vs dry wood?

You use dry wood when you don't want to have any more movement after it's turned. If you're making boxes for example, you might use dry wood, that way your lid doesn't shrink.

Green wood (or wet wood) is often used for bowls. Then you first rough turn when the wood is wet, let the bowl dry for about a year, and then finely turn it once the wood is dry.

Wet wood is also very different to turn than dry wood. It's softer and easier to turn, and a lot of fun!

Step 5: Why Get a Lathe?

Why would I get a lathe?

Well, wood turning opens up a lot of doors and enables you to do things that are difficult to accomplish in other ways. It really enhances some projects and it's a lot of fun. If you're making a table for example, you can turn round legs. Bowls are perfect to make on the lathe, as well as spindles, baseball bats, knobs and a lot of other things that belong in the "round family" of objects.

Step 6: Conclusion - Watch the Video!

Make sure to watch the video for a better perspective and some great info on getting started with wood turning!



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    13 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I am interested in making wood fishing lures. I just watched a video where a guy hand carved lures using a pocket knife. I've seen videos of hand carved wood lures, but a little more sophisticated techniques were used, making a better looking lure. Being cash flow challenged, I'd like to keep expenses for tools like a lathe, band saw, sanding drum, etc., down to where I could have tools, plus, money for groceries. The air brush painting techniques, look to be the most difficult phase of lure making, but I am saying this before ever beginning. Hopefully, I'll be a natural talent, turning out beautiful lures, like so many I have seen online. There are also wire twisting/bending machines for making spinner baits. I'd like to try that, too.

    Very good video and article! I have a JET mini lathe and have been making pens for a number of years. I've recently begun to experiment with bowl turning and bottle stoppers. This is such an enjoyable tool which opens many doors to new woodworking projects.


    3 years ago on Step 6

    Nice video, thanks for sharing! I have not bought my first lathe but plan on it soon. I want to make a beautiful bowl!


    3 years ago on Step 4

    Always were at a minimum a dust mask and better to use a filtered respirator type of mask. as said in the "able" some woods can be irritants and some have silica in the wood which is NOT good on the lungs. also the silica will dull your tools faster.

    2 replies

    Also I don't see a more important piece of safety equipment listed (though it is in a picture) which is a face shield. Dust, shavings, chips can easily fly into your eyes. Also you will appreciate it if you get a nasty catch or a piece breaks and a piece flies off the lathe (this IS going to happen it even happens to the pros), a tool breaks (yea that happened to me recently come to think of it a fresh pair of underwear may be handy in that case as well) etc. Also along the lines of the long sleeves comment I would suggest if you (like me) have long hair that you make sure to always tie it up. I have never had an incident with the lathe and long hair but I can tell you how to make instant dreadlocks with a dremel and that was enough to keep me in line with the hair ties since.

    100% Face shield at a min Safety Glasses. SHIELD is much better. I have had a block break loose and the face mask took the punch.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Bravo! Something for all us aspiring builders who somehow missed out on wood shop. Thanks.


    3 years ago

    Thank you for this. Something I've always wanted to dip in to


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for this informative (to me, at least) video! Carl knows his lathe stuff and this video has gotten me interested in adding a lathe to my workshop!

    Thanks for posting!


    3 years ago on Introduction

    a couple of additions. 1 NEVER Where ANY jewelry, rings, watches, bracelet.
    2. NEVER Where loose clothing, if long sleeves are worn insure they are tight and have NO chance of getting caught in the lathe.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    I recently picked up a lathe but I don't know much about it yet. For example I just learned about carbide tools and wet wood turning. Thanks for the info!


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent info!

    Turning wood on a lathe is one of the most relaxing and gratifying forms of creating. So much fun!