How to Use a Woodworking Lathe?

In this article, we go over some basics about lathes: what they are and how to use them.

Man using a lathe for woodturning

What Is a Woodworking Lathe?

A lathe is a machine that rotates the working material about an axis. You can then work on the material in several ways like cutting, shaping, sanding, drilling by using the necessary tools.

The wood is either attached to the lathe with a spindle or a faceplate, based on the axis along which you want to shape the wood. As the material rotates about an axis, the final product is symmetrical about the axis.

While lathes are available for several materials, woodworking lathes, as the name suggests, are for working on wood. These may not be suitable for harder materials like metal, but can still be used on softer materials such as wax or resin.

Man operating a lathe

First Things First: Safety

Once you buy a lathe, educate yourself well before getting started. Get familiarized with the various parts involved in the lathe you are using and their functionalities. Also, remember to follow all the safety guidelines before you begin. Do not operate a wood lathe without any prior knowledge and appropriate safety gear.

For safety gear and other safety tips, see Is Woodturning Dangerous?

How to Start Using a Lathe

  1. To begin with, ensure that your tools are sharp, as sharper tools cut easily.
  2. Start by attaching the wood to the spindle. This should be tightly attached such that it does not dismantle while spinning.
  3. Adjust the tailstock on the base so that it holds the wood and spindle in place. Also, keep the tool rest close by so that you can reach your tools with ease.
  4. Once you have attached the wood properly, start the motor at a slower speed. Use your desired tool against the wood lightly until you can feel the wood chipping away. Keep the hand steady along the workpiece to get an even and symmetrical design throughout the surface. If you have used a wood lathe before, you can start with a higher speed to cut the wood faster.
  5. As you work, switch between tools to get the desired cuts and finishes. Start with the gouges to remove major blanks and for the detailing. To smoothen, use a flat-tipped chisel.
  6. Finally, smoothen the entire surface with sanding paper or a grinder. If your lathe allows for it, do the smoothing in both spin directions for the ultimate finish.


  • The tools should be kept at a 90-degree angle towards the wood to avoid the wood shavings from flying towards you.
  • When needed, stop the motor to measure the workpiece and see if you’re achieving the desired shape. You might need to do this several times before you’re satisfied with your work. Avoid touching the workpiece while it is still spinning as this can cause splinters and cuts.
Man using a lathe for wood turning

PS. What Can You Make Using a Wood Lathe?

Among the larger projects, chair legs, table legs, and even baseball bats can be made with a wood lathe. Smaller projects include bowls, nib holders, pen casings, cups, rings, vases, candleholders, and birdhouses.

Possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Hope this helps!

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