What is a lathe?

Back in High School, you may have taken an introduction to wood shop.

I’ll be willing to bet there was a lathe in that classroom, even if it was rarely used (if it was used at all).

We didn’t know what we were doing, so all my classmates and I ever made on those things were baseball bats and spindly blackjacks.

But, what else are they good for? Plenty!

The lathe is centuries old, having been used in ancient societies for things like pottery and bowl making. Progressively, these machines became more sophisticated. It was during the Industrial Revolution where they became very important. The lathe is known as the “mother of all machine tools”.

There are several applications for a lathe in our world today! Keep reading to find out what we need them for.


In woodworking, large material/stock can be attached to the “spindle” which is a rotating plate on the machine powered by an electric motor on modern lathes. The work piece can then be clamped in by the “tail stock”, which is basically a sliding end plate that squeezes the work piece between the spindle and the “tail stock quill” (pointed end piece that seats into the work piece). In between the tail stock and the spindle is a tool rest which is also moveable along the machine “bed” to allow for the ideal position to hold a carving tool steady.

Common projects that can be made on a manual wood lathe are:

  • Wooden bowls
    • These can be made starting with large or small pieces of turning stock (or even rough cut pieces of a felled tree). By securing the stock piece to the spindle and manipulating the tool rest in addition to utilizing the proper carving tools, some amazing creations can be made.
    • Roughing out the shape of the bowl, then progressively creating a finer, more polished product from shape, to sanding to even applying a finish.
  • Candle Sticks
    • By utilizing a longer and narrower piece of turning stock, you can create beautiful decorative candlesticks to fit any creative vision you have.
  • Table Legs
    • While there are many ways to create high quality and beautiful table legs, turning on a lathe is one way to make straight and uniform legs. Simply lay out your turning stock and make the same markings for high points/low points and follow your design for however many legs you make.

SO MUCH MORE! From furniture to outdoor balusters to art projects, a wood lathe can be useful and even more than a little fun!

I will also note, that CNC (computer numerically controlled) lathes are available for woodworking projects; they can do all of the projects listed above and can produce far more advanced and efficient finished products than a manual lathe operator.


So, metalworking is where the lathe really gets complex.

It may have started out with a similar concept as the wood lathe in that the work piece is what rotates, while the tooling remains stationary. [Imagine drilling a hole, but your whole board is spinning while the drill bit remains completely still… This is how a lathe works].

Over the years, these machines have become FAR MORE advanced than their creator(s) could have imagined.

Today, CNC (computer numerically controlled) lathes are utilized the most in machine shops and manufacturing facilities.

These machines require much less human interference than a manual lathe would. The only requirement is for a person to load the material into the machine, and hit “GO” or “RUN” to follow out its’ programmed task. The operator should understand computer programming, safety precautions and a variety of other important information about the machine they are operating.

What kinds of things can be made with a CNC lathe in a metal shop?

  • Bolts/screws
  • Washers/Shims
  • Firearms (Barrels)
  • Musical Instruments (Flute anybody?)
  • Automobile parts (Camshaft/Crankshaft)
  • Tool making

While many things can be made on a manual lathe for a hobbyist, it’s not practical to depend on a manual lathe only in a machining business.

Basically anything you can think of that is round, or some type of round can be made on a CNC lathe in a machine shop.

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