Thinking about getting into wood-turning and looking for the best wood lathe to get started? It’s a rewarding hobby – one that allows for unlimited creative expression – and plenty of enjoyment too. You can make one of a kind gifts and even sell your turnings too.
But the key to getting started on the right foot and enjoying a successful introduction to wood turning is to choose the proper lathe for your needs. All turnings require a lathe and it’s the only piece of equipment that’s essential. You’ll also need proper protective gear (safety glasses or shield) and a reasonable set of wood lathe chisels or turning tools. Carbide wood lathe tools are the best, though more costly than high speed steel.
We’ve narrowed the selection to five different machines. Chances are that somewhere on this list is the best wood lathe for you.
Wen 3421 3.2 Amp 8″ x 12″ Variable speed MINI Benchtop Wood Lathe
When it’s time to consider your first wood lathe, it’s time to look at the Wen brand. For many people, Wen makes good sense because it’s compact, capable – and affordable. It is – in the eyes of some – the best wood lathe for beginners. Although it’s small and somewhat limited, it’s well-made and accurate.
It’s an ideal wood lather for turning small pieces such as salt shakers, pepper mills, small bowls pens, chess pieces, key chains and other small work pieces. These make good gifts for friends and family and are excellent projects for developing basic wood lathe skills.
Despite its low cost, the Wen 3421 woodworking lathe is solid, built with a sturdy frame made of cast-iron. And it comes with an MT1 spindle, tapered tailstock paper, 2.3 inch faceplate PLUS two interchangeable tool rests for increased functionality. It also comes with a two-year warranty.
This may be the best wood lathe for beginners. So it you’re new to turning, this would be a good fit, as long as you are aware of its limitations. More experienced turners would likely opt for a larger, more robust and versatile (and significantly more expensive) model.
The trick to getting the most from this machine is to use sharp wood lathe chisels and follow standard turning techniques. That means starting slow and removing minimal material with each revolution. Trying to remove too much material at once from your stock can stall the motor – as it can with any wood lathe. But used properly, the Wen lathe represents good value for the money – and an excellent starting point.
It’s only for smaller projects though. If you want to turn bowls, keep in mind that the largest bowl you can turn on this machine is about 6 inches in diameter.
The Wen 3421 is perfect for any beginner and offers good value for the money. Experienced turners would find that it’s a little underpowered, compared to a full-size lathe.
Important to note is that Wen delivers superior customer service. You can buy with confidence knowing that if you ever have an issue, there’s a good chance that the Wen team will give you the support you need. Unfortunately, that’s all too rare these days.
You’ll find the Wen 3421 is fast to set up and you could be turning wood within minutes of receiving your delivery at the door. For best results, mount your Wen wood lathe to a workbench and secure it in place. Make sure your stock is well seated before turning the machine on. If not, it will work its way loose and that’s never a good thing.
Jet 12 x 21Inch Variable Speed Wood Lathe
Jet’s JWL – 1221VS offers a wider range of speeds than anyone else – from 60 all the way up to 3600 RPM. It also offers forward and reverse motion in a smooth transition, so you can get superior finishes on all your wood products. Jet also boasts a ratchet style belt tensioning system which is somewhat unique.
It’s engineered to give more control to you, the operator. Variable speeds are easily adjusted and control is maintained with a simple rotating knob. It’s as easy as it gets. And the result is a better wood turning experience.
Although somewhat compact (compared to a full size model), this one is a weighty, more solid and sizable lathe than many others on the market today. It’s comforting to see a manufacturer stand behind their product with a lengthy warranty. In this case, it’s a five year warranty that Jet offers, providing a greater degree of peace of mind.
There’s also a three-step pulley system. At the lowest setting, speeds can be adjusted from 60 to 900 RPM. At the medium position, speeds range from 110 to 1800 RPM. And in the high position, speed varies from 220 to 3600 RPM. It really depends on what you want to accomplish. You can change the belt if you want to move to a different range of speeds and it’s a very simple process to do so.
It’s great to have the digital speed display (though somewhat small in size) because you’re not guessing – you know with relative accuracy how fast the lathe is turning. The vast majority of lathes lack any type of visual speed display, so it’s a bonus whenever it’s included.
The locks slide easily and firmly into position, so you don’t have to worry about a wandering tool support once you lock it down and get started turning. It can take a few seconds to get up to speed, but once you’re there, this machine runs smoothly and relatively quietly.
Whatever projects you have in mind – the Jet can probably handle. That’s because this machine is a beast. With its 1 hp motor, there is more than enough power to turn bowls up to 12 inches in diameter – even out of hardwoods like walnut and highly-figured pieces of stock.
If you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars, yet you want to be able to produce quality pieces from a variety of woods, than this is a good option for you.
What we love most about the Jet lathe is that it’s a hefty, well-built, cast-iron machine and the spur and center line up perfectly. The tool rest base and tailstock moved easily and lock into place quite well and stay put. And surprisingly, the user’s manual is particularly helpful with loads of useful information.
When it’s a heavier machine it usually takes two people to move around. But this added weight adds to the stability and its vibration-free operation. It works well and can handle larger projects with its larger diameter and length capacities then many machines in its category. The built-in speed indicator, spindle lock and reverse direction feature are all useful features to have in a wood lathe. Everything is precisely aligned and functions as it should. It’s also made in Taiwan (not China) which to some may be a signal of better quality. The bottom line is that Jet offers versatility and quality at a fair price.
Number Three: WEN 3420T 2 Amp 8″ x 12″ Variable Speed Mini Benchtop Wood Lathe
Are you looking for a beginner’s wood lathe that is capable of producing quality pieces? If that’s the case, you should consider the WEN 3420T. It’s ideal for making tool handles, fishing lures, small bowls, pepper mills and salt shakers, chess pieces, or pens.
WEN’s 3420T offers a variable speed motor that gives you a range of speeds from 750 to 3200 RPM. It ships with not one but two tool rests – a 4 1/2 inch and 7 inch version. It also comes with an MT1 spindle and tailstock, 5 inch face plate, knockout rod, headstock spur center and tailstock cup center – as well as the correct flat wrench size for making adjustments.
Both tool rests provide solid support for your wood lathe chisels and the 2-amp motor keeps things turning – when used as intended.
With a rotating dial, it’s easy to adjust speeds. For turning all kinds of smaller projects, this one is really good. But if you want to make bigger bowls or platters, for example – you might want to upgrade to a larger model of lathe – like the Delta.
As a MINI wood lathe, it’s ideal for small items. A MIDI wood lathe can make larger bowls. But if you want to do a variety of projects (including bowls and platters) of virtually any practical size – you going to need a full size lathe.
The smaller your machine, the less room you have in which to manage your cutting tools. This may be the best wood lathe for beginners (a starter lathe) because it’s small, compact and easy to use. But it’s also an excellent model capable of producing quality work.
Because it’s not the most powerful, device it’s important to get the technique right. You’ve got to make sure that your stock is firmly in position and you don’t try to shave too much at once.
Another advantage of this lathe is that it’s small enough to use in the smallest shop. You can tuck it away when finished and get out again when you want to use it. It doesn’t take up a lot of space. But when your space is extremely limited, it’s nice to be to remove it.
It is stronger than you might expect. And because it’s a compact machine with a smaller motor, it runs very quietly. It’s perfect for making tool handles, cabinet doorknobs, chess pieces and pens. The stock you work with is also a factor in turning. On a smaller device like this, you’re better to work with softer material like basswood rather than birds-eye maple. But if turning bowls and platters out of exotic hardwoods is your main objective, you might want to opt for a larger model.
One slight drawback is that the tool rest is not a standard tool rest. So you can’t simply replace it with another standard model. WEN offers a decent quality wood lathe for very reasonable price. It’s a good little machine, though you’re somewhat limited as to the size of pieces you can work with. As long as you keep your cutting tools sharp (carbide wood lathe tools hold their edge much longer) you can make some terrific pieces with this small wood lathe.
Number Four: Delta 12 1/2 Inch Variable Speed MIDI Wood Lathe
Delta has been making lathes and other woodworking equipment for decades and they’ve developed a reputation – and a following. And this 12 1/2 inch variable speed MIDI lathe is another quality piece in the Delta lineup. Not surprisingly, it scores a respectable 4.3 out of 5 possible stars from actual buyers.
With it’s12 1/2 inch swing, the Delta is among the largest capacity lathers in its class. And with a 1.5 hp motor producing up to 1725 RPMs – it’s fully capable of helping you produce a wide range of top quality turnings. Maximum power transfer at your desired speed makes it more energy efficient.
An electronic variable speed control enables you to alter speeds without changing the belt position. It also boasts a reverse function – so you can achieve superior sanding and a top quality finish on virtually any project using any type of wood.
Delta’s 46-460 wood lathe works consistently and reliably – with minimal chatter and vibration. And there’s enough torque to handle even dense species of hardwood and even highly-figured blocks. So you can create one-of-a-kind words of art that become cherished collectables.
Both a six and 10 inch tool rest is included, as well as a 3 inch faceplate. And you’re protected by a five year warranty through Delta.
It’s a quality machine that has stood the test of time. Take a closer look and you’ll discover that the live center rotates perfectly, thanks to the ball bearing base. There’s also a heavy-duty steel knockout bar and onboard storage too.
Here’s what’s in the box you receive:
1- 12.5 inch MIDI wood lathe with variable speeds
2 – tool support bases – one 16 inch and one 10 inch
1 – chrome face plate (3 inches in diameter)
1 – tool rest base
1 – knockout bar
1 – live center
1 – wrench
1 – printed manual
This lathe can easily handle a wide variety of woods including cherry, walnut, maple, and mesquite. Even highly figured woods and burls are no problem for this machine.
Unfortunately, there’s no digital read out so you don’t know the exact RPM rate. But as you gain experience with your wood turning, that won’t matter much. Most turners gain a feel for the proper speed based on the results of the cut.
The best things about the Delta lathe are its stability, 12.5 inch swing, and reverse switch capability. You can count on Delta to consistently perform to your expectations. It’s a lathe that will grow with you as you develop more experience as a wood turner.
Number Five: Grizzly Industrial H2669 Hobby Wood Lathe/Disc Sander
Here’s our top pick in the budget lathe category for the beginner. It provides the base and structure a small wood lathe, while your corded electric drill serves as the power supply that turns the stock. It’s a brilliant concept that works. But it’s not for everybody.
With your drill mounted and locked on, you have the ability to turn small items like salt shakers and pens and create finished pieces. It’s an economical idea and far superior to anything most of us could build on our own.
The fact that it also includes a disc sander is an added bonus. So essentially, you’re getting two tools in one. The only problem is that you’ll need a quality drill and one that fits the bracket in order to get it to work. If you’ve already got the drill and only want to turn small pieces – this could be your best option.
Grizzly’s aluminum alloy bed construction means that it’s lightweight and portable. It’s also easy to setup and take down when you’re not using it. The key is to have a drill that fits (44mm seems about right) the collar. It’s a quick, low cost way to learn wood turning and get started with small projects.
Some drills like the half-inch Dewalt and Rigid have worked well for other buyers. But not all drills will fit so it’s best to know your drill size before purchasing.
Obviously, you’re not going to get the kind of precision that you would for me standard lathe. But that doesn’t mean this item is junk either. When you follow the directions you can get excellent results. But those results are dependent to a large degree on the quality of your drill and the accuracy of your setup.
For the budget price, it’s a viable option. Just don’t expect the kind of tight tolerances that you would get on a Delta or Jet machine.
It’s a good tool for the hobbyist where precision isn’t required. And it can be useful for simple jobs. But it’s not going to be as stable as a standard, fixed lathe and can be a bit shaky at times. But it makes an excellent starter wood lathe for somebody who thinks they might be interested in turning small objects like fishing lures or tool handles.
If you’re looking at getting into wood turning, I’m certain that one of these options is the best wood lathe for you. But which one of the five you choose is a personal decision based on your intentions and budget. If you’re a beginner and simply want to get your feet wet, we recommend this option or this one. But if you know you’re going to be turning various woods and making numerous projects over time, our top pick is the Delta wood lathe.
Noel Davidson has been the owner of a small fabrication and welding business, a pressure pipe welder, a woodworker, furniture maker, home renovator, DIY’er, and is currently working as a home handyman.
Welding experience includes ASME section 9 qualifications for pipe welding using stick and TIG welding techniques. His fabrication business consisted of general engineering with a focus on decorative ironwork and light structural metalwork. With career change, he transferred those construction skills to home renovation and furniture making, including the use of steel and wood in furniture projects. For Noel, DIY has always been a lifestyle choice in that to build something that is unique, is quality, and is timeless – as opposed to mass-produced products that everyone has, designed eventually for landfills!