What is a lathe?

A lathe is a machine which grips and revolves a block of material – usually metal or wood – which is then accurately cut away to produce round,  circular, spherical, cylindrical, hollow or ornamental shapes.

Most lathes are made up of six basic components:

  • The bed, a heavy, securely fixed horizontal beam which forms the foundation of the machine.
  • The carriage, a rail mechanism fixed along the top surface of the beam to carry the sliding parts.
  • The headstock, fixed to the top of the beam at the left-hand end. This holds the gears, bearings and pulleys which turn the spindle.
  • The spindle, a horizontal axle which rotates inside the headstock. Various attachments on the spindle hold the workpiece in place.
  • The tailstock, located at the opposite end to the headstock. This is used for securing long workpieces and can slide along the carriage  by turning a handwheel.
  • The tool rest, a movable block situated between the two stocks, designed to support the cutting tools.

And of course the lathe needs to be connected to a power source – nowadays invariably an electric motor built into the machine.

There’s a wide range of sophisticated components and accessories that are built around that basic infrastructure, depending on the material to be worked and the job in hand. Modern electronic lathes, including computer-driven CNC systems, may look almost nothing like a traditional machine, though the underlying principles remain the same.

Comments on this article

Rob Miller 12 January, 2011


Morgan Rynn 29 November, 2012

We recently purchased a Butler 12" Precision Slotting machine. The instructions sent with the machine are for a different machine and therefore not very useful. We are looking for the operating instructions and a parts catalogue. We got your contact details from www.rondean.co.uk.

Thank you,

Morgan Rynn.

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