What is a Lathe?A metal lathe or metalworking lathe is a large and varied class of lathes designed for precisely machining relatively hard materials. They were originally designed to machine metals; however, with the advent of plastics and other materials, and with their inherent versatility, they are used in a wide range of applications, and a broad range of materials. In machining jargon, where the larger context is already understood, they are usually simply called lathes, or else referred to by more-specific subtype names (toolroom lathe, turret lathe, etc.). These rigid machine tools remove material from a rotating workpiece via the (typically linear) movements of various cutting tools, such as tool bits and drill bits.
The design of lathes can vary greatly depending on the intended application; however, basic features are common to most types. These machines consist of (at the least) a headstock, bed, carriage, and tailstock. Better machines are solidly constructed with broad bearing surfaces (slides or ways) for stability, and manufactured with great precision. This helps ensure the components manufactured on the machines can meet the required tolerances and repeatability.
Types of metal lathes: Center lathe / engine lathe / bench latheThe terms center lathe, engine lathe, and bench lathe all refer to a basic type of lathe that may be considered the archetypical class of metalworking lathe most often used by the general machinist or machining hobbyist. The name bench lathe implies a version of this class small enough to be mounted on a workbench (but still full-featured, and larger than mini-lathes or micro-lathes). The construction of a center lathe is detailed above, but depending on the year of manufacture, size, price range, or desired features, even these lathes can vary widely between models.
Engine lathe is the name applied to a traditional late-19th-century or 20th-century lathe with automatic feed to the cutting tool, as opposed to early lathes which were used with hand-held tools, or lathes with manual feed only. The usage of "engine" here is in the mechanical-device sense, not the prime-mover sense, as in the steam engines which were the standard industrial power source for many years. The works would have one large steam engine which would provide power to all the machines via a line shaft system of belts. Therefore early engine lathes were generally 'cone heads', in that the spindle usually had attached to it a multi-step pulley called a cone pulley designed to accept a flat belt. Different spindle speeds could be obtained by moving the flat belt to different steps on the cone pulley. Cone-head lathes usually had a countershaft (layshaft) on the back side of the cone which could be engaged to provide a lower set of speeds than was obtainable by direct belt drive. These gears were called back gears. Larger lathes sometimes had two-speed back gears which could be shifted to provide a still lower set of speeds.
When electric motors started to become common in the early 20th century, many cone-head lathes were converted to electric power. At the same time the state of the art in gear and bearing practice was advancing to the point that manufacturers began to make fully geared headstocks, using gearboxes analogous to automobile transmissions to obtain various spindle speeds and feed rates while transmitting the higher amounts of power needed to take full advantage of high speed steel tools.
The inexpensive availability of electronics has again changed the way speed control may be applied by allowing continuously variable motor speed from the maximum down to almost zero RPM. (This had been tried in the late 19th century but was not found satisfactory at the time. Subsequent improvements have made it viable again.)
Mini-lathe and micro-latheMini-lathes and micro-lathes are miniature versions of a general-purpose center lathe (engine lathe). They typically have swings in the range of 3" to 7" (70 mm to 170 mm) diameter (in other words, 1.5" to 3.5" (30 mm to 80 mm) radius). They are small and affordable lathes for the home workshop or MRO shop. The same advantages and disadvantages apply to these machines as explained earlier regarding 3-in-1 machines.
Naming Conventions: There are quite a few variations in the styling of the prefixes of these machine names. They are alternately styled as mini lathe, minilathe, and mini-lathe and as micro lathe, microlathe, and micro-lathe. For the most part, these all refer to the same type of machine lathe.