Lathe construction - desirable features to look for

There are dozens of lathes to choose from at prices ranging from less than a hundred pounds to over four thousand so where do you start? At the time of writing (March 2010) you can buy a decent full size "hobby" grade Far Eastern lathe for £270. It is unfortunately very difficult to obtain a lathe actually manufactured in UK (despite appearances, they are imported and then re-badged) but the Far Eastern engineering quality has improved immensely in the last few years so you would be OK at that price level. If you can, get a lathe with the following design features.

Features to avoid

You will be lucky to get all the good features above combined in a budget lathe (under £400) and the quality of the engineering will be - lets say - a bit third world. The motor and electrics will be a bit iffy (not unsafe but rather primitive) and the finish on the castings may be poor. However there are decent lathes with all the features necessary for a starter lathe for under £400 available imported from the Far East. You must expect some cheaper components such as the motor being the inferior "capacitor start and run" type instead of the higher performance "capacitor plus centrifugal switch" motor. Nevertheless it will do a fine job and thousands of these lathes have been sold in the UK and they are giving their owners a lot of pleasure.

Many budget lathes incorporate a mechanical lever operated variable speed mechanism which saves handling vee belts and pulleys every time you want to change speed and these work very well. However If you want the best system which is an electronic variable speed control with an inverter then you need to add around £300 to £400 as these fancy boxes of electronics are still very expensive.

If you want something better quality - nicely finished heavier castings with a ground bed, a proper capacitor start motor with plenty of starting torque and a decent standard of engineering, then there is quite a jump in price - expect to pay nearly £1000 for a machine that you may never need to upgrade. Top of the range lathes aimed at the serious enthusiast range from £2000 to £4000.

Next pages - more on lathes

Choosing your first lathe - more technical stuff