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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Home Made Wood Lathe or a DIY Wood Turning Machine

Awhile ago I decided to build myself a Home Made Wood Lathe. This is another one of those projects that I wasn't sure was going to work and would require quite a bit of effort up front before I could see if it was going to work. Fortunately it did.
UPDATE 8/22/10: I've added a NEW POST HERE detailing the Lathe Headstock design and the Lathe Motor Speed Controller! Click the link if you are interested in the design details. I have a video clip HERE on my YouTube channel explaining this lathe in greater detail.
Finished Homemade Wood Lathe
Everything on the lathe was acquired in the 'home made fashion' or in other words it's all stuff that I scrounged up from junk piles or had laying around the garage at the time. There are a couple of things that I did have to buy but my out of pocket expenses for this project was less than $50.00. I can turn projects up to 20" in diameter and 36" long although spinning material that big is scary even on a "real" lathe so I don't often make stuff that big.
The wood that makes up the frame is from old shipping pallets that I took apart then planed down smooth and straight. They started out a 4 X 4 but are now a bit smaller! The edges of the legs I left square but the bed rails have rounded edges to help the tool rest saddle and the tailstock saddle slide a bit better.
Detail of DIY Lathe Headstock

The drive system is made from a DC servo motor that was thrown away by my employer at the time. I used a hose clamp to hold it down to a cross member in the leg section. The cross member is slotted  vertically to allow for tensioning of the drive belt. I had my doubts about how well this was going to work but I've been running this now for almost 8 years and I have never had to tension the belt or mess with the motor. There is a Vee Belt connected to the servo motor that drives a second bigger pulley connected to the spindle in the head stock. This gives a decent gear ratio so I can keep the servo motor spinning faster than the spindle. This is important because although the motor is a DC servo there is no closed loop control system of speed control - no feedback from the encoder in the motor. Because of this it's tough to get the motor to turn slow under load at a constant speed, geared this way the motor goes fast with the spindle at a slower speed.
The slower turning speeds are handy when sanding, waxing and polishing work that has already been turned.
The spindle is actually a hollow piece of chrome-moly steel pipe that is set in two bearings that I seated into the vertical post that makes up the head stock. The inner diameter of the pipe is slightly bigger than 5/8" - I filed and sanded it to get it to that diameter (more about why later).  There is a snap ring groove that I cut with a hack saw on the work side of the pipe. The snap ring prevents the pipe from slipping all the way through the bearings. Between the pulley and the outer bearing there is a spring that sits on the outside of the pipe pushing against the pulley and the inner race of the outer bearing.

Tool Rest and Work Area of Homemade Wood Lathe
The spring is there to keep tension on the bearings holding them together in the head stock post. Essentially the spring is trying to pull the pipe through the headstock away from the work but the snap ring prevents that so the whole mess in in compression clamped to the headstock post. Maybe I'll draw a cross section of it someday if anyone asks, because my description of what is going on is confusing I'm sure! UPDATE: I did details the headstock design because of emails from people and you can read about it HERE in this post. If you would like even more details email me at or leave a comment below.
The tailstock is the same concept and you can see the tailstock spring in the picture above on the right. The difference between the two is the tailstock is a solid rod filed down to a point and there is a nut on the outside end instead of a pulley. The tailstock and the tool rest shown above are clamped to the bed rails with a bolt between the rails for positioning adjustment.

Various Home Made Mandrels for the Lathe
The main mandrel that I use in the lathe is the lower right one. It was made by taking a 5/8-11 bolt and putting it through a pipe floor flange that has a short length of pipe screwed into it. I glued the pipe into the pipe flange and drilled a hole through the pipe and the bolt and pinned it so the bolt can't turn inside the flange without unscrewing the pipe. After doing that I glued two hardwood discs together and glued and screwed them to the floor flange. There are screw holes in the wood so that I can screw pieces to be turned onto the end so essentially the wood discs are the mandrel face plate. The 5/8 inch bolt slides nicely into the inside of the  spindle pipe in the headstock that I mentioned above. I filed the spindle pipe so that a 5/8 inch bolt would go in easily. I choose 5/8-11 as the bolt size because that is the standard thread on sanding discs and grinding wheels as shown in the picture above. I also wanted this lathe to be able to work as a sanding and grinding tool.
Sanding and Grinding Table
This is a fuzzy picture of a sanding and grinding table that I don't recommend anyone trying to build. It works fine but it is dangerous and tends to sand your knuckles at about the same rate is sands the work piece. In the picture the grinding disc is mounted in the spindle and the table is in front. The table is hinged so I can adjust it to various sanding and grinding angles with the window hand crank gizmo mounted underneath.  The window crank is one that I bought at the hardware store and is used on older homes that have windows that open out. You turn the crank and the bar connected to it moves the window open. I have it mounted sideways so turning the crank adjusts the table up and down setting the angle of the table relative to the sanding or grinding disc.
Click on the link Multicenter Turning Lathe Statue Project to see details on this project!
Lathe Motor Speed Controller
The motor speed control for the lathe is built into a box that is also made of wood but has a metal front and rear cover. The rear cover is louvered and came off an old clothes dryer and the front was too. I mounted a variac transformer inside on the front cover and some capacitors in there too. The variac allows me to control the voltage and therefore the speed of the lathe by turning the big black knob in the picture above. There is a reversing switch that allows the motor to spin in the opposite direction for sanding and a handy read light to tell me when it's on. UPDATE: I wrote a post with more details including a schematic of the Motor Speed Controller above. Click HERE to check it out!
Over the past several years this has been a useful tool to have and I have made a bunch of things with it. Honestly I'm surprised at how long it has lasted and how well it has worked all this time - definitely worth the time and $50.00 it took to build it.
Various Lathe Projects

Above are some of the things that I have made with my homemade wood lathe. Another handy thing to have if you are going to do any kind of woodworking is a dust collector. I built a dust collector out of "stuff" I had laying around that you can see HERE. If you would like to know more about the lathe or anything else let me know!
Click HERE to see some more Wood Lath related things...
Have a look HERE at some of the other (but not all) of the projects that I have written about!
HERE is a post by Leo Basic on his blog about a lathe that he made. He credits my design for some of his ideas in the construction but he did an even better job! - Nice Work Leo!
If you have any questions or comments please let me know below or send me an email at



  2. Thanks for the kind words!
    - Otto

  3. Hi Otto,
    thanks for sharing this idea. I made lathe for myself using some of yours ideas. I also put a link to your blog, because you deserved credits.
    I hope that you will visit, and if you like it putt a link to my blog. Thanks again
    Leo Basic

  4. Leo Basic,

    Thanks for linking to my blog and I'm glad that you found the information that I am posting useful. I checked out your site and it looks great! Let me know when you have some pictures of some of your lathe projects!

    Thanks again,


  5. I became the owner of a homemade lathe when my father-in-law passed, made of metal, now I see how I can make the accessories I want, thanks

  6. John (Gooddayjohn),

    Thanks for checking out my blog I'm glad that you found some of the information here interesting. I'd be interested in seeing some of the things that you are working on. I'm in the process of designing a wood clock and will post details at some point in the future.
    Thanks again - Otto

  7. I sure would like to see the lathe in action?

  8. Anonymous,

    Thanks - yes I have been thinking about making a video the next time I turn some wood.


  9. I want to know if you can demostrate how work it please contact me

  10. Anonymous,

    I'll send you an email! I'm planning on making a video of the lathe running soon. Keep checking back on my blog.


  11. so beautiful !
    Uma verdadeira obra de arte que produz artes...

    from Brazil

  12. where can i get a variac transformer for cheap? Could i salvage one from an appliance or something?

    1. Anonymous,

      You might try E-Bay for a Variac. Make sure it can handle the motor current that your motor will draw. be safe and if you have any doubts have an electrician wire it up for you!

      - Otto

  13. Otto,

    My name is Nasser from Saudi Arabia
    I would like to thank you for sharing you great ideas with us

    I am trying to build my own lathe and I will be using
    some of your ideas

    My question is how critical to use the speed controller for the motor as I may not be able to find one?


    1. Nasser,

      It helps if you can change the speed, different woods and tools work better with different speeds. If you can't change the motor speed maybe you can use different pulleys and belts to change the speed?
      Another option is to get a speed controller for a fan. These are more common as controlling the speed of a fan on the ceiling is pretty common. If you use a fan motor for your lathe a fan speed controller might work.

      Email me if you have any questions and I'd be happy to help.