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How to Choose a Lathe

How to Choose a Lathe

If you're looking to turn some heads with your woodworking, there's no better way to do it than with a lathe. Turning is an exciting, relatively accessible hobby, and the possibilities are nearly endless when it comes to making interesting and fulfilling projects - from bowls, to plates, to a new candlestick for Grandma. But with a vast array of options on the market, it can be hard to sift through the mud and find those golden nuggets of truth. Never fear, gentle reader - here you'll find the information you need to make an informed purchase of a machine that will make your work easier for years to come. And no matter what you need, WEN has a lathe for you


When starting your journey, here are some of the important terms you need to know to compare your options. 


Lathes are rated by their swing, which is twice the distance between the spindle's centerline and the bed. This number is the maximum workpiece diameter that can be mounted on the lathe. 

Some lathes may also advertise the swing over the banjo, which is twice the distance between the spindle's centerline and the top face of the banjo. The banjo is also known as the tool rest support base. 

Finally, the distance between centers is the last number to know - this is the maximum workpiece length that can be turned between centers (that is, between two center inserts in the headstock and the tailstock) on the lathe. 

WEN LA3424 lathe measurements

Swing (red arrow) and distance between centers (blue arrows) shown on a WEN LA3424 12" x 18" lathe.

Most lathes are rated in X" x Y" format; for example, the WEN LA3424 12" x 18" lathe shown above has a swing of 12" (6" between the spindle and bed) and a maximum distance between centers of 18".


Lathes are usually described as having a fixed number of speeds (e.g. "5-speed"), or being variable-speed. Fixed-speed lathes have a certain number of speeds at which they can operate, and they cannot operate at any speed between these set speeds. The drive belt between the motor and spindle is mounted on a series of pulleys with various radii; changing the position of the belt changes the spindle's speed. It's a bit like the geartrain on your bike. These lathes are great entry-level options - they're simple, robust, and less expensive than variable-speed lathes, but are less versatile.

Variable-speed lathes, on the other hand, use an electronic controller to vary the spindle's speed to any number within a certain range. This lets you precisely dial in the exact speed you need for any task, from roughing, to detailing, to sanding or finishing. Because of this, however, they tend to be a more expensive.

Motor amperage

Electric motors are rated by the amount of current they can handle, in amperes (amps). Generally, the higher the amperage, the more powerful the motor; for example, a 3-amp motor generally won't be able to handle hard, deep cuts in large workpieces as well as a 5-amp motor would. 

How to choose a lathe


When choosing a lathe, your first consideration should be space. Do you have only a small amount of room on your bench for a mini lathe? Or would a larger model (perhaps sitting on a lathe stand) fit? 

Uses and sizing

What do you want to make? If you're just turning pens, chess pieces, and other small items, a small lathe should be just the ticket. If you're making baseball bats, large bowls, or other larger projects, or doing any work involving a lathe chuck, opt for a larger model with a more-powerful motor.

Additional features

Decide whether you want a fixed-speed or variable-speed model. Fixed-speed models, as mentioned above, may be better for beginners, whereas variable-speed models are more suitable for intermediate or advanced turners.

Some WEN lathes are able to accept bed extensions. These are exactly what they sound like - additional bed lengths that bolt onto the end of the bed and give you more length for extra-long workpieces. If you use a lathe stand and want to use a bed extension, you'll need a lathe stand extension as well.


Some accessories are non-negotiable. To get started in turning, you'll need, along with the proper PPE, a good chisel set. From chisels and chucks, to lathe stands and bed extensions, WEN has the accessories you need to bring your projects to life. 


We hope this has been a helpful starting point in your journey to choosing a lathe. If you have any questions about which WEN lathe is right for you, or need more information, please give us a call at 1-847-429-9263 (M – F, 8 – 5 CST), or drop us a message here to talk to our friendly and knowledgeable technical support team.

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