Lathe Tips

Turning a 16" Honey Mesquite bowl
on my Oneway 2436-3 lathe

A few more (or less) RPM’s on the speed dial can make a big
difference in the cut quality, as well as reduce or eliminate vibration.

Many years ago, I purchased a Woodfast 910V 1.5HP, DC variable speed "woodspinner" made in Australia. I called it the “Jolly Green Giant” and I loved the variable speed controller, because it allowed me to make subtle changes in the RPM’s to reduce vibration, or improve the cut quality as necessary. It always amazes me how a few RPM’s one way or the other, can have such a dramatic impact on how the project is turning, or the surface quality on the wood that the gouge is producing.

I’ve also turned and demonstrated on many other types of models that did not feature a variable speed controller unit and were limited to a specific RPM from the chosen belt setting. Whilst these are perfectly fine as well, they are limited by their inability to make minute changes to the speed of the project. Being able to change the speed throughout the belt range, allows you to customize the speed as needed to match the constantly changing conditions you encounter as you turn your project.

When you’re roughing out, there may be quite a bit of vibration until you can get your piece into round. Being able to change the speed even 25 or 50 RPM may significantly reduce the initial vibration until you can get the piece into round. If you’re on a non-variable speed lathe, the only option you have is to go up or down one belt setting, if you are experiencing too much vibration. Going up one setting may be too fast for your initial roughing, one belt speed lower may be too slow, or you may already be at the lowest setting. If so, you’re in a pickle for sure.

Of course, there are ways to help eliminate vibration that do not involve the lathe, like using a right angle grinder with an Arbortech cutter to remove bumps, bulges, or misshapen areas on a blank to help it run true. I do this quite a bit on large blanks, but lots of turners do not have carving equipment that could be used in this way. Having the ability to move in or out of a vibration harmonic by turning a dial is a BIG benefit!

Being able to change the speed of your lathe by a few RPMs can make a big difference when roughing or finishing your project

Of course, variable speed models are more expensive than non-variable speed ones and this is always a consideration. However, if your pocket is thick and flush, or a wad of green-backs is burning a hole in your pocket and you’re looking to move up to a larger lathe, get one that features a variable speed controller, you’ll be glad you did!

Other benefits of a variable speed controlled machine include matching the speed to the finish requirements when buffing a cured finish, turning fragile or delicate pieces with more confidence and improving the cut quality when working with wild grain, or spalted timbers to name a few.

Variable speed lathes also allow you to turn unusual materials that require specific speeds like glass, some plastics and metals, as well as many other materials like stone and man-made composites. If you budget will not accommodate a variable speed model, then get started with a non-variable speed model and turn and sell a few projects until you can afford the variable speed model. It will be money well spent.

Tip: Keep your Morse Taper and spindle threads clean. Before mounting any Morse Taper fixing into your spindle, make sure you clean it out. Taper cleaners like the Tapermate are available that make the job a snap, but you can also use a dowel that has been turned to match the Morse taper with a cloth wrapped around it to clean the taper.

Even tiny amounts of dust or chips can cause the taper to seat incorrectly, or slip under load causing problems. The spindle threads also need to be cleaned before mounting any screw on fixing (chuck, faceplate, collet chuck etc.) to the spindle. A simple brass brush does an excellent job of keeping the threads clean and in order. Gunky residues and sticky extractives on the threads can cause your fixings to be very hard if not “purt near” impossible to remove, so always keep your spindle threads clean.


Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.


Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.