Ball Bearing
Live Centres

Live Centres Overview: One of the least glamorous tools in a woodturner's toolbox has to be revolving ball bearing live centers. Ball bearing centres are also known as “live” centres; they are used to help hold work on the lathe when working between centres, and also with some faceplate turning when added security is needed. The ball bearings in the live centre allow the end of the centre to rotate with the work piece, as opposed to a dead centre that does not rotate and remains stationary in the tailstock whilst the work rotates.

The face of a standard woodturning dead
centre does not move during turning

Live centres come in many different shapes and sizes, most woodturners use a #1, #2 or a #3 Morse Taper live centre. My Oneway 2436 uses a #3 Morse Taper live centre in the tailstock, whereas most lathes use the smaller #2 Morse Taper live centre. Some small pen lathes use a #1 Morse Taper fitting in the tailstock. Of the two, I prefer a tailstock centre that rotates and I’ve rarely used a dead centre in the last fourteen years.

When I started turning in junior high school, all of our Delta lathes were equipped with dead centres for the tailstock and I vividly recall having to lubricate the end of the centre to prevent it from burning and smoking the end of the wood when turning. I’ve had good luck with most of my live centres through the years, but along the way I found out that not all live centres are created equally. The design and quality of the components plays a major role in how well the centre will work over time.

Like so many things in life, you pay for what you get and since live centres are used so frequently, it pays to have a good one on your lathe that will not only meet your needs now, but also remain flexible enough to adapt to your needs in the future.

Live Centre Round-up

Oneway's #3MT revolving
centre with accessories

Oneway Revolving Centre – In my fourteen years as a professional woodturner, the Oneway Revolving Centre has been the best live centre I’ve ever used. It is fitted to a #3MT for my lathe, so you know it’s made for big and heavy “Texas” sized loads. It has operated flawlessly for me through the years and it has been flexible enough to allow me to adapt it on the odd occasion where I needed a custom fixing. This revolving centre is available in other sizes as well, to fit smaller lathes.

Oneway's live centre with the
optional bull nose cone attached

One great feature of this live centre is the screw threads on the front of the cup centre. This threaded portion allows the use of threaded accessories to further enhance the usefulness of the centre. I frequently use the large aluminium cone (known as a bull nose cone) when reverse turning small vases.

Oneway's revolving live centre
with the full point cone installed

The full point cone is also very useful for many tasks. A chuck adapter is available that will replicate popular spindle thread sizes, so you can use the live centre to reverse mount a project that is still mounted to a faceplate, or in chuck. This is a very useful feature for those of us who are into vacuum chucking, as it accurately centres the work on the vacuum chuck, eliminating lots of tedious mounting and remounting.

The bull nose cone on Oneway's
live centre can also be installed
with the small end forward

Jet Tools large revolving live centre

Jet Large Live Centre – Jet Tools came out with a live centre that looks similar to the Oneway revolving centre a few years ago. I have used it numerous times over the years and it has worked very well. I have not disassembled it yet, so I do not know how it differs on the inside from Oneway’s revolving centre. Back in the day when I was demonstrating every week, I used a large Jet live centre regularly for several of my demos and it was an excellent live centre.

These 60-degree blunt point live
centres from Axminster fit perfectly
into the end of pen mandrels

60-Degree Blunt Point – A good quality 60-degree live centre is a necessity in most woodturning studios. I purchased several (Axminster) 60-degree live centres a few years ago and they have all held up quite well. If you turn pens, you know that most pen mandrels are bored on the end of the mandrel rod to accept a 60-degree live centre. These live centres fit perfectly into my pen mandrels and do not bottom out because of a centre point that is too long, like other live centres I have tried through the years.

The late Dale Nish (of Craft Supplies USA fame) came out with a modified 60-degree live centre recently that changes 5/16” on the end of the cone point to 20-degrees. This helps to reduce splitting and makes it easier to penetrate the end grain on the wood when mounting spindle blanks and other projects.

Multi-tip live centres allow
various centre points to be installed
for use with different projects

Multi-Tip Live Centre – This is a great live centre to have on hand if you are working on lots of small to medium sized projects on your lathe. It is basically a live centre that can be fitted with various tip configurations. This allows you to use one live centre for numerous jobs, which maximizes your tool investment. When I first started out fourteen years ago, I used one of these (Axminster) and it worked very well for small and medium sized projects.

I was working on a Woodfast 910V lathe at the time (known as the Big Green Monster) that had a swing of 20” over the bedway. I found that when I used this live centre on larger projects like heavy bowls, it developed some slop in the bearings. I quickly replaced the damaged centre and purchased an identical replacement.

I only use it for small and medium sized projects now, having replaced my old Woodfast with a Oneway 2436 several years ago. Craft Supplies has a similar multi-tip centre in their catalog now from Robert Sorby that looks very good. It comes with six different replaceable centre points, which allows it to be used for a variety of projects. I have not used the Robert Sorby version of this centre, but it looks similar to my old Axminster unit.

Jet Small Live Centre (Mini-lathe version)

Jet Tools small revolving live centre

If you own a Jet mini-lathe, you should have received a revolving live centre as a part of your accessories package. This live centre works well for some tasks, but the centre point that came with my Jet mini is too long for use with a pen mandrel and it does not appear to be a 60-degree point. When you try to use it on a pen mandrel, the point will bottom out, which prevents the centre point from seating accurately in the end of the mandrel.

This can cause the mandrel to vibrate when turning a pen, which compromises the accuracy of the pen barrels. I find that it’s too long for several other projects as well, so I rarely use it anymore. If you have one of these live centres now and you want to turn pens, you’ll need to purchase a good quality 60-degree live centre for use with your pens. The original Jet live centre can still be used for projects where the long centre point does not complicate your mounting or reverse turning requirements.

Failures Are Rare

In the fourteen years I’ve had my studio, I’ve only experienced one problem with a live centre, the aforementioned Axminster multi-point live centre that developed a wee bit of slop in the bearings after using it with larger bowl blanks. To be fair to Axminster, that centre was not designed for use with larger projects, but you use what you have sometimes… My replacement Axminster multi-point live centre has operated perfectly for many years and I continue to use it on small and medium sized projects.

The design of this live centre allows
dust and debris to enter the bearing races

My #3MT Oneway revolving live centre has seen more than its share of massive bowl blanks through the years (some weighing a few hundred pounds), as well as a few thousand other production bowl blanks and it continues to perform flawlessly. If you want a big, bad live centre that eats bowl blanks for breakfast, the Oneway revolving live centre is sure hard to beat. The optional bull nose cone (large cone) and the chuck adapter complete this exceptionally well-made live centre.

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.