This article was published in The Australian Woodworker in 2019
If you’re considering buying a lathe, configuration is a much more important consideration than price. Most turners will want to turn some bowls. This article therefore discusses the different lathe configurations, and how well each is suited for bowl turning. This article assumes that you’re right-handed. If you’re left-handed, transpose where appropriate.
Approximately 16 books which include bowl-turning advice have been published in English in this 21st century. Almost all show bowls being hollowed inboard (over the bed) with the gouge being presented and traversed as in Photo. 1. In contrast the front cover of the Australian edition my book The Fundamentals of Woodturning shows my then foreman, the late Dale Hageman, hollowing outboard (on the left-hand end of the headstock) as in Photo. 2. This provoked comment. One Amazon reviewer wrote “when you look at the pictures in this book you may feel like the images are backward”. I also received several emails claiming (wrongly) that the cover shot and the bowl-turning photographs inside had been somehow transposed. These emailers had failed to read the statement on page 166 which advised that the bowl-turning chapter’s “illustrations show a bowl being turned outboard”.
You’ll notice that Dale is chuckling. He’s enjoying hollowing because his stance is comfortable and unrestricted, and he can readily control the gouge because he can keep his right elbow close to his body. Those who hollow as in Photo. 1 often have to lean over the lathe bed, and have poorer tool control because their right elbows have to be a long distance from their bodies when starting a hollowing cut.
This fashion for contorted bowl turning has only recently become the norm. It wasn’t last century. In the first two notable woodturning texts published after WWII, the 1956 The Practical Wood Turner and the 1974 The Craftsman Woodturner, Frank Pain and Peter Child respectively are shown turning bowls outboard, like Dale. Nor was outboard turning then particular to Britain. William Klenke, author of the 1937 American book The Art of Wood Turning, states on page 12 that “The lathe you select should . . . have provision for doing inside and outboard turning”.
Until about 2000 if you bought a fully featured lathe it would have had a headstock spindle with two threaded noses like that shown in Photo. 3. With such headstocks the right-hand inboard nose would have had a right-hand thread, and the left-hand outboard nose would have had a left-hand thread. A facility such as that shown in Photo. 4 to rigidly support and allow the movement of a toolrest outboard was available at extra cost. The Vicmarc lathe Dale was using in Photo. 2 has these features. Thus Dale was able to hollow comfortably and safely because the hollowing force he is exerting tightens the faceplate onto the outboard nose. Note, if your lathe has an outboard nose you can make your own outboard turning facility with a piece of steel plate: Photo. 5 shows one arrangement.
The spindle configuration with left- and right-hand threaded noses had a cost penalty: manufacturers had to supply two sets of faceplates, one set with a left-hand thread, the other with a right-hand thread. If lathes could be sold cheaper, more people would be attracted to woodturning, and more lathes would be sold. A simple solution was to machine the same, right-hand thread on both spindle noses, and supply only one faceplate. However when turning outboard the lathe has to then be run in reverse to avoid the risk of the faceplate unscrewing. Therefore if you were right-handed you still had to hollow cross-armed, much as in Photo 1.
To avoid the high costs of providing a facility such as that shown in Photo. 4 and an outboard headstock spindle nose some lathe manufacturers have opted increase the swing over the bed. This also, as a bonus, increases the appeal of such lathes to macho woodturners. Unfortunately irrespective of whether you’re left- or right-handed you still have to use an uncomfortable stance when hollowing bowls inboard. Also:
- the heavier banjo and tailstock are harder to slide along the bed
- because you have to lift and lower your turning tools further, turning between centres is slower and more tiring
- the increased centre-height of 300 mm or more has no benefits other than somewhat improving the range of possible tool presentations and allowing larger-diameter workpieces to be turned inboard. But how often are you going to turn spindles and faceplate turnings approaching 600 mm in diameter?
To turn bowls using the most comfortable stances with maximum control and unrestricted tool presentations you need to be able to turn bowls outboard. You should then if right-handed prefer to turn bowl outsides with the lathe running anticlockwise and bowl insides with the lathe running clockwise. If you’re left-handed the the preferred lathe rotations are opposite. Therefore whatever the hand of the thread on the outboard nose there will still be the risk of unscrewing, either when taking heavy cuts or if employing some type of headstock-spindle braking.
My first lathe was made by Sydney engineer Peter Scaysbrook in 1975. To solve the problem of outboard faceplates unscrewing he devised the arrangement shown in Photo. 6. Another equally-effective, but more fiddly, solution is the split-ring used by Vicmarc shown in Photo. 7. Wouldn’t it be great if all lathe manufacturers agreed a common standard solution?
There are three other lathe configurations which overcome the problems of contorted, uncomfortable stances and restricted tool presentations when turning bowls. In the first the tailstock is removed and the banjo and headstock (which only needs a spindle with an inboard nose) are slid to the right-hand end of the bed. The American Powermatic is one of the few lathes which offers this facility. The second, and increasingly common solution is a rotatable-about-a-vertical-axis headstock. This usually requires an extra and separate toolrest mounting which has to be bolted onto the left-hand end of the bed. This mounting needs to be removed for turning axially-grained workpieces because you will sometimes have to position your body near the left-hand end of the headstock. The third solution is a pedestal lathe, a lathe which consists of a headstock without a bed, or with a bed which isn’t long enough for most spindle turning. Such lathes are favoured by specialist bowl turners.
I have shown that if you want to turn bowls comfortably and without having your tool presentations restricted, you should seek a lathe which allows faceplates and other chucks to be locked to its spindle nose(s). This allows workpieces to be safely turned both clockwise and anticlockwise without unscrewing. The facility to turn outboard on a fixed headstock with a rigid toolrest mounting which allows easy and sufficient adjustment is the best lathe configuration. The rotatable headstock is second best, and the sliding headstock third best. Obviously lathes with these features cost more than lathes with fixed headstocks which only allow turning over the bed, but you when you turn bowls you won’t regret the extra investment.
I hope that this article will help you to select your next lathe wisely. My advice is: if you have the room and want to turn bowls comfortably, only buy a lathe with a readily-usable-and-suitable outboard facility, and proper chuck locking. Beware, some outboard facilities are clunky, so insist on a thorough trial.