Last Updated on January 7, 2024 by Muhammad Tariq
There is a large community of beginner woodturners around the country, and no matter the experience, we all share this common ground. I also struggled to choose the opening wood lathe that can grow with me on my woodturning journey.
As my skills improved, I felt that I needed to upgrade my lathe to a more powerful one from the half HP underpowered motor I started with.
So, being in the same vein and pondering to begin a wood-turning business, you must require a wood lathe with adequate HP, weight, and a good swing capacity. Something within the budget and with a great resale value as well.
But, as there are a plethora of them in the market, it can get tricky to find a machine that’s not just high quality, but the best wood lathe for the money
So I made this compact list of the best beginner wood lathes so you can start your woodturning business easily without wasting money on inferior machinery.
I will discuss such five wood lathes in three different size categories, including three alternative options. You must have seen these small powerhouses used by the mentors in clubs (except for the Wen minis).
To keep things simple, I’ve excluded lathe mill combos from this review.
Let’s start with the quick top 5 charts, and then we will talk about the alternative options.
Interesting Topic: I surveyed almost 400 real woodturners for my next lathe.
Disclaimer: As an Amazon associate, I may earn a small percentage from qualifying purchases.
Recommended Starter Wood Lathes at a Glance
Last update on 2024-02-27 / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Short Reviews on Starter Wood Lathes For Beginners
Let’s start with the wood lathes taking over the market for ages with their qualities and sturdiness. Therefore, thousands of turners have given them the credibility for maintaining the excellence of quality of the lathes to date.
Now without further intro, let’s jump over to see the possible best starter wood lathe for beginners.
1. Shop Fox W1704 Review: Best For Beginners
- 8” swing and 13” between centers
- Motor: 1/3 HP, 4 AMP, 110V
- MT1 headstock and Tailstock Taper
- 3/4-by-16-inch TPI (Buy a 3/4” 16 TPI to 1” 8 TPI adapter.)
- Spindle Speeds: Infinite Variable from 700-3200RPM
- Weight: 41 lbs
- Only forward
- Warranty: 2 years
First of all, this is not something a pro-turner would consider over a professional wood lathe, because of their under-powered motors.
They are ideal for smaller things and always considered excellent for the entry-level.
Why choose Shop Fox W1704
I don’t own this lathe, but I have used it several times. A friend of mine has a small antique shop here in North Vermilion Street. He somehow has a fetish for smaller lathes (I don’t know If he is reading this). I helped him with some of his projects.
So I tested the Wen 3420T, Harbor Freight 8” x12”, and this Shop Fox W1704. He bought the shop fox from Craiglist, and the rest of them were fresh.
I turned some bangles and small acrylic pens, I turned all three of them but liked the Shop Fox most because of its sturdiness. (I don’t know some may have a different opinion)
It was less vibrating than the harbor freight 8” x12.” Had a nice finish, no curved texture on the tool rest, pretty smooth. Besides, the variable speed control at that low price is also worth mentioning for Shop Fox.
The HF tool rest was way too high at its lowest position, and that’s a problem to be perpendicular to the center of the piece.
Don’t be so obsessed with the limitations of the Shop Fox. They apply to all small lathes in this review.
With 8” swing and 12” between centers, you’re going to be limited with the kinds of projects you can make. But as a more experienced turner, let me tell you that It’s not the size that matters (wink wink). You’ll get just as much satisfaction out of turning pens and rings vs table legs and large bowls.
- Shop Fox W1704 one is a morse taper 1 unlike the excelsior mini (most of the minis are). Rest is just fine unless you experience bad shipping.
- Watch for the alignment of the headstock and tailstock. Call them instantly if needed to replace it. It can happen with any lathe you buy.
Speaking of Shop Fox, if you’re looking for a bigger model, you can’t go wrong with the Shop Fox W1758. I’ve excluded it from this article because of the price, but if you want a lathe that will carry you from beginner to expert – I highly recommend it.
2. Excelsior 5 Speed Mini Lathe
- 10″ swing/ 18″ between centers
- Horsepower: ½
- MT2 Spindle Taper
- Speed Ranges: 760, 1100, 1600, 2200, and 3200
- Weight: 83 lbs
- 1” x 8 TPI spindle
- Only forward
Only if you want to stick with smaller crafts, beautiful tiny resin bowls & pens, acrylic duck or goose calls, bottle stoppers, and things like that, then you might want to go with a mini wood lathe.
Now, you can do that with the full-sized wood lathe, but the main difference here will be the price, motor power, and machine size.
But there are up to scratch Mini wood lathes like this robust one from the mighty Rockler to handle small projects. You can later buy your dream lathe after you accomplish something precisely and become more motivated.
Worth the quality?
Something under 300 dollars is already compromising with the budget, but will it compromise its class for the price? How it performs in its proper condition. That’s my concern here.
As long as the shipping goes right and all the parts are in good shape, I can bet you will be delighted with the Excelsior mini lathe by Rockler unless you mount severe hardwoods on it.
This works excellent for anything under the ranged of diameter. And far better than the Wen minis.
Why choose Excelsior Mini lathe as a Beginner
Turners are satisfied with the quality that Rockler lathes are producing, even with the mini-lathes. You might have seen Mr Carl Jacobson from Oregon working with this particular unit in his workshop.
I am trying to say that a professional always avoid these so-called “mini-lathes” and plays with the big birds instead. But when they do, they can be very picky and won’t take just anything for granted.
Ever seen our club mentors turning happily with Wen mini? Not really. They are good for beginners, not great.
Rockler always rocks and has been crushing it with this Excelsior Mini lathe. They are taking over their contender in this category from the beginning.
The best part is that this ½ HP lathe comes with MT2 drive spur/center, whereas most minis come with MT1. So, you can pretty much use any MT2 accessories. You can extend the bed to 38-1/2” for spindle work with five different speeds starting from 760 to 3200 RPM. A bit faster for bowls, but that’s okay to me.
Kudos to this great little lathe. I still have it, and I have no plan to get rid of it even if I end up buying the Powermatic giant.
It’s been 3 years since I have been using this lathe, and it’s doing pretty well. Boundaries are the same for any mini lathes. Don’t push it too far. That’s the rule.
Though it gave me a hard time leveling the bed extension, to be honest. I wish it has four bolt holes instead of two. Now, this is something you need to take care of. Always align the ways to get it done right before turning.
But once set, you are a happy turner.
Many people are not happy with the belt changing system, but I hope you will get used to it very soon. Not that big deal to talk about.
Okay, now let’s go for a brand that offers the cheapest wood lathe possible that is also ideal for beginners. But unlike the Chinese mini-lathes, you can have the parts available with a warranty and enough quality.
3. WEN LA3421 Variable Speed Review: Best Budget Lathe
- 8” swing and 12” between centers
- Motor: 3.2 Amp (1/3 HP), 120V
- MT1 Spindle and Tailstock Taper
- 1″ x 8 TPI
- Spindle Speed: Variable speed from 750 – 3200 RPM
- Weight: 45lbs
- Only forward
- Warranty: 2 Years
The Wen LA3421 is a great lathe if you’re on a tight budget or looking for a more affordable way to get started with wood turning. It’s got many features you’d expect in a lathe twice the price, for example variable speed.
If variable speed is something you are looking for, but you need a cheaper alternative to a Jet or Delta midi, Wen is the perfect choice.
About the quality
Not that much of horsepower but enough to handle lighter projects like acrylic pen blanks, small mallets, duck calls, chess pieces, 5 inches tiny bowls, etc.
Harbor Freight used to sell the same lathe but now has gone into the manual speed and mt2 option so, priced up.
Getting variable speed at this cost is also a pretty cool feature to have, which is the only advantage it has over Harbor Freight mini even at a low price. But to be honest, they are not compatible.
The only difference it has with Wen 3420T unit is the size of the faceplate and motor. I think they came up with 3421 unit after getting negative reviews on motor sustainability.
With not that much of a difference, I would say that you should move with this Wen LA3421 unit instead. Having a little more power to the motor is absolutely an extra advantage.
It is a 1/3 Hp nice little lathe til you push it beyond its capability.
Keep in mind that this is an MT1, so you can’t use your tools when you move up to an MT2 lathe in the future. You can turn the small spindle, but you won’t be able to make any table legs as the company advertises, unless that’s a table for your cats.
It doesn’t have any digital readout either, so you have to guess the speed yourself, but learning classic and traditional way is always good.
As it’s just under 45lbs, so you might notice the lathe is sliding or moving when turning at a higher speed. Secure the lathe with your benchtop before working.
The final and most significant problem I want to address here is the stalling out of the motor. This 1/3 underpowered motor gets overheated, sometimes handling the hardwoods or bowls, which is not recommended though.
So, you need to start really slow with this lathe. Don’t push too far with hardwoods. Stop the motor, let it cool down then start again. Finally, I would say to respect its limitations as it is doing with your wallet.
Other Good Wood Lathes For Beginners
Okay, the lathes that I listed above were wood lathes for beginners according to their sizes and price. If you want to see other potential options, here goes my recommended picks for alternative options.
Wrapping up without mentioning these wood lathes, would be unfair as they also are a good bet for a beginner skill. I am going by their size again.
1. Jet JWL-1440VSK Review
- 14-1/2″ swing and 40″ between the centers
- Motor: 1 HP, 115/230V, 1 phase
- RPM: 400-3000 Variable
- Sliding Headstock
- Acme threaded tailstock
- Indexing Position: 36
- Outboard Turning: Yes
- Spindle taper: #2MT
- Spindle thread: 1” X 8 TPI RH
- Swing over tool rest: 11”
- Tool Rest: 14″
- Weight 400 lbs
- Warranty: 5 year
Maybe you aren’t ready to buy a top tier lathe yet, but still want a good option for a full size lathe. If so, this might be it.
Why choose Jet 1440VSK
But it is a sturdier mighty lathe out there with good positive reviews altogether. So, choosing a wood lathe made of solid cast iron with a weight of 413 lbs, and one hp power motor at the very beginning is a worthy decision.
One good thing is that the speed dial opens and closes the driver sheave, so you don’t need to move the belts to change the speeds.
My complaint was just for the price they are taking. They could have given it 16” swing at least for bowl turning.
You can read all the fancy features on Amazon like cast iron legs, extra bed options, and staff like that, so I am not wasting your time here (mine also.)
Now, every machine has its capabilities and limitations. You cannot expect to put a 20” work on a 14” lathe.
- Their lower speed of 400 rpm can be an issue while turning large or imbalanced wood chunk. A little slower rpm and reverse for some situation would have been excellent.
- It does not come with chisels or chuck, only faceplate. So large bowl turners need to add some more accessories to that.
- You gonna have to need one or two people as the pieces (legs, table, motor, etc.) are quite heavy to assemble. Separate the tool rest, banjo first. It will make it easier.
- Lastly, I was reading a review, meanwhile, on Amazon. Someone named Nancy Carlsmith from Medway, MA, found some issues while assembling the headstocks. Later after calling their customer service, they came and fixed that.
If you are overthinking too much, finding out what could go wrong in the worst case, in a worst-case, a machine could stop working.
No one guarantees a lifetime.
Jet is providing a five years warranty so you can call them and set the issues you are having with your wood lathe anytime. They have an excellent customer service reputation also.
That’s why it is always great to go with a brand that has its values. And Jet always keeps promises.
2. Delta 46-460 Review: Alternative For Jet 1221VS
- 12.5″ swing and 16.5″ between centers
- 1-HP, 1-Phase, 120V, 60-Hz, 1725 rpm motor
- Speed: 250-700, 600-1,800 and 1,350-4,000-RPM
- Electronic variable
- Head and Tailstock Taper: #2 MT
- Drive spindle: 1 inch -8 RH TPI thread
- Forward and Reverse
- Weight: 97 lbs
- Warranty: 5 years
Definitely a worthy pick for the midi lovers, a top-notch alternative to the Jet 1221VS. They are quite a similar thing, but Delta goes an extra step with their price.
Should you consider Delta 46-460 instead?
I don’t know if I have underrated this big name in the midi lathe industry. Delta has a history of introducing the first Midi lathe in the market probably in the early 90s, so they are the pioneer.
This variable speed unit of Delta has always been my favorite though I sold mine to a club member years ago then got the 1221VS. But I didn’t notice much of a difference between these two.
My 46-460 was smooth and quiet with adequate 1 HP motor power to turn bowls up to 11.” It says twelve inches, but I don’t like working on the edge.
The significant difference between these two is the motor power. Delta machined with one HP motor max, whereas the Jet is ¾. Delta runs and speeds up very quiet and smoothly than Jet while turning reverse and forward.
If you put them on the same bench, Delta sits about two inches taller, which is a plus point for cleaning the chips off the motor.
This is one of the most capable midi in the wood lathe market, no doubt about that. It’s been serving many skill level woodturners. So yeah, you can choose Delta 46-460 as an alternative to the Jet 1221VS.
Again, do your own research. Take a closer look at all the features. Compare them with your needs then make your decision.
I went with the Jet 1221vs anyway for the extra 50lbs weight.
Delta started getting some negative reviews mainly for the switch problems and the unavailability of its parts after the shifting of the company. This caught the eyes of many. Jet took advantage and nailed it.
Delta weighs almost 50lbs less than the Jet. The extra weight is always beneficial for bowl turnings. Cause you definitely want to grab something that’s promising you more sturdiness.
The banjo is not the standard one inch, so aftermarket tool rest will not match (amazon customer review and that’s true).
Some people complain about their customer service, but I know things can get adverse sometimes with any CS department of the world.
So, this is pretty much it—all I can say that it’s a class in its category in every way.
Once again, don’t expect the quality you see in a full-sized lathe from these mini wood lathes. But for the price it takes and the quality it delivers, absolutely go for this one.
Basic Beginner Tips for Buying a Wood Lathe
Turners like Colin Furze, Richard Raffan, Keith Rowley, Barry Gross, and many others have said more or less the same when advising first-time buyers. These are fundamentals.
- What do you want to turn?
- Your workspace.
- Choose the lathe according to the HP, Variable Speed, and part’s availabilities.
- Don’t spend everything just on the lathe cause you need other accessories also.
- Always try to go for the larger lathe possible.
To make things more elaborate let’s get to the exact point as I don’t want to make this long.
- Decide what do you want to turn. Then Consider your workspace.
- You need some bigger place if you are going for a full-size unit.
- No matter what you buy, always go for a good HP motor with a variable speed option and #2 morse taper.
- Check if the parts are universal so you can find them in aftermarkets also. Don’t go for Chinese.
- You know your budget, so choose the lathe according to the budget. If tight, then go for a quality mini or midi.
- Remember, this is not going to be your last lathe forever.
Here is my comprehensive guideline for buying any wood lathe with more details to help you understand the rule of thumb.
People also ask
How fast should the wood lathe run?
It depends on the work. You need to go as low as you can if you are working with round unbalanced blanks. Most of the minis don’t have that power in the motor to produce that torque.
The headstock motor can’t sustain that load it needs. As a result, it bogs down.
But for the spindle work, the metric goes higher. The typical maximum rate remains under 4000 RPM on the high end. You can always refer to this speed chart.
What are the easiest woods to turn?
Here are ten of the easiest woods to turn:
3. Red Elm
6. Maple, of course
For a more comprehensive list, check out my article about the best woods for woodturning.
Should I start with a mini wood lathe as a beginner?
Of course, you can. You will get the opportunity to know the machine as well as the work. Choose any of the mini-lathes from the list above.
But always remember to check the alignment of the head and tailstock first after you get one in your home.
If you think you are interested in going for one, I suggest giving a final look at some other options available for mini wood lathes before the final decision. Or try to look at some metal lathes as well.
What would be an ideal beginner wood lathe for turning bowls?
Any wood lathe with durable Horse Power and maximum swing over the bed with a low variable speed start is ideal for turning bowls. In other words, the more swing the machine has, the big it can turn.
On the other hand, Midi lathes can also produce high range torque with good swing capacity to turn bowls up to 14″ in diameter. So, machines like the Jet, Nova Comet, or Delta with variable speed can give you the possible outcomes.
Are wood lathes expensive?
Wood lathes range anywhere from $150 for a mini lathe to $8,000 for a professional quality lathe. Price varies based on size and durability.
Is it okay to buy a used wood lathe?
Buying a second-hand or cheap Chinese lathe from Craiglist or Facebook marketplace to save money could be an option.
But if this something you are feeling passionate about and wanna give your best shot, then starting with a mint quality lathe should be the priority.
As the machine will be in a fresh condition, so it will easily outperform an older or cheaper one. Besides, there is always a risk of the wrong inspection due to the lack of experience.
What size lathe do I need?
About 40% of turners use a midi lathe as their primary lathe. If you only want to turn small objects like pens, a mini lathe will do. And if you turn large objects, you’ll want to get a full-sized model.
Here is a video on the topic to help you understand the basics.
I need you to remember one thing before wrapping up. These are all human-made machines, and we make mistakes.
That’s why you see some users having a complaint, whereas others are living happily with the same machine. It’s because that particular lathe has got some issues within the parts throughout manufacturing.
So, no matter what wood lathe you are going to buy, take enough time to check all the parts and accessories carefully after shipping. If you find something odd, let them know instantly and make everything clear.
Turn Safe, Turn Big. Welcome to the turning world!