The lathe is an ancient tool, dating at least to ancient Egypt and known to be used in Assyria and ancient Greece. The lathe was very important to the Industrial Revolution. It is known as the mother of machine tools, as it was the first machine tool that lead to the invention of other machine tools.
The origin of turning dates to around 1300 BCE when the Ancient Egyptians first developed a two-person lathe. One person would turn the wood work piece with a rope while the other used a sharp tool to cut shapes in the wood. Ancient Rome improved the Egyptian design with the addition of a turning bow. In the Middle Ages a pedal replaced hand-operated turning, allowing a single person to rotate the piece while working with both hands. The pedal was usually connected to a pole, often a straight-grained sapling. The system today is called the "spring pole" lathe. Spring pole lathes were in common use into the early 20th century.
An important early lathe in the UK was the horizontal boring machine that was installed in 1772 in the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. It was horse-powered and allowed for the production of much more accurate and stronger cannon used with success in the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century. One of the key characteristics of this machine was that the workpiece was turning as opposed to the tool, making it technically a lathe (see attached drawing). Henry Maudslay who later developed many improvements to the lathe worked at the Royal Arsenal from 1783 being exposed to this machine in the Verbruggen workshop.
During the Industrial Revolution, mechanized power generated by water wheels or steam engines was transmitted to the lathe via line shafting, allowing faster and easier work. Metalworking lathes evolved into heavier machines with thicker, more rigid parts. Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, individual electric motors at each lathe replaced line shafting as the power source. Beginning in the 1950s, servomechanisms were applied to the control of lathes and other machine tools via numerical control, which often was coupled with computers to yield computerized numerical control (CNC). Today manually controlled and CNC lathes coexist in the manufacturing industries.
A lathe may or may not have legs, which sit on the floor and elevate the lathe bed to a working height. A lathe may be small and sit on a workbench or table, not requiring a stand.
Almost all lathes have a bed, which is (almost always) a horizontal beam (although CNC lathes commonly have an inclined or vertical beam for a bed to ensure that swarf, or chips, falls free of the bed). Woodturning lathes specialized for turning large bowls often have no bed or tail stock, merely a free-standing headstock and a cantilevered tool rest.
At one end of the bed (almost always the left, as the operator faces the lathe) is a headstock. The headstock contains high-precision spinning bearings. Rotating within the bearings is a horizontal axle, with an axis parallel to the bed, called the spindle. Spindles are often hollow and have exterior threads and/or an interior Morse taper on the "inboard" (i.e., facing to the right / towards the bed) by which work-holding accessories may be mounted to the spindle. Spindles may also have exterior threads and/or an interior taper at their "outboard" (i.e., facing away from the bed) end, and/or may have a hand-wheel or other accessory mechanism on their outboard end. Spindles are powered and impart motion to the workpiece.
The spindle is driven either by foot power from a treadle and flywheel or by a belt or gear drive to a power source. In most modern lathes this power source is an integral electric motor, often either in the headstock, to the left of the headstock, or beneath the headstock, concealed in the stand.
In addition to the spindle and its bearings, the headstock often contains parts to convert the motor speed into various spindle speeds. Various types of speed-changing mechanism achieve this, from a cone pulley or step pulley, to a cone pulley with back gear (which is essentially a low range, similar in net effect to the two-speed rear of a truck), to an entire gear train similar to that of a manual-shift auto transmission. Some motors have electronic rheostat-type speed controls, which obviates cone pulleys or gears.
The counterpoint to the headstock is the tailstock, sometimes referred to as the loose head, as it can be positioned at any convenient point on the bed by sliding it to the required area. The tail-stock contains a barrel, which does not rotate, but can slide in and out parallel to the axis of the bed and directly in line with the headstock spindle. The barrel is hollow and usually contains a taper to facilitate the gripping of various types of tooling. Its most common uses are to hold a hardened steel center, which is used to support long thin shafts while turning, or to hold drill bits for drilling axial holes in the work piece. Many other uses are possible.
Metalworking lathes have a carriage (comprising a saddle and apron) topped with a cross-slide, which is a flat piece that sits crosswise on the bed and can be cranked at right angles to the bed. Sitting atop the cross slide is usually another slide called a compound rest, which provides 2 additional axes of motion, rotary and linear. Atop that sits a toolpost, which holds a cutting tool, which removes material from the workpiece. There may or may not be a leadscrew, which moves the cross-slide along the bed.
Woodturning and metal spinning lathes do not have cross-slides, but rather have banjos, which are flat pieces that sit crosswise on the bed. The position of a banjo can be adjusted by hand; no gearing is involved. Ascending vertically from the banjo is a tool-post, at the top of which is a horizontal tool-rest. In woodturning, hand tools are braced against the tool rest and levered into the workpiece. In metal spinning, the further pin ascends vertically from the tool rest and serves as a fulcrum against which tools may be levered into the workpiece.
Unless a workpiece has a taper machined onto it which perfectly matches the internal taper in the spindle, or has threads which perfectly match the external threads on the spindle (two conditions which rarely exist), an accessory must be used to mount a workpiece to the spindle.
A workpiece may be bolted or screwed to a faceplate, a large, flat disk that mounts to the spindle. In the alternative, faceplate dogs may be used to secure the work to the faceplate.
A workpiece may be mounted on a mandrel, or circular work clamped in a three- or four-jaw chuck. For irregular shaped workpieces it is usual to use a four jaw (independent moving jaws) chuck. These holding devices mount directly to the lathe headstock spindle.
In precision work, and in some classes of repetition work, cylindrical workpieces are usually held in a collet inserted into the spindle and secured either by a draw-bar, or by a collet closing cap on the spindle. Suitable collets may also be used to mount square or hexagonal workpieces. In precision toolmaking work such collets are usually of the draw-in variety, where, as the collet is tightened, the workpiece moves slightly back into the headstock, whereas for most repetition work the dead length variety is preferred, as this ensures that the position of the workpiece does not move as the collet is tightened.
A soft workpiece (e.g., wood) may be pinched between centers by using a spur drive at the headstock, which bites into the wood and imparts torque to it.
A soft dead center is used in the headstock spindle as the work rotates with the centre. Because the centre is soft it can be trued in place before use. The included angle is 60°. Traditionally, a hard dead center is used together with suitable lubricant in the tailstock to support the workpiece. In modern practice the dead center is frequently replaced by a live center, as it turns freely with the workpiece—usually on ball bearings—reducing the frictional heat, especially important at high speeds. When clear facing a long length of material it must be supported at both ends. This can be achieved by the use of a traveling or fixed steady. If a steady is not available, the end face being worked on may be supported by a dead (stationary) half center. A half center has a flat surface machined across a broad section of half of its diameter at the pointed end. A small section of the tip of the dead center is retained to ensure concentricity. Lubrication must be applied at this point of contact and tail stock pressure reduced. A lathe carrier or lathe dog may also be employed when turning between two centers.
In woodturning, one variation of a live center is a cup center, which is a cone of metal surrounded by an annular ring of metal that decreases the chances of the workpiece splitting.
A circular metal plate with even spaced holes around the periphery, mounted to the spindle, is called an "index plate". It can be used to rotate the spindle to a precise angle, then lock it in place, facilitating repeated auxiliary operations done to the workpiece.
Other accessories, including items such as taper turning attachments, knurling tools, vertical slides, fixed and traveling steadies, etc., increase the versatility of a lathe and the range of work it may perform.
Modes of use
When a workpiece is fixed between the headstock and the tail-stock, it is said to be "between centers". When a workpiece is supported at both ends, it is more stable, and more force may be applied to the workpiece, via tools, at a right angle to the axis of rotation, without fear that the workpiece may break loose.
When a workpiece is fixed only to the spindle at the headstock end, the work is said to be "face work". When a workpiece is supported in this manner, less force may be applied to the workpiece, via tools, at a right angle to the axis of rotation, lest the workpiece rip free. Thus, most work must be done axially, towards the headstock, or at right angles, but gently.
When a workpiece is mounted with a certain axis of rotation, worked, then remounted with a new axis of rotation, this is referred to as "eccentric turning" or "multi-axis turning". The result is that various cross sections of the workpiece are rotationally symmetric, but the workpiece as a whole is not rotationally symmetric. This technique is used for camshafts, various types of chair legs.
The smallest lathes are "jewelers lathes" or "watchmaker lathes", which are small enough that they may be held in one hand. The workpieces machined on a jeweler's lathe are metal. Jeweler's lathes can be used with hand-held "graver" tools or with compound rests that attach to the lathe bed. Graver tools are generally supported by a T-rest, not fixed to a cross slide or compound rest. The work is usually held in a collet. Common spindle bore sizes are 6 mm, 8 mm and 10 mm. The term W/W refers to the Webster/Whitcomb collet and lathe, invented by the American Watch Tool Company of Waltham, Massachusetts. Most lathes commonly referred to as watchmakers lathes are of this design. In 1909, the American Watch Tool company introduced the Magnus type collet (a 10-mm body size collet) using a lathe of the same basic design, the Webster/Whitcomb Magnus. (F.W.Derbyshire, Inc. retains the trade names Webster/Whitcomb and Magnus and still produces these collets.) Two bed patterns are common: the WW (Webster Whitcomb) bed, a truncated triangular prism (found only on 8 and 10 mm watchmakers' lathes); and the continental D-style bar bed (used on both 6 mm and 8 mm lathes by firms such as Lorch and Star). Other bed designs have been used, such a triangular prism on some Boley 6.5 mm lathes, and a V-edged bed on IME's 8 mm lathes.
Smaller metalworking lathes that are larger than jewelers' lathes and can sit on a bench or table, but offer such features as tool holders and a screw-cutting gear train are called hobby lathes, and larger versions, "bench lathes". Even larger lathes offering similar features for producing or modifying individual parts are called "engine lathes". Lathes of these types do not have additional integral features for repetitive production, but rather are used for individual part production or modification as the primary role.
Lathes of this size that are designed for mass manufacture, but not offering the versatile screw-cutting capabilities of the engine or bench lathe, are referred to as "second operation" lathes.
Lathes with a very large spindle bore and a chuck on both ends of the spindle are called "oil field lathes".
Fully automatic mechanical lathes, employing cams and gear trains for controlled movement, are called screw machines.
Lathes that are controlled by a computer are CNC lathes.
Lathes with the spindle mounted in a vertical configuration, instead of horizontal configuration, are called vertical lathes or vertical boring machines. They are used where very large diameters must be turned, and the workpiece (comparatively) is not very long.
A lathe with a cylindrical tail-stock that can rotate around a vertical axis, so as to present different tools towards the headstock (and the workpiece) are turret lathes.
A lathe equipped with indexing plates, profile cutters, spiral or helical guides, etc., so as to enable ornamental turning is an ornamental lathe.
Various combinations are possible: for example, a vertical lathe can have CNC capabilities as well (such as a CNC VTL).
Lathes can be combined with other machine tools, such as a drill press or vertical milling machine. These are usually referred to as combination lathes.