There’s nothing quite as frustrating as being held back from that dream woodworking project by not having all the tools required. This is especially true if one of the tools you need is a large, expensive piece of equipment like a wood lathe. But, fortunately, the situation is not as hopeless as you believe. Let’s look at a few options.
There are alternative options to purchasing a wood lathe. Firstly, using a drill, you can build a functional lathe. Secondly, a drill press can be used as a vertical lathe for smaller projects. Finally, you can make a jig for your router, sliding it over a workpiece to turn it perfectly.
These options may not all work for your needs, and you will likely get varying degrees of versatility and use from each option. So, make sure you read on as we look at each option to help you choose the right one. Spoiler alert: the last option is my personal favourite.
Basic Lathe Principles
Presumably, you already have a decent understanding of a lathe, so I will only briefly touch on the mechanics to better understand how to either build or use an alternative.
The five most important parts of a wood lathe are the head- and tailstocks, the motor, the tool rest, and the lathe bed.
The head and tailstocks sit at each end of the piece you turn and include spindles that hold the workpiece in place. The tool rest is a raised support on which your chisel rests when you are working.
The motor, which has variable speed control, turns the spindles and the workpiece. Finally, the lathe bed is the chassis on which the whole thing is built and supported.
Why You Should Consider An Alternative Lathe Option
The most likely reason you are considering alternative options to a lathe is that you have come face-to-face with a hefty price tag of these machines. There are seemingly endless options of brands and sizes of wood lathes on the market, so giving a defined price range is quite hard.
Mini lathes used for turning smaller projects like small lamps or pens can cost between $150 and $800. In contrast, a large, high-quality engine lathe will likely set you back upwards of $ 2’000.
Yes, there are several options between those prices, and options reaching up to $ 80’000. There are always deals to be found second-hand, so keep that in mind as well.
Alternatives To Wood Lathes
Coming face to face with the massive price tags may leave you feeling a little discouraged. But fortunately, there are many options you could consider as an alternative to purchasing an expensive lathe. You could save on expenses by using tools you already have in your workshop; here’s how.
Option 1: Build A Lathe Using A Drill
Probably the first alternative option you should consider is actually building your own lathe.
Compared with the other two options, it may be the most valuable and versatile in the long run because you are essentially making a working lathe. However, it will also be the most complex option on this list.
How To Build A Lathe Using An Old Drill
Making your own lathe will require at least the following bits and pieces:
- A sheet of plywood or MDF
- A table, circular, or track saw to cut up the MDF
- A router to cut out grooves and tracks
- Threaded rods, washers, bolts, and bearings for the spindles
- Wood glue and clamps
- Wood screws and a screwdriver.
The most important thing you will need to build a lathe is a power source or motor.
The most commonly used one is a drill.
Drills are the easiest option and probably the cheapest power source option on this list.
In fact, many DIYers have upgraded their drill at least once and still have the old-faithful drill collecting dust somewhere. The chosen drill should ideally be corded because you will need the extra torque that corded drills usually have. The drill must have variable speed functionality.
Once your drill is selected, the rest of the lathe can be built using MDF or plywood.
Start by measuring and cutting the lathe bed big enough to house the rest of the lathe on top of it. You will need to make at least two guide rails or channels in the bed. One of the channels will hold the head and tailstock, and the other will secure the tool rest.
You want to use channels because an essential part of a lathe is the ability to move the tailstock and the tool rest to accommodate different lengths of wood.
Once you have your base built, you can make the head- and tailstock, the tool rest, and, finally, mount the drill horizontally to the headstock.
The precise measurements are going to depend on your design, but here is a video to give you excellent guidance:
Pros Of The Drill Lathe
The most significant benefit of building a drill-powered lathe is that you end up with a functional mini-lathe. Meaning that you have made more than just a jig for your drill; you have created your own power tool.
Depending on how well you built it, you will likely get most of the usability from it as you would get from a bought lathe. And, with some practice, you will be able to turn out just about any mini-lathe project with it.
You can also adapt your design. As you continue to use it, you may find certain aspects not working 100% as you would like, but you can always redesign that part of the lathe until you get it right.
Finally, if your drill does die at some point or is a bit weak in the knees, you can upgrade it with a stronger drill.
Cons Of The Drill Lathe
As you can already tell, making the drill-lathe can be a decent amount of effort.
This isn’t necessarily off-putting as many carpenters enjoy the challenge and reward of building their own solution; it’s really in our blood.
However, it is worth mentioning that the effort to build one could out-way the option to shop around for an affordable second-hand one, especially if you don’t have a spare drill lying around.
Secondly, this is a mini-lathe. Don’t expect to be turning 6×6 table legs on an MDF lathe, powered by a drill. It’s not going to work out well. Depending on the drill, you may find that it lacks the power to work with harder woods, even in smaller sizes.
Finally, if you don’t build it well, you may be left with flaws and flex in the lathe that can ruin your project.
Alternative Motor Options For A Drill Lathe
If you are worried about your drill’s motor not being strong enough, you can consider two other options.
You can build it using a router as the power source. Routers typically have surprisingly powerful motors that can deliver heaps of torque.
Alternatively, you can make a much bigger, full-sized lathe and use a large motor like an electric lawnmower motor to drive it. To do this, you will upscale the whole design and build it sturdier to compensate for the added power.
Option 2: Turn On Your Drill Press
If you only need to turn small pieces, such as tool handles or pens, and you have a drill press in your shop, then this option could be the best one for you.
It involves using your drill press as a vertical lathe.
How To Use Your Drill Press As A Lathe
There isn’t much building that you will need to do for this option. Basically, the drill itself is the headstock and has everything you need, including a motor and a spindle.
The base plate of the drill press acts as the tailstock, so all you need to do is fix a spindle and a tool rest to the base plate. For a spindle, you can use a threaded rod filed to a sharp point on the side that will grip the wood. This threaded rod must be perfectly centered on the base plate.
You can use a longer threaded rod fixed to the base plate for a tool rest. You can set this rod in any position where it will work best for you. Alternatively, with some practice and depending on the tools you will use to turn and shape the wood, you may not need to use a tool rest at all.
Probably the best way to secure the piece of wood to the drill press is by cutting a square, hexagonal, or round tang at the top, which is inserted and clamped in the chuck. Make sure that the center point of this tang is precisely centered in the chuck.
If either your tang or tailstock spindle is off-center, your project is going to come out a bit skew as well.
Here is a video of using a drill press as a lathe.
Pros Of A Drill Press Lathe
The quick setup is an obvious benefit of the drill press lathe over the last option.
If you are experienced in your shop, I can’t imagine the whole setup process taking more than 15 minutes.
It is also a very cheap option, provided that you already own a drill press, as all you need are a few lengths of threaded rod, two clamps, and a nut or two to keep the whole thing fixed in place.
Cons Of A Drill Press Lathe
You’ve probably already guessed a few of the pitfalls of this option. Most obviously, that is far more limited than the built lathe. And this limitation is not just a result of the small size of projects it can handle but also because the technique to turn pieces vertically will be trickier to learn.
Finally, the drill press isn’t designed with lateral forces in mind. You need to take extra care to secure your piece properly and watch that there isn’t any side-to-side play in the chuck.
My father owns an entry-level drill press that doesn’t handle later force at all and dances around like a bobblehead toy. Quite obviously, his drill press hardly works well as a drill, let alone a lathe.
Option 3: Build A Lathe With A Router
Before you think this is redundant, this option doesn’t use the router as the motor.
It is quite a bit different, and in my opinion, may very well be the coolest option of the three, albeit not necessarily the most versatile.
How To Make The Router-Lathe
For this option, instead of using the router as the motor, you will use the router as the chisel.
Like the drill-lathe, you need to build the body out of MDF or plywood, using most of the same tools and materials. However, unlike the drill-lathe, you are not limited in the length you can make it.
That’s right – build it as long as you can fit into your shop if you want because, with this option, you are not limited by the power of the motor to turn the wood.
Essentially, you will make a long box to secure the piece you are turning. The ends of the box double as the head- and tailstocks. At the tailstock end, you will want to add an adjustable spindle to accommodate different lengths of wood, or you can add a movable tailstock into the box.
You will need to build a sled or track on top of the box. The track is made to the size of your router, seating the router on top of the workpiece. The router can then slide down the entire length of the lathe.
You can use a motor or even fix a hand crank to the headstock and turn it by hand to power the whole thing. If you opt for the hand crank, it does become a two-person job on large pieces, but with some patience and loads of practice, you should be able to turn smaller pieces alone comfortably.
Once your piece is secured, set the router’s depth and turn it on. Next, slowly turn the hand crank and, at the same time, carefully slide the router down the track. A pro tip is to do several shallow cuts.
You can even use this lathe to precisely turn patterns and shapes into pretty table legs.
Here is a video on making this router lathe:
Pros Of The Router Lathe
There are three significant benefits to this option. Firstly, you are not sacrificing a power tool, as it is essentially a router jig. Secondly, of all the options here, it is the one that can handle the largest workpieces.
Your only real limitation is that it will become hard to turn and be clumsy to use at some point.
Finally, it is the option that requires the least amount of skill to learn to use.
Provided that you built it well and took the time to set up all your cuts accurately, you should get fantastic results.
Cons Of The Router Lathe
The most obvious pitfall of the router lathe is that should you opt for the manual crank option. You will need a friend to come and help you in the shop with some of the bigger jobs unless you opt to motorize it later.
Secondly, you will only be able to cut the wood with this option because it is a closed box. You can also sand and finish your products on a typical lathe after the cutting phase is completed.
There are great alternatives to a wood lathe that you can consider before you run out and spend thousands of dollars. Of course, picking the right one will depend on the job you need to do. If you quickly want to turn out tool handles, for example, then opt the drill press option.
If you need to make long table legs and get all four of them precisely the same, then the router lathe will be the option for you. Alternatively, if you want to learn to use a typical lathe and perhaps try your hand projects like making pens or lamps, then the drill-lathe will work well for you.