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Chapter 2: The workshop and equipment

2.1 The workshop

The first thing anybody taking up woodturning must contemplate is where they are going to put their lathe and other equipment. This obviously depends on the size and amount of the equipment and the working space required. But there are other considerations. The three most important are questions of noise, dust and security.

I have heard of turning being carried out in locations as diverse as a flat, an attic and a greenhouse. To some extent, therefore, the location of the workshop depends on the ingenuity and determination of the turner. However, in the discussion which follows I am going to assume that the workshop will be somewhere outside the house (or domestic area).

Woodturning itself, that is to say work on the lathe, is not very noisy, but some of the activities which are associated with it can be a cause of nuisance. How much noise can be tolerated by the family and the neighbours depends partly on their life styles and characters and partly on the amount of noise coming from the general environment.

The attitude to noise of people living under the flight path of Heathrow or near a busy motorway will be different to that of those living in a quiet close on the outskirts of town. I know from experience that noise, or other people's perception of noise, can cause problems and needs to be considered.

Woodturning causes a good deal of mess. Not dirty dirt but lots of dust and small shavings. This can be reduced by the use of a dust extractor but cannot, by any means, be eliminated. This may cause problems if the woodturning is to share workshop space with some other activity.

It should be mentioned in passing that shavings refuse to be confined to the workshop; even when protective clothing is worn they find their way into pockets, shoes, underclothing and all sorts of unlikely places, and are subsequently deposited all over the house. The only way I have found to deal with this menace is to keep a rechargeable hand-held vacuum cleaner in a convenient place with which to pick up the offending particles. Nevertheless, unless one has a tolerant partner, the emergence of errant shavings can easily be a source of conflict. I admit I find them a nuisance myself, but this nuisance is a small price to pay for the pleasure of turning.

It is difficult to say what is the minimum size for a workshop. In some cases it depends on whether the space is to be shared with another activity or whether some ancillary equipment can be located elsewhere. At the minimum the working space must house a lathe and a grinder and provide the turner with sufficient room to manipulate the tools. As there are some very small lathes on the market a bench space, of say, 3ft by 1ft might be sufficient. This would, however, limit the turner to very small work. So, as with many other activities, the turner's requirements in respect to space and equipment depends on his aspirations and his resources. The result is likely to be some sort of compromise.

There are two basic ways of looking at this problem. The turner could look at the work space available and ask: "what can I get into here?". Or he could decide what equipment he would like and then ask: "how much space do I need and how am I going to find it?" The most likely approach, however, is some combination of these. In practice many aspiring turners see the garage as the obvious place to use; but this space may also have to be share with the family car, the garden tools, the lawn mower and, possibly, some other large item such as a freezer.

2.2 Moving equipment

The use of the garage has one advantage over other places in that cars are designed to be moved. So, even if the car is not permanently banished from the garage, it can be moved outside whilst turning is in progress. However, when the car is in the garage the space for storing equipment may be very limited. As a consequence it may be necessary to move equipment back and forth from a storage position to a working position. If this is not to deter its use it needs to be done as easily as possible.

The means of achieving this may be applicable to other restricted working spaces so some ideas are set out in this paragraph. The most obvious way of making items easier to move is to put them on wheels. Industrial castors, which can be obtained from the larger DIY stores, are ideal. If the item is not too heavy it might be enough to put a pair of castors under one end only. In the case of a lathe this would be under the headstock end which is always the heaviest. However, lathes in particular, need to be mounted so that they are free of vibration, and castors may cause a problem in this respect.

The answer to this problem is to have some means of lifting the whole assembly off the ground and inserting something solid, such as block of timber, under the bench so that the castors are clear of the ground. A lever could be used to lift the end of the assembly whilst a block is inserted, but one person might find this difficult on his own. An alternative would be to use a car jack. A neat idea would be to have a jack permanently attached to the bench so that it could be wound up and down quickly and easily.

2.3 A separate workshop

Many turners, like myself, start off in the garage and then aspire to a space which can be dedicated to turning. Others may decide to start as they mean to carry on and set up a separate workshop from the outset. Not many are fortunate enough to be able to have a brick (or similar solid structure) to house their precious equipment. But some can afford a wooden shed. As a place to work in this is fine, particularly if it is well insulated. I use one myself.

There are, however, two possible problems with a timber building: fire risk and security. Some insurers will not consider such buildings for these reasons. If care is taken the fire risk should not be very terrible, but security is another matter. It is very difficult to make the typical shed secure against a determined thief.

Having said that my only experience of theft happened when thieves broke into a workshop which was in a brick building with a strong door secured with a heavy padlock. The thieves cut the lock off with bolt cutters. This workshop was in a museum and was open to the public in the day-time but was deserted at night - the worst possible situation. They took all my powered hand-tools: hundreds of pounds worth of drills, saws, a router, and similar items. But they took no turning tools, and no big items such as lathes or a dust extractor. It is possible the thieves might have come back for more but I immediately vacated this workshop.

What conclusions can one draw from this? One, is that security is affected by the environment. Another, possibly, is that turning tools are relatively unattractive to thieves because they are difficult to dispose of. In addition, the large pieces of equipment will be left alone by the casual thief but will not always be safe.

I learned three important things from my experience. One is to keep the existence of the workshop known to as few people as possible. Another is to keep the more expensive hand tools out of the workshop in a more secure place. In case all precautions prove futile it is advisable to take out insurance. The Association of Woodturners of Great Britain (AWGB) run an excellent scheme in conjunction with insurance brokers which provides the relevant cover at very competitive rates. Membership of the Association is worth the money for this alone.

2.4 The electricity supply

Whatever space is used for the workshop it will be necessary to ensure that the electricity supply is safe and adequate. Ideally, a qualified electrician should be consulted. In any event there are two suggestions I would make. Try to run all the equipment through one double pole switch of the required amperage. On leaving the workshop at the end of a session this can be switched off, so making sure that every piece of equipment is isolated from the mains supply. Many workshops have a concrete floor which can be a source of danger from electric shock - this danger can be reduced by fitting an earth trip.

Lighting is another thing which needs to be considered. Fluorescent tubes are good for general lighting but many turners prefer tungsten lights over the lathe. Stroboscopic effects can often be a nuisance (or even dangerous) when turning - tungsten light is better in this respect. It also provides lighting which is less flat than that from fluorescent tubes. Shadows help turners to see what is happening on the surface of their work and to spot defects.

2.5 The equipment

The most obvious piece of equipment required for the prospective turner is of course a lathe. There is a variety of lathes on the market today. With lathes, as with many other things, you get what you pay for, but even the cheapest lathe may represent a considerable outlay for the person with only limited funds to spend on a hobby. Unfortunately, expenditure does not stop at the lathe. Two other things are essential: a basic set of tools (see Chapter 3) and a grinder (see Chapter 4). Once the beginner has learned the basic techniques, and gained some confidence, a number of other purchases will begin to beckon. These will include a combination, or scroll chuck, a bench drill, and sundry small items such as callipers, and a dressing stone for the grinding wheels.

Other things which may appear on the wish list will be a Jacobs' chuck, a band-saw and a long-hole boring kit. And, of course, some suitable wood will be required. I mention these things because they add considerably to the expense. The prospective turner is liable to fail to take this into consideration. It needs to be borne in mind.

Some points can be made about the choice of some of these items. First and foremost: the lathe. Rule number one is to buy the biggest lathe one can afford: whilst the smallest items can be turned on a big lathe, large items cannot be turned on a small lathe. If a suitable second-hand lathe can be found so much the better. A lathe is a pretty basic piece of machinery; as long as the bearings are in good condition, and the tailstock aligns properly with the headstock, there is not much more to worry about. If it later becomes necessary to sell the lathe, either because it is not used or the owner wishes to upgrade to a better one, then very little money should be lost.

Bowl turning will require a larger lathe than spindle turning. It also needs to be borne in mind that bowl turning is difficult over the bed of the lathe (particularly for a left-handed person) and that the maximum size of the bowl that can be turned is determined by the distance between the drive centre and the bed bars. For bowl turning the lathe will ideally have an outboard turning facility or a swing head.

Outboard turning arrangements require an extension of the drive shaft on the left-hand side of the headstock so that the turner can work on that side. This has two disadvantages: (1) a considerable amount of space is required to the left of the lathe; and (2) when viewed from the left-hand side the head will be seen to be rotating clockwise. The latter point means that the shaft on the outboard side, and face plates and chucks to be used on it, have a reverse thread. This leads to additional expense. Because of the disadvantages of the arrangements for outboard turning the swing head has become more popular and most new lathes of any size have this facility.

Other considerations when buying a lathe are the choice between fixed speeds or variable speeds, as well as the speed range. An important aspect for the turner who wishes to turn large bowls is the availability of a low speed. The most expensive option, but the best, is the electronic variable speed, as long as it provides sufficient torque at the bottom end of the range. Otherwise, given the availability of similar speeds at the low end, there is probably not a lot to choose between 5 or more speeds on a pulley system and a mechanical variable speed system but, with another proviso, that the speeds on a fixed pulley system should be easy to change.

The cheaper lathes have only 3 speeds on a fixed pulley system. This has its limitation in terms of control over the work but nevertheless many turners manage with it quite adequately. It does help if the 3 speeds provided cover a suitable range. The first lathe I bought had only three speeds: 750, 1500, and 3000 rpm. In my view this was a very poor selection particularly as this lathe had a generous 9 in. swing. Given just three speeds a much better selection would have been something like 500 (or lower if possible), 1250 and 2000 rpm.

Often, the problem is that the lowest speed is determined by limitations on the sizes of the smallest and largest pulleys. The smallest pulley must be large enough to fit on the motor shaft and the largest must fit inside the headstock casing. It should be remembered that most motors for lathes run at 1500 rpm. As a consequence the choice of the lowest speed is determined by the size of the largest pulley which will fit into the headstock. This is just one of the points that must be considered when buying a lathe.

Factors such as the length of the bed and the power of the motor depend on the type of turning which will be undertaken. Without knowing about this it is difficult to generalise.

Check list on choosing a lathe

© Brian Clifford (June 1999)
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