There is no simple answer to this question. Before you purchase a lathe do your homework. Pickup a woodturning book, read articles on the web and watch woodturning videos. Find a local woodturning club and attend a meeting or two, ask questions, visit a woodturner’s shop. You don’t need to own a lathe to attend a meetings. Woodturning can be an expensive hobby, therefore, a little due diligence from the start may possibly save you some frustration and money in the end.
Start by asking yourself several questions.
What is my budget? Woodturning can be an expensive hobby but it doesn’t have to be to get started. A good lathe will range from $300 to $12,000 not including turning tools, chucks, tool sharpening equipment, chainsaw, and other miscellaneous equipment. Be careful investing in used equipment. If you are thinking of going this direction get a club member to help you check it out before you buy. Remember there are two reasons why people sell used lathes. They no longer turn and the lathe is starting to have problems, so use caution here. Buy the best lathe you can afford. The web is a good resource for equipment reviews and price comparisons. Spend some time doing your homework before you buy. Another excellent resource is the members of a turning club. We are very willing to talk about our lathes and the equipment they would recommend or not recommend. If you choose to start with a small inexpensive lathe to make sure you enjoy woodturning, that’s fine. Just be aware that you will likely be lathe shopping again in the not to distant future. The good thing is that your inexpensive first lathe will make a great dedicated polishing station in the future. Neal Addy has a very good lathe specifications chart on his web site www.nealaddy.org/pub/lathe_list.html. While he does not make recommendations, he gives you a lot of information; if you click on the name of the lathe manufacture it takes you to their website for more details.
The second thing to consider is what do I want to make? If you plan to turn pens and smaller things then your needs are far different from the person who wants to turn large bowls and hollow forms. Think ahead, plan for what you might want to make in the future. A good friend once told me “remember, you can turn small things on a big lathe but you can’t turn big things on a small lathe.”
The next thing to consider is how much room do I have for my lathe and turning supplies? Unless you are planning to turn long spindles you do not need a long bed lathe. Among the most important things to consider are motor size , speed adjustment and the swing of the lathe. The swing is the the distance from the center of the headstock spindle to the bed of the lathe, doubled. A lathe measuring 6 inches from the center of the headstock spindle to the bed of the lathe has a 12 inch swing. The maximum diameter of wood you can turn is 12 inches in theory. The maximum diameter will be reduced by the thickness of the banjo if the length of the wood is longer than your tool rest can reach. The banjo is the part that holds the tool rest in place and slides along the bed of the lathe.
The next thing to think about is what type of electrical power do you have available, 110v or 220v? Smaller lathes operate on a 110v outlet. Lathes with a 2 hp motor, or larger, may require a 220v outlet. Check to see if your electrical panel has any available space and contact a licensed electrician for the installation.