Lathes: the mother of all machine tools

The lathe is a machine widely used in woodworking and for the machining of metal parts. Known as the mother of all machine tools, the lathe was the first machine tool that lead to the invention of other machine tools. It is used to perform turning operations in which unwanted material is removed from a workpiece rotated against a cutting tool.



One of the earliest known uses of the lathe dates back to around 1300 BC in Egypt, where a two-person lathe was developed. On the wall of the grave of an Egyptian called Petrosiris, there is a bas-relief carving of a craftsman and his assistant busy on a bow lathe.

Types of lathes

There are four main types of lathes, as follows:

Speed lathes 

These lathes are very simple in design, and consist of a headstock, tailstock, and a very simple tool post. Speed lathes are used for light machine works like wood turning, metal spinning, and metal polishing. They can generally operate in three or four different speeds. The spindle speed is very high, as its name implies.

Engine lathes

These are the most common types of lathes, seen in nearly every machine shop. Engine lathes are designed for low power operations as well as high power operations. Various lengths of engine lathes are available to accommodate different types of parts. The length can be up to 60 feet! This machine can operate at a wide range of speed ratios.

Tool room lathes

The tool room lathe is a very versatile lathe machine. It can give better accuracy and finishing than other lathes. It has a wider range of speeds, and permits different types of feeds. The tool room lathe is a great device on which to manufacture dies.

Turret lathes

These are great machines for quick operations. The turret lathe has various types of tool posts mounted on a single structure. As a number of tools are set up on the machine, the job can be completed very quickly with the help of a single setup. A capstan wheel is used to position the next tool. A sequential machining process can be done by using the turret lathe without moving the workpiece. It eliminates the error that occurs due to misalignment.

Then, depending on the modes of operation, the lathes can be classified as one of the following:

Manual lathe

With these lathes, the tool handling is done manually and so the precision of the work depends in large part on the skill of the person handling the machine.

CNC lathe

CNC lathes are completely automated lathes. We just have to feed the instructions into the computer and the lathe will perform the operations according to the data fed to the computer.

Check out the Turning Fundamentals course which introduces learners to machine tools, cutting tools, workholding devices, and cutting operations for both horizontal and vertical turning ranging from low volume job shops to high volume production.



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