A lathe is a tool that rotates the workpiece about an axis of rotation to perform various operations such as cutting, sanding, knurling, drilling, deformation, facing, and turning, with tools that are applied to the workpiece to create an object with symmetry about that axis.
Lathes are used in woodturning, metalworking, metal spinning, thermal spraying, parts reclamation, and glass-working. Lathes can be used to shape pottery, the best-known design being the potter's wheel. Most suitably equipped metalworking lathes can also be used to produce most solids of revolution, plane surfaces and screw threads or helices. Ornamental lathes can produce three-dimensional solids of incredible complexity. The workpiece is usually held in place by either one or two centers, at least one of which can typically be moved horizontally to accommodate varying workpiece lengths. Other work-holding methods include clamping the work about the axis of rotation using a chuck or collet, or to a faceplate, using clamps or dogs.
Examples of objects that can be produced on a lathe include screws, candlestick holders, gun barrels, cue sticks, table legs, bowls, baseball bats, musical instruments (especially woodwind instruments), crankshafts, and camshafts.
The lathe is an ancient tool, with the first known representation dating to the 3rd century BC in ancient Egypt. Clear evidence of turned artifacts have been found from the 6th century BC: fragments of a wooden bowl in an Etruscan tomb in Northern Italy as well as two flat wooden dishes with decorative turned rims from modern Turkey. More tenuous evidence exists from a Mycanean Greek site as far back as the 13th or 14th century BC.There is also evidence of use in Assyria and India. 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 ancient Chinese dating to the Warring States era also used rotary lathes to sharpen tools and weapons on an industrial scale.
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.
Exact drawing made with camera obscura of horizontal boring machine by Jan Verbruggen in Woolwich Royal Brass Foundry approx. 1778 (drawing 47 out of set of 50 drawings)
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.