If you’re a hobbyist who takes pride in making every component model part from scratch, then a metal lathe needs to be part of your workshop armory. They’re huge beasts, however. They’re expensive and they weigh a staggering amount (between 355lb to 1500lbs plus). Even if you have a dozen excellent friends around to help you set up your lathe (or help you build your workshop around it) then you will need to find a way of mounting the mammoth bulk securely. For even the most experienced of machinists, this can get a little much.
A mini metal lathe weighs somewhere between 80-120lb and can be bolted down on a dedicated workbench which has already been fixed to the floor. Mini metal lathes may not have their bigger brothers’ versatility (for example, knurling metal for better grip is a little too complex for many of the mini models), but if you’re chiefly drilling holes, screwing threads, tapering metal and so on, then a mini lathe may be just what you need. They also perform neat and sometimes intricate finishing work on non-brittle plastic.
Mini metal lathes are very much a niche product for dedicated professional machinists and enthusiasts. As such, their availability has been strongly affected by the events of 2020. Thankfully there are a handful of expert-recommended mini metal lathes out there which can be tamed and furbished, with time and effort, to provide an invaluable tool for your workshop. We’ve picked 3 of the best for you here. Following that, we’ve provided a brief guide to getting the best out of your lathe.
Top 3 Best Metal Mini Lathe
OUR TOP PICK
It’s rare to find a versatile and reliable mini metal lathe under a thousand dollars, but the Erie SP2102 is a favorite among experienced machinists for its range of home shop applications. The SP2102 will handle wood and plastic as well as metal.
Once you’re up and running with this tool, you’ll find it offers excellent precision and efficiency of operation. The variable speed function of the SP2102, running up to 2500rpm from 0.53 horsepower, can be monitored on the digital read out for smooth and measured working of your material. What makes this model stand out in efficiency terms is your freedom to mount four cutting tools simultaneously, enabling you to switch cutting function quickly and easily from one stage of the project to the next.
A second stand-out feature is the screw-threading versatility at this price point. The reversible motor direction can create left-handed screws, which is a feature you’d expect from a more complex model. The SP2102 also has a range of 12 to 52 teeth per inch and a choice of metric or imperial pitches.
You may have noted the emphasis we put on the importance of experience with this little kit. Although it comes with a well-written and illustrated manual, it’s one of the more complex tools to use out of the box. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news if you’re eager to get up and running, but even if you’ve workshopped with this tool, you’ll still need to leave sufficient time to learn the specific manual functionality of the unit and step through the set-up before you can get the best out of your purchase. We recommend having a stock of excess of throwaway materials to practice on.
A couple of reviewers commented upon what looks like a spate of quality control issues upon packing and dispatch. Erie’s customer service has balanced the purchasing experience for several of these customers, who have warned about how easy it is to snap the plastic gears with rookie mistakes. The advice is that this tool will do everything you need it to when you’ve totally familiarized yourself with it, but it is a good idea to buy back-up gears in plastic and metal to widen your margin of error.
The lathe unit comes with the five-piece carbide-tipped cutter kit, MT3 spindle taper, MT2 dead-center tailstock taper, and a set of plastic change gears.
Good price point
Durable for experienced machinists
Efficient use in multi-cutting projects
Easy assembly/disassembly of chuck jaws
A little punishing for newbies
Mixed reviews about durability of component parts
This mini metal lathe comes in the ‘mini’ class, but it can handle substantially larger material dimensions than its competitors. It boasts a generous swing range that comes from 15.83” between centers and an 8¼” swing over bed dimension, giving you the freedom to turn and tool those bulkier items.
As with the Erie, you get a four-way turret tool post, reversible direction, an LED reading of your RPM, and variable speed control up to 2250rpm. However, what you also get with the BestEquip 8x6 is a better controlled slow stop on reversed gears (avoiding that screech-to-a-halt damage which happens far too easily), an adjustable tailstock, brushless motor, adjustable auto-feed rate, and robust dual splashguards which help you to work more safely from first trials and beyond.
The brushless motor goes a long way to making this a lower-maintenance unit once you’re all set up. The 750watts provide 1HP of power, which is competitively assertive. This is a beast which needs to be firmly bolted down. The power-to-accuracy ratio is a delicate balance to maintain and you won’t get the best out of this unit unless you fully restrain the movement which comes with the torque.
As with the Erie lathe, this is not ideal for beginners to use right out of the box and will require a well-paced prep and familiarization process. That said, it has been found to be more durable, featuring metal gears rather than nylon ones. At least the initial shopping around for instantly available spares is something you can cross off your cost list. It’s a good thing too because this tool comes in at an upper-middle price point of $1k-$1.2k dollars.
So that you can prep your workbench, allow for a unit 32” wide by a foot deep. The lathe comes with a spare 4” 4-jaw chuck to interchange with the 3” chuck already installed, an oil can, set of wrench and key accessories, and a storage box.
Not a beginner’s tool
High price point
This is the little brother of the 8x16” BestEquip mini metal lathe with an almost direct replication of the same features, albeit in a more compact form and a couple of downgrades to lower the price point.
It goes without saying that the swing bed is smaller (7.09”), limiting you to narrower materials, and that there’s a more limited gap between spindle centers. There is no digital reading showing your speed, though the variable speed is easy to set using the little grey knob on the console panel. The power is respectable at 550watts, still generating up to 2500rpm. Thirdly, costs have been diminished by the use of nylon rather than steel gears. It is nice that it still comes with an automatic feed and a reversible threading facility. This unit also has the four-tool turret of that ease of switching process during a project.
As simplified mini metal lathes go, this will still perform well for counter facing, decoration with intricate detail, and modeling work. It comes with a more generous package of accessories than expected, such as the shockproof foot cushions, chuck claw, chuck and double-headed wrenches, protection mask and oil can. That said you’ll need all of this to speed up the process of thoroughly lubricating, bolt-tightening and calibrating the lathe before you can get to work on it.
If you’re an experienced machinist, this won’t take you long.
Allow for a 27” by 9” footprint on your workbench and a stand which will take 110lb. One of the things that this unit has going for it is a construction of heavy iron (in the bed) and durable aluminum for that safe weight-torque ratio. This is not a petite device, as mini lathes go, so the presence of an emergency stop button is very reassuring.
Nice for turning and facing
Reports of poor durability associated with the nylon gears
Jumpy variable speed needs practice for smooth operation
Metal Mini Lathe Buying Guide
So, that’s a run-through of what the available mini metal lathes can do for you, and where they are limited. There are a few things to think about when deciding which model best fits your needs and we’ve listed those below, along with some tips on getting more out of your use of a very useful and potentially very fun tool. You can really let your imagination loose if you get your hands on a unit which does just what you want.
Budget and durability
Plastic gears have gathered themselves a sad reputation because of how soon they break after purchase (months) following moderate use. If nurtured (keeping the machine well-greased) then they will have a longer operating life. However, nylon is chosen as the non-premium solution because it has good compression strength. There is method in the apparent madness.
That said, if your preference is for metal gears and you don’t want to spend over $1000 right off the bat, you might want to get a sub-priced mini lathe (with decent engine power, like 500watts+ / 0.75 HP+) and go to littlemachineshop.com for upgrades. These guys know their lathes.
As a general principle, the best way of extending the life of your nylon gears is to introduce torque very gradually. Every time.
Importance of versatility
It goes without saying that the larger mini lathes (the depth of the swing bed being of particular importance) will give you the most choice of material shape and tool functionality, but there are a few other factors to think about when you’re wondering how your unit will perform. For example, is it important to you to have a choice of chucks available right off the bat? Do you mind if the tools measurements and indicators are purely provided in metric? Do you have cutting tools at the ready, or will you need to focus on the lathes which come with a choice? Some perspective owners find it helpful to list their ten most likely applications for the unit so that they can distinguish between necessary and preferable features.
A large part of your decision about what you’ll be using the lathe for concerns your chosen materials and your plans for those materials. Nearly all mini lathes can handle plastic and softer metals, including mild steel. The more robust mini metal lathes can handle fiber-reinforced nylon, Teflon, and similar non-brittle plastic polymers. You can lathe wood with a metal mini lathe, but do so very sparingly, and only if it’s easy for you to get your cutting tools sharpened easily.
If you’re using plastics, check the details of the heat resistance first and make sure that its robust enough to be held in place by the chuck jaws without any denting or striation damage. If you’re going to be using wide-piped plastic a lot (they make good handles) then 4-jaw chucks are better because they spread the pressure more evenly around the circumference of your material.
If you’re going to be sharing this unit or teaching someone else to use it, then check the specs for an emergency stop button and the presence of splashguards. In some tutorial groups they write up a pre-run checklist (pliers available to remove chips; eye protection; location of stop buttons; tool rest security; sufficient lubrication, and all chuck keys and wrenches removed.)
Size and workspace
Although a mini lathe is not going to occupy as much space in your workshop as a standard lathe, you will still need a semi-permanent bolting mechanism on a surface that is well within six feet of an electrical outlet. You will also need space to walk around your lathe and good lighting so that you can read the threading measurements. Most importantly, you will need to be able to store your lathe on a surface which can handle 80-120lb of steady vibrations within a small surface area.
Your personal experience
This theme has, as you’ve seen, been a primary judging criterion while we’ve reviewed these mini metal lathes. Because it’s a tool which requires a several-stage set-up before each use, and because it’s high maintenance with complex parts, a machinist course is likely to help you get the best out of it as well as learn to expand its operating lifespan. For this reason alone, a course may be cost effective.
If you’re not averse to advance book learning, then David Fenner has produced a 200+ photo guide to mini lathe projects for inspiration. It’s also worth us mentioning that there are a number of video tutorials on YouTube which can at least set the diagrams and instructions in the accompanying manual into visual context. Videos can also teach good handling tips and will typically step through the safety drills, too.
If you are very experienced and you can’t wait to get your hands on a mini lathe to furbish all those models and home crafts you’ve been itching to finish off, then you can probably dispense with the RPM digital reader if you have to. If you’re practiced in applying torque steadily, then this could become a nice-to-have feature rather than a must-have. This could bring down your costs a little.
Above all, choose a mini metal lathe which looks fun to use. Even shimming, polishing, vacuuming and greasing your lathe can be enjoyable if you know you’re getting something awesome at the end of your production process.