While there are two separate schools of thought about whether you can, or cannot turn metal on a wood lathe, and whether or not you should even attempt to try doing it, the simple answer is that you can turn metal using a wood lathe.
But like all simple answers, there are a number of caveats attached to the process that, depending on your point of view, mean that just because you can turn metal on a wood lathe, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Turning Metal On Wood
Now that we know that it is possible to turn metal on a wood lathe, even if it isn’t advisable or the most sensible thing to do, we’re going to go into a little more detail about how you can do it while focusing on the previously mentioned caveats and taking them into account.
The primary reason why most woodworkers and metal turners pour scorn on the idea of turning metal on a wood lathe is mainly due to them believing in the old adage, “the right tool for the right job”.
Or to put it more simply, woodworkers believe that wood lathes should be used to fashion wood, while metal turners believe that metal lathes are the only tool that you should use to turn metal.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, and in doing so have hopefully satisfied those ensconced in both lathe camps, it’s time to draw back the curtain and reveal the secrets of turning metal on a wood lathe.
The first rule to remember is that while you can turn ferrous metals, it’s better to stick to turning non-ferrous metals like aluminum, copper, and brass as they are generally softer and thus easier to turn on a wood lathe.
That said, the example that we’re going to talk about, which will help us to highlight some of the problems that you’ll face while turning metal, is the metal worker’s ferrous favorite, steel.
Preparing Your Lathe
If you’re going to turn metal, or in this case steel, in your wood lathe then you’ll need to be properly prepared.
You’re going to need to make sure that the steel is tightly locked in place before you begin turning and cutting it. If you haven’t turned metal before, you’re going to be in for a shock, as it’s a lot more difficult to cut than wood, mainly because it’s a lot harder.
Honestly, if you’re going to try cutting steel freehand, you are going to run headlong into a lot of chatter (which happens when your tool begins to jump and skip over the material that you’re turning), so be ready for it.
The unavoidable chatter will almost certainly leave an incredibly rough edge on the steel that you’re turning, but as long as you’re careful and take your time, and don’t gouge the steel too deeply, you should be able to polish the rough edges off later.
Turning The Chatter Down
It is possible to reduce the amount of chatter that you’ll have to deal with while cutting your steel, and the main way to do it is by making sure that the steel you’re turning, is held as tightly as possible in your lathe.
The less movement, or flex that there is in the steel, the less likely you are to end up facing undue amounts of skipping, or chatter.
Our second tip runs directly into our third tip, and that tip is to take your time. Patience really is a virtue when you’re turning steel in a wood lathe because as metal is a lot harder than wood, it takes a lot longer to successfully turn and cut it.
And this brings us neatly to our aforementioned third tip, don’t panic if it doesn’t seem as though you’re making any progress, believe us you are.
It’ll just take a lot longer to see any discernible changes in the metal that you’re working, so take your time and don’t panic. It will take longer, but you will get there in the end.
The Old Adage - The Right Tools For The Right Job
Speed is of the essence, or rather a lack of it is.
As steel is much harder to turn than wood, you’ll need to lower the speed of your lathe and it might take you a while to find the right speed that’ll enable you to work the steel properly, but you’ll find it through a process of trial and error - when you find that sweet spot with minimal chatter, that’s the right one.
The best tool for cutting and turning steel is a gavel, and you’re better off using it in the same way that you would use a chisel to work wood, cutting off long thin strips while methodically working your way around your piece of steel.
If you want to reduce the roughness while you’re turning your steel, you can use a hard file to do it, which usually works well in conjunction with the previously mentioned sweet spot speed.
As steel is a lot harder to work than wood, turning it is really going to take it out of you, especially given that you’ll have to keep the gavel and file pressed hard to the steel for the duration of the job.
If you can use a fixed pivot point, make sure you do, as it’ll make things a lot easier.
Be Safe, Be Well
While we’re sure you’re already prepared for any eventuality in your workshop, there are a couple of additional things that you’ll need to think about when you’re turning metal.
Safety goggles are a must, and not wearing them isn’t an option. Metal shavings are hot and sharp when they fly off the main body of the steel that you’re working, and they can easily blind you or cause a permanent eye injury if you’re not wearing goggles.
And even though it runs contrary to everything that you know about working wood on a lathe, it’s not a bad idea to wear a pair of thin rubber gloves, that won’t get caught on the lathe while you’re working.
Metal splinters can be incredibly painful, and as the shavings tend to be much finer than wood, they’re also much more difficult to locate and remove, and the gloves will help to prevent them from getting stuck in your hands while you’re turning your steel.
Lastly, it’s also vitally important to remember not to attempt to pick up or clean away any of the steel shavings while you’re turning your metal, as unlike wood, when those shavings fly off the metal, they’re incredibly hot.
If you attempt to brush them away or move them without giving them a chance to cool down, you will burn yourself. So be safe and be well.
Now that you know what it involves, you’re ready to start turning metal on a wood lathe.
And in case you’re wondering why we chose steel as our example, there is a method to our metal turning madness.
If you can successfully turn steel on your wood lathe, you’ll be able to turn any other metal with ease.