February 13, 2021

What are typical spindle speeds on wood lathes?


Are you wondering what typical spindle speeds on wood lathes are? What does your digital readout say? These may depend on the size of the bowl. 6-inch bowls typically need speeds of between 1000 and 1 500 Revolutions per minute (RPM). 5-inch bowls require speed ranges of between 1 200rpm and 1 800 rpm. 3-inch stock will typically require 2 000 RPM to 3000RPM (rotational speed).

lathe spindle rotating with a small wood on it.

The size of the bowl determines how much additional rotation speed you can get away with. Larger diameter bowls should run at a lower speed of rotation. Higher motor power on a large diameter of wood is a recipe for disaster. Most lathes have powerful motors. You must use the RPM readout display to keep an eye on things.

If you have a 2 inches wide or anything smaller stock, you may use speeds of about 3 000RPM. If the wood lathe has variable speed control, work from around 750 RPM.

Variable speed gives you the ability to control how fast it rotates. You can start at the lowest speed and progressively push it to the maximum speed. The goal is to find the ideal speed for your workpiece. It does not matter if you are using benchtop wood lathes or the larger ones where vibration would be reduced. Let’s go into detail and see what this means.

What is a wood lathe used for?

A wood lathe is a workshop machine that is used to shape wood with hollow shapes such as bowls, round table legs, and spoons, amongst many others.

If you want to carve a cylindrical shape, then this is the machine that you will need. There are different types of lathes, and the ones you use will depend on what you are making. These machines can be on the floor, workbench, or tables.

Why is it important to have the right spindle speed?

The right speed when spinning is an important factor and needs to allow the wood blanks or any piece of wood to be turned without any lathe vibration. If the speed is too slow, woodturning can be challenging, and if it is too fast, it can get dangerous.

A man's hand chiseling into wood on a lathe

A faster lathe than it should be can send the wood bowl flying off into the air and possibly hit you. This is why it is important to make sure that you have the right speed. Wood lathes that have variable speeds help to give you better control over your work. If it’s possible, choose this over others.

How do I decide on wood lathe speed?

Wood lathe speed is determined by different factors, including the bowl blank’s size—the type of wood that you will be using, and its thickness. You also want to make sure the lathe is stable. If it isn’t stable, find a way to bolt it to the floor or weigh it down.

You also want to make sure that the piece of wood is mounted securely to the lathe. Also, make sure that the tailstock is engaged. The wood needs to be sound in structure with no loose bark, cracks, or knots. This can cause issues for you, such as injury. If you will be turning glued pieces, use slow speeds.

an illustration of a wood lathe

The speed at which you spin a wood lathe needs to be effective and safe as well. Safety is a significant concern you need to keep in mind. The spinning speed that you choose should give you the desired result. Since there are different sized lathes, knowing the speed can be tricky. The better option is to know how best to calculate it.

The following formula works better on wood pieces that are between 3 inches and 24 inches in diameter. So as long as your bowl is between these, you can calculate the formula.

Right, where D stands for diameter measured in inches, RPM stands for revolutions per minute of the headstock. You can use the ideal lathe speed formula:

 D” x RPM = 6,000 to 9,000

6000 and 9000 being the slowest and highest speeds that you may use. And as such, to determine the speed to use, divide 6 000 by the diameter of the stock you are dealing with. The formula should look like this:

RPM = 6 000 UP TO 9 000 ÷ D”

So when you 6 000 is the dividend and the diameter the divisor, you get the slowest safest speed. Meanwhile, the fastest RPM is obtained by using 9 000 as the dividend.

Using a formula, you are almost sure that you will not need to memorize the various spinning speeds. You can calculate them using the diameter of the wood that you are working with.

As a general rule of thumb, make sure not to exceed 1 000RPM. Smaller projects like pens or chess pieces can be turned at lathe spindle speeds of about 3 500RPM, but it all depends on how comfortable you are.

What safety precautions can I take when using a wood lathe.

  • Safety has to be at the top of your list when you look at what speeds to use. One of the first things to do is to make sure there are no spinning or moving parts whenever you need to adjust.
  • Know the lathe parts well so that you will know what has the potential to rotate and what doesn’t. this can help you anticipate hazards
  • Ensure that you do not wear any loose clothing that can potentially get snagged in the machine as you work.
  • Also, wear the necessary personal protective gear, such as gloves and eye goggles, and gloves. These will help protect you as you work. 
  • Make sure to work from a safe distance. 
  • If there is a possibility to operate the machine and adjust the speed remotely, choose that option instead. 
  • Please make sure they are no loose bits and bob that can fly off.
  • If it’s your first time turning, start at a low speed.
  • Stick to the recommended speeds.
  • Make sure that your tools are sharp and ready to go. Blunt tools can be dangerous. 

Conclusion. 

Something that has helped me remember the speeds to use is that the wider the stock, the lower the speed. The speeds mentioned in this article are not law set in stone, but they are recommended.

We have found them to be effective when woodturning. It is a hobby that can be very enjoyable and very dangerous if you use speeds that are inappropriate for the wood size you are working with. Refer to the digital readout

At the end of the day, make sure that you choose an optimal lathe speed that is safe and efficient. Your level of skill also determines the correct lathe speed for you to use.

Electric motors are incredible. They come in a range of sizes. Their horsepower is integral to the functionality of the tools. There is no point using an inappropriate speed that is mismatched with your skills and end up with a botched job, or worse, hurting yourself.  Happy woodturning!

David D. Hughes
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