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Hello,
I have been a custom machine designer for the past 12 years. While most of my time lately is spent on CAD, I began in the shop with hundreds of hours spent on an engine lathe making anything I couldn't purchase.

Recently I changed jobs and no longer have access to the machine tools I used to. My wife operates a cooking blog and has recently started selling items on it. She is interested in me making some rolling pins for her to sell. These will be 24" long and approximately 3" in diameter.

Though I am familiar with turning steel and aluminum on an engine lathe, it would appear wood turning is a significantly different operation.

First things first: I need to get a lathe. I'd prefer to start with something small and reliable. Any inexpensive models I start looking for on the used market? I'm contemplating just purchasing a small metal-turning lathe and work wood with a bit more precision than needed...

Second: if anyone else has made the transition from turning metal to wood, do you have any advise for me? Any advice in general? I know the many safety rules to follow when turning, but I'd imagine a wood lathe adds a few more....
 

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Take a look through earlier threads. Lots of people have the same questions about getting started with wood turning.

One example.
http://www.woodworkingtalk.com/f6/getting-started-56449/

If you have a local wood turning club, I recommend joining. The members will be likely eager to help your learning curve.

I am looking into getting an engine lathe to allow me to make some parts for my wood turning lathe and hand plane restorations. I have been reading a lot so have a new found appreciation of the differences.

Differences which come to mind are, in no specific order :
a) Lathe speed. Frequently faster than for metal. Running 1250 rpm or faster may be common.
b) The turning tools are hand held, not by a post. This means a lot of flexibility but also large learning curve. Possible to be close to completion of a project, doing a final clean-up pass and BANG, what we call a catch. Normally results in some damage and "design change".
c) Wood can change dimensions as you turn. If the wood is not at the same moisture as the shop, which can be common, you can start to turn, have the piece round, leave the shop for the day and return the next day to find the piece is not round due to moisture loss overnight.
d) Tolerances are loose compared to metal turning. 1/64in is very close, and no one measures in thousands of an inch since the wood moves with moisture all the time.
e) 4 jaw self centering scroll chucks are common. Metal lathes have 3 jaw self centering and 4 independent jaw chucks.
f) No lead screw, or compound. The tool post is normally positioned manually for the operation. If needed to be moved, also manual.
g) The tool rest may be at center or below depending on the turning tool.
h) Different tools for spindle turning (long and relatively thin) vs bowl turning (wide and relatively short) due to different grain presentation in spindle (face grain) vs bowl (mix of face and end grain)
i) A lot of dust can be generated, especially in sanding. Ideally have some method to extract the dust to save the lungs.
j) Many wood lathes have a handwheel on the headstock end of the lathe. Very useful for slowing down the lathe and assisting to remove chucks.
 

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I'll pass on what I've read on the banjo building forum I'm part of.

Banjo guys use metalworking lathes to turn banjo rims because of the accuracy. It allows them to turn a near perfect cylinder and to cut the ledge for the tone ring which needs to be a very specific fit. If you want to turn cylinders to make rolling pins, a metalworking lathe might be just the ticket. But, for other shapes like beads and coves, the cross slide won't be useful. The banjo guys also say that the mechanisms in metalworking lathes tend to get clogged by sawdust, whereas a woodworking lathe is better intended to deal with this. When I was looking for a lathe to turn a banjo rim, I looked at used metalworking lathes first, but machines in great shape were few and far between and the few I found were very expensive compared to similarly sized wood lathes. I ended up with a used wood lathe that came from a high school.
 
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