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As you can tell by reading some of the other posts the off brand lathes are sometimes quite useful. I'm not going to use the works great because when you turn on a really good lathe you instantly know the difference. However we all got started on the cheapest thing we could afford.
Here's a little list based on what I've owned and problems I've had and hopefully will help you out when looking for your first lathe.
First of all nothing beats cast iron. All those angle iron lathes will walk all over your shop. They are too light and worse than that is that they flex so if not bolted down perfectly square the tailstock may not align with the headstock. I would stay away from them if you can. That doesn't mean you can't turn smaller items like candlesticks, tool handles etc. but they suck for bowls. They simply vibrate and flex too much.
Check the slowest speeds. If your going to turn bowls you want at least 500 rpm. Slower would be better.
Check the spindle size. The common sizes that are easy to find chucks, faceplates, etc for are 1"x8TPI and 1 1/4"x8 TPI and M33. 3/4"x 16 is less common but still out there. 1 1/2" x 8 is an older common size. All others are very hard to find adaptors for.
#2 and #1 morse tapers in the tailstock are quite common. Other sizes or tailstocks and headstocks that don't have a hole tapered for these two should be avoided.
More horse power is almost always better. 1/2 horse is OK for mini lathes. 3/4 should be minimum for a 12" swing lathe. 16" swing should ideally be more than 1 horse
Hard to check when your buying online but the cheaper lathes have problems with the tailstock locking positively and sometimes the banjo as well. If you can check these out before you buy it would be to your advantage. Even the Jet mini has tailstock locking problems but not as bad as the cheaper copies.
Check the castings. If they are poorly finished or have pits in them then I would worry about the more critical parts like motor, switches, bearings, etc. If they spend the time it takes to clean up the castings so there aren't sharp edges and the bed is ground clean then they probably put decent parts in the rest of the machine.
Be aware that DC variable speed drives loose a huge amount of power in the lower speed ranges. So even if it says 500 rpm in the slow range you will cuss every time you turn a bowl. Ideally you have enough pullys to adjust so that the slow speeds fall in the mid to higher ranges of the DC motor so you have some decent power.
mechanical variable speed such as reeves drives work but require a clean and lube every now and then. The high quality lathe that have this type of drive usually work pretty well. The cheap ones can be a real headache. I had a $500 Delta lathe with this drive and it vibrated, made noise and required frequent clean and lube to keep it working. Best thing I ever did was get away from that lathe.
I've turned a lot of work on all of these kinds of lathes so naturally it can be done. But let me tell you, when you step up to even a good quality mini lathe like the Jet or new Delta you will really appreciate the difference in quality. And if you go even higher to the Nova 16/24, or Jet 1642, man what a joy to turn on. I'm not sure I slept for 3 days after getting the Powermatic 3520. You just couldn't get the grin off my face.
What I'm trying to say is if at all possible don't buy the lower end stuff. Save your money and get a good lathe. It will pay off in the long run.
 

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I've said this in other threads before, buy it once and buy it right. That doesn't always have to mean the most expensive, but you usually get what you pay for.
 
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