Because I'm a professional turner and instructor, people ask me all the time which lathe they should buy. I tell them to get the best lathe available within their budget, hopefully with at least 12" of swing (the maximum diameter it can turn) so they can turn bowls and platters as well as spindles. The ideal lathe should have loads of low-end torque, a sturdy tailstock and tool rest that stay locked, and easy speed changes (so you'll be more inclined to do it when needed).
This class of lathes hits that sweet spot between affordability and features: They all have variable-speed 110-volt motors and 1"×8-tpi spindles with no. 2 Morse tapers (so you can use common after-market accessories, such as four-jaw chucks or drive centers), and sell for from $450 to $830. Add a bed extension for $150 or less, and you can turn anything from stair balusters and baseball bats to pens and drawer knobs to bowls and vases.
Torque is king
It's simple: If a lathe offers 12" of swing, you should be able to turn a bowl of that diameter. All six models we tested can turn a workpiece that size, but some do it two to three times faster thanks to greater torque. The Delta 46-460 and Jet 1221VS have 121⁄2 " of swing, and the Rikon 70-220VSR, 123⁄4 ". In our testing they chewed through wood without bogging down, even when we made aggressive 3⁄8 "-wide parting cuts in hard maple (as shown in the opening photo).
The General International 25-200 and Penn State Turncrafter Commander will get the job done, but their drive belts routinely slipped on the hard-maple spindles and 12" green-wood bowl blanks when we pushed them as hard as we did the other lathes. Teknatool Nova's Comet II experienced similar slowing during our spindle testing, but performed better with the bowl blanks. The difference is in the pulley-and-belt systems (photos below) that transfer power from the DC motors to the drive spindles.
If you plan to turn primarily between centers, you can overcome a lack of low-end torque simply by increasing the lathe speed when roughing out blanks. But with a rough blank 6" or larger mounted to a four-jaw chuck or faceplate, you must turn it slowly, which requires greater torque.
Good vibrations? Not really
Vibration is more than a nuisance in turning: If severe, it can result in unevenly turned pieces. All the tested lathes vibrated in use until we secured them to the workbench. The Delta, General International, Penn State, and Rikon lathes have flanged legs that can easily be clamped down. But the Jet and Nova lathes come with rubber feet threaded into the cast-iron legs. You must remove these and bolt the lathe to a worksurface or plank that you then clamp down.
Despite being secured, the Rikon (mild) and Jet (significant) lathes continued to vibrate when we turned anything mounted on a faceplate or in a chuck. We suspect this results from the narrow shoulder on each machine's spindle, as shown below. (When we removed the chucked blanks and turned them on other lathes, the vibration did not occur.) Jet's Barry Schwaiger said future models of the 1221VS will have a larger diameter spindle shoulder.
Variable control makes changing speeds easier
The six lathes we tested have either two or three speed ranges, based on the number of pulleys, with complete variability within each range. Moving the belt from one pair of pulleys to another changes the speed range, and we found it easiest to do that on the Jet. With the others, restricted access or insufficient tension release on the motor pulley made changes more difficult.
Once in a speed range, you adjust the spindle speed by simply turning a dial. Easy enough, but the Jet, General International, Penn State, and Rikon lathes have digital-readout displays for more precise setting. We measured each lathe's actual speeds using digital and manual tachometers, and found only the Jet accurate to its stated speed ranges. All but one of the other models ran about 10% faster than specified.
We like having the ability to run lathes about 300 rpm or less for roughing out chuck-mounted blanks, and if you like to apply finish to completed projects on the lathe, you want it to turn as slowly as possible to avoid slinging excess finish. All but the Penn State can achieve this. (We give the General International a pass here at 315 rpm.)
All the lathes except Penn State's have reverse capability, letting you turn workpieces backward for more effective hand-sanding. But if you mostly use a power sander, you won't need the reverse feature.
Reliable tool holder a must
A banjo and its tool rest must lock securely for safe and accurate turning. All but the Nova and General International lathes accomplished this; the General's banjo repeatedly worked loose during turning, and the Nova's tool rest frequently got loose.
We like to have both a long (10–12") and short (6") tool rest for turning different shapes and sizes. You get both with the Delta, Jet, and Penn State lathes. But General International includes only a 12" rest; only 6" for the Nova and Rikon. (You can buy aftermarket tool rests for all three machines.)
Tailstock serves dual purpose
When you turn between centers, the headstock and tailstock centers must line up precisely. Without this, you get more "whip" when turning spindles, especially as they get thinner or longer. All but the Penn State delivered alignment within reasonable tolerance.
In addition to holding workpieces against the headstock, the tailstock also serves as a boring tool. When you remove the live center and install a drill chuck and bit in the tailstock's quill, you can turn the quill handle to feed the bit into a spinning blank, such as you'd do to bore out a pepper mill. To drill deeper than the quill's maximum travel, you'll have to reposition the tailstock and bore again. We prefer quills with stopped keyways, shown below, to prevent them from feeding fully out of the tailstock during use. The Delta, Nova, Penn State, and Rikon lathes have such quills.
As for tailstock live centers (ones that spin on internal bearings), we prefer those with removable center points—standard on the Delta, General International, Jet, and Rikon—because you can replace a damaged center point for much less than replacing the whole live center. See the three types of live centers below.
Indexing should be intuitive
All the tested lathes include indexing headstocks, which let you lock the spindle in place while you carve or machine elements, such as decorative designs, flutes, or dovetailed sockets, onto a blank. By locking the spindle into evenly spaced indexing stops, you ensure equal spacing for your project details. The Delta, Jet, Penn State, and Rikon lathes have 24 indexing stops, with the Delta easiest to use. The Nova lathe (with 12 stops) and the General International (36) proved confusing to use.
Delta, 866-999-1499, deltamachinery.com
General International, 888-949-1161, general.ca
Jet, 800-274-6848, jettools.com
Penn State, 800-377-7297, pennstateind.com
Rikon, 877-884-5167, rikontools.com
Teknatool Nova, 866-748-3025, teknatool.com
Download PDF of 12" Midi-Lathe Chart