The Rewards (and Risks) of Stabilizing a Lathe

photo of the john lucas lathe in a woodworking shop

Photos by Multiple Sources

To fortify or not fortify my lathe: that is the question I often ponder. At one point or another most woodturners will push their lathe a bit, causing the lathe to shimmy and shake. When this happens, it not only raises safety concerns, but it also indicates that the lathe is under a good deal of stress that could potentially accelerate wear. There are varying opinions on how to best remedy this:

Add Weight

Many turners will add mass, such as bags of sand, to the lathe to provide some additional resistance to vibration. Most modern wood lathes provide some accommodation for this, like a location in the frame where a shelf can be placed to position some incremental ballast.

Bolt It to the Floor

Some turners take a more extreme approach and actually bolt their lathe down to the shop floor, delivering maximum stabilization if done properly.

No Fortification? Slow Down or Turn Something Else

Some woodturners believe their lathe is structurally designed to handle a specific load, and that any enhancement that allows the machine to spin additional mass is likely to place stress on the lathe that will accelerate its wear.

I believe there is no simple one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether or not to fortify. All lathes are designed differently and can handle different loads. This inherently means there is no universal law about how much additional weight can be added, even as a percentage of overall lathe weight.

As a general rule, I operate my lathe without any additional weight. But on a couple occasions, when I was turning something that was at the upper limits of the lathe’s capacity, I added some weight. It definitely helped to stabilize the machine, particularly during the roughing stages.

Weight added to the bottom shelf helped a little. When I moved it up and set it on the bed itself, it helped a lot more. So I understand the benefits, but when I do this it makes me wonder about the additional strain that it would place on the lathe itself.

Experts Weigh In

Should the lathe’s shake and shimmy act as a governor, telling me I’m beyond the lathe’s capabilities? Or is it telling me to take action and stabilize the machine? That led me on a discovery quest to get perspectives from some serious wood turners, as well as lathe manufacturers.

image of a wooden bowl being made

Professional bowl turner Mark Stinson is known for turning massive 20” bowls (Ambrosia maple shown above) and avoids adding weight to his lathe.

“I think I have a different view on this topic than many,” he says. “While I agree that adding weight can help, I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. A lathe’s organic weight is based upon its construction. Thinner stock, possibly smaller spindle and bearings. So, if you force a lathe to remain more stable than it wants to be for the task, I believe, you risk stressing the integrity of the machine. This is only a theory of mine. But if you take a lathe that weighs 800# and a lathe the weighs 400#, adding 400# to the lighter lathe doesn’t make it as robust and durable as a lathe that weighs that total mass organically. You can bolt the thing to the core of the earth, but you may still be stressing the welds, spindle, bearings, bed, etc., and it will not eliminate the vibration that can occur between the bed and the sliding headstock, or the bed and the banjo.”

Avid wood turner John Lucas built a box for his Powermatic lathe that holds 250 pounds of pea gravel (pictured at the top of the article).

“I have always added ballast to my lathes,” he says. “I put the weight as low as I can. This setup works pretty well but then I don’t turn a lot of big stuff. I turn a fair amount of smaller out of balance or off-center pieces and it helps quite a bit. I have every confidence that I’m operating within the lathe’s natural limitations, and that the added ballast simply stabilizes the tool and provides me with a better turning experience.”

photo of the lewis golden lathe in a woodworking shop

For turners who might consider taking things a step further and bolting their lathe down to the floor, Canadian turner Lewis Golden shared his experience. His 20” swing General Lathe is bolted into 6” of mesh-enforced concrete using ½” x 5” galvanized wedge anchors (pictured above).

“I have roughed in pieces on the outboard that’s were larger than 20 inches in diameter,” Golden says. “The machine was built at the factory to be fastened down and I believe that there is no more solid fashion, (excluding modifying the machine), to limit movement than anchoring it using the factory drilled base. This has never presented any problems whatsoever and it has not been unbolted since I bought it new 21 years ago.”

I also spoke with a couple individuals who design lathes to get their perspective. Benjamin Helshoj, designer of the Revo Lathe series for Laguna Tools, says it’s a complicated, multi-variable question.

“We do not provide any specific guidelines to our lathe customers,” he says. “I believe that it is ok to add some weight to slightly extend the capabilities of a lathe, but there is a point at which it will mask problems and potentially cause damage to the machine. In that vein, I believe that bolting a lathe to a floor is potentially a bad idea, depending on the design of the machine, as it can muffle the lathe when it is trying to tell you something important. It would be like disabling a smoke detector that is sounding an alarm so that you can get back to sleep.”

Brent English, founder of Robust Tools LLC, weighed in as well.

“I think adding weight or bolting a lathe to the floor will certainly make the lathe more stable, and may improve the experience at the lathe for the turner,” English says. ”It’s important not to impart a twist on the lathe bed as that will negatively affect alignment. But I think if you’re adding weight and/or bolting the lathe to the floor to mitigate a weak or light weight lathe you may be setting yourself up for a false sense of security. If the lathe is shaking, that’s nature’s way of telling you to slow down and/or get things more balanced. The wood will fail before the lathe will, and failed wood flying off the lathe is not to be trifled with.”

Based on my own experience, and after getting input from several knowledgeable sources, I feel comfortable adding some weight to my lathes. I will occasionally add a couple sandbags, particularly when turning on a midi or midsized machine, but I rarely feel the need to do this on my 24” lathe.

Given some of the massive chunks of wood that I turn, weighing over 100 pounds in some cases, I wouldn’t feel comfortable bolting a lathe to the shop floor without first having a conversation with the manufacturer about the potential risks. If you are operating within the limitations and design of the lathe, then bolting it down might be an option, but with the “smoke alarm disabled” you are left to your own instincts as to what the lathe can handle.

What’s your opinion: bolts, weights or au natural?

Discussion
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15 Responses to “The Rewards (and Risks) of Stabilizing a Lathe”
  1. Wilfred Lyon
    Wilfred Lyon

    My experience is with metal turning lathes. Generally they are much more massive than wood turning lathes. We did not bolt them down but were very careful to level the bed ways in the horizontal plane. Any twist or slope translated into tapers and poor cut quality. Later in life, I worked with inherently vibrating machinery and learned the use of vibration isolation pads. These function like the motor mounts on an automobile engine and just like an engine, when thing get unbalanced, they shake. To be effective the pads must be designed for weight and rpm. The formula gives an distance that the weight must compress the dampener. Generally if the dampener is designed for the lowest rpm, then it is quite effective at higher rpms.

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  2. Ronald
    Ronald

    For a lathe, I would try to get the lathe as level as possible, then try to fill in any gaps between the lathe feet and the floor. If you weight down the lathe without all the feet touching the floor or filling in the space, you could run the risk of unnecessary stress and over time possibly cracking your stand or legs, if you use it a lot. If the lathe is leveled correctly and the gaps between the feet and the floor are properly addressed, you should notice a lot less vibration. Then you may not have to worry about the lathe moving as much if at all. If the lathe still moves a little, you can put the sandbags around the feet or bolt them to the floor. But the long term risk of cracking part of the frame, legs, etc should be reduced significantly. Also without proper leveling, the lathe risks being slightly out of alignment, making some projects difficult to get the results you want. I also really liked Wilford Lyons respond. Best thing to do is find out what the manufacturer recommends.

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  3. Robert Macomson
    Robert Macomson

    Reminds me of my father working in a machine shop in younger days. Long steel shafts were being turned and one had a definite eccentricity at the far end. Someone (not Dad) suggested holding the eccentric end with a pillow bearing mounted to the building’s frame. Once this was done and the lathe was switched on, the shaft ran straight and true. However, the building wobbled and shook until the lathe was turned off. If there is vibration, bumping, etc, something is out of balance/running eccentric e.g. uneven densities in workpiece, bad spindle bearings, mismounted chuck, etc. Getting rid of the vibration with weights or bolts will stop the visual and physical signs but the forces creating the vibration are still there and can show up as cracked lathe frame, spindle bearing wear and fatigue and cracks in other parts of the machinery. Think of the pilot of an airliner doing a “walk around” the plane looking for metal dust, leaks, metal splinters that were caused by vibration no one could feel. All that being said, I appreciate others’ opinions and plan to use sandbags on my bench mounted lathe and see if I can get smoother turning. Thanks for listening.

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  4. Jacque Gray
    Jacque Gray

    Good discussion all points being good. My first lathe work was on a main shaft and in reality rather slow speed. Old Harry who ran the cabinet shop would tighten the belt and I would begin to turn. He got me on two points: 1) Make sure your tool is very sharp and 2) cut the wood, don’t scrape. Watch the Russian Lathe Knife on YouTube.

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  5. Darrel
    Darrel

    I have a Vega bowl lathe on wheels so I can turn outside. Obviously, when I turn eccentric forms, it moves around a bit. I find an ideal speed for the piece and just let it find a frequency with which I can cooperate and work with. Sometimes I add counterbalances to smooth the rotation. Having mobility outweighs any advantages of additional weight or bolting to the floor.

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  6. John Wolf
    John Wolf

    A lathe vibrates or even walks across the floor because of an out of balance piece being spun at a speed greater than the lathe can safely hold in the current mounting situation. Adding weight to the lathe or bolting it to a bench or floor will help with vibration without addressing the cause. Hand saws, band saws and chain saws are good tools for quickly removing the “non-round” parts rather than stressing the mounting methods, spindle bearings and other parts of the lathe. A piece that shakes the lathe and you probably isn’t safe. Ask a friend with a larger lathe for help, or perhaps a local turning club has a bigger lathe. Few projects are worth getting injured. A shaking lathe is just asking for something to go wrong.

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  7. Bill Mechura
    Bill Mechura

    Anytime there is vibration it’s telling you something is out of balance. It goes without saying you insure your lathe is level and vibration free when you first set it up. So when nothing is on the machine and no vibration it’s your object that’s causing it. I love the smoke detector logic! In my humble opinion adding weight or bolting to the floor is only masking the potential failure to take place. So when it’s starts to vibrate slow down and remove the excess material if it is out of round and if it’s still vibrating at higher speeds it’s time to make that critical decision is it worth it??

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  8. Louis Barry
    Louis Barry

    Bolt it to the floor if possible. Be sure to use shims to avoid twisting the bed.

    Reply
  9. Dennis Goodrum
    Dennis Goodrum

    I was an avid woodworker many years ago and then became a Machine Designer/Mechanical Engineer (graduate of MIT). I have never designed a lathe. My 2 cents worth. The more stable you an make a machine the better. When things begin to vibrate a machine can tear itself apart however you need to remain vigilant to vibration. You should still be able to feel or see vibration when something is out of whack. Stop and do something different, forget this project, use different materials, slow down or get a different machine.

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  10. Bill
    Bill

    I am a fairly new turner since I retired. I was an aircraft engineer. In my experience vibration is never good unless tamping down concrete or sifting flour. My lathe is not weighted or bolted down. If it shakes about it is telling me something is out of balance. Then I go slower or shift centre or chop off a bit.

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    • John Besharian
      John Besharian

      LOL! ” … vibration is never good unless tamping down concrete or sifting flour.” Indeed. As a 9 or 10 year old in the ’50’s, mom once let me make biscuits. Somehow, I missed the leavening and when I took them out of the oven and turned to put them on the counter I dropped one. It hit the floor with a “Thud”, the dog walked over, took a sniff and walked away. I was crestfallen. Yes, they had more the consistency of cinderblocks than anything less solid. Thanks for stirring this 80 year old’s memory banks.

      Reply
  11. Chad Daniel Holt
    Chad Daniel Holt

    I just finished bolting my lathe to the floor. I haven’t had any bad vibration that made me do it. It’s just a little bit bigger than my midi lathe. I think I did it because the stand It’s mounted on doesn’t look strong enough. I’m also adding a shelf to make sure that there isn’t any twisting action going on. Hopefully, I could notice any problems even though it’s bolted and fortified.

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  12. Rev. Andy Levine
    Rev. Andy Levine

    I come from a CNC machine builders background. High precision CNC lathes sometimes have the base filled with concrete or similar. Wood lathes without a cast Iron base especially, will twist somewhat. The key is to take out the twist using leveling bolts at the floor and with high precision levels, checking that the ways of the Z axis slides are perfectly level along the entire length from the head to the tail stick. It takes a lot of tweaking on the leveling bolts but once there, and locked down to the floor, you’ll always be perfectly aligned because you took the twist out.
    This is way overkill for most woodworking but it’l keep Your lathe running true and steady. Vibration is your clue that something is wrong and spinning an unbalanced chunk of wood too fast is a setup for disaster.

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