Wood Turnings

When one thinks of producing wood turnings, the image of standing at a lathe with face shield or safety glasses in place and holding a long handled tool to shape the spinning wood is the typical image.  While this happens in small scale operations and home workshops, production scale wood turnings have been done quite differently for decades and are evolving with modern technology.

The reality of commercial wood turnings is that automated or semi-automated lathes can produce thousands of wood parts per day at exactly the same shape and size with minimal human labor, equating to lower cost. These lathes operate from rough sawn squares or wood dowels being fed into the lathes and producing simple to elaborate wood turnings.

Some lathes that are used to turn wood are:

  • High Speed Lathes
  • Spool Machines and Variety Lathes
  • Back Knife Lathes
  • Mattison lathes
  • CNC lathes

High speed  lathes found in commercial wood turning facilities fall under such names as spool machines, variety lathes,  back knife lathes, mattison lathes, and in more recent times, CNC lathes.  The choice of the wood lathe to provide optimal quality and value depends typically on the length of the turning, the quantities required and in some cases the specific shape.  Quantities of small wood turnings that can be produced in a single day can reach as high as 10,000 pieces with a well maintained lathe and proficient operator.

Spool machines and variety lathes make such products as wooden furniture knobs, shaker pegs, toy parts, wood balls, craft items, and tool handles. These lathes use a fixed tool typically costing a couple hundred dollars, produced to the specific shape of the wood turning and these lathes require considerable time and proficiency to set-up, but once running, are extremely fast, at times generating a turning every few seconds.

Back knife lathes are ideal for long wood turnings and used frequently for furniture parts such as wooden legs, stretchers and spindles. Some lathes can turn products up to 48” long and have applications for many other industries, such as  police batons or night sticks,  baseball bats, tool handles, and drumsticks.  Tooling costs for these products can be quite high, running more than $ 100 per inch for the length of the turning, so larger scale production runs in the thousands are typically required to offset tooling costs.  The concept of this tool is that it steadies the wood during turning, allowing for thin wood turnings that would otherwise be difficult to make.

Mattison lathes are also used on longer wood turnings and operate quite differently from other lathes in that the tooling spins at high speed while the wood rotates more slowly.  They can be somewhat intimidating in operation, since the extremely sharp steel tooling is spinning and brings to mind Edward Scissorhands, on a larger scale . These lathes are ideal for wood turnings with square sections along their length such as balusters, newel posts, table legs, and bedposts.  Tooling for this can be somewhat modular in being able to switch out various parts to build the profile along the length of the desired wood turning.

CNC lathes are extremely versatile and are ideal for relatively small runs of one to a few hundred turnings.  Tooling is not required , but rather programming, which is typically modest costs. Ideally if designers can submit CAD files, this can be readily converted into the desired wood turning.  CNC lathes are advancing in speed and versatility and are ideal for the smaller volume runs of short as well as longer length turnings.