How Are Wood Turnings Made?

When one thinks of producing wood turnings, a typical image emerges. A person is standing at a lathe with a face shield or safety glasses in place, holding a long-handled tool, shaping the spinning wood. 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 they are produced on automated or semi-automated lathes. These can produce thousands of wood parts per day, of 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

High-speed lathes found in commercial woodturning facilities fall under such names.  Spool machines, variety lathes, back knife lathes, Mattison lathes, and in more recent times, CNC lathes are some of the more familiar ones. The choice of the wood lathe to provide optimal quality and value depends on several factors.  Typically they are 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

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. This tool is produced to the specific shape of the woodturning. They 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

Back knife lathes are ideal for long wood turnings. They are used frequently for furniture parts such as wooden legs, stretchers, and spindles. Some lathes can turn products up to 48” long.  These can have applications in many other industries, such as police batons or nightsticks, 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.  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. This allows for thin wood turnings that would otherwise be difficult to make.

Mattison Lathes

Mattison lathes are also used on longer wood turnings and operate quite differently from other lathes.  Here the tooling spins at a high speed while the wood rotates more slowly. They can be somewhat intimidating to operate since the extremely sharp steel tooling is spinning and evokes images of Edward Scissorhands!  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. Various parts can be switched to build the profile along the length of the desired wood turning.

CNC Lathes

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 it is programmed, which typically leads to 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.

To see some samples of different types of wood turnings, we invite you to visit our picture gallery.