|1920's-30's Goodell Pratt, not recommended for a first lathe.|
Let's narrow this down quickly -- my recommendation is limit your search to Delta or Sears Craftsman lathes that were manufactured after 1950. Why? Over time certain features became more desirable until they are now somewhat standardized making it easier to reuse chucks, centers, tooling etc. as you upgrade lathes. But prior to about 1950, oddball choices for thread sizes or tapers were more common and some of those choices fell by the wayside meaning they are largely unused (or unusable) today. Ball bearings also became more common after 1950. There are good choices besides Delta or Craftsman but those two are the most common and both standardized early. Post 1950 should keep you away from oddball stuff; late 50's is even better. In fact, the newer the better but this article is focused on lathes from 1950-1980.
What is this talk of standardization? Modern wood lathes have two ways to attach accessories, 1) threaded spindles and 2) machine tapers. The spindle is the shaft to which your work attaches on one end and power attaches on the other end. The case that holds the spindle is called the headstock. Modern lathes have threading on the outside of the spindle so that faceplates or scroll chucks like the Nova G3 can thread on. The spindle is hollow, and the working end will have a machine taper into which accessories like drive centers, drill chucks or drill bits can fit. But lathes didn't always have both threads and tapers, and it's possible for the headstock to have a taper but not the tailstock. If the lathe you are considering doesn't have both a threaded spindle on the headstock and a machine taper on head and tailstock, I would pass on it.
|This lathe has a spindle threaded on both ends so you can attach accessories to the outboard side. The silver pin is for indexing.|
|Lathe with a threaded spindle and Morse taper|
What about the motor? Most old lathes will come with a 110V motor between 1/4 - 1 HP and will have 4 pulleys on the headstock giving you 4 possible speeds. These are enough for basic turning but eventually you can add variable speed to get much more utility from your lathe.
|A "4 speed" lathe, note the step pulley with 4 grooves. Speeds are changed by moving the v-belt.|
|1958 Craftsman 9x30 bench lathe modified with variable speed|
|1970's Rockwell Delta 46-111 gap bed lathe|
So what to buy? I recommend buying a Delta or Craftsman lathe made in the 50's or later that has a threaded headstock spindle (sizes 1-8 or 3/4-16) and Morse taper in both head and tail stock. Look for a manual on vintagemachinery.org. Sometimes the manual will not tell you the tapers or thread sizes but it will be good information regardless. If the taper size isn't listed anywhere, they are easy to measure. A #1MT (Morse taper) is a little less than 1/2" across on the spindle. A #2MT is a tad over 11/16" diameter on the spindle. Before buying, have the lathe running and listen for any screeching, scratching, or grinding that may indicate bearings need replacement. Make sure the tailstock turns in and out freely and that the centers are removable from both head and tailstock. With centers in place, slide the tailstock to the headstock and check that the center points touch. A tiny amount of misalignment is not a deal killer but a big misalignment may indicate a Frankenlathe (a lathe assembled from parts of other lathes), mismatched parts, or other problems.