|1920's-30's Goodell Pratt, not recommended for a first lathe.|
Let's narrow this down quickly -- my recommendation is focus your search on cast iron by recognizable brands (Delta, Craftsman, Etc.) lathes that were manufactured after 1945. Why? Over time popular features became standardized making it easier to reuse chucks, centers, faceplates, etc. as you upgrade lathes. Lathes from the 1800's and early 1900's may have oddball or even one-off spindle and thread combinations that will require custom adapters. Machine tapers were not yet standardized and they may have Morse. Prior to about 1940 bearings were likely to be bronze bushings which require frequent oiling and are a poor choice for high speed motors. Ball bearings became 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. Check the bottom of the article for a list of older lathes that are suitable for modern beginners.
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? My top recommendation would be a Delta because of the larger spindle and swing. 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.
A list of vintage lathes that are good candidates for modern use. All lathes listed below have ball bearings or roller bearings, cast iron bed, a #1 or #2 Morse Taper, same taper in the headstock and tailstock, and a common spindle size. Years noted are the oldest I've been able to verify for a particular model, earlier years may not have ball bearings, tapers, or other conveniences. If no year is listed then I believe all years of that model to be the same. I welcome your contributions. Check back for updates.
Format: Manufacturer | Model | Earliest Year | Size | Bearings | Taper Size | Spindle Size | Notes
How to read the size: a 12x36 lathe will have a swing of 12" (the spindle is 6" from the lathe bed) and 36" between centers.
- Power King Deluxe (1933+), 11x36, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Power King 7100, 10x37, ball bearings, 1MT, 3/4x16 spindle
- Power King 7120, 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Sears Craftsman 103 (1948+), 9x30, ball bearings, 1MT, 3/4x16 spindle
- Sears Craftsman (1940+), 10x36, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle [Was advertised as a 10x54, 54 being the length of the bed. Sears had a long history of exaggerating specs up through the 1980s]
- Delta 930 (1935 and later), 11x37, Timken roller bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Delta/Rockwell 46-111, 11x36, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Delta 1460 (1940+), 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Delta 46-305 and variants, 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Delta 46-400, 12x38, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Powermatic 45, 12x39, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Powermatic 90, 12x38, ball bearings, 2MT, 1-1/2x8 spindle
- General 160, 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
- Montgomery Ward/Duro, 14x38, ball bearings, 2MT, 1-1/8x7 spindle [this is an uncommon spindle size but Teknatool does have it on their list of adapters.]