How to buy a vintage wood lathe

Itching for a new pastime and think woodturning might be your thing but don't want to spend a lot of money on an unproven hobby? So you troll Craigslist but lathes in your price range were hot stuff during the Eisenhower administration. Then you spy this little beauty with some scratches and patina and it calls to you. For the price of date night you could be a woodturner; but should you buy it? What are you getting into?

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 lathes by recognizable brands (Delta, Craftsman, Etc.) that were manufactured after 1945. Why? Over time popular features became standardized making it easier to reuse chucks, centers, faceplates, etc.; if you one day upgrade to a larger or better lathe. Lathes from the 1800's and early 1900's may have oddball or even one-off spindle and thread combinations that will require expensive custom adapters. The spindles may have machine tapers other than Morse or no tapers at all. Prior to about 1940 bearings on lower end lathes were likely to be bronze bushings which require frequent oiling and are a poor choice for high speed motors. Ball bearings became standard after 1950. There are good choices besides Delta or Craftsman but those two are the most common. Check the bottom of the article for a list of recommended older lathes.
Power King Tube Lathe
A quick word on "tube lathes" that instead of cast iron beds have steel tubes. They are plentiful and often cheap. My recommendation is stick with cast iron. Tube lathes have a lot of vibration and owners quickly upgrade.

Craftsman Tube Lathe
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 threaded spindles so you can attach faceplates or scroll chucks like the Nova G3. 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

Threaded spindles come in many sizes, the three most common are 1"-8 tpi (1" spindle with 8 threads per inch), 3/4"-16 tpi, and 1-1/4"-8 tpi. Lathes eventually standardized on Morse taper inside the spindle but very old lathes may have other tapers. Vintage Delta lathes are almost always 1-8 thread and #2 Morse taper in headstock and tailstock. Vintage Craftsman lathes are almost always 3/4-16 threads and #1 Morse taper in headstock and tailstock. Accessories for both sizes are commonly available and relatively inexpensive.

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 spindle turning but eventually you can add variable speed to get more utility from your lathe.

A "4 speed" lathe, note the step pulley with 4 grooves. Speeds are changed by moving the v-belt. 
Swing is the distance between the center of the spindle and the bed of the lathe, doubled. So if that distance is 4.5", it is a 9" swing lathe. The greater the swing the larger the items you can turn. Craftsman sold bajillions of 9x30 lathes, 9" swing and 30" max capacity between centers. If you want to make table legs, these 9x30 lathes are ideal. They are also useful for other spindle work like tool handles, honey dippers, spoons, cups, and small bowls. Delta lathes are commonly 11" or 12" swing and allow you a little more room for bowls and platters. Delta also sold gap bed lathes, like this 46-111, that have more swing near the headstock.

1970's Rockwell Delta 46-111 gap bed lathe


1958 Craftsman 9x30 bench lathe modified with variable speed
So what to buy? My top recommendation would be a Delta because they are common, inexpensive, and well made with a larger spindle and swing than most Sears lathes. Delta also started using ball bearings earlier than Sears. Whatever you buy, make sure it has a threaded headstock spindle (preferably sizes 1-8 or 3/4-16) and Morse taper in both head and tail stock. Look for a manual n vintagemachinery.org. 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, run the lathe for several minutes allowing the bearings to warm up. Listen for any screeching, scratching, ticking, 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.

Below is 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.]

  • Walker Turner 700 series (1938+), 10x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Walker Turner 900 series (1940+), 10x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle (swing was later increased to 12")