I bought a little minilathe about 4 years ago, and whether or not they’re worth buying is always a heated debate on the internet. You’ll see the flamboyant haters, the definite “maybe” group, and the complete enthusiasts that want nothing more than to spend their time playing and upgrading their little toy.
So is a minilathe worth it? Maybe. As with anything in the machining world, whether or not a piece of equipment is “worth it” depends entirely on what you want to do with it. It can be a lot of fun to use, or you could be entirely frustrated with it.
Ok, so not the most complete answer. In this post, I’ll share my experience with my own “old faithfulish” and give you some pointers that can help you decide if a little machine would be worth spending some money on.
So just so you guys know, I felt compelled to write this post because I saw a lot of reviews of these minilathes by people who are not machinists (like not even close) and clearly have no clue what they’re talking about. I’m not a total enthusiast of these machines, but I felt annoyed enough by these popular uneducated reviews that I figured I should at least share my honest opinion as a guy that actually knows how to do stuff on a lathe other than polish shafts. Rant over.
What’s a Minilathe?
To start off, minilathes are nothing new. They’ve been around for a long time, but they’ve really exploded in popularity with online shopping.
To be clear, I’m not referring to toolroom lathes, like those little benchtop 6″x20″ Colchesters. Those little machines are awesome, but they’re usually pretty old and tired if you’re finding them at the same price point as a minilathe. Even still, if you’ve got it in the budget for a toolroom lathe, definitely pick one up (as long as it’s been taken care of reasonably).
There are actually a handful of different little machines out there that you could describe as a “minilathe”. One type is this little lathe produced by Sherline (I also happen to have one of these – the CNC version). This isn’t the one I’m talking about in this post, since it’s not the machine that’s most commonly referred to with that name.
The Sherline minilathe is a tiny little machine that can come either as a manual lathe or upgraded with stepper motors as a combination CNC/manual machine. They’re honestly a lot of fun to play with, and I’ve made some nifty trinkets on mine. But they have their own set of pros and cons, so that’s a toy for another post.
What I’m talking about here is the minilathe that you’ll see plastered all over Ebay, Amazon and in stores like Harbor Freight. If you want to take a look at one yourself, here’s one on Amazon. If you click that link, you’ll also get to see how they’re usually priced. It’s the relatively low cost that makes these machines appealing.
The most common machines out there are arguably the 7×14’s. This means that they can technically turn something up to 7″ in diameter and up to 14″ long. I say technically because there are a ton of caveats to that statement, and you will never be able to have a workpiece that’s actually 7″ diameter and 14″ long.
There are also some longer and short machines out there, like 10″, 12″, 18″, and probably a few more. the 7″ swing is pretty common though.
Are All Minilathes Created Equally?
This is absolutely a worthwhile question. Is there a particular brand that’s better than the others? Could the online reviews be incomplete or biased because some people are buying the cheaper of the cheap lathes than the others are?
From what I’ve seen:
You’ll see different “brand names” out there, but from every indication that I’ve seen, they’re all basically the same. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if every “minilathe” in the world is made in a single factory, painted different colors and branded with different stickers.
So really, I’d have a hard time being convinced that a 7×14 selling for $900 is better than a 7×14 selling for $700 unless it has different features. It might come with different accessories that could justify it, possibly an extra feature or two, but I’d pretty well always default to cheaping out given the choice. I’d rather have $200 than not have $200 after buying a little toy like this.
The one exception to this is horsepower. Some are 250W motors, some are 350W motors, and some are 500W. Horsepower is by far the most limiting thing on these machines, so in my opinion it’s worth spending a little more for the 500W machines unless you’re very, very patient.
What’s the Quality Like on a Minilathe?
These things are made deep in the bowels of China, and you shouldn’t expect them to become a family heirloom. Pretty well everyone has to replace some parts within the first year of moderate use.
I will say that I’m a total exception to the rule. After 4 years, I’ve yet to actually replace a single thing on my 7×14. But I’m also really familiar with the construction of a lathe, how to tear them apart piece by piece (and put them back together again) for maintenance, and I baby it like nobody’s business.
In terms of what to expect out of the box…
The ways are reasonably smoothish. They’re also accuratish. The headstock is alignedish. The rack and pinion to move the carriage has tight spots. The cross slide is kinda slidey, but not too much. The safety features, like that chuck cover, are a bit of a joke (I won’t encourage you to take off safety features from any machine, but I also won’t not encourage you, at least for this machine….).
Another common sticking point is that they all come with plastic gears. These often last a few months of moderate use before cracking. I haven’t had problems with mine because I’m careful with it, grease it frequently, and I fine-tuned (especially in regards to bore size) them before I used the machine. Even still, picking up some metal gears is a common upgrade.
Ultimately, expect to do some tweaking and fine-tuning when you get the machine. Look up how to shim a rack, check and align a headstock, etc. If you’re not willing to do that much, then you probably won’t like the machine very much. Sooner or later, it’ll really need it.
What Can a Minilathe Do?
This is probably the meat and potatoes that you’ve been looking for.
Generally, a minilathe will have no problem taking light cuts on plastics and non-ferrous materials. By light cuts, I mean .020″ off the diameter in aluminum, and maybe 0.050″ off the diameter of soft plastics like nylon or HDPE as long as you have a sharp cutting tool.
I’ve cut mild steel with mine with no problem, but with super light depth of cuts. I’ve been typically limited to about 0.010″ off the diameter if I want a reasonable surface finish.
The #1 limiting factor with these little machines is spindle horsepower. The motors are tiny, and they frequently stall out. You can clearly hear the motor huffing and puffing under load, so eventually you’ll get a bit of a feel of how hard you can push it (more like tickle it).
The rigidity isn’t the best either. At the end of the day, though, you’ll probably stall the spindle before you run into major rigidity issues. Even still, getting a good surface finish on metal can take a little bit of practice.
Why Would I Get a Minilathe?
If you like to tinker around, want a hobby, and like fun little toys, you’ll probably have a total blast with one of these little machines. You actually can make some pretty neat stuff on these things if you’re patient.
Why Would I NOT Get a Minilathe?
If you’re trying to use it for “real” work (like you’re on a farm, you want to turn things over 1-1/4″ diameter frequently, or if you’re a machinist expecting this to work like a toolroom lathe) then this is NOT the machine for you. Unfortunately, you should suck it up and probably buy a much more expensive and maintained but used “real” lathe.
If you’re wanting to make things that are 7″ x 14″, then this is a no go. Actually, long parts in general are a no go, since you lose so much length from the tailstock. Forget about drilling anything longer than 4″ unless you get creative. You can mount a drill in the tool post, but you’ll definitely have to take your time.
Ultimately, if you want to get work done and not waste any time, this will just be a frustration for you. For me, I wanted something to play with, and I’ve found very convenient uses for mine in four years that I’ve had it. If I had a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, I’d go back and buy one again.
If you do end up buying one, here are some tips that I’ve learned based on my experience with mine:
- BOLT IT DOWN!!! I welded together a multipurpose table with 1-1/2″ square tubing, bolted the lathe to the frame, and bolted the frame to the concrete. Works waaaaaaaaaay better.
- Spend the first few days playing with it, greasing it, shimming it, and otherwise tinkering it. These aren’t in prime shape out of the box, and it’s well worth your time to get to know your new toy and fine-tune it before you break something.
- When you turn on the spindle, have the RPM turned all the way down, then flip the on switch, then bring the RPM up to what you want gently. This will be way easier on your little plastic gears, and I have a strong suspicion that this is part of the reason that I’ve never had to replace mine.
You actually get a pretty decent amount of accessories with a minilathe. Usually a couple of cutting tools, wrenches and whatnot.
You’ll need your own measuring tools, though. If you’ve got nothing, I’d highly recommend picking up at least a cheap but not bad set of calipers, a dial indicator, and some emery cloth sandpaper (helps with getting decent finished while you’re learning).
Anyway, that’s my $0.02. A minilathe can be totally worth it as long as you have the right expectations. If not, you’ll be pretty cranky.