Lathes and Turning Centers Information

Metal latheLathes and turning centers cut a rotating part with a stationary cutting tool. The tool moves parallel and perpendicular to the workpiece axis to provide the desired finished shape. A lathe is a machine tool which spins a block of material so that when abrasive, cutting, or deformation tools are applied to the block, it can be shaped to produce an object which has rotational symmetry about an axis of rotation.


There are several types of lathes and turning centers. Examples include a wood lathe, metal lathe, CNC lathe, CNC turning center, CNC machining center, and multi-axis machine tool.

  • A wood lathe is a power machine used to hold and turn wood that is being shaped or cut.
  • A metal lathe is a power machine used to hold and turn metal that is being shaped or cut.
  • A CNC lathe (computer numerically controlled) is a machine tool which is operated under automatic control, as opposed to manually by an operator.
  • A turning center is used to operate a CNC lathe and is a versatile system that enables control of the motion of tools and parts through computer programs that use numeric data.
  • A CNC machining center is a multi-function machine that typically combines boring, drilling, and milling tasks.
  • A computer-controlled multi-axis machine tool can manufacture various workpieces automatically according to tool paths generated by software and workpiece models.

Other lathes and turning centers are commonly available.


Lathes and turning centers are designed with a variety of specifications. Lathes and turning centers are manufactured to meet most industry needs.

A wood lathe is available in many sizes, from small pen lathes to huge bowl turning machines. A wood lathe is designated according to the maximum diameter of material that can be swung over the bed. A wood lathe capable of turning an 11-inch diameter disk is referred to as an 11-inch wood lathe. Another dimension on a wood lathe is the center to center measurement, this determines the maximum length of material that can be mounted between the headstock and tailstock.

Video credit: Matthias Wandel

A metal lathe spins a workpiece along a horizontal axis. A mandrel or chuck is mounted to the headstock of the metal lathe and a follower block or tail block is mounted to the tailstock. A metal lathe can also form hollow parts by a process called metal spinning.

A CNC lathe has a choice of function expansion options including sub-spindle for two-sided machining, and driven tools and Y-axis for eccentric boring and milling.

A typical CNC machining center is usually a 3-axis milling machine. Typically, a CNC machining center is designed to remove material using a rotating cutter that moves laterally to a workpiece mounted onto a table or fixture. Machining centers can be horizontal or vertical in design.

There are several multi-axis machine tool programs that can provide turning results from roughing and grooving to threading and finishing, for faster, more accurate results. 


Lathes and turning centers are used in many applications. Many industries utilize lathes and turning centers for fabricating parts and/or features that have a circular cross section. Lathes and turning centers are also widely used in construction.

Related Information

CR4 Community—Turning Wood in a Metalwork Lathe

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