The headstock (H1) houses the main spindle (H4), speed change mechanism (H2,H3), and change gears (H10). The headstock is required to be made as robust as possible due to the cutting forces involved, which can distort a lightly built housing, and induce harmonic vibrations that will transfer through to the workpiece, reducing the quality of the finished workpiece.
The main spindle is generally hollow to allow long bars to extend through to the work area, this reduces preparation and waste of material. The spindle then runs in precision bearings and is fitted with some means of attaching work holding devices such as chucks or faceplates. This end of the spindle will also have an included taper, usually morse, to allow the insertion of tapers and centers. On older machines the spindle was directly driven by a flat belt pulley with the lower speeds available by manipulating the bull gear, later machines use a gear box driven by a dedicated electric motor. The fully geared head allows the speed selection to be done entirely through the gearbox
The leadscrew will be manufactured to either imperial or metric standards and will require a conversion ratio to be introduced to create thread forms from a different family. To accurately convert from one thread form to the other requires a 127-tooth gear, or on lathes not large enough to mount one, an approximation may be used. Multiples of 3 and 7 giving a ratio of 63:1 can be used to cut fairly loose threads. This conversion ratio is often built into the quick change gearboxes.
In its simplest form the carriage holds the tool bit and moves it longitudinally (turning) or perpendicularly (facing) under the control of the operator. The operator moves the carriage manually via the handwheel (5a) or automatically by engaging the feedscrew with the carriage feed mechanism (5c), this provides some relief for the operator as the movement of the carriage becomes power assisted. The handwheels (2a, 3b, 5a) on the carriage and its related slides are usually calibrated, both for ease of use and to assist in making reproducible cuts.
The slide rest can be traced to the fifteenth century, and in the eighteenth century it was used on French ornamental turning lathes. The suite of gun boring mills at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in the 1780s by the Verbruggan family also had slide rests. The story has long circulated that Henry Maudslay invented it, but he did not (and never claimed so). The legend that Maudslay invented the slide rest originated with James Nasmyth, who wrote ambiguously about it in his Remarks on the Introduction of the Slide Principle, 1841; later writers misunderstood, and propagated the error. Maudslay did help to disseminate the idea widely. It is highly probable that he saw it when he was working at the Arsenal as a boy. In 1794, whilst he was working for Joseph Bramah, he made one, and when he had his own workshop used it extensively in the lathes he made and sold there. Coupled with the network of engineers he trained, this ensured the slide rest became widely known and copied by other lathe makers, and so diffused throughout British engineering workshops. A practical and versatile screw-cutting lathe incorporating the trio of leadscrew, change gears, and slide rest was Maudslay's most important achievement.
The first fully documented, all-metal slide rest lathe was invented by Jacques de Vaucanson around 1751. It was described in the Encyclopédie a long time before Maudslay invented and perfected his version. It is likely that Maudslay was not aware of Vaucanson's work, since his first versions of the slide rest had many errors which were not present in the Vaucanson lathe.
The tailstock is a toolholder directly mounted on the spindle axis, opposite the headstock. The spindle (T5) does not rotate but does travel longitudinally under the action of a leadscrew and handwheel (T1). The spindle includes a taper to hold drill bits, centers and other tooling. The tailstock can be positioned along the bed and clamped (T6) in position as required. There is also provision to offset the tailstock (T4) from the spindles axis, this is useful for turning small tapers.
The image shows a reduction gear box (T2) between the handwheel and spindle, this is a feature found only in the larger center lathes, where large drills may necessitate the extra leverage.
The terms center lathe, engine lathe, and bench lathe all refer to a basic type of lathe that may be considered the archetypical class of metalworking lathe most often used by the general machinist or machining hobbyist. The name bench lathe implies a version of this class small enough to be mounted on a workbench (but still full-featured, and larger than mini-lathes or micro-lathes). The construction of a center lathe is detailed above, but depending on the year of manufacture, size, price range, or desired features, even these lathes can vary widely between models.
Engine lathe is the name applied to a traditional late-19th-century or 20th-century lathe with automatic feed to the cutting tool, as opposed to early lathes which were used with hand-held tools, or lathes with manual feed only. The usage of "engine" here is in the mechanical-device sense, not the prime-mover sense, as in the steam engines which were the standard industrial power source for many years. The works would have one large steam engine which would provide power to all the machines via a line shaft system of belts. Therefore early engine lathes were generally 'cone heads', in that the spindle usually had attached to it a multi-step pulley called a cone pulley designed to accept a flat belt. Different spindle speeds could be obtained by moving the flat belt to different steps on the cone pulley. Cone-head lathes usually had a countershaft (layshaft) on the back side of the cone which could be engaged to provide a lower set of speeds than was obtainable by direct belt drive. These gears were called back gears. Larger lathes sometimes had two-speed back gears which could be shifted to provide a still lower set of speeds.
When electric motors started to become common in the early 20th century, many cone-head lathes were converted to electric power. At the same time the state of the art in gear and bearing practice was advancing to the point that manufacturers began to make fully geared headstocks, using gearboxes analogous to automobile transmissions to obtain various spindle speeds and feed rates while transmitting the higher amounts of power needed to take full advantage of high speed steel tools.
The inexpensive availability of electronics has again changed the way speed control may be applied by allowing continuously variable motor speed from the maximum down to almost zero RPM. (This had been tried in the late 19th century but was not found satisfactory at the time. Subsequent improvements have made it viable again.)
A toolroom lathe is a lathe optimized for toolroom work. It is essentially just a top-of-the-line center lathe, with all of the best optional features that may be omitted from less expensive models, such as a collet closer, taper attachment, and others. There has also been an implication over the years of selective assembly and extra fitting, with every care taken in the building of a toolroom model to make it the smoothest-running, most-accurate version of the machine that can be built. However, within one brand, the quality difference between a regular model and its corresponding toolroom model depends on the builder and in some cases has been partly marketing psychology. For name-brand machine tool builders who made only high-quality tools, there wasn't necessarily any lack of quality in the base-model product for the "luxury model" to improve upon. In other cases, especially when comparing different brands, the quality differential between (1) an entry-level center lathe built to compete on price, and (2) a toolroom lathe meant to compete only on quality and not on price, can be objectively demonstrated by measuring TIR, vibration, etc. In any case, because of their fully-ticked-off option list and (real or implied) higher quality, toolroom lathes are more expensive than entry-level center lathes.
There is a tremendous variety of turret lathe and capstan lathe designs, reflecting the variety of work that they do.
Rotary transfer machines might also be included under the category of multispindle lathes, although they defy traditional classification. They are large, expensive, modular machine tools with many CNC axes that combine the capabilities of lathes, milling machines, and pallet changers.
CNC lathes are rapidly replacing the older production lathes (multispindle, etc) due to their ease of setting and operation. They are designed to use modern carbide tooling and fully utilize modern processes. The part may be designed by the Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) process, the resulting file uploaded to the machine, and once set and trialled the machine will continue to turn out parts under the occasional supervision of an operator. The machine is controlled electronically via a computer menu style interface, the program may be modified and displayed at the machine, along with a simulated view of the process. The setter/operator needs a high level of skill to perform the process, however the knowledge base is broader compared to the older production machines where intimate knowledge of each machine was considered essential. These machines are often set and operated by the same person, where the operator will supervise a small number of machines (cell).
The design of a CNC lathe has evolved yet again however the basic principles and parts are still recognizable, the turret holds the tools and indexes them as needed. The machines are often totally enclosed, due in large part to Occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues.
With the advent of cheap computers, free operating systems such as Linux, and open source CNC software, the entry price of CNC machines has plummeted. For example, Sherline makes a desktop CNC lathe that is affordable by hobbyists.
This style of lathe is also available with CNC controllers to further increase its versatility.
Most CNC Swiss-style lathes today utilize two spindles. The main spindle is used with the guide bushing for the main machining operations. The secondary spindle is located behind the part, aligned on the Z axis. In simple operation it picks up the part as it is cut off (aka parted off) and accepts it for second operations, then ejects it into a bin, eliminating the need to have an operator manually change each part, as is often the case with standard CNC turning centers. This makes them very efficient, as these machines are capable of fast cycle times, producing simple parts in one cycle (i.e. no need for a second machine to finish the part with second operations), in as little as 10-15 seconds. This makes them ideal for large production runs of small-diameter parts.
Mini-lathes and micro-lathes are miniature versions of a general-purpose center lathe (engine lathe). They typically have swings in the range of 3" to 7" (70 mm to 170 mm) diameter (in other words, 1.5" to 3.5" (30 mm to 80 mm) radius). They are small and affordable lathes for the home workshop or MRO shop. The same advantages and disadvantages apply to these machines as explained earlier regarding 3-in-1 machines.
As found elsewhere in English-language orthography, there is variation in the styling of the prefixes in these machines' names. They are alternately styled as mini lathe, minilathe, and mini-lathe and as micro lathe, microlathe, and micro-lathe.