Electric Lathe Land

There’s an old proverb that goes something like this:

If you turn a man some spindles he can build a chair or two, but if you teach a man to turn, he can make a whole dining set.

That is to say, I want to build some chairs and I’m beginning to feel the siren call of the lathe, but I’m having a little trouble deciding how to get into the game. Part of that is I don’t know what I actually need. I get the people who are into the spring-pole thing and I’ve considered it, but I really would rather go a different direction here.

I’m thinking of going to the dark side and getting a lathe with a tail, which means I’ve narrowed my choices to about 1.2 million options. As I consider this purchase I thought it might help to crowd source for experience and advice. Here’s the scenario: I primarily want to turn legs and spindles for chairs. I don’t have a ton of space for a lathe, and I need it to be flexible when moving from this shop into the unknown. I’d like to get the best “value” which does not necessarily mean “cheapest” but I have a (very) top end of around $600 – $800.

That puts me in one of two classes as I’ve found. Used full size or new midi

I’m keeping an eye on the local Craigslist, but I’ve not really been inspired by the offerings so that has led me to consider four lathes very closely.

The top of the heap in the “new” category is the Jet 1221vs


It seems like the perfect lathe for me at the moment. At 1 HP and a native capability of turning ~20″ spindles I feel like I could make chairs for a long time and not get tired of this lathe. The stand would be nice but not necessary. Let me be honest, this is the one I want.

A close contender is the Rikon 70-220vsr


This one probably gives the Jet the best run for its money as far as features are concerned. It has roughly the same capacity and a 1 HP motor. It’s only $150 cheaper, but that $150 could be turned around on a bed extension to give the lathe over 40″ of bed length. Let me be honest, this one seems practical but would I feel like I’m settling?


Another close contender is the Delta 46-460


I’ve heard good things about this lathe, but also plenty of stories about dodgy customer service.The 1 hp motor is nice. The distance between centers is only 16″ but the bed extension is also only $150 bringing the total to around $750. That puts it in the price range of the Jet 1221. A major design issue, in my opinion, is the placement of the switch/speed control. It seems like a very awkward placement. Maybe I would just need to use it to understand, or maybe I would just need to lose a thumb. Let me be honest, I want to like this one but I know how little things bug me.


And then there are two other options by Jet that technically count as “mini” lathes, but seem to punch above their weight

Jet 1015 and 1015vs


The VS is just the variable speed version of the 1015 so these are essentially the same lathe separated by $100 and a little knob. Like the Delta, the one major limitation is the bed length. At 15″ I could make some spindles, but it’s too small for chair legs. The one advantage is that I could buy the 1015 and the bed extension for less than the 1221vs ($630 -$730) and have a 36″ bed (although no super-cool digital readout). The only drawback I really see here is that the motor is 1/2 hp

But which one?

So there it is. My heart and my head are fighting this out in part because I really don’t know what I actually need. 

Do I need 1 HP for chair legs or can 1/2 HP swing it?

Do I need more that 20″ if I’m not planning on turning table legs or bed rails anytime soon?

I know I’m not going to be able to buy the biggest and best, but as a beginner who would rather buy something that’s going to meet my needs for years to come.

So for all the turners out there, what are your experiences?


11 Comments Add yours

  1. Marty says:

    I’ve turned a TON of things on a crappy craftsman lathe.
    Sure a new fancy one has lots of bells and whistles but all you need is a toolrest and spinning wood.
    I would plan on a bed extension no matter what and some sharp tools.


    1. Thats a good word. Thank you!


  2. auswimkc says:

    It’s too bad you just missed the delta lathe marked down to like $250 on Amazon


    1. Oh man! I would have been all over that!


  3. Jon Spencer says:

    I bought a Penn State VS midi lathe 7-8 years ago. I bought the bed extension, and have never put it on. You only need the higher horsepower with larger turnings. Chair legs and spindles are never going to notice it. I like the variable speed, so I rarely have to change the belts. I attached it to a 2×4 bench with a single 3/4″ plywood top, and bored holes for the tools. While this is not a good set up for big bowls, it works great for small spindles. If you really need to tie it down, bolt it through your workbench. That will be heavy enough to keep most turnings from bouncing it off.

    Above all, have fun turning!



  4. Brian says:

    I’m going to have to come back to read more of the recommendations. I am also looking into a lathe. I actually have a very old very weak ( I can probably stop the work by griping it while spinning) General Electric. I can still turn thing under 3″. I don’t think hp will be an issue however, why not have 1hp if the cost isn’t that much more.


  5. I would put it into the wind that you’re looking for a lathe. I was patient and eventually a good full sized came to me. I lucked into a 1hp. Full size delta 12″ model on a 4 ft. Bed with a cast iron base and a good selection of tools for about $400. I couldn’t imagine having a midi.

    Mine let’s me do almost everything. Turned long spindles (using a homemade steady rest) stumps into bowls, historical reproduction balusters to match a clients damaged staircase. None of that would be possible with a midi.

    Also, why buy new when someone else already paid full price? These heavy old tools live forever. If the motor fails, most are off the shelf. I keep a couple 1hp motors around that I’ve been given for free as replacements should an old motor fail.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. benfergie says:

    I’ve got the Delta machine. I got a good deal on it 3 years ago as the store was closing out their Delta merchandise due to lousy customer service. The machine is rock solid and haven’t had any issues so I haven’t dealt with the service side.

    The switch is a bit awkward but I got used to it. I just turn it off with my left hand so I don’t reach across. Shouldn’t be an issue with spindles but it can be with bowls. Definitely plan on an extension bed. The delta allows you to bolt on two of the things but I haven’t needed to do that. I wouldn’t settle for 1/2 hp, Maybe not an issue for spindles but for bowls and such it can easily get bogged down. And you never know where your turning will take you once you get started.

    All said and done, I would favor the Jet over the Delta if you are paying full price, for the customer service issue if nothing else.


  7. jonfiant says:

    If you’re not afraid of a little cosmetic stuff, or some minor mechanical repairs, continue to search Craigslist. Broaden your search towards the Atlanta area and you will see plenty of possible contenders for less money than you are willing to spend . I just looked, and there are too many to forward on to you. Best of luck in your hunt! Why buy new when used will do? Recently, a Powermatic 90 was on the list for $600. Needed work, but a finer lifetime machine cannot be found.


  8. Pete Owen says:

    My vote is for a used full size lathe, I like the Delta 12″ and I’m sure one will pop up sooner than later. I started on a 70s model, which was fine but I think the 60s and earlier models are just a bit sweeter. They aren’t too heavy, just enough for spindle turning duty and their capacity is just right also.

    Here are Glen Drake’s thoughts on the matter:



    1. I’ve got my eye on a Jet 1236 that I’m trying to decide about.


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