What is a Horizontal Lathe?

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  • Written By: Paul Scott
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 14 December 2019
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A horizontal lathe is a machine tool designed to cut different profiles in revolving steel or wood workpieces. A lathe typically consists of a precision machined bed or base with a drive mechanism and headstock at one end and a supporting tailstock at the other. The workpiece is help firmly in the headstock and rotated rapidly around its own axis. A suitable machine tool is then brought to bear against the workpiece which cuts the required profile. The horizontal lathe is used extensively in high precision machining operations and is available in a wide range of sizes and designs.

Lathes have been in use in various forms for centuries and have come to represent one of the cornerstones of precision engineering. In the case of the horizontal lathe, the nomenclature is meant to differentiate between lathes with horizontal or vertical workpiece orientation. Lathes are all constructed and function according to a basic common principle. A workpiece is clamped in a rotating drive head known as a headstock which is driven by a motor. A suitably profiled cutting tool is then pressed against the workpiece to make a corresponding cut.


The horizontal lathe can be used to cut cylindrical shapes from square stock or cut decorative profiles such as those seen on table legs, lamp stands, pens, and chess pieces. Precision engineering parts such as engine components, spherical joints, medical equipment, and aircraft parts are also turned on horizontal lathes. As a matter of fact, almost all steel and wood products which feature shoulders, tapers, grooves, or other intricate profiles can be produced on these machines. Even hollow cup shapes can be turned on a lathe.

There are two main types of horizontal lathe: wood working lathes and steel or lathes. Wood work lathes are generally the simpler of the two and consist of a bed, headstock, tailstock, and tool rest. The wood workpiece is held securely between the head and tailstocks by means of spur spindles. The headstock is driven by an electric motor and rotates the workpiece while the tailstock is free spinning. A suitable tool is supported on the tool rest and advanced by hand to cut into the workpiece.

Steel or engine lathes work on the same principle and consist of tail and headstock assemblies on either end of a central bed. The main difference between the two types of lathe are the tool advance assembly and headstock. A steel lath headstock is equipped with jaws which secure the workpiece instead of a spur spindle. Engine horizontal lathe tool assemblies consist of a saddle which spans the bed and is fitted with a compound rest and tool post. This whole assembly is automatically advanced along the lathe axis by means of a lead screw driven by the lathe motor.

The steel lathe tool bit is secured in the tool post and is brought to bear against the workpiece by means of lead screw cranks. This setup allows for extreme precision in the cuts made while ensuring safety and control when cutting hard steel stock. Both steel and wood horizontal lathe types are available in a range of sizes, power ratings, and levels of automation. These range from small, bench-top watchmakers lathes to huge, fully automated computer numerically controlled (CNC) lathes. In all cases lathes can cause serious injuries if not correctly used, and safe practices should be adhered to all times.


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