Learning how to use a metal lathe can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time. There is a steep learning curve when it comes to familiarizing yourself with your lathe. The best way to gain confidence and an understanding of your machine are to use it. Practice makes perfect, and the more you use your lathe, the more you’ll see new uses and possibilities for new projects.
But with any new skill or tool, it’s good to start simple. Below are eight ideas to get you started. These start very basic and slowly become more complicated as you grow more familiar with your machine.
Replica Metal Bullets
Bullets are a popular beginner project given the relative ease of operation required. Since the shape of the bullet is essentially a simple cone, the process of making bullets allows you to become familiar with the machinery and understand how your lathe spins. Start by printing out a picture of a bullet you want to replicate. Creating a bullet from a core or small block of metal will demonstrate how a lathe works by spinning the workpiece, not the cutting heard itself. With your picture as a guide, try to recreate the exact taper of the bullet. But don’t worry if you mess up! Because the project is small, you can practice without feeling any guilt about any mistakes.
For good examples, see this link or the photo.
Metal mallets are a great initial project because they provide both a straightforward process as well as a fun challenge. The mallet head, a straightforward cylinder, is an easy piece to create while the handle gives you more freedom to display your woodworking skills. In order to create the handle, you’ll get to practice using a knurling tool. Don’t forget to put your own spin on the design of the handle to make the project your own.
This mallet project can also easily be modified or expanded. Try designed a metal handle as well as the head. Curve the head, to create a ball-peen or machinist’s hammer. Add texture to the handle or a taper to increase the difficulty of the project, or make the head and handle of different materials. And of course, you could make not just one hammer, but an entire set with different sizes and styles. Whatever you decide to do, a basic hammer project frequently makes an excellent starting point.
The great part about making rings (aside from the fact that you can wear them) is that you can start off simple and as you get more comfortable can create more intricate designs. One reason rings tend to be a good beginner project is that you can use metal scraps, even nuts, and bolts, to transform into your finished piece. This means you don’t have to worry about messing up or wasting large amounts of material. You can also start off with softer metals that are easier to work with.
Rings are also one of the basic shapes you’ll see frequently in your lathe work, so mastering them early is a good idea. Again, just because they’re simple in design doesn’t mean they have to be plain, boring, or lacking in craftsmanship. As an example of what can be done, here’s a short video and a picture of a finished project by the same craftsman.
Rod with a Captive Ring
This metal toy can be a fun first project. While it looks complicated, it’s not as difficult as you might assume. It requires a few different techniques that will help you navigate your machine while being simple enough to not be a daunting task. Some techniques that you’ll be able to put in your arsenal include plunging, parting, facing, and undercutting. There’s also the clever trick of being able to build something that looks impossible at first glance – always a great conversation starter!
This project can be taken to the next level with a related project – the bolt and captive nut. It’s the same idea as the rod and ring, but also incorporates threading techniques (for the bolt) and grinding techniques (if you make your own nut). Find a helpful video here.
A metal candlestick can be as simple or as intricate as you feel comfortable with. While they are a bit more complicated to make than some of the other projects, they are a great way to practice boring out the core and rounding out the base. From there you can decide how complex of a design you want to challenge yourself to do. Tall, simple candlesticks are great starters, while ornamental candlesticks with flaring and fluting along it may prove more of a challenge. See a helpful video here.
If you’ve already learned how to bore out the core for your candlestick, upgrading to a cup is a fairly simple step. You can employ some of the same techniques used for the base of the candlestick to form the stem of your cup, then bore out and shape the cup itself. Part of the challenge with these beginner projects is to nut just manufacture these items but to make them as high-quality as possible. Cups make great ways to challenge your consistency and make identical sets.
Cups can also be made as gifts, as in this video of a baby cup.
Another simple design, but here the problem might be one of size. This will teach you how to make molds around which to shape the bowl as well as how to wrap and finish the metal. All of those techniques will start to build on each other, expanding what you are able to do when you reach more complicated parts later on.
For a fantastic demonstration of some of the techniques needed for a metal bowl, see here.
The ideas here are fairly simple. A machinist’s scribe is a tool used to mark or write on metal. Essentially, it works as a machinist’s pen. Early scribes were simple rods with a hardened tip, but today there are plenty that looks like a normal ballpoint pen. The hardened tip remains.
Pens, of course, are fairly straightforward. There can be some tricks to making sure that all of the pieces of a pen fit together correctly, but the concept is simple enough. There are countless videos and instructions available for wood-turned pens, and there are plenty for metal pens as well. Here is just one of many such videos with good instructions that are widely available.
There you have it, eight great projects to get you started on your metal lathe journey. No matter what you start with, you’ll find the creation process is the best way to familiarize yourself with your machine and how it works. As you progress, you’ll become excited to take on more complicated projects. Just remember, at the end of the day, the goal is to have fun as you take your first steps in mastering your metal lathe. Along the way, you’ll find yourself more able to experiment with your own designs and your own ideas of what to make.
Bonus Project: Chess Piece and Chess Set
Looking for something highly ornamental, beautiful, and eye-catching to practice some of your techniques? Consider some of these metal-turned chess sets:
Most of the techniques for these sets are fairly basic; it’s the ornamentation that sets them apart and the striking nature of the design. If you’re up for a more advanced project, consider trying your hand at one of these – or better yet, coming up with your own!!