One of the oldest machines, the lathe, exists today in many specialized forms. Automated machinist's lathes produce custom devices or precisely-reproduced high-volume metal parts. Industrial wood lathes with multiple spindles copy complex decorative turnery patterns for use in architectural settings and as furniture components. Small metal lathes and modern woodworker's lathes are common fixtures in both amateur and professional shops.
The earliest lathe is the reciprocal type -- small hand-powered versions were used by both Celtic artisans and Chinese button makers. The bow driven drill, an ancient fire making tool, probably served as the inspiration. The return stroke of early woodworking lathes was often powered by a tree limb. Lathes were built in forests close to the source of necessary raw materials. A quick downward step on a pedal rotated the workpiece into the cutting tool. Continuous lathes driven by great wheels required two operators. The apprentice cranked the wheel and observed the master at work. Mill driven workshops liberated apprentices for more advanced duties.
Before the general use of steam power or electric motors, the treadle lathe was often the most popular for individual craftsmen. By 1700, treadle lathes incorporated traversing mandrels capable of cutting accurate threads and, in the 1800s, showed many of the essential features of modern metal-working lathes. Combining a treadle with an inertial flywheel brought efficient continuous duty turning to the small workshop.
Modern home woodworking lathes include an electric motor with either belt or gear drive, a strong lathe bed and a fixed headstock which holds either faceplate or drive center. The tailstock moves on the lathe bed and holds either a drill chuck or tail center. Adjustable on the bed between them is the hand or tool rest upon which the cutting tools are held. The best lathes offer stable power over a wide range of speeds and both in-board and out-board headstock spindles.
Metalworking lathes require such precision that even the most basic use fixed jigs and simple automation. Hand procedures are often limited to lubrication, maintenance and adjustment of settings. Rather than being manipulated manually, cutting tools are fixed in a post that moves horizontally when a hand wheel is turned. Available in many specialized sizes, machinist's lathes are used in trades and industries ranging from watchmaking to the production of heavy machinery.
Lathes find application in many modern professions and avocations. The smallest versions are an integral part of home machine shops and the studios of jewelry designers. Glassblowing lathes replace the dangerous hand operations of that art with carefully controlled machine procedures and precisely regulated heat sources. Massive versions of this simple machine produce some of the finest products, such as the thin veneers of expensive hardwood used as decoration on expensive furniture.