Lathes have been a fundamental machine tool for more than 3,000 years, dating back to ancient Egypt. However, what they are, how they work and what they do are poorly understood. This is so much the case that even many potters do not realize that their pottery wheels are, in fact, a form of lathe.
A lathe is a machine tool that works by spinning an object around on a horizontal axis so that various tools can be applied to it. The work is done through the rotational force of the spinning object. Examples of tasks formed by lathes are precision cutting, drilling, deformation and sanding. They are used in woodworking, metalworking and even pottery; the humble potter's wheel is a form of lathe.
Almost all lathe designs have a bed, which is the main platform of the lathe. Most lathes have horizontal beds, but some are vertical. Vertical beds have the advantage of letting chips fall away from the bed and the working parts of the lathe.
Parts: Headstock and Spindle
Attached to one end of the bed is the headstock. This is the major moving part of the lathe, containing precision spinning bearings. Attached to the headstock is a hollow or tapered spindle, which is where the tools used to hold the piece to be worked on are attached. Note that the piece being worked on is never attached directly to the spindle. Even in the case of a potter's wheel, in a strict sense the platform upon which the pottery is made is not the spindle.
Parts: Tailstock and Tool Rest
The tailstock and tool rest are clamps that are mounted on the bed and can be moved by unlocking them. The tailstock is not used for rotating the work piece but is instead a cylindrical clamp that is used for holding drill bits and similar accessories. The tool rest is also used for mounting tools.
There are actually quite a few lathes still in use today that are powered by a foot treadle. Others are run by an electric motor and belt drive.