Ok. If you are new to pen turning you have probably asked yourself or someone else “What is the best lathe for pen turning?” The answer differs depending on who you ask. The reason why is because most lathes are not specifically made to make “only pens”, but have features that enable you to make MORE than just pens. Not everyone who makes pens only make pens; they make other things like bowls and canes, etc. That can color their feedback as well. Also, there are other factors that can go into this decision that may pull you towards different lathes. Factors, such as:
Are you making only pens?
How efficient do you want to be?
Do you want to make lots of money?
If so, how much and how soon after you buy your lathe?
And lastly, how much are you willing to pay for a lathe?
Based on these factors, which will be different for everyone, the best lathe will differ from person to person. Some pen turners even have more than 1 or 2 lathes. You might end up getting a recommendation for 20 lathes! A lathe is a fairly simple tool and if you get one home that works, chances are it will be good enough to make pens. That is why there are so many that people recommend. The basic operation of a lathe is this: a spindle on the left-hand side is turned by a motor connected by a belt. You attach your project to the spindle and hold it in place with the tail stock on the right-hand side. After that, you are ready to use whatever tools necessary for your project. That’s it! If you are considering getting these brands, they are all great pen turning lathes: JET, Rikon, Grizzly, Shop Fox, Harbor Freight, Rockler’s Excelsior, Nova Comet II, Turnmaster, etc.
I will give you my own recommendation. My recommendation to you if you are just starting out is to get the cheapest one you can find. Why? Because you don’t need to invest a ton of money in this hobby right off the bat, and you can always get an upgrade later. Then you can use your first lathe as a finishing/sanding or buffing lathe (you can never have too many lathes. Unless you get to 7. 7 lathes is too many!) So, for example, get the very inexpensive lathe from Harbor Freight first. With a 20% off coupon, you can get this for around $100 during the holidays. After a year or so when you’ve fine tuned your technique and made some money off your pens, you can upgrade to pretty much any lathe you want. You will have been using a lathe that basically has no added features so you will know exactly what is needed to make pens. Then, you can shop around for a better lathe.
For the higher priced lathes, at this stage, you are mainly paying for added features such as variable speed, work light, forward and reverse functionality, added tool holders, ease of belt changes, etc. Nothing that is specifically needed for pen turning, but things you will definitely find convenient after using a lathe that has none of these options for a year. You will then be able to gauge the importance of each of these new features and will be able to make a better and wiser decision than if you wanted to get the perfect lathe the first time.
Another piece of advice is to take advantage of the holiday specials. You can sometimes get the same thing for cheaper and with bonus accessories for free saving nearly 50%! For example, in 2016 I went to Rockler and bought their Excelsior lathe. It usually costs $299.99 reg. price. It was only $250 during the holidays but it also came with Rockler’s 3-Piece Mini Carbide Tool Set for free, which retails for $199.99. If I had paid retail for those items during the year I would have paid $299 + $199 = $499.98. Instead, it was a package deal for only $250. See the value in waiting?
I asked the Pen Turning group page on Facebook which lathes everyone used and I’ll share the results here. This is not a comprehensive list of the only good lathes for pen turning, just the most commonly used ones. I will list the lathe, then share the number of people who responded that use that lathe.
Lathe # of Members
- Nova Commet II 26
- Jet 1221-vs 24
- Rikon 220-VSR 10
- Turncrafter Commander 8
- Jet 1220 8
- Jet1014vs 5
- Delta 46-460 5
- Harbor Freight Lathe 4
- Jet 1015vs 4
- Rockler Excelsior 3
So now you have my recommendation, and you know what others are using to make pens. I wish you the best of luck and I will see you all later. Please let me know if you take my advice or if you have anything to add here. Also, if you feel like I am wrong about something please let me know. Happy turning!