Turning a wooden bowl feels like “THE” quintessential woodturning project to start with. Finding a piece of green wood and turning it into a usable bowl can feel almost magical. It is how I got started turning 20 years ago and it is still one of my favorite activities when I have the time and wood available. Choosing the right bowl turning lathe can get you started making your own wooden bowls quickly as well!
Turning a bowl is a great way to get started with woodturning. Green wood is usually far easier to turn than dried and turning larger pieces of wood gives you plenty of time to practice learning cutting and scraping techniques. I would argue there is no better feeling in woodturning that roughing out a green bowl with a sharp bowl gouge. The large shavings will quickly fill the entire floor around the lathe as a bowl slowly emerges from what once just a log.
What to Consider with a Bowl Turning Lathe?
Your biggest two factors when choosing a bowl turning lathe for your shop are size and power. Trying to turn a bowl on an undersized or underpowered lathe will make for a frustrating experience.
Choosing the Right Sized Lathe
For many people, buying a lathe is something they may do once or twice in a lifetime. Because of this, we are huge fans of erring on the side of buying larger rather than smaller.
While smaller, benchtop style lathes are great for what they do, they are not a great option for bowl turning. Nor are some of the lighter weight, free-standing lathes as they often don’t offer enough bulk to handle the larger, heavier wood used for turning bowls.
In our shop, we use an older General lathe with a 20-inch swing over the bed. That means we can turn bowls that are, theoretically at least, up to 20 inches wide. Realistically the largest bowl we would probably be able to turn is 17 or 18 inches as there will always be corners that need to be knocked off during the roughing stage.
While we don’t often use the full swing capacity we are happy that we have it. Sometimes a rough cut bowl blank that ends up as a 15 inch bowl may require 18 or 19 inches of swing in the beginning!
For a bowl turning lathe, we recommend a lathe with AT LEAST 16 inches of swing. Typically, most floor-standing lathes start at 16 inches of swing with the higher end models going up to 24 inches. Some specialty bowl turning lathes feature even more swing!
The weight of the lathe also plays a huge factor in the comfort and safety of turning bowls. Our lathe weighs around 500 pounds and honestly, even that is a bit on the light side. When turning larger bowl blanks the lathe can tend to start vibrating or even “walking” a bit. Bolting your lathe to the floor or adding weight to the lower shelves can help with this but some floor standing lathes are just too light to handle bowl blanks that max out their swing.
How Much Power Do You Need?
Most full size, bowl turning lathes will feature motors in the 1.5 – 2hp range. We would personally recommend staying with at least a 2hp motor and, if your space and budget allow, upgrading to a 3hp motor.
Our General lathe has a 2hp motor which we have managed to stall out on occasion when turning a large blank but, for the most part, has offered plenty of power.
The Best Budget Bowl Turning Lathes
Budget is going to be a relative term here as there are no cheap (under $1,000) lathes we would recommend for bowl turning. There is just nothing in that price range that offers the size, weight and power required to safely turn bowls on a consistent basis.
The Grizzly G0838 offers a 16-inch swing, 2hp motor, and comes in at 352 pounds. While the weight is a bit light the leg design offers a space to put in a shelf. Adding a shelf with a few sandbags will greatly increase the stability of the lathe.
The Laguna offers slightly less with a 1.5hp motor, 15 1/2 inch swing and 288 pound weight but all in all is still a fairly comparable lathe.
Nova actually offers a similar lathe as well to the Laguna for a significantly lower price but we have a hard time recommending it due to its light weight and open leg design that does not allow for adding additional weight.
The Best Mid Range Bowl Turning Lathes
Mid-range bowl turning lathes are going to be lathes in the $2,000 – $4,000 range and, quite honestly, are the type of lathes that should last you a lifetime. These are all solid built machines that can handle almost anything you can throw at them and are more than enough for most hobby woodturners and Etsy shop owners.
The Grizzly G0835 is their most upgraded lathe model and is a great option for smaller shops as it features a shorter bed. With a 24-inch swing, 3hp motor, and 700+ pound weight this lathe can handle any size bowl you throw at it. This lathe has also has a lot of the look and feel of the Powermatic 4224 yet at a much smaller price tag.
Laguna tools have really stepped up their game in the lathe world lately and their top of the line REVO lathe is well worth the price. These lathes are available with either a 18-inch or 24 inch swing and a 36-inch bed. While the Laguna does come in a touch lighter than the Grizzly it still features the same motor power. By adding a little weight to the bottom this is a rock solid lathe.
The Jet 1840 is the cheapest option in this category and significantly so. The tradeoff in price means an 18-inch swing, 1.5hp motor and light weight of only 330 pounds. For many turners though this is more than enough power and swing and the lower price means they get an extremely capable lathe without breaking the bank.
The Best Top of the Line Bowl Turning Lathes
These are the top of the line when it comes to woodturning lathes. Solidly built, they will all last a lifetime and are fully capable for running in a professional woodshop. All of these lathes feature 24+ inch swings, 3hp motor and massive weights that will keep the lathe solid while turning.
Final Thoughts on Choosing the Best Bowl Turning Lathe for Your Shop
Woodturning is an incredibly fun, although expensive, hobby. Finding the right tools will make the hobby fun and will help keep you safe. If you’re looking to get started bowl turning then buying the most capable lathe now will allow you to grow as a woodturner and keep challenging yourself.
Which lathe did you start with when you started turning bowls?