Darron Birgenheier.

Parts of the Lathe Machine

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The lathe is a machine tool used in metal cutting operations called "turning." The work piece is rotated as tooling is applied to it to remove material. Lathes can be manually operated or operated by computer numerical control (CNC). In either case, the basic parts are similar.

The Bed

The lathe bed is a mounting and aligning surface for the other machine components. Viewed from the operating position in front of the machine, the headstock is mounted on the left end of the bed and the tailstock on the right. The bed must be bolted to a base to provide a rigid and stable platform. The bed ways are a precision surface (or surfaces) on which the carriage slides left and right during machining operations. The ways are machined straight and flat and are either bolted to the top of the bed or are an integrally machined part of the bed.


The headstock holds the spindle and drive mechanism for turning the work piece. The spindle is a precision shaft and bearing arrangement rotated directly by a motor or through a motor-driven belt. Gears or sliding pulleys mounted at the rear of the headstock allow spindle speed adjustment. A work piece is held in the spindle for turning or drilling by a jawed chuck or a spring collet system. Large, unusual shaped, or otherwise difficult to hold pieces, can be attached to the spindle with a face plate, drive dogs and special clamps.


The tailstock supports long work that would otherwise sag or flex too much to allow for accurate machining. Without a tailstock, long pieces cannot be turned straight and will invariably have a taper. Some tailstocks can be intentionally misaligned to accurately cut a taper if needed. The tailstock has a centering device pressed into a shallow, specially drilled hole in the end of the work piece. The center can be either "live" or "dead." Live centers have a bearing, allowing the center to rotate along with the work piece. Dead centers do not rotate and must be lubricated to prevent overheating due to friction with the work piece. Instead of a center, a drill chuck can be mounted in the tailstock.


The carriage provides mounting and motion control components for tooling. The carriage moves left and right, either through manual operation of a hand wheel, or it can be driven by a lead screw. At the base of a carriage is a saddle that mates and aligns with the bed ways. The cross-slide, compound rest and tool holder are mounted to the top of the carriage. Some carriages are equipped with a rotating turret to allow a variety of tools to be used in succession for multi-step operations.

Cross Slide

The cross-slide is mounted to the top of the carriage to provide movement perpendicular to the length of the bed for facing cuts. An additional motion assembly, the compound rest, with an adjustable angle, is often added to the top of the cross slide for angular cuts. The cutting tools that do the actual metal removal during turning are mounted in an adjustable tool holder clamped to the compound rest.

Lead Screw

The lead screw provides automatic feed and makes thread cutting possible. It is a precision-threaded shaft, driven by gears as the headstock turns. It passes through the front of the carriage apron and is supported at the tailstock end by a bearing bracket. Controls in the apron engage a lead nut to drive the carriage as the lead screw turns.