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Lathes and milling machines are the perfect workshop bros: they share a common interest in shaping and cutting things but they never tread on each other’s territory.

Lathe vs milling machine: how they work

The biggest difference between these two machines lies in their technique. Lathes spin the material you’re working on, with a cutting tool that stays stationary. Milling machines spin the cutting blade while the material remains still.

Lathes at work

In the simplest possible terms: the lathe spins while you shape. In pottery, this shaping is done with your hands and hand tools; in glass blowing, it comes from the targeted application of heat; in wood and metal work, the lathe’s chuck jaws spin the material, while an insert cutter shapes and contours it.

Milling machines at work

Unlike the lathe, milling machines use rotary cutters which shape the material with each rapid pass. The milling machine market is pretty expansive with different machine types, arbour orientations and cutting tools available, depending on the job you’re looking to do. Nowadays, you can also get CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines that automate the milling process (click here to see some of the CNC possibilities).

Lathe vs milling machine: what you use them for

Lathe

The lathe is a master of turning, facing, drilling, cutting, sanding, deforming and knurling.

The versatile machine can be used to create:

  • baseball bats;
  • bowls and vases;
  • pool cues;
  • woodwind instruments.
  • camshafts;
  • gun barrels;
  • bolt threads;
  • patterned metal surfaces;
  • pottery;
  • blown glass.

Where it is limited is in the shape of the material you can work with. You’re generally looking at cylindrical starting material which you then shape with the lathe.

Milling machine

Milling machines are experts at drilling, boring, cutting, shaping, flattening and rounding off edges. They allow for more versatility in the choice of material.

Much like the lathe, the milling machine is a jack of all trades and you can see its work in:

  • metal engravings and sculptures;
  • trophies;
  • car parts (new or repaired);
  • building fixtures;
  • gears.

Curious facts

The milling machine found its mirror twin in the creation of the 3D printer. Milling machines manufacture in a purely subtractive fashion, removing material to create the finished product. The 3D printer utilises additive technology to create objects, not quite out of thin air, but out of thin layers of powder.

While both machines have unique value for woodworkers, metalworkers, artisans and hobbyists, the lathe does have one little claim to fame the milling machine lacks. It starred in one of the most memorable/cringe-worthy scenes in Hollywood history:

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Lathes and milling machines share a common interest in shaping and cutting but their techniques and application are fundamentally different.
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Machines4U
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