The 5 Best & Worst Woods to Turn on a Lathe for Beginners


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Are all types of wood suitable for use in a Lathe? Since there are various characteristics for each lumber, you have to choose those that are compatible, especially if you’re a beginner. To help you, here’s a list of the best and worst woods to turn on a Lathe.

Top 3 Best Kinds of wood to Turn

  1. Beech
  2. Ebony
  3. Hickory

Top 3 Worst Kinds of wood to Turn

  1. Mesquite 
  2. Manzanita 
  3. Eastern White Pine

As you go through this article, you’ll find more specific details of why you should choose or avoid these woods. Plus, some tips and basic projects that you can do. At the end of it, you’ll be ready to start your new project on your Lathe.

What are the Qualities a Wood Should Have?

It’s all about durability, beauty, and versatility. Picking the right wood is quite a tough job since there are various options out there.

However, it helps in determining the exact quality that you need for your workpiece. Whatever your project may be, these are some characteristics that wood should have in general.

  1. Appearance. Wood with the best quality comes from mature trees, which features a sweet smell and radiant appearance.
  2. Durability. It should be resistant to almost any climatic changes, fungal attacks, and termites,
  3. Color. Most quality woods have a dark color on its exterior, with beautiful grain in its core.
  4. Fibers. The ideal grain for quality lumber should be compact, firm, and straight. Wood with some twisted fibers may mean less durable.
  5. Fire Resistant. Denser types of wood usually have a higher resistance to fire. Therefore, they are challenging to produce light.
  6. Hardness. A high-quality wood could withstand deterioration from mechanical wear and tear, structural loads, and other physical abrasions.
  7. Toughness. Woods with narrow annual rings are the toughest, which can endure shocks and vibrations.
  8. Sound. Top-caliber wood produces clear ringing when struck. Otherwise, a dull, heavy sound indicates internal decay.
  9. Natural Moisture Absorbent. High-quality woods have a high ability permeability to absorb moisture and fight rapid decay.
  10. Workability. Excellent quality wood is versatile for any project. They have low resin content, which makes it easier to work with any saw.
  11. Elasticity. It means regaining wood’s original shape with maximum accuracy, without breaking. Fishing rods and archery bows are the best examples. It is essential, especially if you are making sports equipment.

What are the Different Types of Woods? 

Before we move into the list of the best and worst woods, you have to know the two significant types of lumber – Hardwood, and Softwood.




Hardwood comes from Angiosperms trees like maple and walnut, which lose their leaves annually. As they grow back, that’s when it produces denser and more durable wood fibers.

Softwood comes from Gymnosperms Trees like pines and fir. These are samples of evergreen trees, which have loose grain and lighter color indicating less quality than Hardwood. Remember, both have some varieties that are suitable for a wood lathe. It’s a matter of understanding its characteristics and qualities to get the right one for your project.

HARDWOODSOFTWOOD
It comes from trees that have rougher wood texture.Its source has a subtle wood texture.
The presence of vessels makes it porous, making it more fire-resistant.It has no vessels, which makes it non-porous and less durable.
It has a complex anatomical structure, which makes it denser.It only has a less complicated anatomical structure, making it less dense.
Hardwood is more expensive and mostly used for high-end furniture making.It is still suitable for furniture making. Almost 80% of timber comes from Softwood.

The 5 Best Kinds of wood to Turn on a Lathe

1. Beech

It’s a hardwood, wherein most species don’t have a distinctive grain pattern and has a very light color. Some woodworkers may think that it is a disadvantage, but some appreciate its plainness. Nevertheless, Beechwood is durable and abrasion-resistant, so it is suitable to make bowls and other related items.




  • Color: Sometimes pink to reddish-brown heartwood, while sapwood has creamy to pink shade.
  • Density: Very hard to heavy.
  • Grain: It has a linear with a fine to a mediocre uniform style.
  • Use: It is ideal for wooden toys, instruments, and woodenware.

2. Ebony

This dense Hardwood is so thick that it sinks in water. It has a beautiful texture that offers a very smooth finish when polished correctly. Ebony is slow-growing lumber, that’s why it’s hard to find them. It takes as long as 100 years for Black Ebony to mature, no wonder it became rare and also expensive to have them. Its deep black color provides a valuable ornamental wood.

  • Color: Deep, dark brown to a jet black hue.
  • Density: Very hard to heavy.
  • Grain: Features finely-textured with a smooth surface.
  • Use: It is most common in those black chess pieces, wooden black animal carvings, and other instruments.

3. Hickory

It’s probably one of the toughest hardwoods. It is perfect for heavy-duty projects that also require beautiful looks. It turns well and efficiently with a sharp tool, so it’s easier on the Lathe. However, be careful of the sharp edges as it does scratch easily. So, always sand Hickory along with the direction of the grain, rather than the opposite way.

  • Color: The sapwood is white to cream-colored, and the heartwood is tan or reddish-brown.
  • Density: It is firm, and shock-resistant, but flexible.
  • Grain: It features a coarse and straight grain.
  • Use: In the past, it was for carriage wheels and ladders. Now, it is also suitable for cabinetry, furniture, tool handles, floor decors, and sporting goods equipment.

4. Yew (European Yew)

Yew is a softwood, and it has a very tough and durable quality. It comes from trees in mountainous areas, which makes it highly elastic and not too sensitive that it works excellent on a Lathe. It means that Yew can bend and spring back, without breaking.

  • Color: It features a slight orange-brown to darker brown heartwood. The sapwood is often pale yellow to tan shade.
  • Density: It is flexible and moderately dense.
  • Grain: It has fine uniform fibers.
  • Use: It is perfect for archery bows, cabinets, other furniture, and musical instruments.

5. Rosewood

It is a kind of hardwood, which usually grows in tropical environments – durable, robust, and produces some exquisite turnings. Rosewood is a high-quality hardwood that has a sweet smell, and all of its species give excellent polishing. However, beware that the dust from sanding Rosewood can trigger asthma and other respiratory ailments.




  • Color: It varies from golden brown to purplish brown heartwood.
  • Density: Rosewood is super dense and strong.
  • Grain: It usually has fine and interlocked fibers.
  • Use: It is perfect for high-end furniture and musical instruments.

The Worst Kinds of wood to Turn on a Lathe

1. Mesquite 

It is an indigenous hardwood usually from the desert southwest of the United States. Some argue that it is more of a weed than wood, while some find it challenging to use it with tools. Mesquite features unique and exquisite qualities, but it may still not be suitable to turn on a Lathe. It can turn clean, but only for small projects because it’s extremely hard.

  • Color: Its color varies from red to a chocolate-brown heartwood, and lemon-yellow sapwood.
  • Density: It is sturdy and dense, with high texture.
  • Grain: It features interlocked and close grains.
  • Use: Take advantage of the natural blemishes and use it on small projects like pen turnings, bottle stoppers, or pepper grinders.

2. Manzanita 

It is a sturdy and very challenging material, with a delicate and uniform texture with natural brilliance. However, it’s not suitable for a Lathe. Manzanita is marketable to most woodworkers because of its burl and unique shape. However, its irregularities and defects can cause difficulties in any machine even though it has the same density as other types of wood.

  • Color: The heartwood is brownish-red to bright orange, while the sapwood is pale off-white color to light brown.
  • Density:  It is incredibly durable and resistant to decay. 
  • Grain: It features wild and swirled grain.
  • Use: It is famous as an aquarium decor, and perches for domesticated birds.

3. Eastern White Pine

Pinewood is a softwood that is widely available in eastern North America. It is reasonably porous, which absorbs excessive moisture, cheap, and readily available to use. However, the problem is that it produces a sticky mess when turning it to a Lathe. 

  • Color: It has slight brown with slight red heartwood and a pale yellow to nearly white sapwood.
  • Density: It is soft and very lightweight.
  • Grain: It features straight and tight grain.
  • Use: It’s ideal for carvings, pattern making, moldings, paneling, and other furniture.

Janka Wood Hardness Scale

There’s a universal wood scale to determine the relative hardness of both domestic and exotic lumber. It is essential to understand this scale to know the accurate ability of the wood to withstand wear and tear. The measurement is pounds-force, short for lbf, wherein higher rating means harder wood.




Technically, the Janka Scale estimates the strength needed to plant a 0.444” steel ball into the wood to the half of its diameter. The measuring begins when a steel ball leaves a hemispherical indentation with an area of 200 mm2 in the wood sample. Here’s an analysis of some wood mentioned above.

TYPE OF WOODWEIGHT MEASUREMENT (lbf)
Beech 1300 
Ebony 3220
Hickory 1820
Rosewood 1780
Mesquite 2345
Eastern White Pine380

Ideas for Wood Lathe Projects for Beginners

Using a lathe requires precision and creativity. If you want to learn how to be a pro in this, you need to expand your knowledge by doing some simple projects. You have to choose the specific particular type of object that you want to do. Then, learn the necessary skills from there. To help you start, here are five ideas for your first Wood Lathe Project.

  • Bangles

It is the kind of project that you need to get on board. Start simple and something that will give you a sense of achievement to keep you motivated.

Making wooden bangles will help you practice the fundamental techniques in turning. It’s all about shaping and giving it a smooth finish.

  • Bottle Stoppers

When you’re ready to move on a project that’s a bit advanced, but still easy to do – try creating bottle stoppers. Another workpiece that will help you learn new skills. Bottle Stoppers are quick and easy to turn because you only need a small piece of wood and your design on how it should look.

  • Pens

Mini wooden pens are classic projects to turn on a Lathe. Once you have a better understanding of the fundamentals in turning, it becomes a lot easier to do it. However, you might need other tools and materials other than wood. Wooden pens are one of the most exciting, creative, and useful projects to Lathe.

  • Bowls

Whenever you’re ready to turn your first bowl, make sure to keep it appropriate in size. Don’t do anything too ambitious or too large, yet.

Instead, do simple, elegant, and graceful small bowls. It could be a bowl for your candies or coins at the center table. You can also create wooden containers for your kitchen, but use the right type of wood that can resist water.

  • Goblets

These are quite difficult, but it’s good to start doing it as your progress your skills. It is challenging, especially if you want to expand your experience and creativity. If you’re going to use it for drinking, pick the right wood that’s not easy to rot when wet. Otherwise, termites and fungi will ruin the wood.

A Quick Safety Practice in Using a Lathe

Woodturning is safer than using power tools, but there are basic safety practices that you should follow. It will make your working station secured and avoid any injuries.

  • Always check and maintain your Lathe regularly.
  • Keep your working station clean, and always dry the floor.
  • Keep all tools sharp and clean for a smooth and easy cut.
  • Pick high-quality and sturdy wood.
  • Always wear eye protection, in case your workpiece splinter or break apart.
  • Wearing masks for wood dust protection is advisable if you have asthma or other respiratory diseases.
  • Don’t wear loose clothes because they can easily tangle with the spinning axle of the tool. 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Is Pine Good for Woodturning?

Pine has many species, but they all came from the same roots or family. Generally, Pinewoods are easy to shape on the Lathe machine even though they are softwood. Use a gouge or a skew chisel to cut and produce a better finish.

What is the Best Wood for Bowl Turning?

You can use any of the best kinds of wood for bowl turning. However, if you want more of all-natural finish, try using Maple, Cherry, and Black Walnut. They all have top-caliber quality with beautiful grain.

What is a Wood Blank?

You probably hear the word wood blank several times already, and wonder what it means. A Wood Blank is a raw material that you want to turn on a lathe. 

Final Words

Anything too soft or too hard may not be suitable to turn to a Lathe. Some lumber does not apply to Lathe, so it is essential to always put into consideration the qualities of wood. It is better to have at least six good attributes. It will ensure that your workpiece will last for a long time.

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