In metal workshops and woodworking, two of the most prominent tools are the lathe and the mill. Both machine tools perform the same function of cutting raw materials into different shapes and sizes. But they do their jobs in different ways. In the lathe, the material spins while the tool does the cutting. However, the cutting tool of a mill spins about its axis while the workpiece remains in a static position as the machine chips away material to create the desired result.
Both lathes and mills operate on the principle of subtractive machining since they chip away bits of the workpiece to a desired shape and size. You can apply these tools for a wide range of applications but it’s essential to know the various jobs each can handle. In this article, we look at the differences between the lathe and mill machines. We also discuss the pros and cons of each tool and more.
Differences between a Lathe and Mill
The lathe and mill cut raw material to create different shapes. However, they are not the same. Here are the main differences between the two machine tools.
- Mode of Operation
The biggest difference between the lathe and the mill comes from their mode of operation. A lathe forms cylindrical, conical and flat surfaces inside and outside a workpiece using a static cutting tool while the material spins on a chuck.
In the milling machine, the cutting tool spins on its axis while a vise or fixture holds the piece.
- Cutting Tools
Mills cut with cylindrical tools such as end mills and drills fixed to a spindle that spins around the material. Lathes use inside and outside cutters with removable tips. You can also use end mills on the lathe but it’s the primary cutting tool of the mill.
The lathe is the best tool for cylindrical workpieces and center cuts as it hold such objects better than the mill. For angled and non-cylindrical workpieces, a milling machine offers a better grip with its vise/fixture and spinning cutting tool.
A lathe is simple to set up because its chuck centers the material for the cutting tool. However, things are more complicated in the mill as you need to keep the workpiece straight in the fixture or vise for the cutter to do a perfect job.
The lathe is one of the most important machining tools in the manufacturing industry. It is used in metalworking, woodturning, thermal spraying, glass working, and metal spinning. The Egyptians developed the lathe around 1300 BC and the modern versions of the tool still operate on the same principle with slight variations.
The lathe is a power-driven machine tool equipped with a sharp single-point tool used to make cylindrical, flat and conical surfaces. It has chucks that hold the workpiece in place while the tool chips away at the material to create different shapes. You can use the tool for the following operations.
Uses of a Lathe
The lathe is a versatile tool used for the following applications.
This involves making holes in the workpiece. The lathe drills the workpiece by rotating the tailstock or chuck which holds the workpiece in place.
The lathe can also make indentations on the edges of a workpiece. Knurling helps to improve grip by creating sharp depressions along the borders of the workpiece with a knurling tool.
With a single-point cutting tool, the lathe can bore holes through a workpiece at specific distances.
- Counter Boring
This involves boring a hole of over one diameter on the same axis with a boring tool.
This process takes place after drilling and involves enlarging holes so they are of the same size and consistency using a tool called a reamer.
Also called necking or recessing, this process involves creating a narrow slot in the workpiece.
This machining operation creates flat surfaces at the end of the workpiece for further manipulation. The tool cuts perpendicular to the axis of rotation of the chuck to perform this process.
This process involves removing material from the surface of the workpiece to create a cylindrical object of a specific shape and size. To do this, the feed moves along the chuck axis of rotation while the cutting tool reduces the diameter of the workpiece.
- Eccentric Turning
This is when a single workpiece is turned at different axis. Machinists create crankshafts and camshafts with this technique.
This involves beveling the edges of a workpiece. The process helps to create neater and stronger edges.
This process involves using a forming tool to create varieties of shapes on the workpiece.
The lathe can also make threads on a cylindrical workpiece.
- Taper Turning
This involves creating a conical shape on the workpiece.
Lathes are the ideal tool for making crankshafts, camshafts, bowls, table legs, gun barrels, musical instruments, tools, machine parts, agricultural implements, candlestick holders and more.
As you can see, the lathe is versatile for machinists and people who need to shape and form things.
However, most of these applications require specific tools and skills.
For detailed information on *how to use a lathe* and more, check out our wood *lathe buying guide* for in-depth reviews of the top brands on the market.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a Lathe
Pros of Owning a Lathe
The lathe is an exceptional tool in the hands of the experienced machinist and woodturner. Here are top qualities of the machine.
- Versatile Function
If you can fix the workpiece in the lathe, it can do almost anything. This machine is versatile and plays an important role in the manufacturing process in several industries.
Whether you are producing simple machine parts or complex ornaments, the lathe serves a vital function in machining, construction, and the automotive industry among others.
- Easy to Program
Modern lathe machines are easy to program with short lines of code. With this function, you can turn a lathe into an automatic tool with CNC capabilities, allowing you to automate boring and difficult work for improved efficiency.
Cons of Owning a Lathe
While the lathe can create almost anything, it has limitations including:
- Limited to applications that turn in a circle
One of the few limitations of the lathe is that it can only work on jobs that involve turning the tool in a circle due to its working principle. This means you have to hold the workpiece in place, which is not always practicable, especially if you own a small-sized lathe.
- Takes a lot of space
Lathes are heavy-duty machine tools that can weigh up to 10,000 pounds or more. You need a lot of space for the tool and enough power to run it efficiently. So if you are not a serious machinist, you may not need to buy a lathe.
For professionals, larger and heavier lathes are better because they can handle most jobs. So when shopping for a lathe machine, go for a model a notch bigger than your regular jobs so you can handle more complex applications in the future.
Milling Machine Overview
The milling machine is also an important tool for the metalworking and machining industry. It has a tool that rotates about its axis while the workpiece is held in place. With this design, the mill is able to remove material from the workpiece from different angles and orientations, allowing it to create complex and intricate shapes. If you have the proper tooling and clearance, you can program the mill to create anything, which is why industry experts say it is the only tool which can replicate itself.
The mill was invented to mass produce interchangeable machine parts. It delivers an unprecedented level of accuracy and consistency in the manufacturing of parts which are difficult to produce manually. The mill removes excess material to create a finished product but with the tool moving on an axis rather than the workpiece as in the lathe. It can cut a wide range of materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, brass, wood among others.
After over two centuries, the mill has changed little but modern versions are smarter and programmable. If you can program the mill, it can create mind-blowing objects with applications in diverse industries.
CNC Milling Machines
CNC milling machines work with computer programs. Unlike manual mills, you need to feed a computer program into the CNC mill to get the desired result. However, a computer is only as good as its operating program. If you make any mistake in the parameters set in the code, the milling machine cannot autocorrect the error, leading to defects in the product. It’s essential to perfect the code when using CNC mills and produce a test product before mass producing anything on the machine to avoid costly mistakes.
Uses of a Milling Machine
The milling machine can perform a wide range of functions including:
Like the lathe, a mill can drill any solid object with the right tooling to high precision. Thanks to CNC milling, manufacturers use the mill to drill intricate and complex network of holes into machine parts used in light and heavy industries such as automobiles, aviation, energy and more.
The mill is the ultimate cutting tool when you need to remove precise amounts of material to create parts or almost finished products. If you have the proper tools, the mill will cut through any material as long as you can secure it to the machine.
The mill can replicate the function of the woodworking planer in the metalworking industry. When you need to reduce the thickness of metal parts, the milling machine can help you achieve accurate and consistent thicknesses over a long stretch of time. This not only improves efficiency but boosts productivity.
This involves cutting something into the surface of a workpiece. You can cut delicate and intricate designs into the face of metal, stone, wood, and more with the milling machine.
You can also use the mill to cut rebates into the edges of the workpiece to make it blunt and visually appealing.
- Slot Cutting
The mill is the ideal tool for cutting slots into a metal workpiece. With CNC mills and Universal Milling machines, the tool can pivot vertically or horizontally to create slots in different angles on the workpiece. This also applies to keyway cutting, especially in the automotive industry.
The milling machine has come a long way in terms of sophistication and applications. It is an integral tool of metal workshops and new models have increased capabilities to work on different materials apart from metal. When you need to create large amounts of complex shapes fast from metal, the mill is the perfect tool for the job.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a Milling Machine
Pros of Owning a Milling Machine
Here are advantages of using the milling machine.
The milling machine helps you achieve a high level of consistency while mass producing the same objects or parts. This increases efficiency, productivity, and boosts your bottom-line if you run a business.
The mill is flexible regarding functions and applications. It can create almost anything as long as you have the proper tooling and the technical knowhow. With CNC programming, you can create unbelievable designs even the most skilled machinists cannot replicate manually.
- Continuous Work
Whether old or new, mills can work for long stretches of time. You can operate this machine tool nonstop unless you need to carry out maintenance or change the tool setup.
- Reduced Labor
Thanks to computer-enabled milling machines, it is now possible for mills to run with minimal human input. You only need to input the program and the computer will handle the rest.
Cons of Owning a Milling Machine
The mill is not a perfect machine despite its exceptional functionality. It has some drawbacks including:
- Difficult to set up
While the mill is more ideal for complex applications compared to the lathe, it is also more difficult to set up. Simple operations on the lathe may require multiple tools and different setups on the mill.
Modern, CNC-capable mills are expensive and take a lot of space. However, there are compact and affordable models which home workshop owners can use for everyday applications.
The lathe and milling machines are vital tools for metal workshops and many other industries. While the original function of both tools was to cut metal into different shapes and sizes, many models can work softer materials such as wood and plastic among others. These tools are ideal for a wide range of applications and can increase your productivity and efficiency.
For many fabricators, welders, woodworkers, and people who use the lathe and mill in their line of work, choosing which of these tools to buy is a daunting task. Both machine tools are expensive, heavy and take a lot of space. And they also serve different purposes. If your work requires cutting cylindrical materials, the best tool for the job is a lathe. But if you always have to handle non-cylindrical workpieces, the milling machine is your best choice. We hope this article was helpful in shedding more light on these powerful tools.