The more experience you have as a wood turner, the easier it will be to choose your next lathe. To accommodate everyone from beginner to expert, I will try to keep my comments basic and yet complete. If you are an expert, please bear with me. If you are a beginner, this article may save you a lot of headaches at the school of hard knocks.
I’d like to start out by saying that creating beautiful turnings is an art which requires a certain amount of specialized talent. The only way for you to know if you have this talent is to take some lessons from someone else who does. You can be an excellent woodworker, adept at the table saw, band saw or router and yet, you may not have the particular kind of fine touch that it takes to be a master at the lathe. Before you fork out your hard-earned dollars for a dream lathe, get some experience first.
There are some basic things to know when shopping for a lathe and probably the most important question you might want to ask yourself is, “What do I want to produce on my new lathe?” and, “What do I think I might want to produce on it in the foreseeable future?” If all you ever want to do is turn pencil and pen blanks, a micro lathe is all you need. If you plan on turning out huge bases for round tables, you might want to consider investing in an industrial behemoth.
Numbers-wise, you will want to consider the lathe’s bed length, the distance between the base of the tool rest and the center (diameter that can be turned), the maximum diameter of bowls that can be turned safely (usually on the outboard side of the lathe head), the horsepower and RPM of the lathe motor and the variable speed range.
One thing that may not be immediately obvious is that all lathes create vibration. This vibration is transmitted to the point where the cutting tool touches the wood. Vibration makes for poor or rough cuts and vibration must be dampened out as much as possible. A flimsy stand is not going to do this for you. I went so far as to build a heavy lathe bench which incorporated a large box which I filled with sand bags. A heavy-duty stand might suffice for you, however.
If you have the aptitude to learn woodturning, you will find that it is indeed true that practice makes perfect. During this period of learning, it should become obvious to you the size and type of lathe you will want to own in the future. First things first.