benchtop CNC lathe

Everything You Need To Know About A Benchtop CNC Lathe

If you own a benchtop lathe, you should definitely consider making it CNC capable

CNC machining is already a trendsetter among machine shops, and workshops with a benchtop lathe are no strangers to this. 


You see, while CNC has been preferred among the larger industries, hobby machinists and small workshop owners have realized its potential of late. So the shift to a CNC lathe machine among the latter isn’t surprising. 


After all, nothing really can beat the performance of a CNC machine which brings along high precision and greater machining ability. 


And even as CNC machines are more expensive than their manual counterparts, CNC conversion kits are readily available for workshops as a cost-effective option. In fact, you can buy a lathe CNC conversion kit and DIY your ‘computer numeric control’ machine on a shoestring budget. 


With a CNC lathe, you will have versatile machining capabilities to make different metal or wood pieces using facing, turning, or grooving. 


Though the basic function of a benchtop CNC lathe is to accurately turn asymmetrical parts, you can even use one for drilling, shaping, or cutting. 


But before you make a switch to a CNC lathe, you may have a lot of questions. And that’s exactly why we have answered all your questions about CNC lathes, from their working to types to parts to applications. 


So let’s have a detailed look. 

What is a benchtop CNC lathe? 

benchtop CNC lathe

Simply put, benchtop CNC lathe machines are the modified versions of manual benchtop lathes, which involve integrating a computer system with the latter. 


As you may know, a benchtop lathe is all about machining on a workbench and is ideal for small operations. 


On a benchtop CNC lathe, the workpieces rotate at a much higher speed, and the cutting tools are computer-programmed to machine these workpieces with high accuracy. 


Now, coming to the application of such lathe machines, you can use them to machine wood, plastic, and soft metals. Also, depending on the cutting tools, you can even use a CNC lathe to machine heavy metals. 


A benchtop lathe generally comes in two configurations, vertical and horizontal, and you can have various axis setups on both of them. And, since modern-day CNC lathes have 3, 4, or even more axes systems, you will have the capability to machine complex workpieces quickly and precisely. 


Interesting, isn’t it? 

How does a CNC lathe work? 

benchtop CNC lathe

When it comes to the working of a benchtop CNC lathe, it is entirely different from its manual counterparts. And that holds for a lathe post CNC conversion as well as a brand new CNC lathe. 


You see, while a manual lathe is all about hand-held cutting tools used for shaping workpieces, CNC eliminates the requirement of human interaction. All you need to do on a CNC lathe is program the machine to your workpiece specifications. 


Nevertheless, you’ll still have to understand CNC programs, your exact project requirements, and its blueprint, along with designing and processing the workpiece on your machine. 


And in case you’re wondering, here’s how a CNC lathe machine works, from designing a project to eventually manufacturing it:

#1. The CAD phase 

The CAD phase is the first step in manufacturing a piece on a benchtop CNC lathe. Herein, you’ll be preparing a design on your computer that precisely replicates the final workpiece. 


And to create a 3D STL design for the turning operation, there are multiple CAD software like Autodesk Fusion 360, Catia, Blender, etc., readily available. 


Further, you can use almost all CAD file formats for machining operations. But you might need to do some post-processing to make a CAD file compatible with your benchtop CNC lathe. 


Talking about CAD files, the IGES file format is quite popular among CNC lathes. So if you’re using one such file format, you should convert all your design files to IGES to enable CNC turning. 


Once you’ve prepared and finalized the design, you’ll have to configure your machine to cut or shape the material. 

#2. The CAM phase

After you’ve prepared the design of your product in the first phase, i.e., the CAD phase, it’s followed by the CAM phase. 


The CAM phase is all about converting your design into code using either dedicated CNC software or manual programming. 


There are popular CNC software programs like Mach3, MeshCAM, EstlCAM, and more, which you can use to create automated code. 


On the other hand, for manual programming, you need good know-how of part drawing, along with G-codes. However, there are multiple G-code editors which you can use to either write a code or modify an existing one. 


The program codes that you create during the CAM process are like commands for your benchtop CNC lathe, telling it what and how to perform a task. 


And while you need to be a skilled CNC machinist for effective CNC programming, the beginner-grade CNC lathes do come with a detailed user guide. 


That’s impressive for sure, isn’t it? 


Going forward in the CAM phase, you’ll need to program your CNC lathe with specially customized G-codes and M-codes. 


You might wonder what exactly these codes are. 


While G-codes are used to control movements on a benchtop CNC lathe, M-codes control other settings on the machine, like turning the coolant on/off, unclamping the chuck, etc. 

#3. The control phase 

The control phase comes after CAD and CAM and is one of the most critical elements of the working of a benchtop CNC lathe. 


But why is the control phase so crucial, you may ask? 


You see, what underscores the importance of the control phase is the fact that both the accuracy and quality of your product hinges on it. 


In this machining phase on your mini lathe CNC machine, you will control both the machine and the cutting tools. 

Here’s a step-by-step process you can follow to set up your benchtop CNC lathe for the control phase: 

  • The first thing that you’ll need to do after turning on the lathe is to position the cutting tool at zero. You can do so by bringing the tool to its original point at the XY axes. 
  • Next up, you will install your workpiece on the spindle for machining. And the workpiece you use should be larger in size than the product you plan on making. 
  • Before setting the cutting tool, you should tighten and lock the chuck in the right place. 
  • Now comes choosing the cutting tools for your CNC lathe. Even though there is an extensive range of cutting tools for benchtop lathes, the one you choose will depend on your workpiece material and the use of the lathe, among others. 
  • Once you’ve put the workpiece and cutting tools in place, you should load the program file to the lathe CNC controller. You’ll be able to do that by using an inbuilt file explorer on the CNC lathe or directly sending the program from a computer. 
  • After you’ve imported the program file to the controller, you need to set tool and work offsets. 

Having completed all these steps, you can now use your benchtop CNC lathe to run the job. And even as the entire process is automated, we suggest you monitor the machining process closely to avoid mishaps. 

#4. The post-processing phase 

Post-processing is the final phase of manufacturing on a benchtop CNC lathe and includes roughing and finishing operations. 


To begin with, you have the roughing operation, which isn’t required for all the products you manufacture in your machine shop. Instead, you need roughing only on products with some excess materials that couldn’t be removed during turning operations.  


When it comes to conducting a roughing operation, you can either do it manually on a lathe or use a grinder wheel for the purpose. 


Upon finishing roughing, you can begin with the finishing operation, which is needed to enhance the surface finish of your product. As a result, your workpieces will turn out much shinier and smoother. 


For polishing your workpiece during the finishing operation, you can use anything from polishing compounds to emery paper to abrasive paste. 


And once you’ve completed both roughing and finishing, your workpiece will be ready. 

What are the different types of lathe machines? 

benchtop CNC lathe

Now that you’ve seen how a benchtop CNC lathe actually works, you might wonder what the various types of lathe machines on the market are. 


You see, depending on their orientation, CNC lathe machines are mainly categorized into two types, namely vertical and horizontal lathes. And the main difference between these two lathe types is in the way workpieces are positioned, i.e., horizontally and vertically. 


A horizontal benchtop CNC lathe is something you can use for almost every generic application. In fact, such lathe machines are apt for small workshops and hobby machinists since they don’t need to produce complex parts. 


A vertical CNC turning center, on the contrary, is used to machine heavy parts and is ideal for industrial settings. 


Apart from the classification based on orientation, lathe machines are also categorized on the basis of their sizes, such as mini lathes and full-size lathes. 

What parts does a benchtop CNC lathe consist of? 

Just like a manual benchtop lathe, the CNC lathes are also made of various parts. And, thanks to these CNC lathe parts, you can accurately and efficiently machine your workpieces. 


So let’s have a look at the CNC lathe parts that enable effective machining in your workshop. 

#1. Headstock

A headstock on a benchtop CNC lathe is mostly located on the left and hosts multiple components of your machine. And the most critical component in the headstock is the spindle used to turn your workpieces. 


To move the spindle, CNC lathes usually have a high-performance spindle drive like a servo motor. 

#2. Tailstock 

The tailstock in your CNC lathe is meant to provide axial support to the workpiece. Also, it provides the extra support needed for machining large-sized workpieces. 

#3. Work-holding device 

As the name suggests, a work-holding device is something you will employ to hold your workpiece in place. And on a CNC lathe, 3-jaw hydraulic chucks are usually deployed to firmly hold the workpieces. 


With the help of outer and inner diameter clamping jaws, these work-holding devices are able to hold your work. Also, depending on the shape and size of your workpiece, you can even use other work-holding devices like a collet, 4-jaw chuck, faceplate, etc. 

#4. Tool turret 

A tool turret is that component of your benchtop CNC lathe that carries the tools. So you can use the turret to store multiple tools, which will come in handy during different machining operations. 


For instance, you can load the turret with tools for threading, grooving, and turning, along with drills, a boring bar, etc. 

#5. Machine Bed

The machine bed on your CNC lathe is generally a solid metallic structure that supports moving components like headstock, tailstock, and tool post. 


And, since the operations, as well as safety, depends on the machine bed, it is usually built with sturdy and dependable materials like cast iron. 

#6. Machine control unit or MCU

The machine control unit on a benchtop CNC lathe consists of a screen, controller, and limit switches, among other components. You can think of the MCU as a processing unit of your lathe. 


Depending on the capabilities of your machine control unit, you can use it either independently or by linking it to a computer. 

#7. Foot switches

The foot switches or foot pedals are those controls on a CNC lathe that you can use with your feet. 


In general, the foot switches allow you to activate or deactivate the tailstock support or work holding quickly and easily. 

Benchtop CNC lathe: FAQs

#1. Is a CNC lathe different from a CNC turning center? 

Yes, a CNC lathe is very different from a CNC turning center, both in terms of its uses and scope. 


For instance, the application of a benchtop CNC lathe is limited to turning and shaping a cylindrical workpiece. On the contrary, you can use a CNC turning center for much-advanced milling and turning operations. 

#2. How to choose a CNC lathe for your workshop? 

You should factor in some important considerations like the intended use of the machine, the area in your machine shop, the speed and torque you need, and much more. 


In fact, we have compiled a comprehensive list of things to consider before you buy a CNC lathe machine in a previous blog

Wrapping it up

A benchtop CNC lathe is synonymous with high accuracy and high volume production among small and medium machine shops. Not to forget, the increased profitability such a machine brings about by increasing efficiency manifold and thus lowering your production costs. 


You see, while manual lathes can be used for simple machining operations, bringing precision to workpieces is a hard bargain. And a CNC lathe or a lathe conversion kit offers the best solution to this. 


If you’re looking for one such machine for your workshop, you can reach out to us. At CNC Conversion Plus, we have the best CNC lathe machines and lathe CNC conversion kits on the market at the most affordable prices. 


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