A "bench lathe" is typically a smaller lathe that can be set up on top of a
workbench .. typically 12" swing and smaller.
An "engine lathe" is an essentially obsolete term that refers to a lathe
that has a gearing system for the spindle . Typically, a backgear and
countershaft arrangement. Conversely, a non-engine lathe you could
typically adjust the spindle speed only by shifting belts. Today, except
for small hobbyist lathes, most lathes would qualify as "engine lathes."
The difference is subtle at best. A bench lathe is a complete lathe that is
designed to sit atop a bench or other supporting stand of some sort. An
engine lathe has its own stand in that it is bolted to a heavy console made
esp. for it. Generally, engine lathes are of heavier construction than
bench lathes. It is unusual to find a bench lathe larger than say, 12 x 36
(36 is the length of the bed). IMO, a quality bench lathe is likely to be
less rigid than an engine lathe of the same size; and a thousnd or so $ less
To avoid a flame war, I thought I'd clarify my statement a bit. The term
"engine lathe" is archaic -- certainly out of date. So one has to go to
older references. This is from "Lathe Design -- Construction and
Operation" By Oscar E. Perrigo, Copyright 1916, republished in Lindsay's
Lost Technology Series. I quote from page 287 -- the chapter on Engine
"..by the term of engine lathe we mean that class or type of lathe
... which can be defined as a metal turning lathe, having a back geared
head-stock; a tail stock capable of being set over for turning tapers; a
carriage provided with suitable tool-supporting mechanism for producing
power lateral and transverse cutting feeds; and a lead screw swith suitable
gearing fro driving it, whereby the usual screw threads may be cut. .."
An earlier definition, in my 1941 Machinists handbook and also in
the Oxford English dictionary defines it as any lathe powered by an engine
as contrasted to one powered by hand or foot. But the handbook author goes
on to admit that the "language butchers" abused the term and it then (1941)
took on the meaning of an lathe with an 8" or greater swing that has a back
"Boris Beizer" email@example.com
wrt meaning of "engine lathe"
Perrigo's definition by configuration, circa 1916, is fine, so far as that
But the OED is poor [how I wanted to say wrong].
In older usage, the prime mover makes no difference as to whether a lathe is an
engine lathe. It could be a treadle, or a crank, or a waterwheel, or a steam
In 1820's-60's usage, an engine lathe is a lathe that is self acting, that
moves the tool bit to and fro (in and out comes at the end of it) under its own
power. That's it. It has nothing to do with having a lead screw, necessarily
(feed was obtained from pulleys and rods in many such lathes), or with having
back gearing, or with having setover by means of a two-piece tailstock. It
meant only that you could engage the power, and the lathe bit would cut on its
YEUMV (your engine usage may vary)
It used to be necesary to diferentiate between an engine lathe and
plain lathes, which had no feeds or slides. Mostly, these days, an
"engine" lathe sounds like it should be worth about 3 grand more than a
"metal" lathe. Marketing. The other usual designation is "toolrom" which
implies, truthfully or otherwise, that the lathe is capable somehow of
being better or more accurate than an engine or metalworking lathe.