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Becoming a Lathe Operator: An Overview of Lathe Operating

Intorex Model TI-1600 Hydraulic Copy LatheLathe operators specialize in operating power lathes (standard models, CNC models, or both). Lathe operators work with a limited range of tools, often just lathes, tools for servicing and repairing them, tools for inspecting their work pieces, and tools for transporting the work pieces. These tools help them carry out the following tasks:

Move large work pieces to and from lathes using hoists or other lifting devices.

Secure work pieces on lathes using clamps and other holding devices.

Ensure correct alignment of work pieces on lathes using measuring tools.

Select the right shaping specifications in terms of cutting speed, feed rate, and depth of cut.

Adjust lathe controls to meet specified tolerances for various work pieces.

Check finished lathe products with measuring instruments to ensure they meet specifications.

Use bench grinders or manual sharpening tools to sharpen cutter heads.

Perform lathe servicing and repair as needed.

Required knowledge

To professionally operate lathes requires certain types of technical knowledge:

Mathematical knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics.

Mechanical knowledge of industrial woodworking machinery, particularly how to lock out, service, and repair power lathes.

Design knowledge, particularly for furniture design and other types of design associated with lathe work.

Production/processing knowledge of raw wood stock, work processes, quality control, and cost management.

Required abilities and skills

Lathe operators require certain skills and abilities that reflect the technical nature of their work:

Critical thinking for solving design issues and planning projects.

Manual dexterity for grasping tools, wood stock, and operating lathe controls.

Hand and arm steadiness for adjusting lathe controls during the shaping process.

Near vision for observing the surface quality of finished lathe products.

Good concentration for focusing on lathe operation during the shaping process.

Technical skills for interpreting product drawings, models, and blueprints.

Job statistics

As of 2008, 26,000 lathe operators are employed in the U.S., a number that also counts workers who operate various CNC machines, CNC lathes included. Between 2008 and 2018, employment in lathe work is projected to decline as much as 10%. Spurring this decline is the automation of lathe work, particularly in large factory settings. As of 2009, the annual median salary for lather operators is $34,720 (16.69/hr.). Currently, most lathe workers are employed in the manufacturing industry.

Other Considerations

Those who are interested in lathe work should remember the difference between standard lathe work and fine lathe work. While the former is being automated, the latter isn’t. Although lathe work is an occupation, it can also be an art form. As furniture makers, master lathe operators can shatter the salary expectations for lathe work by producing fine products that receive high demand. To learn more about becoming a lathe operator, contacting a vocational school that offers courses in lathe work or shadowing lathe operators at a woodworking company are good options.

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