CNC Lathe vs Manual Lathe: Which do you Need? 

CNC Lathe vs Manual Lathe: Which do you Need? 

CNC Lathe vs Manual Lathe: Which do you Need? 

Lathes are versatile machines that are used in almost any shop. They are available in CNC and manual variants.

Manual lathes have been around for centuries while CNC lathes are only a few decades old.

How are they different and which one do you need?

The difference between CNC lathes and manual lathes is their mode of operation. CNC lathes take in the instructions from a computer and do the cutting automatically. In contrast, manual lathes require the operator to manually control various parameters and execute the process.

In this article, I have laid out the differences between a CNC lathe and a manual lathe to help you select the right one for your application.

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Difference Between CNC Lathe and Manual Lathe

Difference in Parts: CNC vs Manual

Parts of a Lathe
Parts of a metal Lathe (Source: Kingston lathes)

CNC lathes and manual metal lathes have parts like headstock, tailstock, bed, carriage, lead screw, feed rod, chuck, etc.

These parts are generally found in most metal lathes like gunsmith's lathes, turret lathes, capstan lathes, etc.

However, the CNC lathe machine has some additional electronic parts used to automate the machine. 

These parts include the CNC control panel and foot pedals.

Control panel of a CNC lathe
Control panel of a CNC lathe

The control panel has a display with specific keys/buttons for adjusting various machining parameters and sometimes for editing the G-code and toolpath.

CNC lathes are generally compatible with two-foot pedals, one for clamping/de-clamping the chuck and the other for starting/stopping the lathe spindle.

Foot pedals for CNC lathe
Foot pedals for CNC lathe (Source: Haas CNC)

Although the tools used on both lathes are identical, CNC lathe tools include some special tools like polygon turning tools, face drill tools, etc.

Unlike manual lathes, CNC lathes do not require handwheels to position the lathe cutting tool while performing the machining operation.

Instead, these operations are automated using the control software guided by the input CNC code. 

Furthermore, CNC lathes provide support for accessories such as bar feeder, that can be connected to the headstock to enables automatic feeding of the workpiece for machining.

Some common examples of CNC lathes include swiss lathes, multi-spindle lathes, etc.

Difference in Skill Required

Operating a Manual Metal Lathe
Operating a Manual Metal Lathe

Manual lathes are traditional lathes that require the operator to manually control the toolpath, feed rate, and depth of cut during the process.

Although manual metal lathes provide the ability to automate the feed, it requires a skilled CNC operator to precisely control the toolpath and produce the desired cut.

Mastering the skills of operating a manual lathe involves years of training and experience. However, there is always scope for human error.

On the other hand, CNC lathes use computer systems to control the parameters such as the speeds of the lathe, and produce the required part with high accuracy and quick cycle time.

Programming a CNC lathe on BobCAD-CAM software
Programming a CNC lathe (Source: BobCAD-CAM)

Apart from that, it eliminates the need for constant involvement of the operator and only requires a CNC machinist or a CNC programmer to set up the machine and start the machining process.

These CNC operators must be well versed in various CNC lathe software, such as CAD, CAM, and G-code editors to write and modify the G-code program for the machining process.

You can use either paid or open-source CNC software to operate a CNC lathe.

Difference in Accuracy

It is quite obvious that manual lathes are going to be less accurate compared to CNC lathes. This is because most of the operations in a manual lathe are hand-operated. 

Moreover, wood lathes consist of a hand-held tool that provides high flexibility to carve complex shapes but at the cost of accuracy and precision.

Carving wood on a wood lathe
Using the hand-held tool of manual wood lathe

This raises the probability of error in every operation, reducing the overall precision of the machining process and producing comparatively less accurate parts. 

Hence, manual lathes are not recommended for machining intricate parts that require very tight tolerances, such as parts used in medical devices. 

Such parts can be manufactured using a CNC lathe with a positional accuracy of 0.0004” and repeatability of 0.0000008”. 

However, the accuracy of a CNC machine is also affected by the skills of the programmer.

Difference in Efficiency

CNC lathe machines are more efficient than manual lathe machines because the operations in a CNC lathe are automated using the control software. 

The automation of CNC machines drastically reduces errors and increases the precision of every operation. 

Apart from that, CNC lathes provide a comparatively much faster machining operation, thereby increasing productivity and efficiency.

In a manual lathe, the possibility of inaccuracy increases due to human error. This makes them less precise and hence more suited for larger parts that don’t require very high precision. 

Difference in Cost


When comparing CNC lathes and manual lathes on the basis of costs, you have to consider two types of costs: initial costs and operating costs. 

Although the initial cost of a lathe machine is lower than that of a CNC lathe, the operating costs of a CNC machine are lower. 

This is because a CNC lathe doesn’t require skilled laborers to operate. It also doesn’t need continuous monitoring, unlike a manual lathe machine. 

The higher precision of a CNC machine also results in less material wastage compared to a manual lathe. 

A CNC machine will allow you to manufacture a much higher number of parts than a manual lathe, which will help you recoup your money faster and turn profits. 

These factors reduce the operating costs of a CNC machine and make it a better investment in the long run.

CNC Lathe or Manual Lathe- Which One to Choose?

CNC lathe or manual lathe
CNC lathe or Manual lathe

To choose between a CNC lathe and a manual lathe, you first have to understand the application that you need it for. 

Despite the hefty initial investment to buy the machine, a CNC lathe is ideal for business applications that require mass production of similar parts.

It will provide you with the ability to manufacture almost 20 times more parts with higher precision than a manual lathe in the same amount of time.

This increased productivity will result in higher profit, thereby overcoming the high initial cost.

You can use a manual lathe if your applications are mainly DIY oriented or if you need to do some basic prototyping or proof of concept. 

With a manual lathe, you can develop parts at your own speed and leisure, but it will be a slow process and is not suitable for manufacturing a large number of parts. 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, CNC lathe and manual lathe have their pros and cons. It solely depends on your application and interest.

CNC lathes would be more suitable for producing precise prototypes or manufacturing many repeated parts with high accuracy. 

Although CNC lathes can produce highly precise cuts, a manual lathe is generally preferred for woodworking because a hand-held tool provides greater flexibility and better feedback to understand the cutting force required for machining a particular type of wood.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why is a manual lathe suited for woodworking over a CNC lathe?

A manual lathe is suited for woodworking over a CNC lathe because most wood types have a non-uniform grain pattern making them ideal for hand-held cutting tools where the applied cutting force can be altered accordingly. It is going to be very difficult to dynamically change the cutting force on the wood workpiece when using a CNC lathe, making a manual lathe more suited for woodworking. 

What is the difference between a lathe machine and a milling machine?

The basic difference between a lathe machine and a milling machine is that in a lathe machine, the workpiece is rotated at a high RPM, and the material is removed with the help of a moving single-point cutting tool. On the other hand, a milling machine involves a fixed workpiece with a rotating cutting tool that performs the cutting operation. 

What is G-code and why is it important to learn G-code programming for a CNC machine?

Geometric code, also called G-code, is a set of instructions that govern the various parameters in a CNC machine, like the spindle speed, positioning of the tool or the toolpath, feed rate, fan speed, etc. A CNC programmer must have knowledge of G-code programming so that the operator can write and edit appropriate G-codes for different operations. An efficient G-code will ensure less material wastage, higher accuracy, and prevent damage to the tool and the machine. 

About John

Hey I'm John. I write about Manufacturing, Metalworking, CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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Hey I'm John. I write about Manufacturing, Metalworking, CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com


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