Wood lathes come on the used market in a fairly regular fashion and can be a great way to get a good wood lathe for the money. On the other hand some of the used lathes are lemons. Here are a few suggestions for the shopping trip.
First of all have some idea of what you want to do with a wood lathe in your shop. If you are upgrading from your present machine then you have some opinions as to what things are needed. The novice buyer has a harder road to follow.
There are two main ways to turn wood, spindle and faceplate. Spindle turning includes such things and chair and table legs and is normal way to general woodworkers to enter the woodturning world. Making turned legs for a table eventually leads to making a table as an excuse for turning legs. Faceplate work includes pieces such as round table tops, bowls and vases. Most people who take up faceplate work desire to turn bowls and go from there.
Most beginner lathes will be suitable for spindles and bowls. Older wood lathes used a system of working over the bed of the lathe for spindles and at the other end of the headstock worked "offside" for bowls and such. This required faceplates and other materials to have "left handed" threads. In effect, the bother of setting up for outboard turning meant that most woodturners could not be bothered and settled for making the largest bowl that would fit over the lathe bed. Today's manufacturers often compromise with a headstock that rotates and allows for bigger pieces using the same holding equipment as over the bed.
The problem that arises with this setup comes from lathe speeds. Generally spindles are turned much faster than faceplate work. Large bowl blanks, if unbalanced as most are, can at high speeds shake a lathe apart; cause the lathe to walk across the floor; or turn the wood into a projectile. At slow speeds none of these occur. Six hundred rpm is just slow enough for a twelve inch bowl, but slower is better.
So when looking for a lathe, get one that fits your preferred style of turning. For spindles a solid set of ways making up the lathe bed are important. Faceplate lathes should be very sturdy at the headstock, handle a large piece of wood, and have a low speed. Remember that a wood lathe is a basic power tool and look for the finish and quality you would normally desire in a good tool.
Wood lathes are a lot of fun in the woodworking shop. There are some great bargains on the used market and with a bit of insight, a used lathe is a wonderful way to get started in the woodturning craft.