Accessories of Lathe: Steady Rests

I suppose you could live without accessories, but at least for me they are part of the fu n of turning. Since you can build many accessories in the shop, you don’t necessarily have to part with a lot of cash either. If your pockets are deep, the accessories can be as much fun as the turning. In short, I have never met an accessory that I didn’t enjoy trying, and there are many that I wouldn’t be without.

Steady Rests

There comes a point where a spindle is so long and thin that the only way to prevent chatter is to use a steady rest to support the work. Many modern turners have great misconceptions about steady rests because they associate them with rests used in metal turning. In metal turning, the tool is mounted on a carriage that rides along the bed ways of the machine, so the rest must support the work on exact center to avoid turning a taper. This requires surrounding the work with plane bearings or ball bearings for support.

In wood turning, the tool is guided by the turner, and exact centering by the steady rest is unimportant. A wood turning steady rest must be able to dampen vibration, support the work to prevent it from bending away from the tool, and be quick to adjust.

As with chucks, I feel that the best steady rest is one that you make yourself. My plan for a steady rest, shown in the illustration on the following image, closely follows one outlined by Frank Pain in his book Practical Wood tuner (Sterling, 1 990), which in turn is based on an early steady rest in the High Wycombe Museum in England. Except for the mention in Pain’s book, the design has been largely forgotten, and today’s commercial steady rests trace their roots to metal turning.

The shop-built steady can be positioned at any point along the bed of the lathe and be secured by a wood wedge. The metal beds on some lathes may make this mounting system impractical. In such instances, a block under the bed ways with a carriage bolt and a nut to secure the steady is a good substitute. The movable tongue can be adjusted quickly to any size workpiece by raising and lowering the top wedge.

If the wedge tends to work loose, Pain suggests adding lead weight to the top of it. I have found that a second slender wedge driven beside the first locks the wedge at the desired height. To cut the 90° notch in the top wedge, simply mount a lj16-in. drill bit in the headstock, set the steady on the bed, and touch the movable tongue to the drill. Bandsaw a 90° corner at the drill mark, and the notch is at perfect center height for your lathe. Once in place, the steady may still have to be fine-tuned by chiseling one side of the notch a bit to get both sides to give equal pressure to the spindle.

The advantage of this steady is that you can turn right through it, and it quickly readjusts to support the work at the new diameter. If you find that the workpiece becomes hot and starts to burn as it rubs against the sides of the notch, slow down the lathe and add a little candle wax to provide lubrication. Mechanically fastening (I use carpet tacks) a patch of nylon or Teflon to the notch area will also work. This steady works best at rather slow speed (around 1,100 rpm for most spindle work), but this lower speed deals better with harmonic chatter and is far superior for skew work.

In my experience, although all turners know that a steady rest is needed at times to overcome harmonic chatter, very few of them use one. Most turners just live with the chatter and sand it out at the end. I believe that a steady rest is indispensable in spindle turning, whether you’re making one part or many. The couple of hours spent making a steady will be repaid many times by better work, less sanding, and less frustration.

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