There are many variants of lathes within the metalworking field. Some variations are not all that obvious, and others are more a niche area. For example, a centering lathe is a dual head machine where the work remains fixed and the heads move towards the workpiece and machine a center drill hole into each end. The resulting workpiece may then be used "between centers" in another operation. The usage of the term metal lathe may also be considered somewhat outdated these days, plastics and other composite materials are in wide use and with appropriate modifications, the same principles and techniques may be applied to their machining as that used for metal.
Center lathe / engine lathe / bench lathe
The terms center lathe, engine lathe, and bench lathe all refer to a basic type of lathe that may be considered the archetypical class of metalworking lathe most often used by the general machinist or machining hobbyist. The name bench lathe implies a version of this class small enough to be mounted on a workbench (but still full-featured, and larger than mini-lathes or micro-lathes). The construction of a center lathe is detailed above, but depending on the year of manufacture, size, price range or desired features, even these lathes can vary widely between models.
Engine lathe is the name applied to a traditional late-19th-century or 20th-century lathe with automatic feed to the cutting tool, as opposed to early lathes which were used with hand-held tools, or lathes with manual feed only. The usage of "engine" here is in the mechanical-device sense, not the prime-mover sense, as in the steam engines which were the standard industrial power source for many years. The works would have one large steam engine which would provide power to all the machines via a line shaft system of belts. Therefore, early engine lathes were generally 'cone heads', in that the spindle usually had attached to it a multi-step pulley called a cone pulley designed to accept a flat belt. Different spindle speeds could be obtained by moving the flat belt to different steps on the cone pulley. Cone-head lathes usually had a countershaft (layshaft) on the back side of the cone which could be engaged to provide a lower set of speeds than was obtainable by direct belt drive. These gears were called back gears. Larger lathes sometimes had two-speed back gears which could be shifted to provide a still lower set of speeds.
When electric motors started to become common in the early 20th century, many cone-head lathes were converted to electric power. At the same time the state of the art in gear and bearing practice was advancing to the point that manufacturers began to make fully geared headstocks, using gearboxes analogous to automobile transmissions to obtain various spindle speeds and feed rates while transmitting the higher amounts of power needed to take full advantage of high speed steel tools. Cutting tools evolved once again, with the introduction of man made carbides,and became widely introduced to general industry in the 1970s. Early carbides were attached toolholders by brazing them into a machined 'nest' in the tool holders, later designs allowed tips to be replaceable, and multi faceted, allowing them to be reused. Carbides tolerate much higher machining speeds without wearing. This has led to machining times shortening, and therefore production growing. The demand for faster and more powerful lathes controlled the direction of lathe development.
The availability of inexpensive electronics has again changed the way speed control may be applied by allowing continuously variable motor speed from the maximum down to almost zero RPM. This had been tried in the late 19th century but was not found satisfactory at the time. Subsequent improvements in electric circuitry have made it viable again.