Choosing a second-hand lathe can be a tricky process, especially considering how many poorly maintained machines are on the market and how easy it is to disguise poor maintenance and damage. Start by doing as much research as possible about the common problems associated with a specific brand or model of second-hand lathe you are considering. When you examine the lathe in question, be sure to ask the current owner about those common problems, as well as any other issues he or she may have had with the machine. Be wary of common scams associated with the sale of such power tools.
Be sure the second-hand lathe runs properly. It should be plugged in and turned on to ensure there are no electrical problems with the machine. Listen for any unusual noises, surges in power, or loss of power entirely. If the seller is unwilling to turn on the lathe for you, it is best to walk away from the sale. Remember, too, that simply turning on the unit to see if it works will not determine if it is a quality unit. The second-hand lathe may still have damage in other areas that do not affect whether the unit runs or not.
Much of the work a woodworker will do on a lathe is done near the headstock. This means the headstock may become worn out or warped, causing inefficient turning of the lathe. Whenever possible, ask the owner of the second-hand lathe to turn on the machine with a piece of wood mounted in it so you or he can test out the function of the machine. Take note of any wobbling, or any unevenness in the function of the bed ways. Bed wear can affect the overall quality of the unit and make the second-hand lathe difficult or impossible to use correctly.
There are countless moving parts on a lathe that can wear out or otherwise become damaged, so it may be impossible to determine if the second-hand lathe is of a high quality. You will need to therefore take note of how well the unit is kept; take a look around the owner's work area and take note of how the other tools are maintained. If the shop is messy and the tools look as though they are not maintained, this may be a warning sign of a bad purchase. Tools that are not cared for are more likely to wear out quickly, meaning you may not get the best machine for the money.