Lathe Operator Job Description

Updated July 19, 2017

A power-driven lathe machine equipped with a sharp cutting tool mechanically shapes metal, plastic or wood into useful objects or parts. A lathe does this work by rotating the raw material rapidly while simultaneously pressing a fixed cutting or abrading tool against it. Many lathes come equipped with computer numerical controls and are called CNC lathes. Lathe operators run these machines, creating parts, tools and products.


Lathe operators set up, operate and monitor lathe or turning machines, shaping or threading wire, rod or bar stock. In the case of a CNC lathe, the operator may need a programmer to first translate machining instructions into a computer aided/automated manufacturing (CAM) program which will later be entered into the machine's computer-controlled module.


A lathe operator determines specifications by reading blueprints and other documents. The operator of a CNC lathe downloads the CAM program into the lathe. Lathe operators change worn tools and perform routine maintenance. They install the correct tooling, secure the workpiece, adjust the controls as necessary and monitor the machine. After finishing, operators ensure that the piece meets specifications. In many cases, an operator monitors more than one machine at the same time.


Lathe operators control the operation of the machine by monitoring dials and gauges, as well as listening to the machine with a keen ear for sounds that indicate problems. When problems do arise, an operator troubleshoots to diagnose the problem and determine proper corrective actions.

They use dial indicators, calipers, micrometers to perform measurements, as well as other tools. Lathe operators also often require both good listening skills and ability to give clear, understandable instructions to others.


Lathe operators typically work indoors in heated, ventilated and well-lit factories or tool shops under the direction of a shop supervisor. Most work a five-day, 40-hour week but overtime may be necessary to meet schedules, contracts or deadlines. Lathe operators may sometimes join unions.

Operators must pay attention to safety and use personal protective equipment including safety glasses and ear plugs. The job requires standing lifting moderately heavy objects.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, entry-level jobs may only require a high school diploma with a few additional months of on-the-job training. Apprenticeship programs, vocational schools and community colleges can provide the needed certification or training. Math-related courses such as trigonometry and algebra make good preparation for an operator, as does schooling in blueprint reading and computer programming.


The Occupational Information Network states the median wage in the United States for lathe and turning machine tool operators in 2009 was £10.50 hourly or £22,022 annually.

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About the Author

Bud Clarkson works as a career consultant helping people in career transition. A freelance writer with an M.A. in leadership and an undergraduate degree in communications, Clarkson writes website content and blogs, and has been published in magazines and online journals such as Today's Life Coach.