Lathe Duplicators: Vega, Shopsmith, Penn State, Delta and others

Many woodworkers struggle with turning, and many turners struggle with the idea of lathe duplicators.  Many turners thing of these as "cheats" because they take most of the skill out of the task.  To be fair, most lathe duplicators produce a turning that need further refinement, so even using a duplicator the operator will learn some useful skills.

I was one of those anti-duplicator guys myself, until I was asked to turn several hundred identical rosettes for a home featured on a Dayton-based TV show called The House on North Main Street.  It was somewhat of a This Old House-type of show and I got roped into building a couple fireplace mantels bak when I was the woodworking instructor at the Woodworking Academy at Shopsmith's Corporate Headquarters. 

At the last minute the producers of the show noticed how awful the rosettes looked in the corner of every door and window in the house, and rather than asking me about it they went directly to Shopsmith's VP of Marketing and got his commitment to have me reproduce them.  Nice.

So, I took the lathe duplicator off the wall and after blowing off the 1" layer of dust mounted it on the Shopsmith Lathe.  I learned several things about these tools that weekend that I've since learned are true of all lathe duplicators:
  • They all cut with a scraping action.  That means that ideally you should plan on producing a finished piece that is slightly larger than the original, and finish to final dimensions with either tools or abrasives.  If you are at all practiced with turning you are much better off finishing these with your tools, as fine details such as square corners and sharp transitions will be lost if you sand to final size.  
  • Oddly enough, some of the duplicators I've used defy rules of turning.  For example, you might get a smoother finish if you drive your cutter to the deepest part of a cove (the bottom of the cove), them work your way "up hill".  Like I said, if you try this with your favorite scraper you'll muck things up, but for some reason this works nicely on some duplicators. 
  • Using a duplicator is not fun.  If you have 100 spindles to finish for a stairwell it may be the best or in some cases the only way to get the job done, but in the end the fun wears off rather quickly.  This might be a good time to enlist some of the neighborhood kids; but don't have them do too many, or they'll loose the love for woodworking.  
  • Most lathe duplicators are a pain to install and remove, so plan accordingly.  The only exception to this is the Vega duplicators.  They slip off and on with ease, and even better you they can be mounted on the back side of the lathe with their cutter mounted upside-down, and can be left in place without limiting most turning.  The Shopsmith duplicator is a unique case too in that the cutting tool can be used for freehand turning too.  This is great for kids or for others who have difficulty holding tools due to disabilities or arthritis.  Keep in mind that your Shopsmith is also every other tool in your shop, so make sure you stock is fully prepped before going through the trouble of mounting the duplicator.  By the way, I say "trouble" but I can install and be ready to roll with a Shopsmith duplicator in less than five minutes. 
The Penn State Industries duplicator was originally sold by its inventor under then name Anker.  It's a small unit that mounts on most any mini lathe, including Tclpro, Jet, Delta, Harbor Freight and Carbatec mini lathes.  Penn State Industries offers several steel templates for turning common items such as pens, key fobs and the like, and they even have a set of templates for turning a set of chess men.  I have this set for my Penn State duplicator which I mount on a Jet Mini.  My son wants to turn a set of chessmen, but he hasn't done it in the two years that I've had the set and the blanks ready to go, so we'll see. 

The Vega duplicator has been very well rated on Amazon and epinions, and there is a good, short review on the This Old Woodshop site.  The large unit is available in three lengths: 36", 48" and 96", and there is also a mini-lathe versions available.  (Shown at left)

More info on the Vega Duplicator can be found here:

Click here to see all Lathe Duplicators available now on eBay

Here's a video of the smaller Vega Lathe Duplicator on a Mini or Midi Lathe.

Here's a unique idea for mounting the Vega Lathe Duplicator on the back side of the lathe, leaving the front side free for turning fine details and finish sanding.