This article was first published in 2007.
I have a friend who has things arse-about. He’s an
intelligent man but he has one major misconception about making things. He
thinks that what you can make is largely based on the machines that you have –
not the skills you have in using those machines. So when I showed him my newly
bought (but very old) lathe, he suggested all the things I’d now be able to do:
turn-up threads, face ends, bore out holes....
“Yeah,” I replied, “when I know how to use
I don’t think he took my comment seriously but a
lathe is simply not a machine that you can plonk in your shed and the next day
be turning stainless steel into threaded spigots with 2 thou accuracy. It simply
ain’t gonna happen like that unless you already have a background that heavily
involves machine tools of this sort.
However, it’s also not the sort of machine that’s
useless until you have mastered its every intricacy. I’ve owned a lathe for
about 2 years; in that time I have read perhaps a dozen books on using lathes
and I would have spent perhaps 50 hours using it. Compared with a tradesman
fitter and turner – let alone an instrument maker – I reckon I have perhaps less
than 5 per cent of their lathe machine skill level.
But here’s the punch-line: I already consider it
to be one of the most important tools in my home workshop. Once
you have a lathe, you seriously wonder how you ever did without it.
Buying a Lathe
Small lathes tend to fall into two classes.
Brand-new and cheaply made, or older and expensive. Yes, like other durable
machine tools, it’s quite easy to pay a lot more for a lathe that’s 20 or 30
years (or more) old than it is to buy a brand-newie. But if looking at new
lathes, what is suitable? Small lathes are available at a number of outlets.
There are plenty of on-line retailers (eg through
eBay) that sell smallish lathes, usually minus the stand. Cost is around
AUD$750. However, they’re often not particularly high quality units and plus by
the time you add a four-jaw chuck, face plate, tailstock chuck and stand, the
cost goes up substantially. These lathes usually have a distance between centres
(ie the longest object that can be continuously machined) of 250mm and a swing
(the radius of the largest cylinder that the lathe can machine) of 140mm. So
they’re only small lathes – but that doesn’t mean they’re useless. In fact, in
the year I have had my lathe, I doubt I have machined much that couldn’t have
been done on that sized machine.
Even smaller lathes are available, for example
those from Clisby Miniature Machines. These Australian-made lathes use extruded
aluminium beds and are tiny – just about small enough to fit in a shoe box and
light to match. They use 12V motors and the power supply and motor speed control
need to be provided by the purchaser. Pricing is from just AUD$350(including 3-
and 4-jaw chucks, tailstock chuck and faceplate) but the lathe is sized with
just 114mm between centres and a swing of 63mm. However, these lathes are not
designed for machining steel – they’re primarily designed for soft materials
like aluminium and plastics. Users of these lathes say that you can machine steel, but you need to take very small cuts indeed. And of course,
neither of these lathes can cut screws – that is, have the ability to form
threads on a rod or within a bore.
On eBay and in machinery retailers you’ll also
find plenty of new medium-sized lathes. They’re normally made in China and look
fine. But I got some advice from an old guy at a machinery store, advice that
seemed (and seems) valid.
"Don’t buy any of the cheap and small new Chinese
crap," he said. "We sell it here but it’s just rubbish – it’ll drive you
Instead, he suggested I needed a certain type of
lathe that had been on sale for a few years. Secondhand, it would probably set
me back only three or four thousand dollars... he gave me a pamphlet showing
what it looked like, but I already knew it was no good – it was well beyond my
budget. (Incidentally, I am sure that over time, the quality of new, small,
Chinese-made lathes will improve considerably.)
I bought my lathe – a 1940s US-made Southbend – on
eBay for $510. I’ve been watching every day since and it was a good deal –
normally lathes of that size go for closer to AUD$1000. But in either event,
it’s the path that I suggest new lathe acquirers take. Realistically, a beginner
won’t have the level of expertise to assess the condition the lathe is in
(unless you take along an expert!), but the normal tactics of buying secondhand
goods (how trustworthy is the seller, do the goods look well maintained, what’s
their history) will hold you in good stead.
I’d be wary of buying an ex-school lathe, simply
because you can be confident that every abuse ever handed out to a lathe has
been gleefully done so!
On this basis you should be able to buy a
secondhand lathe for about AUD$1000. For that price it will have a feed for
parallel turning (indicated by a powered screw thread that runs the length of
the bed) and you’ll probably also get 3- and 4-jaw chucks, a dead centre and
some tools. Don’t worry if all that’s another language: any beginners’ reference
book on lathes will explain all.
A Thousand Bucks?!
So you want us to spend AUD$1000 or more on an
obscure machine that you say is hard to learn how to use! So what good will it
be to my car modification? Perhaps taking a look at a few things I have done
with my lathe will be indicative.
The first major job was the mounting of the
wastegate actuator on a turbo. The turbo was one from a Subaru Liberty (Legacy)
twin turbo B4. In the pictured Subaru application, the exhaust feeds comes up
from below, whereas in its new application, the exhaust manifold needed to come
in from above.
The turbine housing was rotated to get its
entrance in the right place, in turn necessitating a new mounting arrangement of
the wastegate actuator - it normally bolts to cast-in bosses on the compressor
cover. To provide a new mounting surface, the lathe was used to turn-up a thick
aluminium ring. This was sized to be a snug fit over the compressor cover, with
a section of the ring cut out to allow the compressor discharge nozzle to fit
through it. The ring was held in place by longer-than-standard stainless steel
cap bolts, the ones that also hold the compressor cover in place. Spacers were
used to distance the ring from the compressor lugs – without these, the ring
would have had to be a very complex shape to provide sufficient ‘meat’ around
the bolt-holes. The wastegate actuator was then bolted to the ring.
Two years later, the modification is still
performing without any attention. To make the ring without a lathe would have
required extremely careful use of a metal-cutting blade in a power jigsaw and
then much filing to shape.
Lathes can be used to turn plastics as well as
metals. (In fact, plastics are often easier to work with on a lathe, being in
many cases much more forgiving of poorly-ground tools, the wrong angles and the
wrong feed rates!) One application for which I used the lathe was in machining a
polyurethane suspension bush.
The inner shoulder of the flange was machined
...so that the flange sat flush against the end of
the mounting tube rather than sitting a little proud.
Another application was in making plastic
suspension bushes from scratch. Here two bushes made from High Density
Polypropylene can be seen. They could equally well have been made from nylon or
PTFE – both the latter are widely recommended for bearing surfaces in this sort
of application. Despite appearances, these bushes were easy and quick to make –
say 15 minutes each. Since the polypropylene was bought as scrap for near
nothing, these bushes probably cost about 10 cents each – custom sized for the
exact application I had in mind.
OK, so it’s not an automotive application but it
just as well might have been. The aluminium rim being used on this pedal machine
headlight was turned-up on the lathe from – wait for it – the bottom of an old
aluminium fire extinguisher! The inner diameter of the fire extinguisher (75mm)
already matched the outer diameter of the stainless steel drinking cup being
used to form the main body of the light, so it was just a case of parting-off
the bottom of the extinguisher and then using the lathe tool to cut out the
centre of the base. The rolled edge was already present (to hold the pressure in
the extinguisher) and so the whole job took maybe 20 minutes!
Without a lathe, realistically it would have been
Using the lathe, this nut was shortened so that it
provided the right threaded length for an oxygen sensor mount on an exhaust
pipe. The modification could have been done with a hacksaw and file but it would
have been extremely hard to get it looking as good as this.
It was also used to get the length of the nut
exactly right for the application.
Without a lathe, drilling holes in the centre of
round things is difficult. And drilling holes down the centre of long
round things is bloody impossible. This chrome-plated steel shaft needed a hole
drilled through the middle of it so that it could be tapped to take a bolt from
each end. (The rod was being used as a crush-tube in a suspension bush, but
equally well it could have been being used as a spacer or a support.) Without a
lathe it would have been a nightmare task.
Need to cut a hole in the centre of a PVC pipe cap
as part of a cold air intake system? You could try centre’ing a hole saw or –
God forbid – try to cut the circle out neatly with a jigsaw, or you could simply
place the cap in the lathe chuck and bring up the tool. A few seconds later and
you have a perfectly concentric hole cut out of the centre.
If you make things – any things! – a lathe is a
tool of enormous worth.