3D printers, or even small CNC routers may seem like relatively easy machine tools to obtain for your hackerspace or garage. They are both very useful, but at some point you may want to start working with round parts (or convert square-ish items into round parts). For this, there is no better tool than a lathe. You can buy a small and relatively cheap lathe off of any number of distributors, but what if you were to get a good deal on a larger lathe? Where would you even start?
In my case, I was offered a lathe by a shop that no longer had a use for it. Weighing in at 800 pounds and using 3 phase power, this South Bend Lathe might have been obtained economically, but getting it running in my garage seemed like it would be a real challenge. It definitely was, but there are a few mistakes that I’ve made that hopefully you can avoid.
The first challenge that one might think about is how exactly to get it to your “place of hack.” Where I picked it up was happy to load it onto my 2006 Toyota Tacoma with a forklift. Fortunately, they had a truck scale there, so I was able to make sure I wasn’t over weight capacity. The truck was certainly loaded down, but made the nearly 600 mile journey without incident, ratcheted securely to my truck bed.
I live on top of a hill, and my driveway is quite steep, so that seemed like it would be a challenge in itself. Following a suggestion, I called a local tow truck company, who picked it off the bed with their winch and moved it into the garage. I had no idea, but apparently they do this kind of thing on a semi-regular basis.
The second big challenge was getting a motor to fit and run my lathe off of 120 Volts AC. I’m not an expert in motor sizing, but fortunately the fit is somewhat standardized. The motor that came with it was sized as “56C.” What this means is that any other 56C motor should reasonably fit the same mounting pattern and size as another of this type. I suppose there are many sources of motors like this (Ebay, etc), but I bought one from AutomationDirect.com, as I had experience with them, and their prices are relatively cheap. Additionally, the head guy there has (or had as of 5 years ago) a full-sized mold of Han Solo in carbonite in his office, so that can’t be a bad thing…
When the motor arrived, the AD model had a slightly larger footprint than the Leeson model I was taking out. This would normally not have been a problem, but there was a dowel pin interfering with the larger plate. After some work with a Dremel tool, I finally got everything to fit. Wiring everything in to get it to run wasn’t that hard, but one definitely needs to consult the manual that comes with the motor to get things correct. That has been good enough for my needs so far, but setting it up to reverse is low on my projects list. If you want to do this, there’s a great discussion about wiring a lathe on this practical machinist thread.
Besides getting the motor to run, to get this lathe working even a little, I needed a functional belt. As seen above, what it came with was broken. I originally tried using a serpentine belt via several methods of attachment. These included superglue, fishing line, and knots, but I eventually gave up on joining the “order of the serpentine.” Instead, I ordered something called a “link belt” Which is literally a bunch of links fashioned into a belt. There’s some more information on my trial-and-error process here. After nearly a year of use, it looks like this was a good choice.
I’ve done some really cool projects with this lathe, including some bike handlebar grips and napkin holders made from small trees that I chopped down. It really feels awesome to subjugate nature to your will like that. Below is a time-lapse of one of my first cuts with my lathe, and a stop-motion video I made with an LED enabled natural edge mushroom that I turned.
The lathe is a great tool, but there are still some things that I could do to it to make it even better. The slides could use some work, and generally aligning everything would certainly make it perform more accurately. Obviously, the wiring could use some attention as well. Not being a professional electrician, I couldn’t vouch for my work, even if I wanted to, so please do your research if attempting this. Finally, stripping and giving it a new coat of paint would make it look much better.
If you do decide to get your own lathe, please be safe with it. A dust mask or respirator is needed for woodworking so you don’t inhale wood particles. Additionally, safety glasses should be used, and long hair tied up. Finally, don’t wear rings or gloves while using this tool. Like long hair, they can get caught up in the spindle.
There is a good chance I’ve missed something, safety-wise, setup, or otherwise. This is a hobby of mine, but I don’t claim to be an expert. Please use your own good judgment and/or consult an actual expert if you’d like to attempt this! This wasn’t an easy project, but it is definitely something that can be done with a little planning and work.
Jeremy Cook is a Mechanical Engineer with a degree from Clemson University, and works in manufacturing and process automation. Additionally, Jeremy is an avid maker and former Hackaday staff writer. When he’s not at work or in the garage, you can find him on Twitter @JeremySCook, his projects blog JCoPro.net, or on his photography-related blog DIYTripods.com.