A New Old Lathe For Your Hackerspace Or Garage

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.

The lathe almost ready for transport

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.

Not really functional…
Link belt – much better!

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.

Tree + lathe and stain/urethane = napkin holders

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.

JeremySCook twitter accountJeremy 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.

51 thoughts on “A New Old Lathe For Your Hackerspace Or Garage

  1. Great article! We’ve had similar challenges and successes at Milwaukee Makerspace with our South Bend lathe, but we use it for metal. The hope is to dedicate one to the wood shop soon. The link belt seems like a great approach.

    1. You can use a metal lathe on wood, however, there are a number of factors to keep in mind:
      1) The combination of sawdust and oil used on the ways (the sliding dovetails) will set up like a slightly gooey cement. Not god for metal parts as the sawdust also absorbs water. Clean it off well when you are done.
      2) Wood lathes are generally used with hand tooling and a tool rest. Gouges, cutoff tools, etc. Not too easy to do without a tool rest. Dangerous in fact. Either come up with a safe tool rest or use the metal tooling.
      3) Speeds and feeds. Metal lathes generally have a wide range of speeds. Choose one appropriate to the work you are doing. Consult a book on wood turning.

        1. A kid that went to my junior high was using the wood lathe at unadvisable speeds and not wearing a protective mask. The wood came off and hit him in the head and he suffered brain damage.

          Be as cautious as you want.

    2. Actually, a metal lathe ordinarily is used at lower speeds than a wood lathe. My South Bend (a 13″ swing) looks very similar to Jeremy’s, and the maximum speed is around 1000 rpm. Modern metal lathes can go up to around 2500 rpm or so but the higher speeds aren’t used nearly as much as the lower ones. Metal is rather a lot harder than wood. :-)

      BTW Jeremy, that lathe looks like it has a taper attachment, though I’m not expert. Take a look at the asking price of SB taper attachments on eBay… ;-)

  2. Good job getting your lathe running! One big suggestion I can give to people in your situation is to keep your three phase motor! It runs smoother than a single phase and it’s already installed. Instead of replacing it, just get a VFD for it. The VFD will take care of the single to three phase conversion and more importantly, it will give you variable speed at the twist of a knob. It will also give you smooth acceleration and deceleration, which make for a nice, smooth experience turning the lathe on and off.

    There are even models that will convert 110V single phase to 240V three phase. Hitcahi makes a 1 HP model – WJ200-007MF. One you use a VFD for variable speed, you’ll never want to go back.

    1. I agree totally with the VFD idea I use them daily in larger scale applications like conveyor belts and parcel sorters (I’m an automation engineer by trade and my big customers drive big white trucks with either purple and red or purple and green logos). VFDs are great because you get speed control, you can modify acceleration and deceleration times, you can even adjust volts-per-hertz ratios.

      VFDs are fascinating in themselves because they rectify the incoming voltage to DC and then “invert” it back to three phase AC using PWM. This gives you all sorts of control over the output, but because of the choppy square waves they can be electrically noisy.

  3. I’m in the midst of refurbing two lathes, a 30’s era Walker Turner and a 50’s era (smaller) Craftsman (King Seeley, I believe). Much of the cleanup has been done, still need new paint, bed truing, and cleanup of the center mounts. Still trying to unfreeze a lock ring from the end of the craftsman so I can swap out the belt, but I think I’m going to do what was shown here with the link belt… from what I read they make for a much better belt, period (they don’t cause as much vibration either, or they absorb it). Articles like this remind me that such dreams are worth pursuing! Thanks!

    1. The leather belts are easy to replace. There is a single pin driven through the wire links. It should press right out when the belt is slacked. The wide leather belts are still pretty easy to find. I got one a few years ago for my old Logan and another for my South Bend.

  4. Check out Tubalcain on Youtube — he is a retired teacher/machinist who makes videos about all kinds of metal working with lathes and milling machines. One of his series was on resurrecting an old lathe just like this one. Great stuff.

  5. I can’t speak for the link belt, it might be a great deal. But if you want to go back with one that resembles the original, try a place that does conveyer belts. I use to make ones just like that. We would throw those size pieces away all the time. And the splice is just metal teeth that crimp on with a hinge pin that is slid in after the belt is installed.

  6. One other thing, wood tears up metal working equipment. If you value your equipment get a wood lathe if thats what you want to do or find an old patternmakers lathe.

    Wood fibers have a high silica content that abrades on metal. If you have ever looked at a wood lathe you will noticed anything that gets hit with chips becomes worn and polished. Also the oil mixes with the chips and makes a virtual lapping compound.

  7. We ( Tech Valley Center of Gravity http://tvcog.net ) picked up some gear similarly. There are great deals to be had out there on lathes, milling machines, and the like. But be aware what you are getting and do a close inspection. Look for worn ways and bad head bearings, both of which will cost quite a bit to correct. Probably more than the equipment is worth, unless your time is free and you have a well stocked shop to start with as lathe parts sometimes take a lathe to make…:)

    1. Keep looking Shane. One of the machine shops I work with had to dump (and I mean _dump_) an entire warehouse full of Bridgeports, Clausing, Hardinge, South Bend for the scrap metal value. I found out a week too late.

      Make friends with the old guys who run the local machine shops. Not the ones who do engine work only, but the ones who still turn out low quantity production runs, prototypes, and do repairs on machinery. They are getting rare, but if you are interested in keeping the skills and trade alive, they will help you out.

  8. I found a sears craftsman 48″ (Atlas) 1939-41 in a ditch full of water, dragged it home and did a complete refurb. Many of the moving parts were rusted to the point that it was hard to tell how many pieces I was looking at? A bucket of water, some soda ash, (pool Ph up) a rebar and my battery charger made short work of removing the rust without removing or etching the metal. Some of the larger cast iron parts required sand blasting. The hardest part was finding the original paint color. The new cost of the lathe in the day was 14.00 and an x-y metal adapter was 30.00.

    1. Wow, that’s really cool. Nice work on that one. I can’t believe how robust older machine tools can be. My grandfather had (fairly recently) a pre-WW1 lathe in his shop. It was a vertical model I believe. I think it’s still in use.

  9. I admit I cringed when I see Jeremy was using the lathe to turn wood, but I shrugged to to to think it’s his machine not my business. When I seen he was using “linkbelt” I thought that’s metal on metal how does that work? The photos show a product I’m not familiar with & with Google I see it’s Link-Belt linkbelt, the stuff I used on oilfield single cylinder engine condenser fans most likely is a Gates product. The gates webpage has a section on spliced belts, but getting information requires registering. For occasion home shop use a capacitor style phase converter should work well, although the motor is running on 2 phase after it comes up to speed, so a rotary converter would be better for a production or repair shop.

  10. At some point in time the stock for the “modern” method is going to deplete. Then it will be time to revert to what I have to think as how it was done at first scarf the joint and using an adhesive , and actually sew the leather together. Now doubt the sewing process include making grooves for the thread to fall in so it it wouldn’t wear out so quickly. For the time being YouTube comes through again for the modern way. Damn isn’t it great that the old farts knowledgeable with with old tech embrace the new tech as well? One thing from the video “the South Bend Book” no doubt digitized copies of the old book are on the web.


  11. I immediately recognized that machine: I used an identical lathe every single day when I was a student machinist at the Physics Department Instrument Shop at OSU! That is an unassumingly great piece of machinery. I turned out at least a thousand tiny molybdenum rivets on that machine, all with +/- 0.001″ tolerances. Hopefully it will serve you just as well as the 50+ year old machine I used.

      1. My lab has an old ’49 Monarch that worked up to about a year ago (blown rectifier in the field circuit I think) but that thing could still spit tenths (.0001″) if you were careful.

    1. If you call South Bend with the serial number, they can give you a fair amount of history on your machine. We have a great South Bend, very similar to this one. I called, they connected me to Rose, who asked for the SN. About 30 seconds later she was reading me the build sheet for the machine. It was built October 19, 1936, shipped to an address nearby and then she rattled off the options and purchase price. Incredible.

      That lathe is still going very strong. Easily good to 0.0001″, and happy to rip chips out of stainless like its plastic.

  12. I did the same. I got a south bend 9″ swing that came out of a high school shop, it never saw production but it saw teenagers so everything was either unworn or ripped clean off. I knew this model and i knew what was available on ebay for it which is a lot. look at govdeals and govtliquidation.com in the USA

  13. Practicalmachinist.com is mainly for pros (chinese hobbyist lathe talk will get your discussion closed) freely searchable archive shows lots of love for SBLs though, plenty of experience, hints and kinks–the sbl step by step refurb books are available on amazon as well.

  14. Odd request,

    Is there any chance that you can post up some pictures of the way that the belt routes on the way from the motor to the spindle?

    Also any chance you can post some pictures of the screw cutting box (how the spindle is attached to the lead screw for automatic thread cutting. )

    I’ve got a very much earlier lathe than this that started out life as a treadle lathe that I’m slowly restoring to working order with electric drive (the treadle parts are long since gone)
    The back gear setup is also gone.
    And the cast iron hanger for the lead screw needs to be welded…
    Still I recieved about two or three time value in cutting tools (that were thrown in) compared to what the lathe cost me. (Paid £100 and got about 100 has steel cutters, about thirty tungsten carbide cutters (complete with inserts) and a selection of boring bars.

    (The lathe I have is a gap bed. These tend not to be so popular in the states. -we also measure the throw different. My 9″ throw lathe will turn something 18″ in diameter. (Which makes it great for holding car wheels whilst refurbishing them)

    I just need some ideas in my head about how things should look to help me on my way with the restoration /conversion.

  15. that thing probabaly has better performance than my new $4000 lathe from china…. and your using it for wood….
    I’d admit, it probably needs dome help, but….
    there are much better bits to use for rounding something than a cutoff bit too…

  16. Looks like you have a nice machine! See the Southbendlathe@yahoogroups.com site for an excellent forum on South Bend Lathes; almost any question you have will be answered there. After you figure out what model lathe you have (it looks to me like a Heavy 10) go to eBay and buy the rebuild manual and felt kit – it has the new felt strips that transmit oil to the headstock spindle bearings. I found the manual to be an excellent investment; it shows how to repair and restore every component on the lathe, and how to keep it lubricated properly. Given the serial number stamped into the right hand end of the bed, there’s a file on the Yahoo group site that will help figure out when it was built.

  17. I have a south bend 9 inch lathe circa 1946 if my memory is good and I’m too lazy to go actually look. However, you seem to be doing the belting wrong. These machines originally used leather flat belting and as such the pulleys are designed for that. Looking at the pictures, I’d presume a 1 inch or maybe 1 1/4 inch wide flat belt is all you need. The ends are joined with alligator lacing. http://www.mcmaster.com/#conveyor-belt-lacing/=pcc51l is the stuff I used. It works great and if you happen by some means to tear the lacing out and the belt is still good, just cut the belt behind the torn out piece, re-lace and slide the connecting pin back in place.

  18. I have a 13″ swing Sears Roebuck & Company Expert lathe (made by south Bend) from 1914. Other lathes I have are a 17×78″ LeBlond from 1944, a 10×24″ Montgomery Ward from 1940 (the 30th one off the production line, the 20th one is also still in existence), and a 1942 Monarch 12CK.

    The Monarch cost me all of $400 at a scrapyard. It’s getting the repairs it needs. It didn’t have a tailstock so I’m on the hunt for one for any of the 12C series, 12C, 12CK, 12CKK or any other in that line should use the same tailstock.

  19. Rotary phase converters are old school and less efficient than a VFD. If all you have is single phase 220 volt then 3 horsepower 3 phase is pretty much the top end for an electronic VFD.

    What you don’t want to use is a static phase converter. Those reduce the motor power by 1/3 and should only be used with newer motors designed to be able to work with them. In other words, don’t buy a 1940’s lathe with its original 3 phase motor and hook it up to a static phase converter. It will work but will also most likely damage the motor.

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