New Lathe Day Is Best Day

As [Quinn Dunki] rightly points out, modern industrial civilization was probably conceived on the bed of a lathe. Turning is an essential step in building every machine tool, including lathes, and [Quinn] decided it was time to invite one into her shop. But she discovered a dearth of information to guide the lathe newbie through that first purchase, and thus was born the first installment in her series on choosing and using a new lathe.

As for the specifics of the purchase, [Quinn]’s article goes into some depth on the “old US iron” versus “new Asian manufacture” conundrum. Most of us would love an old South Bend or Cincinnati lathe, but it may raise practical questions about space planning, electrical requirements, and how much work is needed to get the old timer working again. In the end, [Quinn] took the path of least resistance and ordered a new lathe of Chinese heritage. She goes into some detail as to what led to that decision, which should help other first-timers too, and provides a complete account of everything from uncrating to first chips.

Nothing beats the advice of a grizzled vet, but there’s a lot to be learned from someone who’s only a few steps ahead of her intended audience. And once she’s got the lathe squared away, we trust she’ll find our tips for buying a mill helpful getting that next big shipment delivered.

“All the best things in life arrive on a pallet.” Have truer words ever been spoken? Sure, when the UPS truck pulls up with your latest Amazon or eBay treasure, it can be exciting. But a lift-gate truck rolling up to the curb? That’s a good day.

47 thoughts on “New Lathe Day Is Best Day

  1. I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but the biggest impediment to buying old machine tools here is that as they become available they are bought up by existing machine shops even only to break them up and scrap them. This is done to create a barrier for new entrants that would compete with established businesses.

    1. It’s even worse in E.U where machine safety requires that every machine to be sold, new or old, must be in line with current safety rules.
      So most of the machines are either sold to refitters, exported or put to destruction.
      Worse thing is that even when destructed they do not scrap them properly, so you have perfect subassemblies that goes to bin (linear rails, servo, optic scale) instead of being resold at cost like they do in asia (see all the machine part vendor here).

      Anyway for a beginner, I tend to recommend the asian way. Not that the machines are better, because they are not, but they are smaller, easy to fix and modify and without big flaws for most (read the internets before choosing!), dirt cheap and easy to source.
      My mill and lathe are both small asian machines. They have been completely modified and improved and in the process I have learn a lot.
      Now give me the space and money to buy a used schaublin or deckel machine and I will not say no, but I will know what to check to avoid buying a ruined one.

      1. I don’t believe this for a minute – *maybe* from commercial use, but for domestic use it’s definitely not the case. There’s a healthy second hand market in vintage used machinery – mills, lathes, saws — the lot — and it’s unregulated.

          1. Well it’s not europe any more ;)

            In fact it’s a little bit more complicated in France:
            Paid worker can only work on up-to-date machinery when concerning safety (mostly insurance and healthcare issue).
            Self-employed guy can do whatever he want, basically no cover for accident.
            Commercial seller can only sell machine that follow dosmestic safety rule, which are more lax, mainly a symbolic guard and kill switch are enough.
            State auctions (and some of private auction) require that you must be a machine refurbisher in order to bid.

            So when a company have a machine to sell, they mostly scrap it to avoid any liability, even if it’s still possible to find some.
            Between two individual these rules do not apply.

          2. So it’s not EU legislation at all, it’s French legislation.
            Not that I won’t be sorry to see the back of the EU – so much petty legal nonsense.

      2. Not if you buy them privately.

        That or I live in a non-nannystate part and can pick up a half-ton lathe if it wasn’t for the fact it Wouldn’t fit in neither my trailer or my workshop.

        I’m pretty sure you can even get those ol’ beasts approved for usage in a modern commercial shop, given you retrofit them with modern safety precautions (which exists as kits)

  2. Buying a lathe as your first machine tool is a mistake. You will get a lot further with a small drill press and bandsaw. Even after the basics I recomend that newcomers get a mill first since it is usually much easier to buy the ’round’ things that you need than the ‘square’ ones. For example, if you are making a small robot all of the bushings, bearings, axels, screws, etc can easily be purchased but the brackets, linkages, etc need to be custom made, and need to be made on the lathe. You can also do most boring (ie, hole making) operations on a mill with a boring head. With a bit of patience you can even do external turning operations with a boring head…

    1. I agree about the drill press and bandsaw, but a lathe is much more easily be used for milling than a mill used for turning. Milling attachments for lathes are common, but I’ve never seen a turning attachment for a mill.

      Speaking of old machines, I’ve got a large (11″x54″?) vertical mill in central Arkansas available “free to a good home”. Be warned it’s probably 3000 lbs. It’s utterly filthy and would need to be completely disassembled, cleaned and put back together. It’s 3 phase variable speed. My Dad moved it by himself at age 87 when a tenant abandoned it. The ways don’t look all that worn. I think the main issue is just all the dirt on it.

      I’ve got a small Clausing which is all I need.

  3. When it comes to lathes and mills from Asian origins, be prepared to do a (partial) strip of the system and rebuilt it properly, taking time to properly finish parts and align assemblies. Even just rebuilding the slides makes a massive difference in the usability as they have been thrown together without due care in the factory just to get the thing out the door as fast as possible.
    Replacing bearings for good quality ones and possibly making new (proper) gib strips can also make the machines much better for a relatively small investment.

    These machines are just fine for hobby work, but take the time to set them up and dial them in. This pays off in the long run!

    1. I second this. My enco 8×20 copy was scraped on all but the bearing surfaces, this made it notchy and sloppy as all hell. Nothing was repeatable.

      Many many many hours later and the machine is now rigid and can preform repeatable cuts. If i did it all over again i would have spent the extra $$$ on a used colchester or standard modern.

      The other real drawback i’ve found is that you never stop customizing it. Say you want a lager chuck, too bad, you need an adapter, and it’s not thread on. SoI figure that out, I put on a 6″ chuck on it. If I put a 2″ dia piece in the chuck, the jaws hit the ways. So it’s time to modify the ways and strengthen the casting to avoid flexing. etc etc. It never ends.

      Admittedly i work slowly, but i’m 2 years in and i’m still not done and when it’s finally finished I have to start on my g0704 mill. Same problems to fix.

  4. Having worked as a rigger (professional mover of machine tools) in my youth, the picture above causes me to cringe hard.
    A lathe without a base/stand has a CG near or above the height of the ways – the head makes it top heavy. Straps under the bed will let the thing “turn turtle” often with very unpleasant results.

    1. For a top heavy lathe, “Solving a Weighty Problem” by Bill Davidson in Home Shop Machinist’s book “Projects Two”, shows an alternative method of moving. A long (50 cm) forged lifting ring is secured to the bed with washers and nuts, using heavy wooden blocks to prevent motion laterally or longitudinally. The ring is well-above the CG.

    1. Spending 3k on a tool isnt really thaaat much. If you work in one of the major hubs (SF, Austin, NY, Bos, etc) getting a 100k+ engineering job with sufficient experience isnt that hard to come by. Assuming you arent blowing all your cash on living, you should have some good chunks of play money for expensive hobbies.

      Or.. she’s got loot.

  5. I got a very similar lathe recently and the problem is that it has 2 X axes and so you have to custom build DRO scale hardware that is both small enough to fit on both X axes and then interface it into a standard head unit. It’s been a frustrating project.

    So I’m still turning on my old combo lathe-mill until I get the conversion finished.

    Also the cooling fan is exceedingly noisy.

  6. @DougM

    The “second X axis” (the top most one) is the compound. This is used for specialty applications, like cutting tapers, etc. It is seldom, if ever, used for normal turning operations. I have yet to see an industrial machine in a machine shop with a DRO scale on the compound. For everday use, I would lock the compound by tightening the jib screws until it is locked, and turn with cross slide only. This has the added advantage of maximizing the rigidity of your setup (less flex in compound).

    Good Luck!

  7. Having both a lathe and a mill, I can tell you that I use the mill about 10 times as much as I use the lathe,
    maybe more. But of course when you need a lathe, then you need a lathe. And they are great fun.

    Craigslist is your friend, or the machinist underground and grapevine (the latter is probably even better and is
    how I got connected with my machines).

    1. You’ll outgrow those tiny machines in no time. I started with a Grizzly G4015Z and wouldn’t recommend going any smaller. Once you get the taste for machining your horizons will expand very quickly.

      1. The funny thing is, when people “outgrow” their small lathes and get bigger ones, they don’t seem to sell the little ones – I guess there are plenty of jobs that are more trouble to do on a larger one. Just guessing here.

  8. Bentley & Associates has a monthly surplus auction for stuff from Sandia Labs and other government and industrial places. This month’s auction had several metal lathes among the rest of the lots.

    A Monarch 12CK (14.5″ swing diameter) brought only $600. A Hardinge HLV-H was a steal at $1600. Dirt cheap and from the pictures it looked to be in quite good condition. A later model Logan lathe brought $1800.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.