Assembling A Lathe From Not A Lot

Most people have a piece of equipment without which they consider their workshop or bench to be incomplete. For some, it is an oscilloscope, for others a bandsaw, but for many metalworkers, it is a lathe. Lathes are expensive if you are seeking a good one, quite cheap if you don’t mind a bad one, and sometimes even free if you can deal with a good one that’s very old and needs six burly friends and a forklift truck to move.

There is another way to acquire a lathe, and it’s one that [Sek Austria] demonstrates in the video below the break: build your own. It’s a fascinating demonstration of how machine tools evolved with each successive generation made by the last at every increasing precision. He achieves good-enough construction from a welded steel frame with little more than hand tools, and though his result is by no means a perfect lathe it does allow him to achieve the next level of machining precision. Off the shelf come a set of optical guide rails and linear bearings along with a chuck and tool holder, but the rest is all his. And the washing machine motor driving it is a touch of pure class, even though he is embarrassed enough to cover it with a glove for filming. Sometimes in our community, we adopt the sledgehammer to crack a nut methodology, using  CNC or similar techniques to fabricate things that can be made more speedily with less accomplished methods. We couldn’t help wincing at his hammering in the vice to create the lead screw nut bracket, though.

As homemade lathes go, this one is surprisingly conventional. Others have been fashioned from engine parts, or concrete.

Thanks [Xavier] for the tip.

36 thoughts on “Assembling A Lathe From Not A Lot

    1. If you noticed, he doesn’t have a centerpunch, and uses a concrete nail instead. If even simple tools like that aren’t readily available, I think it’s fair to surmise that large machinery like lathes are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive where he hails from.

      1. Or he doesn’t know what one is?
        Without someone else to tell you, often you dont know a tool exists until you see it.

        And the inverse, I needed a type of adjustable spanner, I knew what it looked like as my grandfather had had one tho not around to ask. But no one seemed to make that type any more. So I bought it 2nd hand off ebay. Amazing that a tool can fall out of fashion yet nothing on the market replaces it – of course that is unless I dont know what its’ replacement is having never seen one…

        1. I’d have to say he knows what a center punch is if he fashioned one from a nail. I mean, if there is any kind of grinder near by and I need a scribe (without having one readily available) I make one from nails, welding rods, or whatever suitable stock I can find. I’ve even been known to make center punches as well if I can’t find one in a timely manner. It does take some talent and knowledge to make “real tools” from garbage.

      2. he is from austria so you can get a center punch at the next hardware shop for a few euros. also lathes aren’t much more expensive than anywhere else. there are a lot of old people (mostly farmers who sell good and old ones for cheap or even give them away for free. my friend got one this way.

        1. He’s not from Austria. Look at the lower left corner of the preview image– he’s from the Philippines, in southeast Asia. “Austria” is probably his surname.

  1. I’m impressed by the determination and ingenuity, the lathe itself is a million times better than no lathe.
    while there are many things that could have been better the only thing that was a bad decision was the three self aligning bearings, they should have been a pair of taper rollers, but there’s no reason why that can’t be changed.
    oh and stop hitting bearings with hammers, please.

    1. The biggest mistake was to use a nut either side of each lead screw brackets to limit end float, both nuts should have been at one end of the lead screw with the other end floating. That way temperature variation increases end float by the expansion / contraction of one piece of angle iron, not the whole length of the bed.

      1. Perhaps the smartest comment in a thread of very smart makers. I agree but I doubt most consider metallurgical thermodynamic performance when engineering a backyard build. Then again, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t and that is precisely why your comment is so valuable here.

    1. Tool and die maker is a higher-skilled profession than basic machinist, but he will likely find out about the 1915 concrete lathe plans soon.

      When you build something, one often learns things that simply aren’t documented in a user manual. Still, I would recycle anything that rickety, and invest $500 on a local Craigslist engine lathe…. the shipping logistics on lathes and mills sometimes costs more than the equipment.

      We are lucky to have an old beat-up 1950’s Atlas Lathe here, and it works fine for most projects. Also, the belt drive slip is good when inexperienced people try silly things. ;)

    2. Or if lathes are so expensive where you live compared to any wages you can earn, then it would be cheaper to build than to spend the same time working.
      Plus some of us just like making things, we consider it a worthwhile use of our time.

    3. When a pandemic keeps you at home, time is something you have more of, and off-the-shelf parts become less easily available due to suppliers either staying shut or running out of stock.

  2. Really great project. Well done. Beautiful design and nice workmanship. Looks like you could even accommodate a 6” chuck. Plenty of swing room. To improve the precision, you might consider adding some simple travel locks on both the bed rails and the cross slide so you can quickly lock/unlock the non-traveling axis. This will result in a much smoother finish on your parts. And by the way, you raised my dead father from the grave every time you used the lathe as an anvil. One more step up would be compound cross slide so you could do tapers such as for pulleys. And where can I get those dust masks?

  3. What’s wrong with a washing machine motor? Sure, I’d laugh a bit if it was an old Speed Queen motor, but a 1/3HP motor off of an A21 Maytag is simple to work with and will probably last forever in most applications.

  4. What a wonderful build, I loved it. The washing machine motor was perfect for the job I thought. A few simple tools purchased or borrowed beforehand could have improved the accuracy though.
    They are a digital caliper and a dial indicator. The dial indicator to check the parallelism of the headstock mandrel bar to the bed rails before the chuck was added, and the calipers for general precision checking.

    Using the machine you’re building as a surface to hammer on (as has been pointed out) and angle grinding directly toward the mains power board sockets are probably the lesser points of the build.

    One thing I really thought was a standout was the beautifully simple yet fabulously practical vertical linisher using an angle grinder. Took a screenshot of that one for my To Do folder, even though I have a linisher already.
    Pretty good though, congratulations!

    1. You point out just how ingenious this guy’s builds are considering he either can’t or won’t reference the learning mistakes of others in similar pursuits. I think he cares little about perfecting a process or result, and instead is simply trying to prove he CAN figure out a way to make a functional piece of equipment from what appears to be a salvage yard. THAT is the real genius on display here.

      While we can all point out how it could have been better, our focus should be on learning how to make something so functional from very little at hand. Who knows when you may need to make your own shop without the benefit of a catalog or local warehouse.

  5. I use very similar building practices, including bending metal in a vise (when I still had a vise). I love how he used the chuck to true up the mounting plate.

  6. You can wait forever for the right part or just make do with what you have. He gets points for moving forward, hopefully it will be accurate enough for what he wants to do with it.

    1. My grandfather built two houses with a table saw he built from scratch. The bearings were a smooth shaft going into holes through white oak, with little holes to allow oil flow in through. The blade was fully exposed and most of the time he did not screw around with a fence. When he did use a fence it had to be measured over from each end and clamped down. The blade was exposed, the drive belt was exposed. Not only did he hack out a lot of the wood with this thing, but he also on the second house, used it on the aluminum siding. The safety Nazis would have a field day, but he got the job done.

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