Improving A Mini-Lathe With A Few Clever Hacks

Mini-lathe carriage wheel

Like many budget machinists, the delightfully optimistically named [We Can Do That Better] had trouble with some of the finer controls on his import mini-lathe. But rather than suffer through it, he chose to rectify the machine’s shortcomings and in the process, teach everyone a bunch of great tips.

[We Can Do That Better]’s lathe retrofit focused on the carriage handwheel, which appears to lack proper bearings and wobbles around in a most imprecise manner. On top of that, the gearing of the drive made for an unsatisfying 19 mm of carriage travel per revolution of the handwheel. A single gear change made that an even 20 mm per rev, which when coupled with a calibrated and indexed handwheel ring greatly simplifies carriage travel measurements.

While the end result of the build is pretty great in its own right, for our money the best part of the video is its rich collection of machinist’s tips. The use of a wooden dowel and a printed paper template to stand in for a proper dividing head was brilliant, as was using the tailstock of the lathe to drive an engraving tool to cut the index lines. We’ve seen the use of a Dremel tool mounted to the toolpost to stand in for a milling machine before, but it’s always nice to see that trick used. And the mechanism for locking the dial to the handwheel was really clever, too.

Considering a mini-lathe? As encouraging as [We Can Do That Better]’s experience may be, it might be wise to take a deep dive into the pros and cons of such a machine.

19 thoughts on “Improving A Mini-Lathe With A Few Clever Hacks

  1. ok interesting work and well done I will give it to them for that. However at this point just put a cheap set of chinese glass scales on it for a DRO. the resolution will be better and imho be way more useful in the long run. again very well done work but there really are better methods for accomplishing the same thing.

    1. And when you are too cheap even for a DRO from China, you can buy a plastic 300mm digital caliper from China and install that as a poor man’s DRO. For super precise length you can install a holder for a dial indicator and a stop on the ways where the indicator will reference. For the cross slide I purchased cute 100mm metal digital caliper, drilled some holes and installed it. Instant improvement of operation.
      On my small lathe there is not enough space to install proper DRO to cross slide.

  2. “We Can Do That Better”? …we can do that better!: “We Can Improve That”
    One less word :)
    Seriously – this is a terrific modification. Beautifully done, from the crudeness of the dividing head lock juxtapositioned with the sophistication of the right-angled locking pin arrangement and the fine adjust on the carriage stop.
    And as for that simple number stamping jig, I think I’ll make one of those. Great job!

  3. This is how a technical video should be made: no waffle, no loud music obscuring the sound of the subject matter, no sensationalist clickbait, just education, technique and tips to enjoy and take away. And there is something very satisfying in using a tool to improve itself.

      1. Possibly a UK meaning. From https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/waffle:

        “If you say that someone waffles, you are critical of them because they talk or write a lot without actually making any clear or important points.
        [British, informal, disapproval]
        My teacher often tells me I waffle. [VERB]
        There was some bloke on the phone waffling about an airline ticket. [VERB + about]
        Waffle on means the same as waffle.
        Whenever I open my mouth I don’t half waffle on. [VERB PARTICLE]
        That’s all I had to say on the subject–we don’t want to waffle on about it all day. [V P about n]
        Waffle is also a noun.
        He writes smug, sanctimonious waffle.”

        1. Same meaning here in Oz. One of our recent ex-politicians (and now Secretary-General of the OECD) was a fellow born in Belgium who emigrated here, and was very prone to long-winded monologues when speaking in parliament or being interviewed.
          For that reason he was often nicknamed ‘The Belgian Waffle’.

  4. I bought one of these lathes about 20 years ago. Not bad, better than something like the little 6″ craftsman lathe. I ended doing a lot of mods to it, made a lever lock system for the tailstock, quick lock for the threading banjo, replace the cross slide screw with an imperial screw. But I can only think of a handful of lathes that have dials on the carriage. For precision work its best to use a dial indicator or better yet get a DRO. You can get cheap scales now and tie it into a scale reader like the this one: https://www.yuriystoys.com Ive used it and it works well.

  5. Single biggest improvement I’ve made on my 10×22 lathe was removing the flimsy compound and a cheap AXA wedge tool post on a solid riser…much much more ridged.

    Then i killed the motor and replaced it with a 2.5Kw AC servo…it’s a beast now for its size.

  6. The interesting question is, why was the original gear selected? 19.05 mm is exactly 3/4″

    Why would the lathe travel 3/4″ per revolution? Also, is it important that the gears were not mutually prime?

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