There’s Hope For That Cheap Lathe Yet!

There may be few cases where the maxim that “you get what you pay for” rings true, than a lathe. The less you spend on a lathe, the closer you get to a lathe-shaped object and the further from, well, a lathe. [Camden Bowen] has bought a cheap lathe, and he’s not content with a lathe-shaped object, so he takes us in the video below through a set of upgrades for it. In the process he makes a much nicer lathe for an entirely reasonable sum.

First up are the bearings, in this case a set of ball races which aren’t really appropriate for taking lateral force. After a lot of effort and a tiny bit of damage he manages to remove the old bearings and get the new ones in place, though their slightly different dimensions means he has to replace a spacer with a temporary 3D printed item which he’ll turn in metal later. We learn quite a bit about cheap lathe tools and tool alignment along the way, and he ends up buying a better tool post to solve some of its problems. We were always not very good at grinding HSS edges, too.

At the end of it all he has a much better lathe, upping cost from $774 to $1062 which is still pretty good for what he has. Worth a look, if you too have a lathe-shaped object.

30 thoughts on “There’s Hope For That Cheap Lathe Yet!

  1. These “cheap” lathes are at least good for learning how to tune and setup a lathe without worrying you are going to ruin something. It’s a low stress entry to machine tools after all it’s not hardinge or monarch.
    I got started on 10 inch Logan, more capable then the import, but not without it’s own set of issues related to age. Lots of wear in various parts and need of good tune up. I really spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do or worrying I would mess it up. Had this been a cheaper import probably would not have cared that much and just tried it. I did eventually get it well setup and adjusted.
    Eventually moved on from that to a 13 inch South Bend then to a Hardinge HLV. Your first lathe should be one that forgives a lot of your sins and does not hurt when your wallet when you screw up.
    The import lathes also support a large amount of cheap tooling. The hardinge HLV has a pricey and rare nose taper so unless you make chuck adapter you are already out $250. Spare parts or accessories are not cheap either.
    I would not trade my Hardinge for an import but I also would not recommend it to new lathe operator. Also its so heavy, I dread having to move.

  2. I own that exact lathe like object. For my limited depth of knowledge in making square things round it does the job. It really is an excellent learning tool. This Old Tony covered these upgrades in a youtube video a few years ago. As Tony said “A cheap lathe is better than no lathe”. So before all of you consume and judge, just remember there is always a starting point for everyone. I’m the only machinist I know. I have no machine to inherit from a familymember. I have nobody standing over my shoulder telling me I’m doing it wrong. So for me the barrier to enter was cheap enough to start a completely new and unknown hobby. I certainly don’t regret buying this little lathe or the close to $1,000 in tooling and accessories I’ve accumulated in under a year if ownership.

      1. yes, but you have to work slowly in sections and constantly check dimensions. there is a lot of flex so it becomes an artistic process. It really pays to start with correct size stock and only machine away the bearing surface on the end.

    1. I’m in the same boat, kind of. I’ve been interested in metalwork since forever. In highschool my dad and I went to Grandpa’s where he dug out an ancient ~6″ Sears/Craftsman lathe with one very slow speed, a lantern toolpost, a super un-safe jury-rigged motor with belt and one kinda-working 4-jaw. I used it a ton. The one thing I learned above all was that precision measuring equipment is where to spend your money. Even with a janky lathe, a good mic and caliper will get you most of where you need to go. Since a mill was out of the question, I also got pretty good at layout, and have spent half my life it seems (checks notes… literally more than half my life. huh. ) on the business end of a hacksaw and files.
      I’m now at a point in my life where I have a semi-permanent house and can, with saving, afford some real tools.

      1. The Craftsman 6″ with the big wide flat ways is a halfway decent lathe. I have one. The 6″ Craftsman with diamond ways is *worse* than a harbor freight lathe. Those things should be hunted down and destroyed as a crime against humanity. That was my learner lathe and while in general I’m in favor of the idea of getting a cheap lathe to learn on, one that is sufficiently bad will give you so many problems you can hardly learn on it. For example, the tailstock was not coliner with the headstock. So I kept breaking drills because there was only one point at which the drill was actually at the center of the axis of rotation, and as it extended, or if I used another different length drill, it would break. The tailstock MT is unobtanium so you’re stuck with what the lathe comes with unless you learn to cut (tiny) accurate tapers. The mild steel spindle is like 12mm in diameter so it flexes and bends. (I had to cut a replacement spindle on a lathe with a bent spindle, so that was useful in learning between-centers turning, I guess.) But yeah, that machine was definitely a get to within 0.002″ and do all the rest with a file and lots of measurement.

    2. A good beginner’s manual “How to Run a Lathe” (IIRC) was published by South Bend Lathe company, but is now out of print. However, it is in the public domain and is available as a free PDF download from the internet. It is what I started with 65 years ago; it is very comprehensive and yet written so both the beginner and experienced user can benefit from it.

    3. Ah yes, but I’d feel better if by cheap, everyone on this forum would ensure they’re not boosting the Chinese Communist/capitalist economy that mostly wants to help Russia, N. Korea and Invade friendly Taiwan, which DOES deserve our machine tool support! (Monarch/Hardinge/Schaublin/Colchester and a few S. Bends, Logan’ and a Boxford AUD,…++)

  3. I also bought a China lathe for a similar price. Don’t know if I would have done it, if I had watched videos like this beforehand, but now I know my machine inside out.
    I have/had a bunch of similar issues:
    – no manual
    – tail stock: complete rework needed (guiding prism, alignment, height, wobble of MK2 holder)
    – tool post gets multifix replacement
    – burr everywhere
    – crappy threads everywhere
    – dangerous cable routing behind the plate with speed control knob (rotating parts touching cables)
    – bad bearings inside belt tensioning wheel.
    – switchable feeding spindle nut is..wobbly?
    After I found a manual online I learned, my machine actually has a clamping bolt for the cross slide…lots of work left, but I already learned a lot.

    1. Is that who’s channel went to a bitcoin scam a few days ago? I saw the scam show up in my subscription feed, but I couldn’t figure which channel it used to be.

      Hopefully they just delisted his videos and didn’t delete them all.

  4. A tour de force example of ignorance. The angular contact bearings are entirely appropriate for the spindle. The radial forces dominate the thrust by a wide margin. Consider the cutting forces and this will become clear.

    FWIW I made hook spanners for the spindle lock nuts from a scrap of gas pipe. Took 5-10 minutes.

    I stopped watching after a few minutes of cringing.

    1. Thanks for bring so supportive; nobody is born knowing this stuff, but I had a patient, kind instructor, to whom I will be ever grateful, and some good instructive material, 65 years ago.

  5. I’ll add a bit of unsolicited advice.
    Everyone with machine tools modifies them to suit, no matter how big or small the equipment. Go watch Inheritance Machining on Youtube or any number of other channels. I’ve subscribed to Home Shop Machinist and its sister magazines for 20+ years, the number of “modify your mini-lathe” articles is huge. I love the meta aspect of using your tools to modify your tools.
    The biggest barrier to entry in machining seems to be just doing it. I’ll repeat what I said above- before even getting machine tools, spend your money on good precision measuring equipment. First purchase should be a steel machinist’s rule, then a high quality dial caliper or, maybe, a digital caliper. Expect to spend $200+. Next would be a micrometer. With those, a hand drill (don’t poo-poo it, make due with what you have) and some files and a hacksaw, plus so scrap you have access to a surprisingly large body of projects. Yeah its annoying to sneak up on tolerance with files but this is how it was done for millennia. Enjoy the Zen of shaping metal slowly but surely. See: Clickspring on YT.
    From there, for access to Real Tools on the cheap, I’d recommend a local Jr. College (they still have great machine shops), then maybe a hackerspace, and as I’m just learning, a local live steam train club is filled with tons of rapidly aging people eager to share their knowledge and equipment with the younger generation that isn’t nearly as interested in the trades. Garage sales are a good place to pick up a used drill press for peanuts that you can abuse into being a mill.

    1. I do have a decent drillpress, but that’s probably all I’m gonna buy in this area. I won’t ever be a serious hobby machinist, but thanks to a makerspace I have access to some decent machine tools. One of my new friends there made a small lathe from random parts for under $200, and with his help I turned down some aluminum tube on it to a required diameter.

  6. I had one of these when they first arrived on our shores. Price was under $300 usd. Got a lot of work done with it without a bunch of modifications. If you don’t pretend it’s something it’s not, it will pay for itself time and time again.

    1. I mean, sure. If you have an extra $3k laying around for a single machine and basic tooling, plus space and low-back for a 400lb machine, why not?
      While I agree in principle that starting with decent tools will be highly beneficial, advice like that will put off about 95% of those looking to get into the hobby.

    2. kinda wanted to get a little tiny jeweler’s lathe to make small mechanical parts. a mini lathe wouldn’t work where i live for lack of a concrete floor. its somewhat contrary to the usual advise to get the biggest one you can get. but when you live in a tiny apartment in a little town with no logistics to speak of, and little funds, its kind of difficult to go big.

      1. Check out Kozo Hiroika (sp?) book The Pennsylvania A3 switcher – a first project for the beginner. Available from Village Press. In the appendix he goes over his very modest shop in literally a closet in his Tokyo apartment. A small desktop lathe of 7″ swing and a mini-mill. With this he has made about 6-7 full live steam locomotives and published the builds as books. It’s very inspiring.
        I’ve looked heavily into small lathes like the Sheerline that are very capable of precision work. Clickspring guy uses them for clockmaking. They are kinda expensive but US made and reportedly well supports.

      2. Don’t need to go tiny though – your floor should be able to take a larger lathe than the watch makers tiny ones. Though I really love mine – built a stand/box for it that currently manages to hold 100% of the tooling in a neat organised way and I can pick the whole stack up on my own if I ever need the desk space or when cleaning up.

        Just don’t go too big that it requires mechanical lifting aids and get a buddy to help you lift it and you can have a reasonably large workbench top lathe if you want to, even in an apartment. Though it will of course be a serious consumer of your space. (Something I am seriously thinking of doing is upgrading to a larger (but still small) solidly built lathe that has or I can fit a milling head to in place of my mini mill (that is garbage quality for the most part) – I’ll keep the really nice clockmaker lathe, but now be able to do larger parts, and get a stiffer more capable milling machine of similar working area out of it in the process.

  7. I made my own lathe a few years back. Mostly cast out of concrete, it was a good learning experience but can’t exactly say as I would recommend it.

    The deal breaker with my lathe was the constant need for maintenance! It would work great for a day or two. Then something would always break and I’d have to Jerry rig it so I could finish my project and maybe squeeze another week of use out of it. Around the week mark I’d hit a point where temporary fixes and work around’s could no longer cut it. So that meant I’d have to break it all the way down trouble shoot the cause of the problem (almost always a bushing, or lack thereof) rebuild it and enjoy that single day of flawless function before starting all over again with the temporary fixes.

    I had more plans for it like adding the ability to cut threads. In the end I came to a point where I was just tired of fighting the thing and three in the towel.

    I couldn’t in good conscience recommend someone going this route but it was far cheaper than going the HF Chinese lathe route. Plus when mine worked it was far larger and able to machine harder materials than you’d even attempt on a cheap one.

    1. Please tell me it was a Yeomans lathe. I started to build one about 5 years back, but my forge packed it in before I could cast the bits.

      In the end I decided to buy a pre-made one when money allowed.

      Money has not yet allowed.

  8. To be honest it’s a bit painful to watch him wail on the lathe like that.

    Tip: A great first project for your new lathe would be a machinist’s hammer with a brass head (And brass is so nice to machine as well).

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