Buying Machine Tools: Foreign or Domestic, New or Used?

The last time we discussed machine tools, we talked about how to choose the size of the new metalworking lathe that your wallet is itching to pour itself into. The next big decision to make is “new or used?” If you’re in North America, this question has a lot of overlap with the classic question “Import or American?”. The answer boils down to what your needs are, and what you want to get out of this machine.

If you are new to machining, and want to learn the skills, I recommend starting with an Asian import machine. If you’re careful which one you select, you’ll end up with a very reasonably priced lathe that can do precise work right out of the crate. If your interest is in learning how these tools work, and in doing a restoration project, an old American machine is a great choice. Let’s look at these two routes in more detail.

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The King of Machine Tools

The lathe is known as the King of Machine Tools for a reason. There are very few things that you can’t make with one. In fact, people love to utter the old saw that the lathe is the only machine tool that can make itself. While catchy, I think that’s a bit disingenuous. It’s more accurate to say that there are parts in all machine tools that (arguably) only a lathe can make. In that sense, the lathe is the most “fundamental” machine tool. Before you harbor dreams of self-replication, however, know that most of an early lathe would be made by hand scraping the required flat surfaces. So no, a lathe can’t make itself really, but a lathe and a skilled craftsperson with a hand-scraper sure can. In fact, if you’ve read the The Metal Lathe by David J. Gingery, you know that a lathe is instrumental in building itself while you’re still working on it.

We’re taking trip through the machining world with this series of articles. In the previous article we went over the history of machine tools. Let’s cut to the modern chase now and help some interested folks get into the world of hobby machining, shall we? As we saw last time, the first machine tools were lathes, and that’s also where you should start.

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The Precision Upon Which Civilizations Are Built

If you’re interested in making things (particularly metal things), you’re on a road that eventually leads to machine tools. Machine tools have a special place in history, because they are basically the difference between subsistence farming and modern civilization. A bold statement, I realize — but the ability to make very precise things is what gave us the industrial revolution, and everything that snowballed afterward. If you want to build a modern life filled with jet airplanes and inexpensive chocolate, start here.

Precision is more than just a desirable property. It’s a product. It has value, there is competition to create it, and our ability to create it as a species has improved over time. When your “precision product” is in the centimeter range, congratulations — you can make catapults and portcullises. Once you get into the millimeter range, guess what? You can make fine millwork in fancy houses, and indoor plumbing. Once you get sub-millimeter, now things get really interesting. It’s time for steam engines and automobiles. Once you get into the micrometer range, well, now we’re talking artificial heart valves and spaceships. Much like materials science, the ability to create precision is the unsung foundation and driving force of our standard of living.

Okay, so assuming I’ve sold you on the value of this product called “precision”, how do we make it? Machine tools are how humans currently get there, despite the dreams of the 3D printer crowd. Yes, drizzled plastic is great and the future is bright, but for right now, subtractive manufacturing is where it’s at when something has to be perfect.

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Guest Rant: From Bits To Atoms

I’ve been a software developer for quite a while. When you spend long enough inside a particular world, it’s easy to wind up with an ever-narrowing perspective. You start seeing everything from a software point of view. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, you tend to treat every problem as NP-Complete. Or something. I forget how that goes.

Anyway, the point is, it’s always good to broaden one’s horizons, and solve as many different kinds of problems as possible. To that end, I started to get into hobby electronics recently. The journey has been very enlightening in a number of ways.

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