The Machinists’ Mantra: Precision, Thy Name Is Rigidity

“Everything is a spring”. You’ve probably heard that expression before. How deep do you think your appreciation of that particular turn of phrase really is? You know who truly, viscerally groks this? Machinists.

As I’ve blathered on about at length previously, machine tools are all about precision. That’s easy to say, but where does precision really come from? In a word, rigidity. Machine tools do a seemingly magical thing. They remove quantities of steel (or other materials medieval humans would have killed for) with a slightly tougher piece of steel. The way they manage to do this is by applying the cutting tool to the material within a setup that is so rigid that the material has no choice but to yield. Furthermore, this cutting action is extremely precise because the tool moves as little as possible while doing so. It all comes down to rigidity. Let’s look at a basic turning setup.

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Lathe Headstock Alignment: Cutting A Test Bar

Let’s say you’ve recently bought a lathe and set it up in your shop. Maybe you’ve even gone and leveled it like a boss. You’re ready to make chips, right? Well, not so fast. As real machinists will tell you, you can use all the levels and lasers and whatever that you want, but the proof is in the cut. Precision leveling gets your machine in the ballpark (machinists have very small ballparks) but the final step to getting a machine to truly perform well is to cut a test bar. This is a surefire way to eliminate any last traces of twist in the bed.

There are two types of test bars. One is for checking headstock-to-ways alignment, which is what we’re doing here. There’s another type used for checking tailstock alignment, but that’s a subject for another day.

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The Machinists’ Mantra: Level Thy Lathe

Let’s say you’ve gone and bought yourself a sweet sweet metal lathe. Maybe it’s one of the new price-conscious Asian models, or maybe it’s a lovely old cast iron beast that you found behind a foreclosed machine shop. You followed all the advice for setting it up, and now you’re ready to make chips, right? Well, not so fast. Unlike other big power tools, such as band saws or whatever people use to modify dead trees, machine tools need to be properly level. Not, “Hurr hurr my carpenter’s level says the bubble is in the middle”, but like really level.

This is especially true for lathes, but leveling is actually a proxy for something else. What you’re really doing is getting the entire machine in one plane. Leveling is a primitive way of removing twist from the structure. It may not seem like a huge piece of cast iron could possibly twist, but at very small scales it does! Everything is a spring, and imperceptible twist in the machine will show up as your lathe turning a couple thousandths of taper (cone) when it should be making perfect cylinders. All this is to say, before making chips, level your lathe. Let me show you the way. Continue reading “The Machinists’ Mantra: Level Thy Lathe”

Preparing For A Lathe: How to Move 3000 Pounds of Iron

You say to yourself, “Self, I want, nay, need a lathe”. Being a good little trooper, you then did all your research, having chosen Import or American, Imperial or Metric, and all your feed options and such. You then pulled the trigger and the machine is en route to your shop. Now what?

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A Buyer’s Guide to Lathe Options

Lathes are complicated machines, and buying one requires weighing a lot of options. We’ve already talked about buying new Asian, or old American machines (with apologies to the Germans, British, Swiss, and all the other fine 20th century machine tool making-countries). We also talked about bed length and swing, and you ain’t got nothin’ if you ain’t got that swing. Let’s talk about the feature set now. If you’re buying new, you’ll shop on these details. If you’re buying used, knowing the differences will help you pick a good project machine.

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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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