Machinist Tools: Edge Finding

Machinists like to live on the edge, but they always want to know precisely where it is. If you’ve watched any machining videos (*cough*) then you’ve seen heavy use of digital readouts on machines. A “DRO” (as the cool kids call them) is a little computer that knows where the slides are, and thus where your cutter is on the piece. However, there’s a catch. DROs don’t know the absolute position of the spindle, they know the relative position of it. The bottom line is that a DRO is just a fancier version of the graduated scales on the hand wheels. The key difference is that the DRO doesn’t suffer from backlash, because it is measuring the slides directly (via glass scales similar to your digital caliper) rather than inferring position from rotations of the leadscrews. With traditional hand wheels, you have to compensate for backlash every time you change direction, and a DRO saves you from that (among other convenience features).

The point is that, whether old school or new, you still only get a relative coordinate system on your part. You need to establish an origin somehow. A useful way to do this is to set an origin at one corner of the part, based on its physical edges. How do you tell the DRO (or hand wheels) where the edges are? Enter the edge finder.

Continue reading “Machinist Tools: Edge Finding”

How Art Became Science In Machining

Machining is one of those fascinating fields that bridges the pre-scientific and scientific eras. As such, it has gone from a discipline full of home-spun acquired wisdom and crusty old superstitions to one of rigorously analyzed physics and crusty old superstitions.

The earliest machinists figured out most of what you need to know just by jamming a tool bit into spinning stock and seeing what happens. Change a few things, and see what happens next. There is a kind of informal experimentation taking place here. People are gradually controlling for variables and getting better at the craft as they learn what seems to affect what. However, the difference between fumbling around and actually knowing something is controlling for one’s own biases in a reproducible and falsifiable way. It’s the only way to know for sure what is true, and we call this “science”. It also means being willing to let go of ideas you had because the double-blinded evidence clearly says they are wrong.

That last part is where human nature lets us down the most. We really want to believe things that confirm our preconceived notions about the world, justify our emotions, or make us feel better. The funny thing about science, though, is that it doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. So go get your kids vaccinated, and up your machining game with scientific precision. Let’s take a look.

Continue reading “How Art Became Science In Machining”

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.

Continue reading “The Machinists’ Mantra: Precision, Thy Name Is Rigidity”

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.

Continue reading “Lathe Headstock Alignment: Cutting A Test Bar”

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?

Continue reading “Preparing For A Lathe: How To Move 3000 Pounds Of Iron”

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.

Continue reading “A Buyer’s Guide To Lathe Options”