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”