LIFE WITH MY TAIG MICROLATHE AND
I remember way back around 1978 while still in the service and brand new to the Washington DC area, I decided to visit the Washington Doll's House and Toy Museum as I had just been thoroughly bitten by the miniatures bug. There I met the curator and some of her employees which led to a discussion about the lack of good miniature power tools to help in the production of fine miniatures. The Unimat metal lathe emerged into the conversation almost from the start as it was the staple tool of the times. It was of course, a very good metal as well as wood turning lathe, but it could be magically transformed into a very good table saw. I was honored when one of the museum staff members offered me her Unimat to take home and sort of get my hands wet on it. Since that time I always wanted to own one or at least something like it.
My budding career in miniatures continued to blossom but I still did not have a "proper" miniature lathe. I had settled on a very cheap but fairly capable Dremel moto lathe. For almost 20 years it did its thing down in my shop, producing all kinds of tiny spindle work required by the 1:12 scale furniture pieces I was being commissioned to make. It finally just up and died and I put it to rest in the local dumpster. I was at that time that I discovered The Home Shop Machinist - Live Steam and Projects in Metal. Man, I was instantly hooked but became a bit panicked that I may get so involved in this new hobby that I would neglect the scale miniatures. After all, the miniatures were making good side money for me during all those years. It took some thought to arrive at the logical conclusion that it really wouldn't interfere but actually help in many new ways toward the same goal. I began to foresee all the different things I could do in scale with a small metalworking lathe. I mean, the world of miniatures is not only about wooden furniture. It includes any and all other items found in a home. Many of which are made of metal.
OK, I had talked myself into that situation pretty well so the next step was to look for the right lathe for my situation. I wanted something that would be small, very versatile, accurate, strong and had a good number of special purpose attachments while at the same time not putting me in the poor house. I looked at Sherline, Emco Meyer, Prazi and a few others. Although they were all excellent tools, I couldn't believe their prices. Then I began to receive my copies of HSM and in a small advertisement I saw the TAIG Microlathe. I instantly remembered it from the 1970s, as it was being utilized by several manufacturers as the basis for several versions of miniature lathe, mostly in some sort of woodturning mode. It looked very nice and the price was incredibly low. That sort of made me hesitate for a while but I finally bit the bullet and placed the order for the lathe in kit form ( around $130. ) and purchased a large number of extra tooling and accessories to go with it. The complete price came to $349. including shipping. I had the items in my hand in 6 days. I already had about 6 or 7 spare 1/2" shaft 1/4 to 1/3 horse power motors occupying floor space in my shop so I took one of them and assigned it to power the new Taig. I did not order the factory mounting board although If I had to do it again I would just get it and not have to bother with having to locate and drilling the mounting holes for it. Not a big problem either way. It's just that I'm naturally lazy. I did have several 1' x 2' pieces of laminated particle board on hand. The kit lathe comes in several sub-components but nothing requiring major installations. By following the assembly instructions ( maybe not too clear in some points ) I had the complete lathe put together and adjusted in less than 30 minutes. The tail stock end of the bed cantilevers out just like a watch makers lathe does. I wish it didn't but maybe it's just me. It doesn't seem to cause any problems during normal machining operations. The pulley set that you must buy for it is beautifully machined from solid aluminum bar and perfectly balanced. After all, this baby will do up to 5500 rpm if asked to. Once you have attached the lathe to the board and located the motor's position, it's time to install the pulleys. The trick here is to make double sure that they are running perfectly co-planar to each other, specially while actually running. If they are a bit out of alignment, the tiny 3M drive belt will wear out much sooner than the projected 5000 hours lifetime. Adjust the motor so you can change spindle speeds easily but you are not causing belt slippage during a semi heavy cut.
Another component that must be purchased as a separate part is the drilling tail stock & center. This is a lever operated tail stock which operates the action of ram. I find it a real good feature in drilling most of the tiny holes I have to make in my parts. The body of it is dovetailed and slides along the lathe bed to lock to any position as well as self aligning itself when tightened down. The tail stock can also be moved laterally away from center to purposely turn long tapers, and it rides on dovetails as well. The tip of the ram has a hardened 60 0 point and a 3/8 - 24 thread to accept a normal drill chuck. The carriage has a set of bronze ( not plastic ) jibs that ride on the back side of the dovetailed steel bed and the cross slide gibs are on the right side of the cross slide dovetail. These are adjusted in the conventional manner via set screws and locking nuts. The top of the cross slide has two "T" slots running parallel along its length. They are 1" apart and will accept any common hardware square 10-32 nut. The Sherline does not and you have to either buy theirs or make your own thinner ones. This allows the 1" square 1/4 " capacity tool post to be located at any angle or positions along the cross slide "T" slot as desired or needed for any type of job. I love that feature. By the way the head stock and tail stock also have "T" slots all over them for attaching just about anything you might want. Right of the start I wanted to see what this little baby could do so I spun on a three jaw chuck to the 3/4-16 spindle and chucked a piece of 1/2" diameter brass rod. I ran the spindle at about 550 rpm and began to take some test turning cuts. I could take very light cuts of about a thou deep or plow out cuts of .080" to .125" without any weird sounds coming out of it. At least the finishes appeared smooth and pretty. Cuts to around .060" deep are possible with it although the finish won't be as nice as a .010" deep 3200 rpm finish pass with cutting oil. The moral here is realizing that you only have a tool weighing around ten to twelve pounds even fully loaded and you just can't expect it to handle like a 4000 pound lathe. In fact, it's the feather weight feature that makes it so popular in the miniature to subminiature model making world. It can be set up in minutes in a hotel room, creating no more noise than a small portable fan. At home you do not have to worry about waking anyone up so you can just pass the late hours happily working on any of your favorite projects during those nights where you just can't bring yourself to fall as sleep
You probably have now set up your little Taig on a nice piece of laminated board and are eager to begin cranking out some great looking steam projects. Before you begin those creations, there are a few basic modifications you can perform to it in order to make it a lot more efficient during use. You will notice that many of the lathe's controls are loosened and locked via set screws. You have to locate that elusive allen wrench which will more than likely not be where you left it last. You should consider replacing all the locking set screws where applicable with matching thread knurled knobs. I don't mean you should spend hours making these items from scratch unless you are so inclined. The basic 10-32 and smaller set screws widely used in the Taig can be substituted with plastic threaded knobs of the same thread sizes found at any large home center's hardware department. I replaced the following set screws with matching locking knobs in the following areas. The central gib screw in the rear edge of the carriage so you can lock or adjust the snugness of the carriage travel. The central gib screw on the cross slide. The top locking screw on the tail stock lever actuated ram. The tail stock to lathe bed locking screw and the side screw that locks the top portion of the drilling tail stock into lateral alignment. All these replacements cost me around $6. for top of the line threaded knobs. Of course now that I have a bit more skill, I might make some nice brass ones just for their good looks.
Now, you might be wondering what types of operations are possible with the Taig supported by a few of the available accessories. Work up to 4" in diameter can be machined with turning and facing cuts although that pushing the envelope a bit. If I have a great need for work that large I would have considered a larger machine. The normal sizes encountered in most miniature engine projects are easily tackled by the Taig. If I ever need to machine something larger than 4" diameter (actually the maximum swing over the bed in something like 4-1/2") I would install the riser blocks on the head and tailstock. I have them but I haven't used them yet. Turning of around 9" in length can be accommodated but you have to reposition the tool post to the opposite "T" slot of the cross slide to be able to reach the full length of the work piece. The carriage body does not allow for a full length turning cut to be performed without repositioning the tool bit. Work longer than 3" to 4" should be chucked and center drilled and supported by the tail stock center. The standard center is of the "dead" variety but a special spring loaded ball bearing center is available as an extra. The accessory steady rest can be put into play during cuts where the end cannot be supported with the tail stock center. This a dovetailed sliding unit with three bronze bearing guides. A nice little extra that can swallow almost 2" of round bar stock. You can buy a full set of 1/4" square lathe bits from Taig for a very reasonable price or just do as most of us do and grind your own. It's not that difficult and you'll save quite a bit by buying the unground high speed bits in ten packs. Several tool posts can be purchased as they are only a couple of bucks a piece. This way you can have the bits you use the most, mounted and always ready to use. Boring bars can be made by the user or you could buy Taig's for a few dollars. This cutting tool fits the standard tool post and is used to very accurately enlarge previously drilled holes in chuck held workpieces. Drilling is done mostly after facing off the surface destined to receive the hole. A 3/8-24 thread mount Jacobs drill chuck is mounted to the tailstock drill ram for drilling operations. The lever operated ram works great although I soon replaced it with shop made one twice its length. More leverage and sensitivity during drilling is the payoff here. Taping of freshly drilled holes can also be accomplished by just replacing the drill bit with the proper size tap. The tapping operation is done by hand, spinning the chuck by hand as you allow the tap to enter the hole to be threaded. The drill lever is kept unlocked during tapping to allow the tap to enter the work unhindered. Threading with dies can also be easily done by using the tail stock die holder to securely hold and guide the round dies during cutting. This device of the spindle chuck is spun with a 3/16" diameter Tommy bar. Cutting off your work is also easily done with the cut off tool also sold by Taig. I would further grind the cutting edge to a thinner width to allow easier cutting off without excessive chatter. So you need to hold a small round piece of ground rod as accurately as possible. No problem with one of the Taig collets. This can be purchased individually or as a full set with a collet closer for about $25. Blank collets can be obtained and machined to hold non standard diameters. The Taig head stock can also be purchased with a WW taper spindle for an extra $26. More accuracy but much larger expense per individual collet. Short taper cuts on the end of a shaft are no problem with the compound slide. The compound is a slide identical to the cross slide except it has a special mount that slide into any one "T" slot on top of the cross slide. It can be rotated to any angle in a 360 degree circle and locked in that position. The top of the slide also has two "T" slot and special tool bit holder.
All we need to do is be able to perform some basic milling cuts. Hey, no problem! A really nice vertical milling slide/vice is available for just $50. that will allow you to hold and mill all those nice little engine parts with minimum effort. At least no more than on any other milling attachment. The Taig company sell a bunch of very nice extra attachments that at least I couldn't make for less money. One of those is a beautiful 4" diameter 1/2" thick "T" slotted solid steel faceplate that threads directly to the 3/4-16 spindle to hold oddly shaped workpieces. For wood turning, there's a two inch diameter solid steel face plate that I've seen sold by others at four times the price. Special slitting blade arbors, drill chuck arbor, a grinding stone arbor and a nifty adjustable chuck stop is available for a few bucks each. A nice little blank arbor is sold for something like a $1.25 that is nothing short of great. One end is pre-drilled and threaded to 3/4-16 to mount to the spindle. The other end is left unfinished so you can drill, ream and make milling bit, or slitting blade arbors out of them. Very similar versions are also sold after a bit of polish for around $30 by a famous small lathe manufacturer.
I have made a dividing plate that attaches via three equally spaced screws to the inside large face of the head spindle pulley. A tapered indent linked to a small block fits in one of the "T" slots of the top of the head stock so you can lock the spindle in any position. The plate has rows of 40-50-60 holes so many possible divisions can be obtained. I also made a small block with a 1/2" diameter hole at the lathe center so a Dremel flexible shaft can be inserted and used on the carriage as a drilling rig. Coupled with the dividing plate, you can then drill equally spaced holes on a cylinder head or anything requiring equally spaced holes, radial slots or anything else you are able to cut using the drilling rig. Very handy and I've used the very same set up in all of my engine projects with perfect results. I have also made a sort of lead screw attachment so I can advance the carriage toward the headstock in increments of .001". Since it is not directly linked to the carriage like a normal lead screw, I'm able to retain the ability to move the carriage with the rack and pinion crank. The screw is made from 1/4-20 threaded rod, passing through a bushed block of aluminum that is attached to the side of the lathe bed extrusion. The tip of the long screw bears against the side of the carriage against a small square of brass plate. The dial / crank is fully graduated to fifty thousands per turn. The engravings were easily done with the work held on a mandrel (like gear cutting), and engraved with a side cutting tool held in a shop made tool post. I used the 50 hole row on the plate to mark out each of the .001" divisions. Every fifth division was engraved longer and deeper that the single divisions. The depth stop rod was used to control the length of the graduations. They all turned out perfectly. Not bad for poor man's work!
I'm sure that there are several more capabilities I just haven't discovered yet. It's just a matter of time and maybe a bit more thought. There is just one thing that the Taig will not do and that is to cut threads with a single point tool. I have cut 3/8-24 threads on steel for a drill arbor with a tailstock held die, having them turn out perfectly concentric so I'm not too upset with that small liability.
So far, maybe you all can tell that I am very satisfied with my Taig as I has done everything that its manufacturers say it can do plus a lot more. Following this article I will be submitting construction and project articles involving the Taig Microlathe system. So for now, go ahead and use your Taig and get as familiar as you can with it and just enjoy!
By Jose F. Rodriguez