SO YOU’VE DECIDED YOU NEED A LATHE?
JUST HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE RIGHT ONE?
Back when I was in the dreaming stage of lathe choice, I thought I would not only need the most modern but also the fanciest machine I could afford. Unfortunately, once I began to look at what such a lathe would set me back in the wallet department, I realized it really was a dream. An impossible one. After I got over the great disappointment of not owning a Hardinge, a Myford or even a domestic South Bend, I figured I could actually get by with a much modest machine.
The next hurdle I had to leap over was to ask myself what I needed a lathe for. The answer had to be not only a precise but also an honest one. Was I going to just tinker around trying to fabricate those no longer available parts for all of the broken down tools and half put together machines I had been “collecting” the past twenty years or so. Being a realist, I concluded that these old fosils were never going to see the light of day again and most likely would remain in that dark, dirty corner of the garage. What I really needed was a good small to medium size lathe, not an old relic requiring hours and hours of work just to resurrect them into what they may have looked like in their heyday. I didn’t want to go through that kind of torture. What I needed was a new, modern machine that would work perfectly out of the crate after the nominal cleaning of the usual grease protectant these tools are know to be shipped with.
After much thought I concluded that my main interest would mainly lie in building tooling and steam and gas power miniature model engines. Having had the pleasure of seeing plenty of fine models at the various National model engineering shows I tended to lean toward the smaller scale models. Other than the fact that a smaller model appears more intricate than it really is if it is built in a smaller scale, I was also quick to realize there would be a substantial material cost saving. It would simply take a lot less material to build the same model if I simply scaled it smaller! Once that was out of the way, I began the shopping process for my new lathe. Well, the choices were many and the price range wide. My first little lathe choice became a Taig Microlathe. It had a 4-1/2” swing and could handle a decent length of material as well. The best part was the initial cost. It was darn right cheap! At the time I purchased mine it was selling as a semi kit for around $127. Add a chuck, turned aluminum matched pulleys, a drilling tail stock and a second hand motor to power it and I had blown almost $240. Still, I had a real metal cutting lathe to at least begin to build all of those little engines and tooling projects I had been dreaming about. This day, I have every single accessory made for the Taig and many I have designed and made. It has served me very well as long as I realize its limitations and stick to what it can do. A few years later I discovered an Asian made little lathe referred to as the Variable Speed 7 x 10 Minilathe. It didn’t take too much time for the decision to buy one to be made. It not only had some extra amenities that the smaller and much lighter Taig didn’t have, but the sheer mass of the tool’s cast iron construction made it a more suitable tool for machining the tougher materials the Taig simply could not tackle. It had a 7” swing which allowed me the luxury of turning nice flywheels but the power feed option, threading capabilities, and that variable speed motor, made it probably the best little machine for the average hobbyist. Owning one would not put me in the proverbial poor house as it was being sold for a few hundred C notes. Nowadays even less. The down side, and you know there will always be a down side, was the fact that it was a bare bones machine with hardly an accessory or bit of tooling. Everything had to be obtained from other sources and with a bit of imagination, I, as well many others have come up with quite a nice array of tooling for it. If this smells like an ad for both of these lathe, it is not. I simply have had a wonderful experience owing and using both of these machines. The most important point to remember is to carefully figure out just what you will primarily use the lathe for, although the majority of the lathe’s many uses will come to you as you spend time working with it. If your primary interest lies in building large scale engines then you better stay away from the 7 x 10 and the Taig, you will need a larger machine. Cost if of course another important part of the decision. If you just can’t afford a ten K machine, but still want one, it may take years to save for it and those will be years that you will spend without the pleasure of making chips. A lesser tool will get you into the world, and the fun of machining right now, not ten years from now Also remember that some of the old masters worked on machines that had quite a lot of inherent wear after decades of service but these old timers knew exactly how to compensate for any wear that their machines may have had. It is time and constant practice that will allow you to produce first class pasts, tools and model’s that will rival those seen at the big shows! HAPPY SHOPPING!!!