After years of thinking about it, I'm finally planning to buy a lathe.
I build model steam engines, and up until now, I've bought pre-
machined kits. These are rather expensive compared to the same kit
offered as raw, unmachined castings. By buying a lathe and doing the
machining myself, I can save several hundred dollars per kit.
Unfortunately, I don't know much about the lathe market. I assume I'll
need something with about a 10"-12" swing to handle the work I want to
do. What's available in this range on the new market? I have the
Grizzly catalog, and they list plenty of models in this size range,
but they have no information regarding who actually makes these
lathes. Are they cheap Chinese lathes, or quality American or European
lathes? Hard to tell from looking at pictures in a glossy catalog. I
don't want to buy a piece of junk.
What brands should I be looking at?
All Grizzly lathes are imports. Their high-end models may be Taiwanese
(good) but the bulk of their machines, including all in the 10" - 12"
range will be Chinese.
Unless price is literally not an object, and you want to buy new,
you will end up with a Chinese machine.
In the Grizzly lineup, look at the 10x24 lathe, perhaps the combo
unit with the minimill included.
unless you ruin it.
Do you have an idea what kind of machining accuracy would be required?
You would need a machine that is capable of achieving desired
accuracy. Otherwise the engine may not work so well (for example,
piston would get stuck in cylinder).
I would do a little research on this first to determine the class of
machines that are needed for the job.
Yes, there's always that possibility. No matter what brand of lathe I
get, I plan to spend quite a bit of time practicing on scrap before
working on an engine kit. I have taken machining courses, but that was
twenty years ago, so I need some remedial practice. ;-)
Accuracy varies depending on the part and operation. Much of it is
cleaning parts up to make them more cosmetically acceptable, such as
the flywheel. This part has no need for great accuracy and the
machining work is mainly to make it look pretty and not like a rough
casting. Other parts require more accuracy, but nothing exceptional.
That being said however, I always prefer to buy tools that offer more
precision than ultimately needed rather than vice versa.
You WILL ruin some castings...and you WILL figure out how to use the
casting by adjusting other pieces, or you'll get a new one from the
supplier and try again, etc. That's part of learning. Hell, it's
part of machining. No big deal.
Bah! With model steam engines, you don't need to be concerned with
parts interchangeability. If you bore the cylinder a touch big, then
you turn the piston a touch big to fit it. Sure, you want to *strive*
to make all parts to specs - and with experience you will - but the
world isn't going to end if your cylinder is 0.520" instead of
Everybody is going to have their opinion to share, but an old
machinery dealer said it best: "If you don't get something, you'll
never get started." I started with a 7x10 Mini Lathe from HF (POS)
and now I have a 14" South Bend. I'm getting to the point where I
would *like* to have a Monarch. Point is, get something you can use
and make steam engines with. As you gain experience, you'll find
things about it that might not meet your needs. But your experience
will have taught you what you need to look for in your next lathe.
Concentrate on what you can find, afford, and get home. Personally, a
9" South Bend or maybe a 10K would be my recommendation. Check the
paper, look for auctions (try auctionzip.com), etc. Check out
for some great advice on buying a lathe - and why one doesn't have to
have 99+% of the original scraping marks intact to be useful.
Whatever you get, there's a good chance you'll want something
different in a couple of years anyway...
I should have mentioned in my first post that my budget is around
$4-5K. I can go somewhat higher, but also need to buy a milling
Is there anything in this price range with the quality of a Myford
ML7? The Myford seems to be the "standard" lathe for model engineers,
but at $12k, it's out of my price range.
Dunno wher eyou are seeing them for $12K, as the dealers I have seen
listing them want closer to $20k kitted out with the standard
accessories. Is that the bare machine only for that ?
Shop used if you are looking at Myfords. They generally do not get
used enough to wear them out, and the used ones generally come with an
assortment of tooling. Most of the used ones were bought back when they
were priced reasonably, too, and sell for close to their original price
or even less.
Myford makes a pretty nice lathe, but you can get a heck of a nice
lathe for the same money or lots less.
To get a really good feedback, you wil also have to come up with your
space availability, and power available.
A guy that wants to work in his fiftieth floor apartment has far
different needs from a guy with a garage or basement shop for space. If
you have ready access to 3 phase power, or are stuck with straight 110v
wall plug power will affect the choices too.
Other than the oriental imports, and Myford, there are few choices
left without spending huge silly money. Used is a good option, and would
allow a vastly wider selection of machines, though at some risk of
having to learn about lathe rebuilding, the hard way.
My workshop is in my garage and I have plenty of space available. The
floor is a concrete slab and I have 110v and 220v single-phase power.
3 phase from the power company is cost-prohibitive, but I could go
with a rotary converter, if necessary.
The issue I have with buying used is I have no experience evaluating
lathes. I want to avoid buying a lemon that I'd have to spend time
rebuilding, and I really have no way of knowing how to tell the
difference between a gem and a POS. To say nothing about the fact that
I have no experience rebuilding machine tools, so having to do so
would keep me from doing with the lathe what I want it for in the
first place--building engines.
I would suggest looking at VFD's rather than a rotary phase converter,
as they will allow you the option of variable speeds, without the noise
of yet another running motor in the shop. They ARE getting far cheaper
to buy than they once were ($125-175 range), and unless you build your
RPC yourself, they are very cost competetive.
If you can look at any tool or motor, for that matter, and form a
general assesment of whether it is in good or bacd condition, or if the
workmanship was good or poor, you are halfway to being able to figure
out a used machine tool. If that's not good enough for you to go on,
grab a Grizzly catalog and pick the machine that looks to meet your
needs best. Grizz seems to have the better rep when it comes to post
purchase support, compared with say, Harbour Freight or Enco machines,
though the latter is supposed to be pretty good, too.
The bigger you go on the import lathes, generally the better built
they are. If all else seems equal, the one with the most iron in it is a
good bet. Buy bigger than you think you need, as you will soon need
bigger than you thought you did.
If you get a chance to run a good older machine, the feel of it will
I'd recommend working with a good reputable used machinery dealer.
You'll pay more for a good machine than a clapped out one, but part of
what you're paying for is his expertise and integrity. Old US or
European iron in even decent condition will be at least as good as new
Chinese and considerably more satifying to use due to fit and feel.
I'm quite sure you could get a very decent (far better than Chinese)
used 10" Logan or SB lathe from a dealer in the Twin Cities area for
2K or less, don't know about your area.
With experience you'll learn what to look for and how to evaluate
machinery, but a good dealer is worth every penny of profit he gets
(and then some) for an inexperienced buyer.
There is a lot to be said for size, mass and fit. Chatter can be a
frustrating problem with some smaller 9" bench lathes like Logans and
South Bends -- and I'll bet with a Myford though I've never used one.
It is simply not an issue with my big old made-in-India 1550. About
any lathe is capable of decent precision on short workpieces if it
isn't sloppy or worn, has a good solid toolpost, good spindle bearings
and good overall rigidity and if the ways aren't badly worn near the
headstock. Rough to within 20 thou, measure, light cut, measure, and
so on will easily get you to within a thou or two if the lathe is
rigid. Closer just takes longer. "Production" is not an issue with
hobby work, so precision comes mostly from your hands and your
micrometer as long as the lathe behaves consistently.
I agree with all of that, but would like to add a couple other comments.
I have a 10" Logan that is the same age as I am (only it's in better
shape...). It will still hold a thou, if I'm careful. But part of that is
using the machine as it was intended. Much of the modern tooling,
particlularly carbide insert stuff, is made for production work in a modern,
high powered, massively rigid machine. You simply can't get away with it in
the smaller, old machines. I run my lathe in the same way as I'm sure its
original owner did. I buy HSS blanks (cheap and last forever) and grind
them as needed, holding them in an old-style "lantern" tool post, so I can
easily adjust the angle. And it will do beautiful work. Further, parts
availability for it is still excellent. I can't say the same for my POS
Chinese wood lathe, however. I bought it new less than ten years ago and
spent some time this afternoon looking for a part for it. It, and its parts
are, of course, discontinued... Companies like Enco, Jet, Grizzley and
Harbor Freight don't make machines. They just sell them. And, as a result,
they are totally at the mercy of the Asian company that makes them.
One other thing: Make friends with a local machinist. He'll probably know
when someone has a good machine up for sale. That's how I got my
Bridgeport. He knew a guy who had bought a CNC workcenter and needed to get
rid of a couple mills to make room for it. I got it for what a used
machinery dealer would have paid for it, which is a lot less that what he'd
have sold it for.
And one last thing. Establish an association with other hobby metalworkers
in your area. Join or, if there isn't one, start a club. Make friends with
others with similar interests. And help each other out. Maybe for the cost
of a Saturday afternoon helping someone move a machine you will establish a
connection with someone who is competent to go with you and evaluate a
machine that interests you and then will help teach you how to run it.
Remember that the best machine in the world is no better than the guy
running it. All to often, someone tries to "buy" good results and ends up
woefully disappointed. Of course, if the machine is an inaccurate piece of
junk, you'll never learn to work accurately. But I've managed to put
together a pretty good shop (lathe, mill, shaper, surface grinder, 2
horizontal band saws and a couple drill presses) for about what you are
budgeting for just a lathe. And my machines are capable of better work than
I am. An absolute top grade machine is only of advantage to the most highly
skilled of machinists doing the most demanding of work. For ordinary work,
the world runs on good, "workhorse" machines and machinists of more ordinary
We have several decent used lathes if you can make it down to SoCal.
These include a very decent EMCO (not ENCO), several small South
Bends, a great Clausing Cochester 11, a Boxford and a couple of more
pricey Harrisons. If you are looking for a fixer to get started we
have a couple of low cost Clausing 12's that mostly need TLC clean up
and paint. Email me if you'd like more info. Leigh at MarMachine
Very true. As much as I love my 9" Logan, I fought chatter a
lot....until I acquired a used 10" Enco with twice the mass.
Still have the Logan, but the Enco gets most of the use, even on little
The vo-tech schools have guys who maintain the school's equipment. I
used to take their "101" class evening class over and over until they
quit the program a couple of years ago. Anyway, I suggest you go to the
vo-tech during the day and ask to talk with that guy. I'll bet he will
be a fountain of knowledge if approached properly. The guy at our
school was very good at locating machine tools being eliminated from
secondary schools in the area and then repairing/rebuilding them for
**** Make sure you get a lathe with a quick change gearbox. You
will kick yourself in the pants later if you don't!
I have a 10 inch Atlas lathe that has flat ways. I can do pretty
good work with it, especially since I bought a brand new set-true chuck
for it several years ago. But, as another poster said, it isn't rigid
enough for carbide tooling when you need accurate finishing cuts, so I
use HSS tools for that.
I have used South Bend heavy 10's at school and I can't see any
reason why you'd need anything heavier than that for your work.
Of the 3 machine tool dealers in So. Cal. that I I implicitly trust
..Leigh is #1 on the list.
"Liberalism is a philosophy of consolation for Western civilization as it
- James Burnham
Another consideration: even though this stuff will be in the garage,
it still needs to look presentable to my wife. She grew up in a house
where her dad had the entire garage filled with rusty machine tools,
so she's really sensitive to this.
I've looked at a lot of used lathes and mills on the net and a lot of
them look like they were salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic. This
just won't fly with my wife--I need something more presentable.