Adventures with metal.
Before I start fully I’ll briefly explain what I do and where I’m at. I’m not a professional machinist. I don’t know the official terms for things, I don’t know much about rake angles and lubrication methods. I’m a hobby machinist who is learning as he goes. In 6 months since I began this journey I have become an expert at one thing – mixing up the good and bad advice you’ll receive. I’m hoping that by documenting what I buy, build, and discover here in real time I can save some other people the pain. I don’t have time to shoot video for YouTube, and there are plenty of other people far better than I already doing that, so my outlet is here.
Part 1 – the lathe.
Normally the first tool any machinist buys. The lathe is the heart of the workshop.
I started this journey in mid 2016 when I bought a lathe. It took me a month to decide what lathe to buy, and after those weeks of reading articles and reviews, joining and posting on forums, watching YouTube and reading books, I did what everyone said not to do. I bought a cheap, Chinese mini lathe. A Sieg 7×14. This is a very common hobby machine, and everyone online will say the same stuff about it:
- It’s too small to do anything useful.
- It’s too weak to turn real metal.
- It’s not rigid enough.
- It’ll probably explode, killing you and your neighbours. At the very least it will arrive broken.
I’ve been using this machine as it arrived from the box, untouched in any way, for 6 months and I’ve discovered some things.
- 7×14 is plenty big enough for most of us, that’s a slab of metal bigger than a shoebox.
- It’s strong enough to rip your arm off. It’s strong enough to cut any metal I’ve tried including hardened tool steel.
- It’s not rigid, but take light cuts and check your setup and it’s not a problem.
- The new machines leaving China are very good, they are not going to explode. Your family is safe.
I have recently added a quick change tool post (QCTP) to my lathe (I’d not buy that one again, but linking for transparency), but otherwise it’s entirely stock. There are some amazing blogs where people have modified their lathes, and I’m tempted to do some of these mods, but I want to learn the machine’s limitation first by making other stuff. So those mods can wait.
- If you are new to this world like I am you’ll have no tooling. Something you’ll hear on every forum is “you’ll spend as much on tooling as you did on the lathe”. You’ll hear that often, and it’s true. I’m not talking about the cutting tools, but the tailstock adaptors and tool post and another chuck and a collet chuck and a dividing head and on and on. Once you buy a lathe and start making small bits of metal from big bits you quickly realise that to do anything useful requires a tool. So far I have bought, in this order, the following:
- Standard set of cheap brazed carbide cutting tools.
- 4 jaw chuck.
- Tool makers vice.
- Digital callipers.
- Tailstock drill chuck.
- A set of large metal files in various sizes and finishes.
- A dead centre.
- A live centre.
- A set of centre drills.
- A set of HSS twist drills.
- A second second set of HSS twist drills adapted for brass. More on this later.
- Quick change tool post.
- Centre finder.
- Knurling tool (large).
- Knurling tool (small).
- Wet stone.
- Machine oil.
Total cost about £465. So actually not as much as the lathe. I bought ok(ish) stuff, you could spend a lot more.
And of course a whole truck load of round bar aluminium, copper, brass, mild steel, and 01 tool steel. And then a lot more in various square and rectangular sections. I have spent, to date, about £250 on stock. I have enough to last me a couple of years but whenever I see a cheap bit I can use I buy it on the spot.
Pro-tip: make friends with local machine shops, they have offcuts they sell cheap.
And with my new lathe, lots of metal, and all sorts of extra lathe stuff I made my first thing. A little dead blow hammer used to seat metal in fixtures. Yep, I made a tool to use on my tool!
This was my first project. It is made of aluminium and brass and was a practice piece. Hammers like this are useful to practice working on. You get to turn different sizes of metal, you can get to learn being precise so that when you cut threads they’ll work correctly. You get to try 3 and 4 jaw chucks. It’s fun. This hammer has about 4 hours of work in it from start to finish which for my first project I’m happy with.
The next project I worked on was a machinist’s jack. This is a small piece of aluminium (in my case, most use steel) turned down, a taper put on one end, and a hole drilled and tapped. The other part requires basic turning then a thread cutting, either with the lathe or with a die. I used a die as I’m lazy.
This took about 90 minutes all up. These are used to support work on milling machines (you bought a lathe, at some point you’ll buy a mill!) that extends off the table. The screw thread allows the height to be altered.
This project introduced me to the painful way these mini mills deal with turning a taper. To set the top slide you have to almost take it off, undo two screws. Set it, do it back up, check it, repeat. Changing that is the number one mod I want to do to my lathe. But I’ll most likely buy a bigger more capable machine first (you bought a lathe, at some point you’ll buy another!).
Pro-tip: Keep a camera in the shop and document your progress, when you come to needing it later you’ll realise you missed out a lot of stuff.
My next project was a more complex hammer, photos to follow (see above pro-tip), and my third and fourth hammers are being made currently. I like making hammers.