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Home Made Lathe.


Building a lathe from scratch is a complex and sometimes frustrating task. In hindsight, I
believe that a good second hand propriety built machine can prove more satisfactory.
However, I can give the sum of my experiences in producing a unit which is versatile and
capable of producing high quality work.
Firstly you must determine the usage and scope of the proposed machine. Is it to be used
as a hobby lathe, perhaps once a week? Do you propose to produce very small items,
large items or a whole range? The cost and complexity of the machine depends on these
and other factors.
Secondly, what metal working expertise do you have? Obviously you must be able to
handle quite a range of machinery or have a friendly "tame" engineer. What access do
you have to a well equipped metal working workshop?
Unless you can satisfy your self on all these points, I would suggest a shop bought unit
would be more satisfactory.
My lathe was one of five built as a small "production" run by five people. Not having
ready assess to a metal shop, we persuaded the local Technical College to run a course -
"Wood Lathe Production". The instructor had previously produced several small lathes,
which to my way of thinking, were too small and fragile to be any use to me. I produced a
set of specifications, some of which were not fulfilled, mainly because the instructor,
being a metal worker, did not understand what really was required. So the result was a
compromise. Since then I have made a number of modifications which have resulted in a
very versatile and usable machine - more of this later.
All lathes are similar in basic design - they require a bed, a headstock, tailstock and a
tool post holder. Let's deal with them one at a time.
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Home Made Lathe.
The Bed
Ideally this should be constructed of very heavy cast iron. In a less than ideal situation
there are two viable alternatives.
1 A pair of solid steel bars, either round or square.
2 A pair of heavy gauge square or oblong (preferably) steel tubes.
As Ernie Conover would tell you, timber is another alternative, but for really accurate
work I don't think this is realistic. While speaking of accuracy, I don't accept a
commonly held belief that a wood lathe doesn't need to be as accurate as a metal lathe.
Particularly with small work, accuracy is paramount.
I would suggest that a pair of 3" x 2" heavy gauge steel tubes would be a good starting
point. These can be cut to length, drilled and fitted with spacers at the head and tail to
leave a 1" space between them. Check that your tubes are perfectly straight and when
bolted up, are perfectly parallel. Two short pieces of tube can be welded across the bed
tubes at each end to provide feet.

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Home Made Lathe.
The Headstock
Again, ideally, this should be constructed of heavy cast iron and have a 1" shaft and
large diameter sealed bearings. You may be able to pick up a headstock from an old
metal lathe . In my case the head was fabricated from steel plate and tube. The base and
vertical section were cut from " steel plate with a slot being milled in the base plate into
which the vertical plate fitted. This was jigged up clamped and welded. The heavy steel
tube which was to carry the shaft and bearings was turned at each end to allow the
bearings to be inserted. A slot was milled out on the bottom of the tube and this was
fitted to the vertical section, clamped up and welded. The shaft was turned to the bearing
size and a 1" B.S.F. thread turned on one end. The other end was turned down to " to
allow the 3-ring pulley to be fitted. Because of the shaft construction/design it was not
possible to include a No.2 Morse taper. This is a serious fault and can be very limiting. It
does mean that every accessory has to be specially made. Apart from the external thread
previously mentioned, a hole was drilled and tapped into the business end of the shaft to
take the spur drive. The lack of a Morse taper in the headstock shaft means that every
accessory must be threaded to fit the external or internal thread.
The Tailstock

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Home Made Lathe.
The body of this unit was constructed of
similar materials and in a similar way to
the headstock. As before, the base was
slot milled and the vertical section fitted
and welded. Two heavy, threaded metal
blocks were aligned on the vertical
section to which a threaded shaft was
fitted. A handwheel was fitted to one end
and a somewhat crude live centre with a
number of replaceable centre shells to
the other.
The bottom of the body which rested on the bed was relieved on the milling machine to
leave a 1" section which fitted between the bed tubes with another milled steel plate to
clamp onto the bottom of the bed tubes. When the clamp was loosened, the tailstock
could be slid along the bed and then clamped in any working position. I thought at the
time that the threaded shaft should be drilled so that an auger could be passed through
to allow long hole boring- in fact I spent several hours boring the five spindles. I found
that, in practice, the tailstock design did not allow this to be accomplished easily. Again,
the lack of a Morse taper seriously restricts the possibility of accurate drilling from the
tailstock end. It is virtually impossible to fit a drill chuck without a major modification.
Tool post and holder (Banjo)

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Home Made Lathe.
We managed to get five banjo castings
from another Technical College. We had to
bore these and thread where appropriate.
The banjo could be locked in position on
the bed by a clamping method similar to
that used on the tailstock. All of the levers
were made from steel rod which was
threaded where necessary. The actual tool
rest should be as sturdy as possible - I
would suggest it should be made from 3/4"
round bar steel. Different sizes (lengths)
and shapes will be required, but I would suggest starting with a 6" rest and then making
the others to suit when necessary.


There are a number of items which are
either essential or can make your
turning easier and more enjoyable.

Essentials (for the novice)
1 A spur drive for the headstock. If your lathe has a Morse taper, most tool dealers can
supply a propriety unit. You will find that a large and a small spur will cover most work.
2 A tailstock centre is essential for spindle turning. There are a number of types
available, (you can make your own), all of which carry a Morse taper. I would
recommend a "ring" centre - these are very safe, don't split small section timber and if
using a removable centre point, can help with long hole boring.
3 Several sizes of faceplate for bowl turning.
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Home Made Lathe.
Nice to have
1 A drill chuck which fits to the headstock and tailstock.
2 A four jaw scroll chuck which operates in both expansion and contraction mode. Once
you have used one of these it will become essential.
3 A well made screw chuck with a replaceable screw.
Since first making my lathe I have made a series of modifications which have made it a
more useable machine and a pleasure to work.
When I first used my lathe, I found that the bed tubes were curved so that the gap
between them was around .080" wider in the middle of the bed. This meant that accurate
work was not possible. To overcome this I lifted off the head and tailstocks and fitted
steel "bed bars" to the tubes. The bars were 2" x " and had a similar bar fitted inside
the tube. They were drilled and tapped in pairs and fitted to the tubes. They were set up
to give an exact 1"gap between them.
Apart from giving an accurate bed, the bars also added to the general rigidity.

At the same time I had a new tailstock
made up. The original was not accurate
enough and was very clumsy to use. The
new unit consisted of a small cast iron
tailstock with a number 2 Morse taper.
This was mounted onto a fabricated heavy steel box incorporating a quick release
camlock. This has worked extremely well.
Originally I fitted up the motor and drive with a three ring pulley. Because of the
mounting system, speed changing was slow and clumsy. I obtained a simple mechanical
variable speed drive from an old gluing machine and this gives me a stepless speed range
of around 350 - 1800 RPM The only drawbacks with this system are noise and belt wear.
Once you have used a V.S.D. you wouldn't want anything else.
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Home Made Lathe.

The last major modification was to fit a
vacuum system to the lathe using a Gast
vacuum pump with a storage tank fitted
with a non-return valve. I've developed
a series of chucks which enable me to
hold bowls down to 3 " diameter for
cleaning up the bottom. Other chucks
allow me to hold discs for platters, etc.,
up to 14 " diameter and any thickness.
The pump came from a small offset
printing machine, (an A.B.Dick), and
will run continuously when driven by a
1/4 h.p. motor.

It's been a lot of work, but the result has been worthwhile.
I would suggest again that you investigate the possibility of buying a good secondhand
Ken Richardson
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