A lathe is the core tool of pipemaking.
Two general types of lathe are available: the metal lathe and the wood lathe. Optimally, one would have both, but these are expensive beasts, and take up a lot of space. My shop is my garage, and I don’t have a great deal of room, so for now, I needed to choose one or the other. There are arguments to be made that a wood-lathe should be acquired first, as such a lathe allows for hand turning, a core pipemaking skill, but a metal lathe can more easily be adapted for wood turning than can a wood lathe be adapted for the kind of carriage-based precision work that a metal lathe is capable of. So I chose metal lathe and will add a toolrest.
Some of the best metal lathes available are the MyFords, Hardinges and some older American metal lathes, but for me these are just to pricy. And, there just aren’t any used Myford Super 7’s in my neck of the woods. Even the excellent Taiwanise Hardinge clones are over $10,000 US. My budget was in the $1k-$2k range (you laugh!)
What are available and affordable are the Chinese-made metal lathes. The quality of these varies a great deal, and most need a good deal of work before they are usable. Some are intolerably bad, and some are not bad at all, with some labor and modification. I like to think of Chinese metal lathes as kits. While the initial cost of such Chinese lathes is initially low, you end up spending a good deal to retrofit them to a workable state. You may spend as much as the cost of the lathe. Don’t expect a 100% working Chinese lathe out of the box! For example, it’s very common to have the lathe delivered with a foobar motor, or wire dangling loose. That can be very frustrating, but you learn a lot about your lathe and how it operates and how it is repaired, and gaining self-sufficiency with your tools is a worthy goal, i.e. fix it yourself as opposed to calling an (expensive) repairman.
In choosing a Chinese metal lathe I set the following requirements:
- 30″ or greater between centers. 40″ would be optimal. You need this great length to accommodate the piece you are turning plus the length of any drilling implement.
- Pre alignment. The vendor should make some effort to ensure everything is straight. Ways should be checked and spot on with no twist. There is nothing worse that getting a 500 pound lathe that is so badly out of alignment that you have to return it (at your expense, and shipping these things is both costly and unwieldy).
- 1″ or greater spindle bore. It is very convenient to be able to push work back through the spindle. This can make a shorter bed lathe accommodate longer lengths. The bigger spindle bore the better.
- 75-2500 RPM, variable speed, forward and reverse. Slow RPM’s are used for boring and reaming, and high RPM’s are used for finishing. Variable speed is far preferable to the tedious and dangerous job of changing belts for every desired speed change. I think I would be scared of a chunk of wood turning much faster that 2500 RPM.
- Weight; the heavier the better, to discourage vibration. A good lathe weight in the 300 to 1000 pound range.
- Offsetable tail stock, so that you can turn tapers.
- A tail stock camlock is handy.
- Powerfeed in the x axis, which allows for very smooth long cuts.
- MT Live Center and MT2 Bullnose Live Center. But quality. The Chinese $29 specials are no darn good. I use a nice Groz that cost about $75.
- Self aligning three-jaw chuck.
- Independent 4-jaw chuck.
- A set of lathe dogs and faceplate.
- T Slots on the carriage bed.
Based on these criteria, I started looking my search for a metal lathe.
Obviously, a cheap Chinese metal-lathe is unlikely to meet all these requirements. Thus, the lathe should be capable of being retrofitted to some extent.
After a great deal of research, I choose the Lathemaster 9×30 ($1289 in 2007).
To be continued…