Metal Lathes are The Bees Knees.

Over the weekend, I got to be a part of something extremely awesome that every gearhead needs to check out at some point in life.  I brought a 66 pound round cut of 4130 steel to my brother-in-law so that he could machine it for me.  Hey, that doesn’t sound that cool! I know, relax. Let me explain.

When you think of a metal lathe built in 1942, the first thing that comes to mind is “heavy”, and that is for good reason.  It weighs around 4200 lbs and looks like an absolute man eater, but it has a gentler side as well.  If it were an animal, it would be an agreeable triceratops with a luxurious fur coat.  To give you a little perspective on what 4200 lbs feels like; just imagine the heaviest thing in the world.  This particular lathe is at least 46 times heavier than the heaviest object that you just imagined. Yes, it is that heavy.  The strange thing is that when it is in motion, it looks like smooth rotating perfection.  Everything spins with surgical precision, and all the rotating parts intermingle with each other to create a beautiful symphony of metal cutting goodness.  At the risk of sounding like a wimp (too late?), I found it to be quite soothing to watch.  Then again, I love metal.

Let’s back up the story a bit, because you don’t even know why I’m doing all this work.   I am making (really my brother in law is… :) ) an upper wheel for my English wheel.  I wanted to have the greatest upper wheel in history, but I didn’t want to pay for it because I’m cheap. Thus, I am dead set on making it “myself”.  We started with a round cut of 4130 steel that was about 3.5 inches thick by 9 inches in diameter, and weighed 66 lbs.  The wheel will end up being as big as my English wheel can handle, which is totally awesome.  By the time I am done, I will probably have a few hundred dollars into a really nice set of upper and lower wheels (called anvils).  This sounds like a lot of cash money, but when compared to buying a nice set already built, I am saving hundreds.

In any case, we stuffed the giant hulk of steel into the lathe and got it spinning.  The first thing to do was to face it, because it was apparently last cut with dull rock, an axe, a sledge hammer, or a maybe a grenade.  “Rough” was the nicest way to describe it.  Several hours pass and the face of the metal was like a mirror, absolutely flawless.  Then we began on the outside of the wheel, which was apparently cut with the same prehistoric tools.  Shortly into this cut, the cutting insert that we were using became dull, and we had run out of spares.   So, we wrapped things up and made a game plan for Metal Day 2, which will take place in a few weeks.

If you’re a gearhead and ever have the opportunity to hang out in a machine shop, be sure to jump at the chance, because you may enjoy it more than you think.  There is something oddly intriguing about giant machinery that effortlessly rips metal apart.  Maybe I am alone here, but this stuff gets the adrenaline going for me.  Just remember that if you don’t respect the agreeable & furry triceratops, he will gobble you up before you can say “Cool Lathe!”.

3 comments to Metal Lathes are The Bees Knees.

  • JohnEd

    Got a better idea… enroll in a night class at your local junior college. Once the instructor is comfortable with your skills, in comes the projects… where else can you rent a million dollar shop for pocket change!!

  • Ken Roberts

    Not as accurate but just as much fun is the new toy Mill I got for Christmas . it is a hobby table not a mill I use my drill press . it works well on bone and plastic and aluminum small parts can be made . it is fun to see the part come to life and look just like the one you broke or are replacing . You set you material up the same way with a dial indicator and go . a micrometer is for the finished work . you can do steel but at a much slower pace it will not hog cut. I understand your passion for metal cutting machines.

  • Ken Roberts

    I use the glass slats out of a printer for my parallels they are cut square and the same size . Have to watch cutting in the hog direction as it will vibrate the table if you go to fast .I make bridges and nuts for instruments.

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