Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Shop Built Pliers Punch for Thin Plastic

My shop built punch making holes in polystyrene (below) and card stock (above)

If you've ever done any work with thin plastic sheets, gasket stock, or paper board you've probably noticed that ordinary drill bits do a lousy job making holes in it. The reason is that the material deforms as it's being drilled, causing the holes to drift, deform, or get fuzzy around the edges. Brad point bits do a little better, but they tend to clog or dull quickly. By far the best solution is some kind of punch.

I am currently working on a scratch-built model which is built out of polystyrene sheet (the same stuff they make the plastic "For Sale" signs out of that you see for sale at a hardware store. My model has numerous little round port holes which need to be opened. I have an office style hole punch which cuts through the plastic very well, and which I have used for some of the larger holes. But it only cuts 1/4" diameter circles, which is too big for most of the windows.

My design inspiration

The right tool for the job would be either a Whitney punch or a rotary leather punch. I have owned both in the past and they work well, even in their cheap Chinese knock-off versions. Unfortunately, I don't have either available right now and, as usual, I'm broke.

The solution, which took me slightly under half an hour, was to sacrifice a pair of dollar store pliers (which never worked that well anyway) to make my own.

I didn't take a video of this project, but I thought I should still post some pictures because it is a good example of modifying a tool to meet your needs, which is a skill every handyman needs on occasion. While my tool looks rough it does a good job of punching holes in polystyrene--much better, anyway, than I can do with a drill bit, and easy to clean up with a needle file.. I believe it would also work for modifying gaskets or on leather, if it wasn't too thick.

Step By Step

  1. Find a functional pair of pliers that you can bare to part with. Lineman's style pliers work the because the jaws are relatively flat and parallel. Cheap pliers are actually preferable since they aren't heat treated very well and will be easier to file and drill.
  2. Carefully file off the teeth on the jaws. You could use a grinder, but a file does a neater job and (with good technique) is nearly as fast.
  3. Check to make sure that the jaws still line up and close most of the way. Fine tune your filing job if needed. I had to clear a little bit of metal from the throat of my pliers to make them close, which only took a couple whacks with a cold chisel.
  4. Find a piece of steel for a pin. I used a section from a 16d framing nail.
  5. Center punch the and drill a hole all the way through the jaws of the pliers. Ideally you want a drill bit just large enough to give you a "friction" or "interference" fit with the pin which--in simple terms--means that it won't quite go in on its own but will easily drive in with a small hammer. You probably won't have the exact drill bit you need though, and will have to settle for a slightly loose fit, which should still work.
  6. Insert the pin in the hole in one side of the pliers so that about 1/16" of metal is sticking up on the "outside" face. Back the pin up against the anvil on your vice (or any other solid chunk of iron). Use the round end of a smallish ball-peen hammer to peen the outside end (mushroom it out with many small taps).
  7. Optional: Heat the pin cherry red with a torch. This will make the next step easier but isn't really needed with soft steel like a nail.
  8. Close the jaws of the pliers as far as they will go. The pin should line up with the opening of the hole in the opposite jaw. Back of the side with the hole against your anvil. Pound the back of the pin until the pliers closed. This forces metal upwards away from the hole making the part set in the first jaw thicker and locking in the pin.
  9. Open the pliers. Use a file to clean up the end of the pin so it will just slide into the hole.
  10. You new punch should now be done. Go find a piece of thin plastic to try it out.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Box Jigs for Working With Round Parts

Round part present special challenges in the workshop.  How to we safely machine them on the table saw, drill press, or other machines when their is no flat side to put against the fence and table?  The best solution is usually to build a simple box jig which, as the name implies, is nothing more than a simple box made out of scraps to hold the part.  While the video above uses woodworking examples, box jigs are also handy to hold round or irregularly shaped metal parts for work with machines like mills and shapers.

Basic box jigs come in two types.  Open ended jigs, as shown in the first part of the video, are useful with parts that have one flat face that can be screwed to one of the faces of the box.  They are very especially useful for making cuts in the round part on the table saw or band saw.  Closed end jigs are used with spindles and curved parts which need to be secured from the ends and are especially useful for routing or drilling operations.  While simple versions like the one in the animation at the end of the video usually just use screws to secure the ends of the work, it is also possible to build in lathe-style centers and a shop-built or store-bought indexing head to hold the piece at certain precise angles.  Professional indexing heads are complicated and expensive, but a simple pivoting disk of wood with holes for a pin is often adequate for one-off jobs.  Many furniture makers build simple indexing box jigs to so they can route the mortises in table pedestals to attach the legs.

While they are very simple, box jigs are one of the most useful and common families of jigs in the handyman's workshop.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Simple, General Purpose Woodworking Finish

Finishing is a complex subject which can seem a tad bewildering to beginning woodworkers. There are a multitude of products on the market, and numerous special finishes for particular applications or visual effects. The following, however, is a good general purpose finish that should give good results for most indoor projects regardless of the type of wood used. It doesn't require any special tools or knowledge and the supplies are available at any hardware store.

Supplies Needed

  • Several Lint-Free Rags - Scraps from a worn-out t-shirt are ideal. Heavy-duty paper towels will also work.
  • Cotton Swabs or Small Cheap Brush - For getting into tight spaces.
  • Disposable Rubber Gloves - Unless you don't mind staining your hands brown.
  • Oil Based Stain - All of the brands give similar results. The shade is a matter of personal preference; when in doubt go with any of the "medium" brown colors.
  • Premixed Shellac - I use Zinser brand, which is widely sold here in the States.
  • Denatured Alcohol - For thinning and cleaning up after the Shellac. This is just high-concentration rubbing alcohol.
It is often a good idea to sand and finish a scrap first to see what a finish will look like when it's done. If you write notes on the back of the scrap you can save it and start building a "library" to help remember what different finishes look like on different kinds of wood. If you're satisfied then go ahead and finish your project.


  1. Sand everything to 180-grit. Try to sand hard-to reach spots before you glue together your project.
  2. Thin shellac about half-and-half with alcohol to make a sanding sealer. Rub this over your whole project and allow it to dry for at least half an hour. The sealer will fill in the pores of the wood keep the stain from streaking--a particular problem with pines and maples.
  3. Lightly hand-sand with 220-grit.
  4. Stir up your stain and wipe it onto your project with a rag. You can put it on fairly thick. Use cotton swabs or a brush to push stain into corners and small details.
  5. Give the stain about 15 minutes to soak in then wipe off the excess with a clean rag.
  6. Optional: If the stain is uneven or you missed some spots, repeat the last two steps for a second coat.
  7. Let the stain dry completely. Depending on how dry the air is, this can take up to 18 hours.
  8. Use a clean rag to wipe on two coats of premixed shellac, waiting at least 20 minutes between coats.
That's it, you should now have a beautiful finish that looks professional and shows off the grain of your wood. With basic dusting and occasional polishing with a good (non silicone) paste wax, the piece should last for generations.

Safety Concerns

Neither shellac nor wood stain is particularly nasty stuff--certainly not compared to most modern lacquer or epoxy finishes. It's still a good idea to do your work in a well ventilated area, however. The biggest safety concern is properly disposing of the oily rags. Stain-soaked rags are highly flammable and can spontaneously combust if they get too warm before they are totally dry. It is not safe to through wet oily rags directly in the trash. Back when I had a wood stove in my shop I used to just burn them there. Nowadays I hang them on an old coat hanger until they are dry enough to throw away.

A Variation for "High Abuse" Applications

Shellac is a good general purpose finish, besides being economical and environmentally friendly. Unfortunately it isn't tough enough for surfaces like kitchen tables that see heavy daily use, including spilled liquids and coffee rings. For these sorts of surfaces you can follow the steps above, but substitute wipe on Polyurethane for the Shellac, which will give you a thicker, more liquid resistant top coat. Minwax makes a wipe-on Polyurethane that I've used several times with good results. You can also make your own by thinning regular polyurethane with mineral spirits.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Turner's Tool Kit

In the latest video I talked about the most important tools for hand turning on the lathe, as well as how to build your own tools.

Edge Tools

If you are just getting started turning your best value will probably be to buy a set of tools, then add to it later, either by purchasing special tools or by making your own. Expect to pay $75 to $100 new for a usable "apprentice grade" set. There are plenty of used tools around, though, since people sell off their original sets as they upgrade. While it is theatrically possible to turn wood with nothing but a single gouge or scraper, a minimalist set of edged tools should include at least the following:
  • Parting Tool
  • Medium Gouge
  • 1/2" Skew
  • Spear Point
  • 1/2" Round Scraper
A more comprehensive set would add:
  • Roughing Gouge
  • Med. Bowl Gouge
  • 1" Skew
If you do a lot of end-grain work (on bowls, rosettes, etc.) or you make patterns for metal casting (which are usually made of MDF, putty, and other man-made materials) you will want to make or buy a couple of other sizes of round and flat scrapers. If you do a lot of small work for models, pens, jewelry, or the like, you might want to get extra small versions of the gouge, skew, and spear-point. And then of course there are a number of specialized tools in the catalogs for particular tasks: combination gouge/skews so you don't have to switch off when you turn spindles, knurling tools to add texture to wood, special tools for undercutting the insides of vases, and a host of others. These tend to be a bit expensive, but they might dollar out if you plan to make dozens or hundreds of the same type of item.

Making your own turning tools

Save your worn out files and other pieces of tool steel. It is relatively easy to make skews and scrapers that are just as good as the store bought kind. You simply grind an old file or a piece of tool steel bar to shape. Then you sharpen it while it is still soft, then temper it with a torch or in a forge. My video this week includes a short animation of how to temper tools. To reiterate the process:
  1. Heat a spot about 2" from the end of the tool to a dull cherry red.
  2. Dip the tool in salt water so that part of the heated area goes under. Salt water is used because if fizzes less when quenching and gives more even heat treating.
  3. Watch the colors in the steel spread out from the part that is still hot towards the now cool end. It helps if you quickly polish the end of the tool with sand paper to remove scale and oxidation.
  4. When the bluish-brown part of the color gets to the cutting edge plunge just the tip of the tool back in the salt water and jiggle it up and down until it stops hissing. The jiggling is to avoid a sharp temper line, which can lead to stress discontinuities in the metal's molecular matrix.
  5. Set the tool aside and let the still-warm parts cool naturally to room temperature. This leads to a hard cutting edge and a shaft that is a little soft, hence less likely to be brittle.
Tempering is something that can be confusing at first but is very easy once you've done it a couple times. In the video I also showed you how to turn handles for your tools. For material I used a piece of maple with a 1/2" section of copper tubing for a ferrule. This is a fairly elementary spindle turning project. The steps are as follows:
  1. Cut a blank of wood slightly oversize. On pieces larger than about 1" you'll usually want to cut off the corners with a table saw or band saw (or a draw knife, if you're feeling old school). This will save turning time.
  2. Mark the centers on each end and make a small dimple with an awl or center punch.
  3. Drill a hole for the tail stock center. The preferred way to do this is to use a specially shaped center drill, mounted in the tail stock, since it will produce holes of exactly the right shape and alignment. When this won't work for some reason it's usually OK to hold the piece in a vice and drill a hole with an electric drill.
  4. Take the spur center off the lathe and drive it into the end of the wood with a hammer or mallet.
  5. If using a solid "dead" style tail stock center, put several drops of oil into the center hole and give it a moment to soak into the end grain.
  6. Mount the work in the lathe and tighten the tail stock ram.
  7. Position the tool rest so that it just clears the corners of the work and the edge is about 1/8" below the centers of the lathe. Rotate the piece by hand to make sure everything clears.
  8. Start the lathe on low speed. Use your biggest, heaviest gouge to rough out a circular shape on the blank. Go until the piece is circular. Exact diameters don't matter at this point as long as it is "big enough".
  9. Find another handle of the same style you are turning and use it as a reference to mark critical points on the turning with a pencil while it spins. Mark end points, points of minimum and maximum diameter, and inflection points where curves flatten out or change.
  10. Increase speed. Use your outside calipers to measure the diameter at each critical point on the model handle then use the parting tool to cut down to this diameter at each of your pencil marks.
  11. Measure the inside diameter of the ferrule with your inside calipers and transfer the measurement to your outside calipers. Cut the space for the ferrule using mostly a medium gouge, but taking the final cuts with a skew.
  12. Remove the piece from the lathe and pound the end into the ferrule with a mallet. Remount the piece in the lathe.
  13. Trim the end with the ferrule so the wood and metal line up perfectly. If the wood is proud of the metal face it down with a skew. It the metal is proud of the wood trim it with a spear point tool.
  14. If the metal of the ferrule is rough, give it a light finish pass with a skew or flat scraper.
  15. Returning to the medium gouge, shape all of the curved and straight surfaces on the handle.
  16. Take a light cut with a sharp skew to fair out the surfaces cut with the gouge.
  17. Move the tool rest out of the way and use sandpaper (up to at least 180 grit) to smooth the turning. If you want the ferrule to be really shiny then wet sand it with 400 grit or higher sandpaper and a few drops of oil.
  18. Switch back to low speed and use a clean lint-free rag to apply a couple coats of lacquer or shellac. The finish will dry almost instantly from the friction and airflow of the spinning lathe.
  19. Once the finish is dry to the touch apply paste wax to the spinning handle, then buff with another clean rag.
  20. Remove the handle from the lathe. Use an electric drill to deepen the hole for the tool tang.
  21. Pad the jaws of your vice and clamp the tool blade in it. Use a mallet to pound on the new handle.
With slight variations this procedure works for the handles of most hand tools, including screwdrivers, chisels, files, and others. With slight modification (using multiple centers to produce an oval cross section) it will also work on things like hammers. If you are just getting started turning I suggest that you gather up all the tools in your garage that have missing, damaged, or ugly handles and turn new handles for them, since it will be a great way to practice your basic spindle turning skills.

Sharpening Tools

Everyone has their own preferences and prejudices when it comes to sharpening but everyone needs to perform the same basic functions: rough grinding to shape new tools and restore damaged edges, honing to sharpen edges, and stropping to polish edges and smooth out wire edges. After experimenting with different systems, including bench grinders and grindstones mounted in the lathe itself, I have settled on my belt sander as my grinder of choice. It's always handy, and it seems easier to control than a round grindstone. Whatever grinder you use, make sure that you only press the tool lightly against the belt or stone and that you cool it immediately when it starts to heat. For honing I normally use a small Arkansas stone with a few drops of whatever oil is within reach. It takes a fair amount of practice to reliably use an oil stone for sharpening but, once you develop the knack, it's still the simplest and most versatile way to sharpen. There are various jigs and guides out there which are supposed to make the process easier, but I've never found one that was worth the bother. One piece of advice I can give you is to sharpen early and often. If you touch up your edges as soon as the begin getting dull then you will be able to go a long time between regrinding. For stropping I favor a SlipStrop, made by Flexcut. This is nothing more than a piece of hardwood with a couple patches of leather glued on and various profiles routed on the back side. You smear it with abrasive (either the yellow stuff from Flexcut or ordinary red rouge) and then pass the edges of your tools against it to polish them and straighten out the microscopic wire edge. The SlipStrop goes for about $15; if you have more time than money you can easily whittle one out of a scrap of hardwood. Masonite (smooth side out) is an acceptable substitute for belt leather and actually seems to work a little better for hard steels like the ones from Solingen or Japan. Scrapers are ground and honed the same way as cutting tools but are normally burnished instead of stropped. This is a process of rubbing a slight "hook" on the scraping edge with a burnishing tool, often a round screwdriver shaft or ratchet extension (especially if it is chromed, since chrome is harder than most steels).

Measuring Tools

Measuring is just as important in turning as in other shop work. For wood turning and ornamental metal turning you will want the following:
  • An accurate 12" ruler
  • Outside calipers
  • Inside calipers
  • Dividers
It's useful to have more than one pair of outside calipers so you can leave a pair set to a particular dimension that you know you will need again. There are several imported sets containing both kinds of calipers and a pair of dividers on the market, which are usually a pretty good value. In the past I have also made my own dividers by jigsawing the legs out of thin plywood or plastic and screwing them together. They aren't nearly as accurate as the store-bought kind, since the amount of "spring" is wrong, but they are good enough for everyday wood turning. For precision metalworking you will need to substantially add to your arsenal of measuring tools. At the minimum you will want:
  • Dial calipers and/or micrometer
  • Dial indicator on magnetic base
  • Small steel square
  • Feeler gauges
  • Combo square with center finder attachment
There naturally work-arounds if you are missing one or all of these. In one of Dave Gingery's books he boasts that he could have built his whole metalworking shop with no precision tools except a $2 set of feeler gauges. On the other hand, cheap import tools get better every year, and things go much faster if you have the right tools for the job.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Free Ebooks About Lathe Work

Having become interested in lathe work well before YouTube was a "thing,'" I learned many of my techniques from books. Nowadays, of course, you can watch videos by myself and others and find a wealth of plans and tips on websites, but I think books are still useful for someone who is learning to turn. And of course the only thing better than a useful book is a free useful book, so I thought I would point you towards a couple of free ebooks which I think are worth reading. All three are available from Project Gutenberg, a non-profit organization that finds and scans public domain books and makes them available in a variety of electronic formats.

A Manual of the Hand Lathe (1869) 

Egbert P. Watson

Despite its age this book is a do-it-yourself guide in a format which will be very familiar to contemporary readers. Watson wrote at a time when small foot-powered lathes were a must-have tool for the home workshop. Unlike later books, which usually focus on either woodworking or metalworking, Watson takes for granted that you will be using your lathe to turn wood, metal, and any other material that was available in the 19th century. Probably the most valuable aspect of the book is the description of how to perform metalworking operations like threading using hand tools. At times Watson becomes a bit pedantic, and his organization could perhaps be better, but this book is still a treasure for anyone interested in "low tech" lathe work.

A Course in Wood Turning (1919) 

Archie S. Milton and Otto K. Wohlers

This book was intended as a guide for high school shop teachers for developing wood turning lesson plans. As such, it describes all of the essential techniques and concepts for both spindle and face-plate turning. Even though it was written nearly a century ago, none of the fundamentals of the craft have changed. Anyone who masters the skills in this book can legitimately claim to be a competent wood turner. The book also includes plans for a number of projects and, although few of them would be mistaken for anything except a high school wood shop assignment, some of them, especially the spiral turnings, could be a useful source of inspiration for the reader's own projects.

Turning and Boring (1914) 

Franklin D. Jones

This work was intended as a general reference to any sort of turning and boring operation that might be encountered by a working machinist. Although it assumes the use of a metalworking engine lathe (or, in the later part of the book, a boring mill) many of the operations can be adapted for use on a simple lathe like the Handy Lathe Mk. I. Probably the most valuable parts of this book for most of us will be the detailed drawings of mandrels, hold-downs, and steady rests, and similar fixtures, which are so necessary for many advanced turning projects.

Download these books to your tablet and other device. Study them, perhaps with the addition of a couple of classic non-free books like Machine Shop Operations and Setups or the Gingery series, and you will know just about as much about lathe work as you're going to learn from books. After that, the only way to learn more will be to get to the shop and make things.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Building The Handy Lathe

The following instructions describe how I built my own lathe, as shown in the videos.  My design was dictated by the tools and materials that I happened to have around, since one of the major goals of the project was to build the lathe for the minimum possible cash outlay, using mostly junk and leftovers from other projects.  If you build your own lathe it will undoubtedly be different.  Part of the charm to home made tools is the uniqueness of each one. 

Part I of the Video

The Head Stock

The head stock consists of a bicycle bottom bracket held in a sturdy wooden frame.  There are at least half a dozen configurations of bottom brackets out there, many of which can probably be made to work.  The kind I used, which is the most common on adult bikes of the '80s and '90s, has 10mm male threads on the spindles to which you can screw adapters for the pulley and chuck (or face plate, live center, etc).  A slightly newer design, also very common, has female threads to which you can attach things with a bolt.  Either one should be pretty easy to work with.  My bottom bracket is old enough that it uses loose ball bearings with adjustable cones, which means I can adjust and/or repack the bearings dozens of times as they wear in.  Newer units have sealed bearings which last a bit longer, but you need to replace the whole unit when it wears out. 

If you don't have the tools you need to adjust or dismantle a bottom bracket (which vary depending on the type) it will be cheaper to bring it into a bike shop than to buy them.  I do have the tools, though, because I used to work in a bike shop.

The bottom bracket shell fits tightly into a hole in a wood glue up and is held in with a 1/4" lag bolt that engages one of the holes in the shell.  Precision is very important when building the head stock--more so than with any of the other assemblies.  You want to start by finding well-seasoned, straight-grained wood.  Hardwood--perhaps maple or white oak--would be ideal.  I used a chunk of old-growth fir which I have been saving for something special ever since I sawed it out of a 1940's house. 

After the glue dries you will want to carefully plane all of the surfaces to get them absolutely square, since everything else you build will be squared against the face of the head stock.  This is one of those tasks for which there is just no substitute for a well-tuned smooth plane and a little patience. 

You will probably not have drill bits that are the right size for the holes for the bottom bracket and pipes.  For the bottom bracket hole I used an adjustable bit to bore it slightly (about 1/32") under-size.  Then I very carefully enlarged it with a half-round file

Optional:  So I wouldn't have to remove quite so much material, I used a rabbet bit in a router to remove some of the wood from the sides of the inside of the hole. 

Once the bottom bracket would go in I mounted an old crank and checked everything for square against my table saw by rotating the crank and measuring it.  I was only off by a fraction of a degree and was able to correct it by a little more filing and scraping.  If end up taking off too much material you will need to shim the bottom bracket square with pieces of shim stock (a.k.a. beer can). 

I followed a similar procedure for the holes that received the pipe ways, except that I was able to use an adjustable hand ream to enlarge the holes.  A bicycle seat tube ream is a good size for this. 

Optional:  You can cut a shoulder on the ends of the pipes using the pipe grinding jig that I showed you how to build two episodes ago, which will give a very nice fit and allow you to use a 1" drill bit. 

The small counter-bored hole in the lower center of the head stock isn't mentioned in the video.  Its purpose is to receive a lead screw later when I add a sliding carriage for metalworking, but it's easier to add it now before the lathe is assembled.

The last step is to use a router or a file to round off all the exposed corners, which will keep them from splintering.

The Ways

The ways are made of 3/4" schedule 40 water pipe.  Actually, 1" or 1 1/4" would have been even better, since it would be stiffer, but 3/4" was what I had.  You need to find the straightest pieces of pipe you can.  An old trick is to role them on a flat surface and listen for clicks, which means that they are bent.  If you have access to another lathe it would be a great idea to take a pass along each of them to true them up.  Ironically, someone gave me a long-bed lathe a couple weeks after I had already installed them...that's the way these things seem to go. 

The bracket that holds the tail end of the ways is just a piece of straight-grained 2x4 with holes that line up with the ones in the head stock.

Assemble the ways to the head stock, square everything, then glue and screw it to a piece of particle board.  Why particle board?  Because it is very dimensionally stable and you don't have to worry about it warping and bending your ways out of alignment.

Spindle Adapters

Now you need to figure out how to get a pulley on one end of the spindle and whatever chucks or other accessories you will be using on the other.  In my case the pulley I was using accepts a 5/8" shaft with a key-way and my chuck goes on a 5/8" plain shaft typical of accessories that are meant for ShopSmith machines), so both adapters are basically 5/8" metal cylinders that screw onto the threads on the spindle.  If you are using a threaded chuck then you will need to thread the adapter.  This job is best done on a friend's engine lathe, but is possible with a die if you are careful. 

The adapters can be made out of, in decreasing order of suitability, brass, pot metal, bronze or steel.  The reason brass is the best because it is reasonably strong and threads nicely.  Pot metal and bronze are even stronger, and thread nearly as well.  Steel is the strongest, but it is hard to cut really nice threads in it, especially with a crappy tap and die set like mine.  You can buy short lengths of brass round stock from Online Metals, a company with which I have done business off and on for years.  I'm poor though, and didn't want to wait for delivery, so I melted down scraps of pot metal and cast my own adapters. 

Metal casting is both an art and a science, and I don't pretend to be an expert.  However, this is just about the simplest casting that I can imagine, and is well within the abilities of a handyman.  The amount of metal involved will melt on an ordinary camp stove and the "mold" is little more than a hole poked in some dirt.  The most important advice I can give you is to poor slowly otherwise you will end up with bubbles in the metal that will create voids and ruin the casting. 

Also, remember that molten metal is hot!  You definitely want to wear sturdy leather boots and gloves and long pants.  Welding gauntlets and leathers, if you have them, would be even better.  Also, be aware that when molten metal spills on concrete it sometimes causes it to spall, sending high velocity chunks around the shop, so casting over blacktop or dirt is safer.  Always plan your motions ahead of time and know what you are going to do before you have a crucible of metal in your hands, and never rush; it's better to screw up a pour than to go to fast and end up hurting yourself.

Once you have your castings done, or cut your round stock, you will need to do some work to turn them into adapters.  A drill press, though not absolutely necessary, is quite useful for these steps. 

The first step is to create a flat reference face on one end of the casting.  I started by hack sawing off one end as square as I could get it.  Then I put the casting in a vice and cleaned it up with my belt sander (a file would work too, but I'm really good with a belt sander).  Then I clamped the piece in a drill press vice with v-blocks and faced it up with a stiff sanding disk that I made.

Next I located the centers and drilled with a tap size drill bit (9.5 mm for the 10 mm fine threads on the bicycle spindle.  In precision work like this it is best to drill first with a smaller drill bit and then "follow the hole" with your final size bit. 

Next I tapped the hole in the drill press.  The center in the drill chuck holds the tap square and make it less likely that you will get a "drunken" thread.  If you don't have a tapping fixture for your drill press you can just put a center in the chuck and wrap a bungee cord around the feed handle to apply even pressure. 

Once you have the threaded hole you can screw the blank adapter onto the spindle and turn it to the final size.  "But wait," you say, "we don't have a pulley on the lathe yet, how do we make it rotate for turning?"  I solved this problem by powering the lathe with my half inch drill and a flex shaft made out of some hose.  You could also use the actual lathe motor and a slightly bigger diameter hose.  Either way you want to clamp the drill/motor down pretty securely.  Otherwise it will pull towards you and whip the hose around at high velocity. 

For adapters that need a key-way, like the one on my pulley, you can cut it with a small chisel then clean it up with files.  Back in the days of yore all key-ways were cut this way and it isn't difficult, just time consuming.

Part II of the Video

The Tool Rest

The next step is to build a tool rest which is sturdy enough to last and adjustable enough to get you into all the positions you need for hand turning.  I opted for a fairly short rest, since my lathe will mostly be used to turn fairly small objects.

Of course the eventual plan is to put a sliding carriage on this lathe, but even for metalworking hand work is more convenient for certain tasks...such as the spherical sections on almost any piece.  And nearly all wood turning is done with a hand rest.

The bracket that holds the tool rest to the ways is made by gluing up some pieces of 2x4, then drilling a hole and sawing down to it.  Make sure you use pieces without any knots, or they will break when you try to clamp them.

The socket that holds the tool rest is a piece of 3/4" schedule 40 pipe left over from cutting the ways.  Use a round file to deburr it and smooth out the inside, then drill and tap for a set screw.  I used the set screw from an electrical conduit pull box which I had already melted down for its pot metal.  If you want, you can solder on a wing nut or half a dime to make it a wing screw, like I showed you how to do two episodes ago in the pipe grinder video.

The tool rest itself is a section of a 1" pipe nipple brazed or welded to a piece of 1/2" pipe. 

First you will need to turn down the bottom two thirds or so of the vertical piece down so it will fit in the socket.  You can do this by roughing it out with a file and then chucking it in the lathe.  You will need to kludge a temporary tool rest up out of scraps--it doesn't need to be fancy, since you'll only be using it once.  For the actual turning use a diamond point tool and take many light passes, then smooth it up with 120 grit sand paper.

Note: If you don't have lathe tools yet, I will be giving you some tips on how to make them in an upcoming episode. 

The horizontal piece can be cut out of the 1" pipe using a hacksaw or abrasive cut-off disk in your angle grinder. 

You need to cope the vertical piece so it fits against the bottom of the horizontal piece.  You can do this by eye, but I also made this template which you can print, snip out, and use to mark the cut line.  Rough it out with grinder, then use a half-round file to finish it. 

Then drill and tap for a little 3/16" bolt or machine screw to hold everything together while you braze or weld it.  If you own an acetylene torch fillet brazing with brass rod is the way to go:  it looks better and will be less likely to deform the pieces.  Arc welding is also fine.  If you own neither a torch nor a welder, then you do what I did and just fill the inside of the rest with molten pot metal.  I buried the whole assembly upside down in a can of dirt, added some vents by poking with a piece of coat hanger, and slowly poured in the metal.  The result probably isn't as strong as torch brazing would have been, but I haven't had any trouble with it. 

Clean up your welds/brazes with files and smooth out the top of the rest with a fine file.

The clamp that locks the tool rest is a quick release from a bicycle hub.  Quick release skewers are made of heat-treated steel which is hard to cut or thread, even with carbide tools, so use the whole skewer and make a spacer out of pipe fittings or a block of wood. 

This tool rest looks like a jury-rig, but actually locks up faster and tighter than the one on my big Harbor Freight lathe and about as well as the one on the old 1930's wood lathe that I owned before.

Detail at Bottom of Tool Rest

The Tail Stock

The tail stock is the single most complicated sub-assembly in this lathe. 

The body of the tail stock is a glue-up made from pieces of wood.  Ideally, you would make the whole thing out of some sort of tough, dimensionally stable hardwood like white oak or maple.  Hardwood is expensive, though, and I made it out of dry construction lumber and only used maple for the pieces which will actually contact the ways. 

Start off by gluing up two rectangular slabs, then plane them flat.  Next, drill the holes for the ways, and cut off the waste piece at the bottom.  Then saw out the shape on each piece.  A band saw is ideal, but a portable jig saw, or even a coping saw, will work.  Next, cut one of the pieces in two and glue the two pieces onto the other piece.  Sand everything flush and round off exposed corners.

The next step is to make sure the half holes in the bottom of the tail stock match the ways and that it sits absolutely square.  To do this, stick some PSA sandpaper on the ways.  Then mark the surface with Sharpie pen or pencil and scrape the tail stock back and forth over the sandpaper for a few minutes, holding it as square as possible (it helps to clamp a square to the ways that you can eyeball on).  When you turn the tail stock over you will see where the ink or pencil has been sanded off.  Attack these high spots with a half-round file and/or a scrap of pipe with sandpaper wrapped around it.  Repeat as needed.  For the last few passes forgo the file and use the sandpaper itself to lap the holes for a really good fit.

The next step is to make the clamp that locks the tail stock in place.  I cut and bent an old iron plant hanger and added a bicycle seat post quick release.  This setup works well.  My only complaint is that I need to bend the strap when I take the tail stock off the lathe for chuck work, and I'm afraid it will eventually work harden and break off.  A better design would incorporate a hinge on the bottom piece of strap.  Maybe you could weld in a small gate hinge?

The next step is to bore the hole for the tail stock ram.  Do this by chucking a spade bit (not a self-feeding bit, a cheap spade bit) in the lathe chuck and slowly sliding the tail stock into it.  Like the other holes in this project, you will need to enlarge this one to the precise diameter of the pipe.  You could use a hand ream again, but it is easier to make a boring bar and use the lathe.  In this case the boring bar is just a scrap of 1/2" EMT conduit with a sheet metal screw in the end.  The end of the screw is plenty sharp enough to scrape out the inside of the hole.  Take several back-and-forth passes, calipering the hole frequently until it is the right size.

Optional:  If you drilled the holes in for the lead screw, you can insert a piece of 3/8" all thread rod and use it to push/pull the head stock back and forth for the boring steps.  A ratchet and socket on a double nut on the end makes a handy crank.  This is slower but should result in a slightly more accurate hole.  Besides, it looks awesome while you're doing it!

Next, you will need to cut a key way slot in the hole to receive the 1/4" feather on the bottom of the tail stock ram.  You can use a coping saw to cut the edges of the hole, then clear out the waste with a 1/4" chisel. 

The tail stock ram is yet another piece of 3/4" pipe (marvelous stuff, pipe, and you can find hundreds of feet of it abandoned in the crawlspace of any house that has previously been re-piped!).  It has a 1/2" hex nut pressed into each end.  Because this is an interference fit, you will need to either hammer in the nuts or press them in with either an arbor press of a pipe clamp.  I also put a blind rivet in each nut to hold it in.

To do a blind rivet, cut a short chunk of a nail (10d common nails are about the right diameter for this).  Drill through both pieces, but don't go through to the other end.  Then insert the little chunk of nail, cutting it if necessary so it sticks up less than 1/16" of the surface.  Then peen it with a ball-peed hammer until it squishes into the hole and locks the pieces together.  Finish by filing it flush with the surface.  With larger rivets it is helpful to heat the rivet cherry red with a propane torch before peening, but it isn't really necessary with little ones like this.

The tail stock ram also gets a feather at the bottom made from 1/4" key stock, which keeps it from turning in the hole.  I also attached this with blind rivets, but brazing would be another option.

A bit of paste wax on the ram makes it much easier to shove into the hole.  You want a tight running fit with no side play. 

The ram feed screw is a piece of 1/2" all thread rod with hex nuts and washers.  It passes through a wooden plug which you can turn in the chuck (the easiest way is probably to drill the 1/2" hole first and stick a 1/2" dowel through it so you have something to grab in the chuck. 

The knob on the end of the feed screw is turned much the same way.  I had originally had trouble with it slipping on me, so I mortised in a short piece of left-over key stock which engages a notch I cut in one of the nuts.


Dead Center

You will need a dead center for any kind of spindle turning.  I make them by cutting off a short length of all thread rod or a bold and fixing a hex nut in the middle with a blind rivet.  Turn a point on one end to about a 60ยบ included angle.  Whenever your center starts to get dull or beat up (which happens often when you are turning metal) just put it in the chuck and turn a fresh point on it. 

Tail Stock Chuck

Most types of drill chuck can be adapted to this tail stock.  Probably the easiest is a chuck with 1/2" threads, since you can just the head off a half inch bolt and use a die to thread one end of it to the 1/2" NF threads in the chuck.  Riveting a nut in the middle gives you something to hold onto when you screw it in to and out of the tail stock.

A chuck that is meant to go on a Jacobs or other taper is going to require some more complicated turning, since you will need to exactly match the taper for it to fit on.  Your best bet is to turn it a few thousandths oversize and coat it with Sharpie or machinists' dye, push the chuck on to see where the high points are, and use a very light pass to adjust.  Repeat until the chuck goes on all the way and stays on.

Drive Center

I don't actually recommend hand made drive centers, since they don't usually work as well as even the cheap store bought ones.  Of course if you have a milling machine you can make as many high quality ones as you need--but since you are reading about how to build a lathe out of junk, I assume you don't have a mill either.  The basic procedure is to start with a cylinder of steel (part of a large bolt works) and drill and tap it to go on your head stock spindle.  Then mark out the spurs.  Four is the most common number, although I have seen centers that use anywhere from two to twelve.  Then carefully carve out the metal with a grinder and files. 

It is easier to make the center pin separately and then press it into a hole in the center.  This avoids the problem of turning the pin without wiping out the spurs, which can be quite a challenge with hand tools.

Other Accessories

Look in any machine tool or woodworking catalog and you will see literally hundreds of different accessories for lathes.  Many of these are fairly simple and, with a little ingenuity, you can probably build your own versions...especially now that you have a lathe.  It's also worth diffing around in pawn shops and flea markets.  Dig around in the junk boxes they usually have in a back corner and you can find all sorts of bits, centers, chucks, and other useful parts that can be adapted to your own setup, often sold for pennies on the dollar.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Lathe: A Brief History

The history of the lathe is a microcosm for the entire history of technology. The first literary mention of a lathe that I am aware of is in Plato's unfinished Critias, in which Critias describes the island of Atlantis as being perfectly circular with the capital places "as if at the pivot of a lathe" (113d). There is little information on what Hellenistic lathes actually looked like but a certain degree of sophistication would have been required to create some of the mechanisms attributed to Greek inventors. Certainly the Greeks, with their great reverence for geometry, would have seen the potential of a simple tool that makes perfectly circular objects. Simple lathes of some sort (probably based on the Greek models) were around throughout the Roman period--just look at the turned wooden grips on the hilts of late Roman short swords.

In the dark ages everyone got much poorer and tools became simpler. Round objects were more likely to be carved with a draw-knife than turned. Even so, lathes probably never completely went away. By the High Middle Ages wood turners, using simple spring pole lathes, were in business throughout Europe, often unpacking their lathes and setting up in the middle of forests so as to be near a steady source of green wood. Spring pole lathes are deceptively simple. A rope or thong is wrapped around the work. One end is tied to a springy rod (often a handy tree branch) while the other is attached to a pedal, or just tied to the turner's foot. When he steps down the work rotates and he takes a cut. When he raises his foot the spring pole rotates backwards. As primitive as spring-pole lathes are, however, they can potentially do every operation that a modern store-bought electric wood lathe can.

Spring Pole Lathe [Flickr user Mark, CC-BY 2.0]

Spring pole lathes do have one big drawback, though: they you can only cut for half the cycle. This problem was solved with the invention of the treadle lathe, which uses a crank rod attached to the treadle to rotate a flywheel which in turn rotates a drive center through a belt and pulleys. This style of lathe was also easy to connect to an external power source--initially a water wheel, but later a steam engine or electric motor. Many turners actually preferred treadle power, however, because of the fine-grained speed control it gave for delicate operations like threading.

The first treadle lathes were made of wood, as the spring pole lathes had been before. The advent of iron casting, however, allowed for the mass production of lathes in various standard sizes. In the 19th century cast iron treadle lathes were ubiquitous in every kind of shop or factory as well as in home workshops. In his 1869 book on lathe work (definitely recommended reading), Egbert Pomeroy Watson extols the virtues of the lathe as a must-have DIY tool,

There is no family in this country that would not find it economy to have a foot lathe in the house, where the members have mechanical tastes—not necessarily the male members, for ladies use foot lathes, in Europe, with the greatest dexterity. Some of the most beautiful work ever made, was by Miss Holtzapfel, a relative of the celebrated mechanist of the same name. If there are shovels to be mended, the lathe will drill the holes and turn the rivets. If the handle of the saucepan is loose, it will do the same. If scissors or knives want grinding, there is the lathe; if the castors on the sofa break down, there is the lathe; if skates need repairs, either of grinding or of any other kind, there is the lathe. In short, it ought to be as much a part of domestic economy as the sewing machine, for it takes the odd stitches in the mechanical department that save money.

The first lathe I ever used was a Victorian treadle mini-lathe that lived in my Grandfather's basement. He used to use it to make knobs and handles for kitchenware and toys for us grandchildren.
Most of these lathes looked very much like a modern wood lathe, with a simple iron tool rest which was used with various hand tools, but turners used them to work metal as well as wood. The cylinders and threaded parts for the first few generations of steam engines were turned by hand, as were most gun barrels prior to the civil war. Precision metalworking on a simple lathe is absolutely possible!

The mid-19th century saw the next major step in the evolution of the lathe: the engine lathe. These machines used tools clamped in a holder which was attached to a carriage that was moved with hand wheels, allowing for more precision in less time. A further addition of a lead screw (providing a power feed for the carriage) and change gears (for automatic threading in standard pitches) led to the direct ancestors of modern metal lathes. The standard wood lathe and engine lathe have remained relatively unchanged since then and are still a basic part of well-equipped woodworking and metalworking shops, but the late 19th and 20th centuries saw the emergence of a profusion of special purpose lathes optimized for particular jobs: bowl lathes, metal spinning lathes, brake drum lathes, pipe machines (a lathe designed to cut and thread pipe on job sites), and many others. In the second half of the 20th century the focus was on automation. Production wood lathes gained duplicator attachments to rapidly copy table legs and similar pieces by following a template. Metal lathes gained turrets which held several different tools for rapid selection. With the advent of CNC technology the turret lathe became fully computer controlled.

At the same time that production lathe technology was heading towards specialization and automation, however, there was a growing interest in simple lathe designs which could be built cheaply and used for a wide variety of tasks. One of the first to publicize this sort of lathe was hand tool woodworking guru Roy Underhill, who has built and demonstrated several simple foot-powered lathes on his PBS show The Woodwright's Shop and currently teaches a class in how to build your own spring-pole lathe. Prior to becoming a TV personality Roy toured the craft-fair circuit with a treadle lathe built mostly out of construction lumber, doing spindle turning while playing the harmonica. All of his lathes are built out of wood with only a few metal parts. In the 1980's Dave Gingery came on the scene with a series of books about how to build a machine shop from scratch. The core of his program was a simple but versatile engine lathe built from pot metal and aluminum castings. Many thousands of hobbyists have since built and used Gingery lathes. More recently, there has been an upsurge in interest in a WW I-era engine lathe design by Lucien Yeoman which was created to rapidly tool up munitions factories. Yeoman lathes are built mostly out of concrete with pipe ways. They require no foundry work and only minor welding. Yeoman lathes can typically be scaled up larger than Gingery lathes because the latter are limited by the amount of metal you can heat in a single pour. My own lathe design incorporates elements from the Underhill, Gingery, and Yeoman designs, and was largely dictated by the tools and materials I happened to have on hand. I don't have a foundry or a welder, but I did have a box of old bicycle parts and plenty of wood. Also, I have pretty complete sets of woodworking and bicycle tools (I'm a journeyman in both those trades) but only basic metalworking tools. So I built a lathe mostly out of wood, like Roy Underhill, but with pipe ways like Yeoman. The headstock bearings and spindle are a bicycle bottom bracket and I used bicycle quick-release levers to lock down the tool rest and tailstock. Gingery's book was constantly at hand as I designed, machined, and assembled the various pieces.

Roy Underhill with one of his lathes

A Yeoman Lathe [courtesy of opensourcemachinetools.org]

Since completing the Handy Lathe six month ago I have used it for numerous projects in wood, plastic, and metal, and it works pretty well. The biggest problem I have is that the headstock spindle occasionally gets bent and I have to realign it (a fairly easy process involving a surface gauge and a big Crescent wrench. I am in the process of setting up a small foundry which will allow me to sand-cast parts. When it is done I plan to build a Gingery-stylr carriage and tool-holder to make the Handy Lathe into a true engine lathe. I also plan to turn a beefier spindle as soon as I find a big enough chunk of steel. My long term plan is to use the Handy Lathe to machine the parts for my dream lathe, the Handy Lathe Mk. II, which will be a full size machine with a geared transmission. For now, though, the Mk. I suits my needs quite nicely and I also think it would be a good first machine for someone who wanted to learn turning.

The Handy Lathe