Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Machinists — manual machinists, anyway — tend to fall into one of two groups: lathe-first or mill-first. There are many wonderful manual machine tools: shapers, planers, horizontal and vertical boring machines, radial drill presses, surface grinders, key-seaters and so forth, a good portion of which have been knocked into a cocked hat by computer-numerical control machining (CNC). But the lathe and mill are still the two main staples in the non-CNC tool room. Machinists tend to prefer one or the other and will look at a given drawing with their preferred machine in mind.
For those unfamiliar with the terms, a lathe turns the work while the stationary cutting tool moves along it on ways and so makes cylinders; a mill spins the cutting tool while the work moves on three linear axes on a table underneath it (or, as on the mill above, the head and spindle move up and down on a column for the Z axis) and so makes plane surfaces or drills holes. Generally. You can mill on a lathe and you can cut cylinders on a mill but it takes a little doing. For reference, this is a lathe:
Up to now, I haven’t been merely a lathe-first machinist (machinists can stop rolling their eyes, I know I’m not really a machinist), I’ve been lathe-ONLY. I learned to use a mill in college when I took a machining class, but barriers to mill ownership are higher than those to lathe ownership. My first metal lathe was a clapped-out Atlas 6-inch that I could pick up and put in my trunk by myself, given to me by a violin maker in Albuquerque when I was starting to make bamboo rods. Not much of an entry barrier there, I kept it for years and used it for my first pipe stems.
While living in Albuquerque, if I needed a bigger lathe or a mill there was a wonderful combination machine shop and scrap yard on Central not too far from my house owned by a young guy named Ted. His yard was filled with all kinds of intriguing junk, a lot of it castoff from nearby Sandia National Laboratory, and for a reasonable hourly rate you could use any machine in the shop once you showed Ted you more or less knew what you were doing. I can’t recall ever being unable to find some piece of scrap that would serve to make anything I wanted to make, and he had a really nice Bridgeport that I used a lot. I never crashed anything, but I can’t imagine how he managed to keep his machines running with folks off the street using them, and searching the internet the place doesn’t seem to be there any more.
A lot of lathes have passed through my shop since I settled in Pittsburgh — one Delta wood lathe, one Hardinge, six or seven South Bends, three or four Logans, and finally my 13-inch Jet. With the exception of the Hardinge, I moved them myself. They were all used, some more heavily than others, which made them cheap. Cheap and at least somewhat portable, that’s how I wound up with six or seven of them in the basement at one point. Currently I’m down to the Hardinge, the 11-inch Logan and the 13-inch Jet, all of which I use, though I could still probably put together one, maybe two 10-inch Logans from parts.
But no mill.
I’d been on the lookout for a mill for years without pulling the trigger, or even really seeing a likely target. Given the number of lathes that followed me home, it seemed inevitable that at least one mill would do the same. However, we return to the barriers to mill ownership. For one thing, I had my heart set on a Bridgeport or something similar, commonly called a knee mill, and they weigh 2400 pounds. Just imagine that your refrigerator weighed as much as a sports car. Even if you can move one safely, you can’t set it just anywhere. Then there’s cost. In this area they run about 2 grand for a machine that is basically a starting point for complete rebuilding. I watched several rode-hard-and-put-up-wet Bridgeports sell at the Kennemetal online auction where I bought my Jet bandsaw; I might have been unable to resist at $1500 but I was left shaking my head when the worst of them went for $2500. A full-size mill capable of precision — either rebuilt, lightly used, or a newer clone — probably costs 5 to 7 large before you buy one single piece of tooling. And a mill takes a LOT of tooling.
So I lowered my sights. As much as I prefer vintage American iron, it became evident that if I kept waiting for an affordable, ready-to-work Bridgeport or Clausing to appear it might be a long wait. Back in November I ordered a Taiwanese benchtop mill from a local company, Precision Matthews. It is heavy for a benchtop machine at nearly 400 pounds, but still within my window for homebrew rigging. And small enough to fit in my lathe room without moving everything around. Since it’s from a local company and comes with a 5-year warranty I feel sort of OK about it. It’s not what I wanted, and compared to a Bridgeport it looks like it came out of a cereal box, but it beats no mill. It came in last week, and I was able to fetch it with a rented pickup and get it installed without putting myself in a survival situation.
Well, almost. I hadn’t counted on the ridiculous tailgate height of a modern pickup, which made it impossible to pick the machine off its pallet with my engine hoist so I had to wrestle it off the pallet in the truck bed and sort of tip it and slide it off the tailgate until the hoist could catch, and barely made it at that. There are no pictures; I was alone and had my hands full. Regarding the truck, I rented a new Chevy Silverado (15k mikes) from UHaul and was not impressed with it. Uselessly large and full of superfluous electric stuff that’s going to fail. For instance, what part of a working pickup is most exposed and takes the most abuse? The tailgate. Every heavy, dirty, sharp thing the truck carries goes over the tailgate. On the new Chevy, the tailgate latch is now electronic, you push a button and the tailgate automatically lowers. Oh, HELL no. Anyway. Then the hydraulic cylinder in my hoist crapped out. Then the mill turned out to be too tall to lift onto the bench using the steel beam in my basement doorway that I used for my Jet lathe (see Home Machine Rigging for Dummies) so I spent a couple of hours building a lifting point in the lathe room. Which was just barely high enough. I had figured the move would take an hour, tops. It took all day and some 12-letter magic words but I got the mill on the bench.
So, what am I going to do with it? Well, the next Bulldog I make, I’m going to mill the stem square to begin with. And there’s a hex-panel Acorn coming up, starting with a hexagonal stem blank will be a handy reference for the shank. I’ve seen some tricky little angled stem and shank treatments that obviously were done with a mill, you might see some stuff like that show up. I need to make a couple of brackets to hold dial indicators for my lathe and replace the wooden field expedient ones. Reamers. Spoon bits. Beyond that I guess we’ll just see. There have been enough times I’ve needed it over the past 20 years that I can’t imagine it won’t prove useful in the future. I’m getting a bit of a late start working with a complete shop, but better late than never.