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A New(ish) Bandsaw

Updated: May 29, 2020

The bandsaw is to the pipemaker as the power hammer is to the blacksmith, the circular saw to the carpenter. I’ve always said that the professional cuts close to the line with a coarse tool, and the bandsaw is the first and coarsest removal of material in making a block into a pipe. My 9” Delta bandsaw was my first tool purchase when I returned from New Zealand in 1999. I didn’t buy it with pipemaking in mind, I bought it to cut clarinet reed blanks and brother, it has cut a lot of them. To its credit, it was built to be cheap and light and was never intended to last this long or work this hard. Parts are no longer available, which so far has just meant figuring out which catalog bearings will replace the NLA and probably inferior stock ones, but recently the motor has taken to sitting there and buzzing until I open the blade guard and give the wheels a spin. This could go on for a while but it won’t go on forever, and Delta’s savings of doing away with a motor mount and bolting a cheap but unique motor directly to the saw housing has resulted in replacement motors for a 20-year-old saw that, if they can be found, cost more than a new saw. A bandsaw designed for real use has a motor mount that allows any motor of a certain standard size to be installed when the original motor wears out, as they all do, eventually. This immediately illustrates the difference between disposable and rebuildable. So, before the former stopped working completely I started looking for an economical route to the latter.

No need to put too fine a point on the need for economy, but when I posted on a pipemaking forum asking if anyone had put many hours on a certain very economical import I was considering, one poster suggested that for real economy I could get by with a hand saw and miter box. Which was funny, but there’s a difference between economy and miserliness and when my lighter gives out I’m not replacing it with flint and tinder. Cost has to be balanced with productivity. Scrolling through Craigslist, I noticed the ad for an online auction of “assets surplus to the ongoing operations of the Kennametal Corporation.” Translation: the Kennametal plant in Irwin, 30 miles away, makers of tooling and carbide cutting inserts for machine tools, was closing. Looking through the lots, passing wistfully over the Bridgeport milling machines, I noticed an older blue-green (as opposed to the modern light gray) Jet 14” woodworking bandsaw.

The Jet 14” is the Chevy small block of bandsaws. It is a close copy of the Delta Rockwell/Milwaukee or Walker Turner 14” bandsaw that followed the South Bend 9” lathe into garages and basement shops across America until the companies either closed or sent production overseas. I would have happily pounced on one of those old cast iron-framed, infinitely rebuildable babies, and perhaps made this an even better story. But the Jet tools of this era were nothing to sneeze at. My 1986 13” lathe is excellent. Jet was from the beginning, and pretty much still is, the machine that would do a day’s work for the guy who couldn’t afford a new Hardinge or Monarch. An old Jet 14” bandsaw has the same amount of cast iron and sheet metal as an even older US-made saw and will still do a day’s work. Every replacement part is available, probably OEM but if it wears out on a Jet, the aftermarket has upgraded it.

Online live auctions are weird, which is another story. There was no in-person inspection except by appointment for the same reason that the auction was held online, so I went by a picture, which looked ok. It will be evident by now that I bought the bandsaw, and I picked it up yesterday. I had no idea what a woodworking bandsaw would be doing in a carbide plant; naively I figured that every factory needs to cut wood sometime for some reason, so maybe it saw light use in the maintenance shop. Boy, was I wrong. I learned a lot about carbide manufacturing during my visit to the closed plant to pick up my purchase. The hard, abrasion- and heat-resistant carbide cutting tool starts as “green” carbide, which results from using giant hydraulic rams to compress carbide particles into a material with about the consistency of dried but not fired clay. Green carbide cuts and grinds and machines easily, producing vast quantities of very fine, black carbide dust. The green carbide is shaped, then sintered in a high-pressure, high-temperature oven, the solid, fused result being 4 to 5 times smaller and very hard, ready to be diamond ground into the rather expensive Kennametal machine tool inserts which evidently are now being made in some other plant.

The point? My 1994 Jet bandsaw spent its entire career at Kennametal cutting green carbide. I don’t know how to convey the extremity of dirt and grit that working green carbide produces. When I thought of the gleaming Kennametal cutting inserts in their plastic boxes I imagined that the plant must be something like a medical lab. Nope. A coal mine might be cleaner. Even with all the dust collection OSHA would have mandated, the stuff was everywhere. After I wrestled the saw from its station to the pickup and from the pickup to my garage, I went upstairs to wash up. My wife said: “You’re filthy.”

Understatement of the century.

The saw was packed full of carbide dust. Full of the finest, blackest, most adhering stuff you can imagine, only finer. When your hands get sufficiently coated the black turns to a faint metallic gleam, like graphite. Initially I was alarmed that the table was detached from the saw; broken trunnions would have been expensive. As it turned out, the bolts holding the table to the trunnions were missing. The lower guide bearing was spectacularly worn and failed, the attaching screw stripped, and I surmise that someone removed the table to look at the shrieking guide bearing, saw the exposed balls, stripped the screw and thought, “We’re closing, screw it,” and threw the bolts in the trash.

So, I need a new guide bearing, make that two to be safe. Six M6x12 bolts, plus washers. Probably the blade that was optimum for green carbide, even when new, is not optimum for briar. Just a guess. It spins up fine, seems pretty smooth, would probably be smoother with new tires. The motor either has been replaced with a type made to live in an abrasive environment or I’ll be replacing it someday. Or both. Motors don’t like grit any more than guide bearings do.

Already I’m attached to this saw. I might be even more attached to a 1940s Walker Turner. Or maybe not, maybe it’s a function of time and work invested in a thing, given that thing’s modicum of quality and potential. Some of us are more romantic about machines and things and more susceptible to attachment than our utilitarian brothers, but if you weren’t at least a little prone to attachment you wouldn’t be looking at fine handmade pipes so perhaps you understand. I’ve spent a chunk of time with a vacuum and lots of rags getting to the point where you can walk past the saw without ruining your clothes. It survived 26 years of hard work in a hostile environment, life will be easier now.

Yes, it’s silly to spend a word like life on a Jet bandsaw. It’s a thing. Every day, thousands of tons of machine tools are hauled to the scrap yard, where they are torn apart, melted down and sent to manufacturers to be made into, I dunno, can openers. Or cars, maybe, but almost certainly that metal won’t become something that will last as long, do as much work, or be as impressively massive or as infinitely rebuildable as a heavy mill or engine lathe. Nobody makes stuff like that anymore. Some of the scrapped machines really are worn out, almost always by abuse and lack of lubrication, but most are just big and heavy and have been knocked into a cocked hat by CNC. My saw probably had a CNC water jet nipping at its heels and might be lucky to be relatively small and movable and to have hung on until the plant closed and an auction landed it in a home shop. I saw some machines the size of garbage trucks sell for a few hundred dollars, doubtless at least some of them by scrap dealers.

It feels, acknowledging the danger of going by feel, that taking an old machine in need of repair and fixing it, then making things with it, is virtuous. Using my 1943 Logan that came to me as a rusty pallet of parts to make a pipe that someone will, I hope, buy and enjoy and contemplate and that might, with care, last for generations, feels good. Because of my work, the lathe is still making things instead of having been made into things. I expect that using the Jet will feel good in the same way, and I guess there’s no need to get any more complicated than that.

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