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Advice on Choosing A Mini Lathe

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Neil Wyatt10/09/2018 09:56:57
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On this forum, we get an awful lot of beginners asking for advice on buying a Mini Lathe. This is because they offer one of the most inexpensive routes into hobby engineering, having a good capacity and capabilities in a smaller 'benchtop' machine.

The bewildering choice of machines makes it hard for a beginner, with no previous experience, to choose a suitable machine. The following is an extract from my book Mini Lathes that tries to offer some advice on what to look for when choosing one of these machines.

Part 1 - The Variety of Mini Lathes

When looking at various models of mini-lathe you will be struck by the many versions of the ‘same’ lathe available. Mini-lathes come out of a number of factories in China, and each factory supplies many importers around the world. The commonest are those made by SIEG in Shanghai – the C2, C3 and Super C3, but these are often ‘badge engineered’ and painted in the colours of the importer (figs 4.1, 4.2, 4.3). Others are made by concerns such as Real Bull but all have their roots in the same original design. In the UK importers include Chester with their off-white Conquest, Warco’s Mini-Lathe in their house green, Clarke’s signal yellow CL300M, Arc Euro Trade’s machines in SIEG maroon and Axminster in white and aqua. In the United States there are several further variations, notably from Grizzly (green) and Harbour Freight, again in Seig factory colours. Aussie have started importing SIEG lathes into Australia. There are many other importers in the UK and around the world. There are other importers with good reputations.

Though they are all produced to the same basic design, there are detail differences, from built in tachometers to the quality of the set-up. All these machines are fundamentally solidly and accurately built, and while they may lack some features, within the limits of their capacity they are capable of producing first class results. Don’t be dazzled by this rainbow of colours. If you decide on a buying a mini-lathe, I suggest you do two things: First decide what specification you want, second, find a supplier who sells a machine to that spec who you feel comfortable with. Buy from a reputable dealer that specifically serves model engineers, and be confident that you will get the same sales service as if you had bought a relatively huge machine costing much more.

Some machines are marketed by the same company at different levels of specification, for example Warco’s Super Mini-lathe is 350mm between centres – 50mm longer than the standard machine, it has a brushed 550w motor – 150w more powerful than their standard machine and it has digital rev. counter fitted (fig 4.4). The Super Mini-lathe tailstock features an over centre cam operated lock which is easier to use compared to the standard spanner and nut adjustment and the tailstock base is twice the length thereby allowing for greater stability.

Another choice you will find is between the C3-type machines, with a brushed DC motor and a geared spindle, and the Super C3 machines which have a brushless DC motor of greater power. The C2 was an earlier version with a shorter bed and less powerful brushed motor. The fundamental dimensions and operation of all the different types of mini-lathes are essentially similar.

More in Part 2

Neil Wyatt10/09/2018 09:57:06
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Part 2 - Options

Let’s run through the main options from which you may need to choose when buying your lathe:

As mentioned before, I would suggest going for as long a bed as you can obtain. Some suppliers may offer an induction hardened bed, this may appeal if you expect your lathe to enjoy a particularly long and hardworking life but should not be seen as a necessity for normal use.

Hardened bedways will extend the life of your lathe before the bed needs to be reground. The amount of hardening that can be applied to cast iron bed is limited, and mine has unhardened ways and has had a fairly typical sixteen years hobby use yet shows no signs of needing a regrind. I would suggest that this is a ‘nice to have’ but not essential.

The metric leadscrew/option is of greatest importance to those who wish to cut screw threads. It is possible to swap between metric and imperial leadscrews (and half-nuts) but as we will see metric threads can be cut on imperial machines, and vice versa.

Digital readouts are a point of debate. With the handle-type fitted to a mini-lathe they do not solve issues of backlash, but nonetheless some users find them invaluable. They can be retrofitted. A built in tachometer (speed readout) is useful at the beginning, but as you get more confident you will ignore the tacho and listen to the ‘cut’ instead.

A lever locking tailstock is a very convenient accessory, though it is not essential and can be fitted as an aftermarket upgrade.

The option of a brushless motor is a good idea, especially if you hope to work the lathe quite hard. But unlike a locking tailstock it is not an easy retro-fit. This is not just as a new controller board is needed as well, but because the bed castings are different to accommodate the larger motor. That said, nothing is impossible.

None of these facilities are essential. A hundred years ago many model engineers did not even possess a three-jaw chuck and drove their lathes with a foot-motor (treadle). This did not prevent some achieving work of a standard far higher than I can attain with all my accessories! If you can afford just one of these options, you may wish to choose the lever-operated tailstock, not the high technology readouts. It is the one extra that you will use all the time, and it will make many repetitive tasks far quicker. Even so, this is an accessory you can add yourself later, either buying a lever tailstock, or modifying a bolt-on version.

A final piece of advice, increasing numbers of cheap mini lathes are appearing on sites like Amazon and eBay. Because both established sellers and 'fly by nights' use these selling routes it is hard for a beginner to know which of these machine are a good deal and which should be avoided!

If a lathe is not being sold by a company with a track record in selling to model engineers, then you may not get the after-sales support and service you would like, including access to spares or difficulty in returning a poor or broken machine.

Some distributors appear to import one container of machines, sell them, and disappear for ever. If you buy a lemon from such a source , you may have no recourse.

There are lathes out there which are QC rejects or 'bitsas'' assembled from scrap bins, spare parts or returns from different sources. If a price looks too good to be true, it probably is.

 
I hope this helps some beginners make a better informed choice.
 
Neil
mechman4810/09/2018 10:19:26
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Well put Neil; it's quite noticeable the amount of new / beginners who ask the same question, a one stop thread will certainly help direct newbies to a focal point.

George.

JasonB10/09/2018 13:07:07
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I'll have a better read later but have made this a sticky so it is easier to find and direct people to.

J

Michael Gilligan10/09/2018 17:33:20
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Posted by JasonB on 10/09/2018 13:07:07:

I'll have a better read later but have made this a sticky so it is easier to find and direct people to.

.

Just a thought ... perhaps when approving new members to the forum; an auto-reply, with links to this thread and the 'albums & photos' thread might be useful.

MichaelG.

JasonB10/09/2018 17:41:17
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Unlike other forums when you are approved here you don't get an e-mail. Would think it would need quite a change to the software to generate a reply.

Ian Bradley 730/03/2019 14:12:04
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I have asked a question about Chinese lathes before I found this thread, the thing that has stopped me buying one is that they are rated at 220volts, will these work on our household system o 240volts ?

Bizibilder30/03/2019 15:00:51
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Yes a lathe "rated" at 220v will be perfectly OK in the UK where we actually have a mains supply of 230v (and not 240v) these days!!

A swift google will bring up the explanation for you.

JasonB30/03/2019 15:03:44
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And if you look on some of the brushless motors they have 230V on the label.

dsc02186.jpg

Andrew Johnston30/03/2019 16:14:07
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Posted by Ian Bradley 7 on 30/03/2019 14:12:04:

.....the thing that has stopped me buying one is that they are rated at 220volts, will these work on our household system o 240volts ?

It depends upon the quality of the included power electronics.

In the past Europe had a rms mains voltage of 220V and the UK rms voltage was 240V. Some years ago these were harmonised to a rms voltage of 230V. However, that does not mean that the mains voltage in the UK is 230V, it is still nominally 240V. All that the harmonisation did was to increase the tolerance bands so that 220V and 240V fit within the new tolerances based on a nominal 230V. It doesn't mean that either Europe or the UK are necessarily generating 230V.

At the moment my mains voltage here is around 236V. Last week at work when I was testing some mains powered fans it was about 250V.

My US sourced CNC mill requires a nominal 220V. Early on an internal fuse blew and the manufacturer stated that I was running at an over-voltage. Fingers crossed it's been ok since.

Equipment sold within the EU ought to be able to cope with both 220V and 240V plus tolerances.............

Caveat emptor.

Andrew

Gray30/03/2019 16:55:39
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Just to clarify, the declared voltage in the UK is now 230V AC +10% to -6%. Therefore it can be anywhere between 216V and 253V.

This will vary depending on where you are within the distribution network and the loading on the network. I often see voltages at the higher end when working on properties that are close to a pole transformer, sub station or line transformer. It is very rare to see voltages much below 220V

SillyOldDuffer30/03/2019 18:37:50
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The 220V vs 240V thing doesn't worry me much these days. Mini-lathes are fitted with switch-mode power supplies and the component ratings are such that 10% extra volts don't matter much. And because the power supply chops up the input current to make the required output, it doesn't get 10% hotter in the way a filament bulb would.

Quite a few switch mode supplies work over a wide range of voltages: that powering my laptop can be plugged into anything from 100 to 250vac, 50 or 60hz.

I don't recall anyone has ever complained of plugging in a 220V lathe and have it go bang for voltage reasons. In practice most reports of power failure on mini-lathe power are either:

  • poor quality board installed from new (in line with Neil's warning about very cheap machines)
  • swarf getting inside and causing shorts
  • faulty assembly or loose wires.
  • damage due to extended heavy running, crashes, or faulty brushes.

Dave

Bazyle30/03/2019 20:29:26
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Back to lathe selection.
I think it would help people to have a big spreadsheet with loads of the lathe parameters laid out for comparison. To include especially all the almost identical imports showing thoes subtle differences.
Then prospective purchasers could print it out and add the current price, tick off the included/omitted items like steadies and get a better picture of the offerings.

Mick B130/03/2019 20:50:32
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Is it worth commenting on the availability of milling slides for these lathes? I think there are small ones about, and having one can forestall the need to find the price and space for a proper mill, at least for smaller projects.

John Alexander Stewart30/03/2019 21:40:37
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I've wanted a mini-lathe for years, and finally got one, after looking at lots of the far-eastern ones.

I picked up a Sherline lathe.

It is incredible. Well put together, feels like a dream.

A fellow from Rochester, NY built a Kozo "New" Shay on one of these, and his Sherline mill. In less calendar time than it took me to do mine on larger machines, AND he cut the bevel gears himself.

There's also a Cowells, and the Peatol/Taig.

The *only* complaint about the Sherline is that all the fasteners are UNC/UNF, and I'd appreciate metric, but that's a small quibble. I did get metric feed screws.

Are these not mini-lathes as well?

Barrie Lever30/03/2019 22:20:39
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I have visited the Sherline factory, very interesting and the machines are really amazing at how adaptable they are.

Plus a huge range of accesories.

Personally for a mini lathe I have a Unimat 3.

B.

Roderick Jenkins30/03/2019 22:43:38
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Perhaps we need to define our terms. Suppliers in both the UK and USA describe 7x12 and 7x14 lathes as mini lathes. I suggest that Sherline and Taig lathes (and Pultra, Flexispeed and Adept) could be referred to as micro lathes.

Cheers,

Rod

Martin Hamilton 130/03/2019 22:53:04
107 forum posts

Not sure if the Sherline is more a micro lathe, i can echo what has been said about how good the Sherline's are. It certainly punches well & truly above it's weight in my opinion, a lathe this tiny that has 40mm of travel on the tailstock & 100mm travel on the crossslide & 17" between centers with options to raise the center height to 3" if required with additional riser blocks. Good powerfull motors for a lathe this small that run cool with variable speeds from 70 rpm - 2800 rpm, i had been aware of Sherline's for more than 40 years but they never looked that interesting. How wrong i was until i bought a new one a couple of weeks ago along with 3.1" 3 jaw s/c chuck, 3.1" 4 jaw s/c chuck. 3.1" 4 jaw independent chuck, compound slide, fixed steady + various other trinkets. I was amazed at the level of work & accuracy this little lathe is capable of, i can use carbide insert tools & hss & achieve as good as ground finish off the tool on Mild steel, stainless steel, silver steel + brass & aluminium finish is unbelievable. The accuracy on turning parrallel is within .0001" after setting the head stock, the chucks are works of art. My Sherline 4 jaw s/c chuck runs within .001" run out, the lathe is also capable of taking some serious cuts when roughing down with no chatter. The adjustable back lash adjuster on the cross slide is also capable of reducing back lash to .001" - .0015", bearing in mind of course this is a very basic small lathe that has no power feed or powered screw cutting only manual screw cutting with the extra attachment. This lathe suited my needs these days for what i need to make so was ideal for me & am very happy indeed with this purchase.

Michael Gilligan30/03/2019 22:54:16
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Posted by Roderick Jenkins on 30/03/2019 22:43:38:

Perhaps we need to define our terms. Suppliers in both the UK and USA describe 7x12 and 7x14 lathes as mini lathes. I suggest that Sherline and Taig lathes (and Pultra, Flexispeed and Adept) could be referred to as micro lathes.

.

Excellent point, Rod yes

I believe that Pultra actually referred to the 17xx lathes as Micro

... the 1590 of course, is a different matter !!

[ which clearly demonstrates the need to also not generalise by brand name ]

MichaelG.

Neil Wyatt30/03/2019 23:22:33
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Posted by Mick B1 on 30/03/2019 20:50:32:

Is it worth commenting on the availability of milling slides for these lathes? I think there are small ones about, and having one can forestall the need to find the price and space for a proper mill, at least for smaller projects.

Theres a dedicated verticla slide, but aluminium alloy taig/peatol type works well on a mini-lathe, if mounted on a raising block, which can be fitted to the top-slide mounting plate.

Neil

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