If you're like me, then you probably have a tool wish-list as long as your arm. You might even be spending a little too much time at Frank Hoose's Mini-lathe site. If you also have a stack of tool catalogs somewhere in the house, with dog-eared pages marking out your future purchases, then you are indeed a lost cause!
The very first tool purchase is kind of important though isn't it? It's the first big splash of cash, and because of its dominance in the shop, that first major tool will almost certainly be a lathe. You want one bad, but you don't want to blow you're hard earned on a piece of junk. There are so many to choose from, and you've heard so many bad stories about all of them.
It's the question that vexed me for quite some time too, before I finally made a choice. It's also the most popular question in my inbox at the moment, so I thought it was about time I put together a more structured response. I'm also going to share with you what I think I might have done differently regarding my purchases, now that I know a little more.
By the way these are not recommendations or endorsements, it's just what I think and have learned through personal experience. No-one is paying me to suggest these products, it's just my personal opinion.
Also I'm deliberately excluding the good quality "old iron" like second hand Myfords and South Bends etc from the discussion. Such machines are simply not available at a reasonable price in my part of the world, and I therefore have no experience to share.
I also think that many of you will be in the same position as me in terms of limited purchase options, so being told to simply get a good second hand Atlas or South Bend lathe is not really helpful advice.
Naturally you can only spend what you have, but the good news is that most of the entry level lathes are quite affordable. The Sieg range starts at approximately the USD$600 mark, and the Sherline is similarly priced. The **Weiss rebrands (Optimum, Warco etc) are a little more expensive, and I wish I could give you more information on those because to be honest I get the feeling that the build quality is a little better than Sieg. But it could just be me falling for the glossy pictures. If you own a rebranded Weiss, let me know. (**Update Jan 2017 - I have pulled the trigger on one of these Weiss re-brands - will let you know all about it when it arrives)
Now for that sort of money you get a whole lot of tool, but as you are no doubt already aware, you often get a whole bunch of flaws too. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, so go and check that out if you have time, but the upshot is this: They have a lot of weak points, but it's not such a bad thing for a new machinist.
Interestingly, spending more money does not necessarily equate to less flaws. My SC4 is not the entry level mini-lathe, and cost me about 3 times the Sherline, yet it's tailstock requires so much effort to align, that I go to the Sherline every time for really accurate work on small parts. However the SC4 takes beautiful smooth cuts, and its longer bed and power cross-feed is just wonderful.
Of course the budget also needs to extend to all of the tooling you'll need to do something useful, like tailstock accessories, cutting tools and perhaps a quick change tool post, so keep that in mind. Over time, you will easily spend the same amount on tooling, as you did on the lathe itself.
For many people, this is a non-issue, but for me it was a major decision factor. I work in a space that is basically a large cupboard, so I really couldn't contemplate anything larger than a 9x20 (and that was pushing it actually). So mark out your space, get some detail on the footprint of each of the options you are considering, and then reduce the list accordingly.
Be sure to also consider the space required to access the change gears, and perhaps have some longer stock running out of the headstock. The change gear covers usually require a bit of space to swing open, and it will really annoy you if you can't accommodate longer raw stock when you need to.
I love that I can store my little Sherline in a small cupboard, and just pull it out when I need it. I also love that I can slide my SC4 around to different positions in the shop, when the mood takes me. This is only possible with small benchtop models.
Isn't bigger better? Yes it is in some respects. But once you've decided on the upper limit that you can accomodate based on the available space, I think the choice becomes more influenced by what you intend to make.
What Are You Going To Make?
This is really the heart of the matter. What size parts do you see yourself making? In my opinion, the scale of the machine should match the scale of the parts you will be making.
I didn't really appreciate this fully until I bought the Sherline.
I had been making everything on the SC4, and it wasn't until I started using the Sherline for the parts below 5mm that I realised how light and sensitive a small lathe could be. I also learned how important that was to the result. You can certainly make small parts on a larger lathe, but the feel through the hand-wheels on a small lathe is so much lighter, and delicate. It really does influence the way you make the cuts, and I find I do a better job.
Equally true is the fact that there is a limit to how large you can make something on any given lathe, if only because of the limit of the swing or bed length.
The SC4 is perfect for making clock parts. I rarely hit a limitation based on the size of the machine. I have on occasion needed extra bed swing, but it is rare - cutting the teeth for the large Wheel Skeleton Clock is the only example that comes to mind.
The point I really want to make here is that whilst you want to give yourself a nice range at the upper end of the machines capabilities, and it's tempting to just go for the biggest lathe you can afford, small parts really are easier to make on a smaller machine.
By the way, I also have a cheap 9x20 that I picked up from a retired clockmaker. The quality on that one is a little patchy, so I really only keep it as a second operation lathe, and for items that need the extra bed swing.
Something else to consider:
Gear Head or Pulley Drive?
I have to admit I hadn't even considered this when I first purchased the SC4. It wasn't until I noticed a slight shimmer to the finish on my facing cuts that I learned about the benefits of a pulley drive lathe. What I was seeing was a micron level radial "wave" pattern on larger diameter facing cuts, being generated by the gear noise travelling down the spindle. The impact of each tooth meshing with its counterpart was actually printing on the work.
It's a common enough phenomenon to have been reported in even the best quality gear driven lathes, so it's not fair to blame the SC4 just because it's cheap, but it certainly did trouble me for a while before I figured out what it was.
Is it a problem? not really. Once I satisfied myself that it was just a fact of life of gear driven lathes, and not a faulty spindle, I just moved on.
But a pulley driven lathe doesn't exhibit this behaviour, and is much quieter when running, so keep it in mind.
So what would I do differently If I could?
First thing to say is that I am glad I pulled the trigger and just got myself the first lathe (an Sieg SC4). The time I could have spent further agonizing over which one to buy was much better spent machining, making mistakes and learning.
I think it's a great lathe, and is perfect for the scale of work that I do. But I must admit to recently being tempted to consider the pulley driven 9x20 Weiss with the power cross feed. It is similarly priced, and looks to have a slightly better build quality. If I had known about Weiss at the time I was selecting a lathe, I might have been swayed in that direction. However at the time I was setting up my shop, the Sieg brand was far more prevalent in my part of the world, and I just didn't know about it.
The only real issue I have with the SC4 is the tailstock - If I could confirm that the Weiss 9x20 tailstock will hold center more precisely than the SC4, I would probably let both the SC4 and the green 9x20 go, and replace it with that. In all likelihood though, it's made to the same standard, so I'm not really sweating it.
The Sherline is for me, irreplaceable. For the price it is an unbelievable little machine, and I wouldn't hesitate to buy one if I was doing it all over again. Unlike most of the products I have mentioned in this post, it is made in the USA, and I think it shows.
So which lathe should you buy? My suggestion is this: Filter through the options mentioned above, but don't put off the decision for too long. Just make a choice, and run with it. Even if it's not a keeper, you will learn an enormous amount, and have a heap of fun making something, until you settle on your long term beauty.
Thanks for dropping by,