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Mini Lathe

So, I'm still a bit light on recent projects, but I've realised that I'm kind of over-focussing on only posting about fairly completed projects, while (as I've previously discussed), because I tend to jump around from project to project most of what I work on is actually in various states of partial completion. So I've decided to ease up a bit and post about some things that don't have a finished end product yet (and may not for some time).

I picked up this mini lathe in July of last year for the ridiculous price of £54. You can actually get them even cheaper but this one at least had a few positive reviews. It's one of those designs that's been mostly standardised by a hundred Chinese workshops and has thus become very cheap.

The business end is basically just a drill motor mounted in a perspex box, while tailstock support (holding the other end of the workpiece to stop it wiggling around) is provided by a little metal cone mounted on a bearing.

The whole thing is mounted on a chunk of aluminum rail (t-slot, I think?). This allows the support to move up and down to adjust to different lengths of wood. The build quality is actually decent with relatively little wiggle or rattle to the bits as long as you have the workpiece well fixed in place and evened out.

It came with a set of these "chisels" (I believe this is supposed to be a roughing gouge) which I can only describe as "hilariously pants". Even with some sharpening all they can really do is dig random chunks out of the wood.

I was rather shocked to discover that, being a relatively uncommon tool, a half-decent set of miniature turning chisels could easily cost more than my lathe. But I set an Ebay alert, put the lathe aside for a month or so and eventually this set came up second-hand for £33 shipped. They're Ashley Iles which is apparently a good brand, and they are really nice tools with a nice feel to them.

I'm learning to sharpen them myself, using the freehand method (rather than using a jig to hold them at the right angle) - there's a good video on the technique here.

My technique still needs a lot of work - I often get weird angles I have to go back and fix, and you can see on the parting tool the colour change around the tip where I've let it overheat - this will make the metal brittle so it'll lose the edge faster or chip easily. I've had to resign myself to the fact that this set will probably be a bit shorter by the time I get decent at sharpening. But I can get them to where they cut decently well.

I ordered a few of these dowels from a specialist timber company - large and small diameter in ash, oak, cherry and black walnut, to see what worked; all told they came to less than £15. The oak and cherry seem to be the best so far.

Wands make great practice pieces because you can try out all sorts of different shapes, convex and concave curves and cuts.

This one snapped off at the end where I didn't leave enough material around the screw that was holding it in place in the jaws of the lathe.

The major inconvenience with this lathe is securing it in place. There's not enough room on the rail to clamp it down when you're working on a longer dowel, and I mostly end up getting a half inch of grip on it with a clamp or pushing metal rods through it end to end then clamping them down. Either way it vibrates a lot and steadily works loose.

To fix it, I've cut these pieces of MDF to length and I'm fashioning them into a frame which screws to the lathe on either side and will then bolt down to the bench via the 10mm bolt holes I drilled for my vice.

Although I'm only slowly approaching the skill I need for the main project I have in mind with the lathe, this little tool is enormously fun to use. I've always found lathes very satisfying - the speed with which you can shape something beautiful, tactile and smooth. When I was a kid, a friend of the family used to build and operate bow-style medieval lathes which used a springy sapling trunk and a piece of twine to spin the workpiece around, and ever since then I've dreamed of owning one.

While this is a small and cheap version, it's a great learning tool and I'm looking forward to developing my skill and starting to turn out some of the more finished pieces I have in mind, and hopefully upgrading to a more serious beast in the next year or two.

See you soon!


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