Getting Started with Your Mini Lathe

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Getting Started:  Materials, Tools & Supplies    Tool Envy Syndrome (TES)    Receiving & Unpacking    Cleaning   
Optional Cleaning    Bench Mounting     Adjusting    Operating


If you have not already done so, please read the Disclaimer (last updated 10/18/09)


Getting Started

You've heard enough. You're ready to make the leap and get your own minilathe.  Or maybe you already have ordered it and are anxiously watching for the UPS truck each day. This page will give you some things to do while waiting and help you get started when that big box arrives.

If you haven't made the leap yet, and just want to learn about the minilathe, check out the Introduction, Capabilities and Features pages.


Materials, Tools and Supplies

If  you have not already done so, there are certain materials, tools and supplies that you need to get on order right away so that you'll have them on hand when the minilathe arrives.  Here's a list:

For cleanup and setup:

For your first projects:

Of course there are many other accessories that you will want as you gain experience.  Here are some that I recommend that you get as soon as you can afford them:


Tool Envy Syndrome (TES)

Tool Envy Syndrome (TES) is a serious condition that afflicts, in varying degrees, nearly all men who are interested in mechanical things. It is very important to recognize and deal with this condition before it becomes serious; left untreated it can lead to a far more serious condition: Inflammation of the Credit Card (ICC). TES is known to strike under the following circumstances:

  • Browsing the latest tool catalogs or sale flyers
  • Visiting stores such as Grizzly or Harbor Freight (Warning: while much less so than in earlier years, the tool department at Sears can still trigger small attacks)
  • Visiting the shop of a friend who has more and/or better tools than you have
  • Surfing the web site of  someone with a well-equipped shop
  • Seeing a well-equipped shop in magazines such as Home Shop Machinist

Tool Envy Syndrome tends to strike young men particularly hard, due its close relationship to a similar condition: Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). Over time, in most men, both of these conditions tend to lessen in severity. In fact, it can be shown that gradual accumulation of tools and gear over a period of years can control both conditions while minimizing the risk of Inflammation of the the Credit Card (this is known as the Mature Phase). It has also been widely observed that getting married and having children can moderate the risk; primarily, it is believed, due to counseling from a loving wife and the sobering effect of having lots more bills to pay.

Tool Envy Syndrome cannot be controlled by any known drugs (although its effects can be exaggerated by the use of alcohol). Therefore, treatment is currently limited primarily to counseling methods. The first step is admitting that you have a problem. Here are some additonal pointers:

  • Avoid situations that are likely to cause an attack
  • When visiting tool stores, leave your credit card at home (Warning: in severely afflicted individuals this can trigger emotional breakdown, fits of crying and other irrational behavior)
  • Meditate on the fine collection of tools that you already have; recognize that time will make it better
  • Find a quiet place. Visualize your ideal shop. Repeat to yourself "It is coming"

I hope you have found this information to be helpful. As a TES/GAS sufferer myself (now in the Mature Phase) I felt compelled to pass it on to you.


Receiving and Unpacking the Lathe

Usually your minilathe will be delivered by UPS. Depending on the details of delivery in your neighborhood, the big box will most likely be left on your doorstep. The box weighs about 90lbs., so you will need a hand truck, wagon, or a strong friend to help you move the lathe into your shop. Fortunately, my shop is in my garage (update 10/04- not any more), so it was a short haul up the driveway into the shop, which was accomplished quite easily with the help of a cheap luggage cart.

On_cart.jpg (62886 bytes)

A great advantage of the mini-lathe is that, once unpacked, it can easily be moved by one person. Larger lathes generally require a fork-lift, shop crane or some other means, plus 2-3 people to move them. The following photos illustrate proper and improper technique for moving heavy objects.

forklift2=.jpg (41504 bytes) Proper technique

forklift1=.jpg (36201 bytes) Improper technique! Yes, it is a bomb!

The minilathes are now (08/03) shipped in a cardboard box with a styrofoam inner shell. Although this does a good job of protecting the lathe, it is not unusual for the chip tray to get bent. This is really not a big deal, though and will not affect the operation of the lathe (in fact, I use a piece of painted MDF under my lathe and don't use the chip tray at all)

When you open the box, it looks like this:

styro1.jpg (29298 bytes)

The large round object is the faceplate covered with red packing grease and wrapped in plastic. It had migrated from the molded slot in the styrofoam to the left, but this did not cause any problems. Other accessories are tucked in molded slots. 

Removing the top layer of the styrofoam packing reveals (drum roll...) the lathe.

lathe_in_box.jpg (39533 bytes)

Like the faceplate, the lathe is covered in red grease and wrapped in plastic. Removing the plastic sheet gives a better view of the lathe and grease.

lathe_grease.jpg (38943 bytes)

Here's a picture showing the damaged corner of the chip tray:

damage.jpg (33912 bytes)


Cleaning up the Lathe

Kerosene is my preferred solvent for cleaning up the red gunk that covers the lathe. It does a great job of dissolving the stuff and is fairly safe to work with indoors. WD-40 in gallon cans is also a good choice.  A little goes a long way and a quart is probably more than enough to clean up the lathe. It's best to work with it in a well ventilated area and avoid sparks or flame including possible sparks from nearby motors (such as when testing the lathe!) or pilot lights from furnaces, etc. 

Cleanup is easier if the lathe is on a bench so that you don't have to bend over or sit on the floor. Lay down some newspapers or cardboard under the lathe to catch all the drips and spills. If you don't plan to keep it, the box from the lathe is a ready source of cardboard.

cleanup0.jpg (42020 bytes)

I pour about a pint of solvent into a plastic pail and clean small parts right in the pail. I use 2" or 3" 'chip brushes' dipped in the pail to paint kerosene onto the larger lathe parts such as the bed and the chuck and then use rags to wipe of the red grease and kerosene.

cleanup1.jpg (39308 bytes)

I used some old business cards to scrape off the thick layer of grease before going at it with the kerosene.

bizcard.jpg (36155 bytes)

Use a card, brush and rag to clean off most of the grease from the chuck. To thoroughly clean the chuck, remove it from the spindle and use a brush to clean it up in the kerosene bucket. The retaining nuts on my chuck were very tight, so I inserted the chuck key and grasped it tightly to keep the chuck from rotating while I applied pressure to loosen the chuck retaining nuts.

chuck_wrench.jpg (41138 bytes)

When removing the chuck nuts, be sure to keep your other hand in place under the chuck so that the chuck does not drop onto the ways and ding them. Unlike some expensive lathes, the ways on this one are not hardened. Some owners place a rag, board or piece of corrugated cardboard on the ways to protect them when removing the chuck.

chuck_remove.jpg (40731 bytes)

You will want to clean up the scroll and inner parts of the chuck, and this requires removing the chuck jaws.  Note that the jaws must be reinstalled in a specific sequence. When you remove them for the first time, lay them out on your workbench next to the slot they came from.  Now note that each jaw is numbered - 1, 2, 3. Although not essential, it's a good idea mark the slots so that you always reinsert each jaw into the same slot it came in from the factory.  This will ensure consistency. I use a center punch to punch 1, 2, and 3 dots next to the slots.

Use a 4mm hex wrench to remove the two cap screws that hold the gear train cover in place. Then lift the cover off to expose the gear train for cleaning.

gear_cover.jpg (39641 bytes) gear_train.jpg (53426 bytes)

Clean up the gear train using a brush and rag.  To do a more thorough job you can remove the gears and clean them up with the brush in the kerosene bucket.   After reassembling, apply a light coat of white lithium grease to the gear teeth.   This will keep them running smoothly and will make them quieter when using the power feed.


Optional Cleaning

The following step is optional at this time, especially if you are anxious to try out the lathe in action, but  to do a thorough cleanup job, I recommend removing the saddle from the bed.  First, remove the pillow block from the end of the leadscrew using a 6mm hex wrench:

pillow_block.jpg (31335 bytes)

Then use the handwheel to move the carriage to the right until it runs off the end of the rack. Grasp the carriage firmly and slide it off the end of the bed - be careful, it's pretty heavy. Note: a common problem that you may run into when trying to remove the carriage is that the serial number, stamped into the end of the ways, causes an area of raised metal that prevents the carriage from sliding freely off the end of the ways. Use a small sharpening stone or file to smooth down these numbers and you'll be on your way.

remove_carriage.jpg (42690 bytes)

Now you can get better access to the leadscrew to clean the gunk from the screw threads:

leadscrew.jpg (47155 bytes)

This will also enable you to clean up the underside of the carriage assembly:

carriage.jpg (40597 bytes)

If you want to do a really thorough job, this is a good time to take apart the compound and cross slide, clean them thoroughly, lube them with white lithium grease and adjust the gibs.  Or you can leave this task for another day.  But here are the steps to follow:

Crank the compound slide all the way back until you feel it disengage from the compound lead screw, then slide it by hand off the end of the dovetail. Watch out for the sharp edges of the dovetail - they can slice your fingers!

compound.jpg (41375 bytes)

Watch out for the gib strips - they are held in place by the dovetail and can fall out once the slide is removed. If they fall out, just put them pack in position with the small indentations matching the tips of the adjustment screws and hold them in place as you slide the slide back onto the dovetail.

gib_strip.jpg (29073 bytes)

Now you can access the two 6mm hex head bolts that hold lock the cross slide at a specific angle. Remove these two screws and lift the compound slide off of the cross slide.

compound_screws.jpg (42830 bytes)  cross_slide.jpg (39647 bytes)

Now turn the cross-slide handle until the cross-slide disengages from the leadscrew, then slide it by hand the rest of the way off of the dovetails.

cross_slide2.jpg (42819 bytes)  cross_slide3.jpg (36972 bytes)

Use a brush, rag and kerosene to clean up all of these parts

cross_slide4.jpg (35181 bytes)

Now apply a liberal coating of white lithium grease (available in small tubes at Sears hardware department) to the dovetails and leadscrews. Update: I now use 10-30 oil instead of white lithium grease on most of the moving surfaces.  The grease is fine, but tends to trap chips more than the oil. Plus the oil is easier to find when you need it.

lithium.jpg (32063 bytes) lithium2.jpg (37410 bytes)

Reassembly is just a reversal of the above steps. When you reinstall the carriage on the ways, make sure that the pinion gear is pushed towards the front of the apron or it will hang up on the end of the ways and prevent the carriage from sliding back in place.  Slide the carriage to the left until you feel the rack and pinion engage.   Then reinstall the pillow block on the end of the leadscrew and you're ready to go.


Bench Mounting

Unless you have a need to move your lathe frequently, I highly recommend bolting it down to a sturdy workbench. This will keep it from wandering around during heavy cuts or when you really need to whang down on the chuck key. I believe it also helps to reduce chatter by making the whole setup more rigid. A bench with drawers is ideal, the more drawers the better.

I got my 5-drawer workbench from Sears for around $110 on sale and augmented it with a pre-fab Formica counter top from Home Depot and some casters so I can move it when needed. I reinforced the legs with 2x3s to handle the casters.  A bench with built-in casters would be a better choice if you need to move it around much.   My shop is pretty small and I need to be able to move the lathe bench to get access to storage shelves behind it.

I mounted my lathe by cutting holes for the rubber feet in a piece of 1/2" MDF, retapping the bolt holes 1/4-20 and then bolting the lathe and MDF to my lathe bench.   The MDF fills in the space under the lathe which I found, through many frustrating incidents, is a perfect hiding place for taps, drills and other small parts that you critically need for the next step of your work. If you elect to do this, use the chip tray as a template for the mounting hole locations.

base_holes.jpg (26289 bytes) base_feet.jpg (23916 bytes)

Retaining the rubber feet may help to keep the bed from being twisted slightly if the top of your bench (or the bottom of the lathe) is not perfectly aligned.  I think it may also help reduce vibration and noise a little.  That's my 2 on that subject - and worth every penny!


Adjusting Your Mini Lathe

After you get everything cleaned up and reassembled, you may need to make some basic adjustments. Since 2001, the lathes that I have seen have been pretty well adjusted and ready to go out of the box, but as it wears in you will need to make adjustments from time to time. Since these techniques are covered elsewhere, I'll just provide you with the links.

Check out the Adjustments Page for additional adjustments you may need to make


Operating Your Mini Lathe

Now you're ready to get down down to work. But first, you will need to grind some cutting tools. Tool grinding can be a real art but it's really quite easy to grind a few basic tools that will meet most of your needs starting out. Once you get the hang of it, you will find yourself grinding tools to meet special needs.

One thing that I find to be a real pain in the neck, is using shims to adjust the tip of the cutting tool to be even with the centerline of the lathe. For that reason, a quick change tool post is a great investment when you can afford one. Meanwhile, shims can be made from any thin piece of metal that will fit conveniently under the cutting tool.  One good option is to disassemble a set of leaf-type automotive feeler gages. Select one or more leaves of the proper thickness to line the tip of the tool up with the point of the center in the tailstock.

32 PC. SAE/METRIC FEELER GAUGE tool_height_.jpg (18550 bytes)

Now you are ready to learn and practice a few basic lathe operations.  6061 aluminum bar stock is a good material to practice on as it is low cost and easy to machine.  You will find instructions on the basic lathe operations in the links below. Take your time, be safe and have fun!

LittleMachineShop.com is a great source of accessories and replacement parts for your mini lathe. Chris Wood, the proprietor of LMS, is a minilathe hobbyist himself, and actively participates in several of the online interest groups. LMS can be counted on for quick and courteous service. LMS has put together a very useful manual on the minilathe which you can download as a PDF file.

Another great source of training information is Jose Rodriguez's instructional tapes and DVD's. Jose was one of the first to promote the potential of the minilathe and he is a wonderful instructor. His lessons have an informal, homey feel, and are filled with useful information. I have watched mine several times and pick up a few more pointers each time I watch.


Mini-Lathe    Mini-Mill    Bandsaw   Grinder  Anodizing   Lapping    Links   Projects   Safety     Premium Content

Mini-lathe:  Accessories   Adjustments   Capabilities    Chucks    Dial Indicators   Features   Getting Started   Glossary     Introduction   Materials    Modifications   My Shop   Operation    Reviews    Sieg Factory    Tool Grinding    Troubleshooting   Tuning     Versions