Buying a lathe | Making Stuff: Part 4

By Tom Suddard
Aug 8, 2022 | Shop Work, Lathe, Making stuff | Posted in Shop Work , Restoration & Renovation , Features | Never miss an article

Photography by Tom Suddard

Four installments in, and we’ve come a very long way from our old ways of making stuff. Gone are the angle grinder and Sharpie, replaced by computer-aided design, 3D-printed prototypes and CNC-machined aluminum

If you’re like us, you’re probably shocked at how much we’ve accomplished with such a minimal investment. We’ve done everything to date with a total budget of about $400 and two small squares of bench space. 

But we want more, so it’s time to up the stakes and play with real materials and real machines. Let’s get started. 

Let’s Talk Money

If you’re financially squeamish, this might not be the right story for you. We’ll finish out this series by significantly increasing our investment of space, time and money, but we’ll also significantly increase our capabilities. We’ll cover our purchase of a lathe in this installment, then talk about our Bridgeport vertical knee mill next time. 

These are real tools that cost real money, and you’ll need to budget a few thousand dollars to follow along at home. On the bright side, you can accumulate these machines and tools gradually, and if you buy right, they’ll actually appreciate in value as you build parts. 

Why a Lathe?

Lathes and mills may look different, but they’re remarkably similar. The lathe spins the work while holding the tool steady, while the mill spins the tool while holding the work steady. 

Seriously, that’s all there is to defining the genres. We’d call them complementary tools, and every well-equipped machine shop has both. If you can only have one, though, we recommend starting with a lathe. 

The basic layout of a lathe is simple: There’s a bed with ways, on which the carriage slides back and forth. One end has the head stock assembly and spindle, which holds the spinning part, while the other end has a moveable tailstock, which holds the drill chucks, centers and more. To build parts, metal is put into the chuck mounted on the spindle, then tools are attached to the carriage and used to cut the metal. 

What can you build with a lathe? “Round things” is the standard answer, but part of being a machinist is figuring out how to use the tools at hand to solve the problem–even if that means using the tools to make new tools. 

Rule number one: There are no rules. As long as you don’t do something unsafe, just about any combination of tool, setup, machine and technique is fair game if the result is the part you were hoping to create. 

A skilled operator can use a lathe to make bushings, spacers, shafts, hubs and more. Basically, if a part can be drawn with cones, spheres and cylinders, you can probably make it on a lathe. 

And that’s before you get creative. With the proper attachments, you can also use a lathe for light millwork, like cutting a keyway or milling a slot, or for some more specialized techniques, like winding your own springs. 

We’ll explain it this way: Some tools are obviously designed to do one thing out of the box incredibly well, like a balljoint press or an inner tie-rod removal kit. Other tools, like a vise, don’t have any obvious purpose or project out of the box, but over time you wonder how you could ever live without one on your bench. 

Lathes fall firmly into the latter category. Drag one home and you’ll soon realize why every great shop has a lathe in the corner. 

How to Buy a Lathe

“I think I’m going to bid on a mill at this furniture auction.” 

That was how we opened our phone call to Steve Eckerich, lifelong friend, machinist and advisor when it comes to our every tool purchase. His response was a sigh, an explanation of how to evaluate a used mill, and then a simple statement: “If I could only keep one tool in my entire shop, it would be my lathe. Are you sure you want to start with a mill?”

Damn right we were. After all, buying that crappy mill from the back corner of an off-brand couch auction would open up a whole new world of building parts, and we couldn’t wait to bid it up to the top of our budget–just $300.

We watched the bidding unfold: $50, $100, $150, $200, $250, $300 and…. 

Nowhere near sold. That tiny off-brand bench mill sold for more than twice the cash in our pocket, and a smirking old man opposite us in the crowd became its new owner. 

The group walked over to the next lot, a lathe that looked like something you’d buy out of a Sears catalog at the train depot, and the bidding began: $50, $100, $150, $200…SOLD. 

Shockingly, we were holding the winning paddle. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was divine intervention, or maybe Steve Eckerich really is that powerful. We’d just bought our first lathe. 

Meet Our First Lathe

What does $200 buy in the used lathe market? If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll get a 1938 Craftsman 6-inch lathe, also sold under the Atlas brand name. We also received a few buckets of random tooling, some extra chucks, milling and taper attachments, and a stand to put it all on. 

If that read like Greek to you: same. 

Our Craftsman lathe was serviceable, but ultimately too small for our needs. 

We had no idea what we’d purchased, but over the next few years we slowly learned the ropes of maintaining and running a lathe. We learned that 6-inch refers to the maximum diameter of work that can be turned. We learned that our lathe’s antique “lantern” tool post was frustrating and slow when changing tools. 

But we used it. There are parts made on that Craftsman on our LS-swapped 350Z and our Isuzu Trooper. Thanks to YouTube videos, we were able to learn how to run a lathe effectively, even when cutting tough metals like stainless steel.

But we also learned that, above all else, our lathe was just too small for what we wanted to do.

After giving the little Craftsman a bath, a tune-up and a modern quick-change tool post, we sold it to a friend for $500. We credit the pandemic for most of our lathe’s appreciation, but this is also a great example of how well these sorts of tools hold their value.

Building a Lathe Shopping List

Our first lathe wasn’t great, but it was a great learning exercise. We kept a wish list every time we used it for a project, culminating in the following:

  1. Rigidity: This is the primary differentiator between a good machine tool and a bad one–same as how, when it comes to engines, there’s no replacement for displacement. Two strong people could pick up our Craftsman lathe, which was great for relocating but bad for staying rigid while cutting metal. We wanted our next lathe to be a giant hunk of metal that would allow deeper cuts. 
  2. Power: A rigid machine that can take deep cuts is pointless if those cuts stall the motor, so we needed more horsepower from our next lathe. 
  3. Gears: We wanted a quick-change gearbox, which allows the gear ratio between the spindle and the leadscrew to be changed quickly for threading operations. Changing the thread pitch on our Craftsman required replacing gears on the back of the lathe, called change gears, to vary the ratio. We wanted to simply pull a lever when cutting threads. 
  4. Work Envelope: Six inches just wasn’t enough to get the job done. We wanted to be able to cut larger-diameter parts. More importantly, we wanted a larger-diameter through hole in our spindle; that way we’d be able to insert axle shafts in the chuck without having 3 feet of stickout. 

Buying a Better Lathe

Wishlist in hand, we cruised Facebook Marketplace for a few months until we stumbled across our next lathe: a rusty JET 1236PS on a homebuilt stand. The asking price was just north of $1000, and its location was less than 45 minutes from home. After talking the seller down to $700, we loaded up our newest acquisition with the help of the seller’s old tow truck and headed home.

Start buying real tools, and you’ll need a real plan to drag them home. Ours involved a tow truck, flatbed trailer, engine hoist and car skates. 

What exactly is a JET 1236PS? This imported machine is about 40 years old and definitely one solid step up from the Craftsman. It’s about the best machine we could reasonably fit into our garage and budget. It weighs about 800 pounds and has a 12-inch capacity with a 36-inch-long bed–hence the 1236 in its name. It also has the other niceties on our wish list: a quick-change gearbox, a much bigger motor and a quick-change tool post.

We spent a week or so getting our the JET ready for action, which meant a thorough wipe-down with ATF, replacing the seals around the spindle, and rewiring the motor to plug into a 220V outlet. Along the way, we got to take an intimate look at our new lathe’s condition and realized it was in great shape–we’d rolled the dice and gotten lucky. Finally, we had a real lathe in the garage. 

Meet our newest tool, this JET 1236PS. For just $700, it wasn’t perfect but didn’t have any major flaws. We cleaned it up, fixed the wiring, replaced a few seals and started making parts. 

But we soon realized that, just like pet guinea pigs, pet lathes are happier with a buddy. In our quest to build the best parts possible, we’ll find a milling machine companion for our lathe in the next installment and take our home machine shop to the next level.

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View comments on the GRM forums
f1carguy New Reader
6/13/22 1:19 p.m.

What is the street address of the lathe? I need some parts made!

CrustyRedXpress GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
6/13/22 1:29 p.m.

I have no idea if this series is popular or compelling to advertisers but it's probably been one of my favorites in a long time.

There is lots of great content about lathes or 3d printing all over the web, but this the first and only where the focus is fabrication for cars and at the DIY level, and that makes all the difference in the world.

jimgood Reader
6/13/22 1:42 p.m.

I could have used a lathe a few weeks ago when all I wanted was to face off an 1/8" from a chunk of round bar for a spacer. Instead I paid a local machinist to do it.  $$$

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
6/13/22 4:38 p.m.
f1carguy said:

What is the street address of the lathe? I need some parts made!

Hah! I've already learned how many people will line up for favors once you start dragging home machinery. I need to find more free time. 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
6/13/22 4:41 p.m.
CrustyRedXpress said:

I have no idea if this series is popular or compelling to advertisers but it's probably been one of my favorites in a long time.

There is lots of great content about lathes or 3d printing all over the web, but this the first and only where the focus is fabrication for cars and at the DIY level, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying it! 

I'm not sure if any advertisers care, either, but that's one of the things I like about this place. We do interesting stuff, then write about it, and while we do have to stay in business, not everything needs to have a focus group and a sponsor before we give it the green light. 

That said, if anybody owns a company that makes small CNC mills and is looking for people to sponsor....

f1carguy New Reader
6/13/22 5:26 p.m.

Local independent machine shops are just about gone. Central Florida and the rest of the US depend on military contracts and the shops will not even talk to you if can't spent $1000 - $5000+.

This goes for non- mil spec printed circuit boards as well. Anything consumer grade is impossible to get built in the US and small companies are forced to go overseas where the likelihood of getting your design ripped off is very high.

The US has plenty of college grads but is totally lacking in tradesmen and tradeswomen! 

Even with great contacts - I could not get a local shop to even give me a quote for my small sheet metal boxes. I found a shop near Atlanta that laser cut some but I had to bend them myself!

Even startup companies at the Embry-Riddle business park have the same problem. Prototype and small runs are impossible to source.

I HATE to send my business overseas!     

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
6/13/22 5:38 p.m.

In reply to f1carguy :

Shoot me an email at tom@ this website with some details on what you're building and how many of them you need. I might be able to point you in the right direction. 

Slippery GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
6/13/22 6:19 p.m.

In reply to f1carguy :

I can point you to a couple of excellent sheet metal/machine shops in south Florida that do excellent work. 

Dogboy New Reader
6/13/22 8:34 p.m.

Jet is a good brand. I got myself a 920 a few years ago.

Matched with my small Bench Made mill.

Great fun if you are safety conscious, no loose clothes/hair/jewelry.


Randy_Forbes New Reader
6/14/22 10:32 a.m.

I too have been following, and love this series, good job!  

I told my wife that I wanted a mill and a lathe when I grow up; in large part thanks to her, I now have both (Jet 9x20 & Rong Fu benchtop).  However, she's still waiting on me to grow up...

Armed with both, plus assorted welding & cutting machines, there are practically NO OBSTACLES that you can't overcome during a project.  Come across some fastener you can't access, and twenty minutes later you've made (or modified) a tool to do the job.  Break some obscure part at 5:00 PM on a Friday (the oil jet nozzle on a Vortech centrifugal supercharger comes to mind) and while taking longer than the aforementioned 20-minutes, you're back in business well before you could even order one, much less receive it!

I was also able to tailor the replacement to better fit the application, by making it a bit taller to clear the compressor volute, reducing strain on the oil supply line.

Definitely look for good bargains on the machine tools (though nearly all of mine were bought new) as you'll be spending a lot more on the various end-mills, lathe-bits and accessories than you expected.  I buy solid carbide in most cases, and in the beginning, you're going to crash a lot of bits, so buying the Chinese import "sets" is highly recommended.  I still look for "sale"" and "clearance items" from supply houses like MSC (my "go to" supplier) Enco, and Travers Tool.  Once you get on their mailing lists, they'll send you a sales flyer about once a month, and you'll be able to build up your selection as budget allows.

Now go make some chips!

h2000wt New Reader
6/14/22 11:25 a.m.

Note on the cheap china made bench top lathes.  Some really are not too bad.  I needed something better than my 20 year old Harbor Freight lathe mill combo so I began by looking around for a nice used lathe like in the article.  I kept missing them or the prices were too close to the cost new.  I found a good one new with great reviews and price but it was out of stock and months away.  So I bought a cheap 8 x 22 for about $1300 with shipping.  It does pretty well and will serve for about 90% of my lathe needs.  Lots of info on line about how to make this version more accurate and frankly, the things you do are pretty much what you need to do for any lathe you buy and move to your shop. And that one I wanted?  In stock now but double the price.  I may eventually get a nicer lathe used but for now, this cheap one is doing fine.  

You do need a decent mill though.  Lots of things you can do with that.  And yes, the lathe and mill do compliment each other but the true uses are often very different.  To use a trite little expression, it takes two to tango.  I lucked into a lightly used square column NC brand one with lots of extras.  It seems like mill are easier to find than the lathes. 


jimbbski SuperDork
6/14/22 12:57 p.m.

I've been doing home machining with my Logan lathe for over 20 years.  I do help out fellow racers when I can by making parts or modifying some.

I don't what I have in my set up since I've added to it over the years with mics. tooling, etc.

I know that I will keep it until I can no longer run it.



snowrx New Reader
7/24/22 5:35 p.m.

I love my 16"x31" mill/drill combo, which I got from Harbor Freight back when they would truck ship you a 700# tool for free. I think Grizzly now sells it as a G9729.  It's not a precision machine, but it fits in my cramped garage, which a "real" lathe or mill would not, much less both. I threw on a 8" chuck to handle larger pieces, which adds quite a bit of flywheel effect to assist the marginal motor.


kb58 SuperDork
7/24/22 7:05 p.m.

I first bought a used 13x36 Grizzly lathe in the late 1990s that proved indispensable when building Kimini, my mid-engine "Mini." Later I wanted something more robust and capable, both to help out with Midlana, my mid-engine "Lotus 7", but also for use in retirement. I sold the Grizzly for $1200, the same price that I'd paid for it 21 years before. After a lot of research and searching, I found a used 14x30 Webb/Takisawa TSL-800 located very close to home. The trick is finding a machine shop that's closing or moving, and this was the last of their manual lathes, with them moving on to CNC equipment. I ended up paying $1500 for it, and while thrilled to have a real lathe, was the realization that real lathes are really heavy, around 2,500 lbs or so, and getting it home was an education.

The first heavy equipment mover wanted $800 to move it three miles - um, no. Then I realized that since the shop was moving, they were already using an equipment mover. I talked to them and they agreed to move it to my garage for $300. Done.  Later I learned about renting heavy equipment trailers;  they're great because they're both heavy duty and because the bed lowers down to ground level, something that's a requirement when moving such heavy stuff.

Once it was in the garage, the big clean-up began, and in addition to being really dirty, it also had a coolant sump and pump. To clean out the sump, which had apparently never happened in its 39-yr life was... well... imagine being handed gloves and paper towels and told to clean out a PortaPotty. Yes, that's what it was like, and the grossest thing of all was when reaching in and grabbing the next "load", the consistency of the stuff was exactly like what you're imagining. I would actually  look the other way because my imagination was doing a number on me. I like to share...

So the point is that if you have space for a slightly bigger machine (this one actually fits in the same space as the Grizzly), you can get really good deals on them because most people don't have the space or the need, and shops are getting rid of them due to switching to CNC, so the prices are good. I wanted a manual machine because nearly everything I make is a one-off, so doing a CAD design and then getting a CNC machine set up would take longer than just doing it manually. The 5hp 3-phase motor is run by a VFD, and later, an electronic leadscrew was added. Very pleased with it and it's more accurate than I am. If you're looking for one, consider one with a bed shorter than 36". In all the time I used it, I never needed any more than maybe 18", but that was for my application, and your's may differ.

Noddaz GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
8/8/22 2:40 p.m.

Great.  Now I have lathe envy.


I just need to use the one I have.  And I need to start at part 1.

TXRX7 New Reader
8/8/22 6:09 p.m.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I bought a lathe 25 years ago to support my racing habit. Now the last race car has departed, and I have a shop full of machine tools.  I have been restoring old iron like some people build cars,  some 3 dozen lathes so far.   

 Every shop needs a good lathe, and it doesn't have to be a big one as long as it's rigid.  Those old Jet/Enco/Grizzly 10" and up lathes were made in Taiwan and were stout. I've never seen one with a worn bed, and parts are still available.    

I've intended to write a lengthy "Machine Tools For Motorsports" article.   Maybe I will.  But first I need a race car. Strictly for illustrative purposes, of course.

Good article, thanks!

RonB001 GRM+ Memberand New Reader
8/8/22 10:31 p.m.

In reply to f1carguy :

Actually, there is a company in Colorado/Oregon that specializes in hobby-scale printed circuit boards.  In the overall scheme of things, they are cheap and quick ($80 for 3 boards in a week).  The downside is that you have to create the PCB in their software, instead of standard Gerber files.  Search for Express PCB if you want to know more.

I've used them for several years, and have not yet received a bad board.

There is also a company in Minnesota that specializes in 3d prints.  Their main business is printers and supplies, but they also do prints.  Not as cheap as DIY, but somewhat reasonable. StrataSys.

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