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Norman Newguy: In the Beginning

Barry YoungNorman Newguy: In the Beginning

by Barry Young

While perusing You Tube one day you quite by accident come across an intriguing video of a model steam engine whizzing away. Meh! You move on. Something in the back of your noggin keeps reminding you of the video. It just keeps coming back. “Honey!” you yell through the house, “Where was that one video that had that one thing on it on You Tube?”

Yes my friends, it can start just that easily. Nobody with more than six neurons is immune. Just such occurrences can lead otherwise decent, intelligent and family loving people to disregard their families drain their bank accounts and do stupid things they would normally never do. Yes! It is the insidious beast Amateur Machining I am talking about. Only the heinous shutterbug and crack cocaine addiction bite deeper. If you have ever uttered the amateur machining mantra “So THAT’S how they do that”, I am afraid it is far too late for you. You are smitten. You will only level out after losing a family or two and several good jobs. Don’t laugh, I am talking to you.

Let us assume you have decided to take a trip down the slippery slope. There is no talking you out of it and no intervention service exists for amateur machinists. Where to start? Not where you think. Every book says rush out and buy a lathe. Bah! Before you do that lets juggle some numbers, it may be your last chance to see your kids. My divorce started when the wife stubbed her toe on a lathe chuck. I do not know what she was thinking going barefoot in the bedroom but she blamed me nonetheless.

To the numbers.
$800   Lathe
$100 Lumber for lathe bench
$200 Drill press
$500 Minimill
$2000 Measuring tools
$13 Material, one piece, 3 feet long from Home Depot
$56,514.26 Haas CNC Vertical Machining Center

That totals a whopping over 60 thousand dollars to get started. Add to this having to find a new place to live when you get kicked out of the house plus travel costs to see your kids between projects.

For those of you still reading we will now get a bit more serious. I have tried to save those of you I was able to.

A cheap drill press from Harbor Freight is the first thing to buy. Also some crappy drills from same vendor. If after drilling some holes in anything you can lay your hands on you still want to pursue this hobby then you are one of the truly shining examples of machininghood and we can proceed. If the junk drills do not deter you by making you feel the true level of frustration this hobby has to offer then you have the requisite stick-to-it-ive-ness. You are on your way to becoming a steely eyed master of metal. The pure among you will try every belt setting on the drill press. You will use nearly every drill and drill nearly everything that is not nailed down. If you back out now you will not have killed the Roth IRA and your family will welcome you back into their open arms tears in their eyes. If not, then come with me friend as we delve deeper into the world of amateur machining.

Your first major machine purchase MUST be a metal lathe. It is called the prince of machine tools for a reason. NO a wood lathe will not work. NO you cannot convert the drill press into a lathe. NO you do not want a milling machine first. NO you cannot start with a five gallon charcoal foundry and a wheel from a 74 Pinto wagon. That is only for the most pure among us who willingly choose to spend six months of toil and learning to avoid buying a sub $1000 Grizzly lathe. Do not even go there. If you do, you venture forth alone. Get thee to a Grizzly catalog or website or showroom and buy thee a nice machine at a great price and bask in its green glow. This for you is prudent. Be not tempted by old Atlas and South Bend equipment on Craigslist that is for later. Right now you need a machine you can lubricate turn on and enjoy. You needeth not the hassle of restoring an antique. In the beginning you need to cut metal, not shine it. Buy as large a lathe as you can afford. That is THE rule when lathe shopping.

Before the truck shows up with the shiny new appliance, you will have cleared an area of honor for the thing to sit. The area is dry and has good lighting. The little cabinets that come with small lathes are not tall enough and I am a short guy. Soooo. The bench will be built using stout 4X4 legs with 2X6 aprons bolted through the legs (drilled on your HF drill press). Another set of horizontal 2X4 bracing goes around the bottom about 6 inches off the floor to hold the legs steady. On top is a piece of 1 ½ inch flooring plywood from Home Depot. The more skilled craftsmen will let the plywood into the top so the edge does not show.

While waiting for the truck to show up spend as much time as possible with the family. They might just decide to keep you. The big day arrives. The truck shows up. Stop that jumping up and down. Try to act “professional”. Act like this happens all the time and you are bored. Be cool. When the driver asks for your signature say something like “whatever man”. Nobody needs to know that you are bursting inside. Stifle that grin now.  Do not let the driver go until you have opened the box. If any castings are broken you want to inform him BEFORE he leaves. Once the driver leaves you can go into the bathroom and lock the door and jump up and down till you have that out of your system. Regaining your detached persona go and unpack the machine. There are many little packets of fasteners and such. On packages like this the manufacturer hides pieces and parts all over so be careful. One time I had to chase the garbage truck to retrieve a piece of Styrofoam packing that had a follow rest in a little pocket. Check all the packing materials and retain them for at least a week. The manual goes into a file folder in a file cabinet in the house. Make a copy of it for out in the shop. Yes, I know they are almost always available at the manufacturer’s website but the one time you need it the server will be down. Been there. So stop sassing and go make a copy of the manual. Sheesh!

Get a friend or three to help you lift the machine up onto the shiny new bench you built. Bolt it down and finish the assembly of the wonderful thing. Step back, take a look and soak up the aura of this beautiful thing. It will never look this good again. If you want a picture now is the time. After use the paint will be scratched and oil will leave little trails everywhere so get while ya can.

Next time we will move on with leveling, alignment and initial power up of your glorious machine. Meanwhile you can write a letter to your kids.


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About barryjyoung

Machinist, toolmaker, programmer, Machinist Instructor. Way too into metalworking.

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  1. Yea good sir though thee be most griviously long winded thou pasith on much wisdom yea. Oh yeah, don't get hung up on what Your new toy (s) weighs unless yer packin er' up three flights of narrow stairs, A ton ain't squat. R

  2. Verily, methinks 'lifting the machine onto the shiny new bench' is the perfect time to share tales of thine oldback injury with said neighbors… Forsuth, tis better to supervise the placement of said metal monster than to risk sweat-filled eyes assisting in the lifting. – And tis better to let the neighbors exert their manly feelings in this display of strength than  to deny them the privilege thereof.

         – Don

  3. The bard nary could speaketh so eloquent.


    Good God!



  4.  Great fun read and so very true!!


     Thanks for that!

     (Re” Quiet posts,, i,m thinking many of us are busy this time of year , lots to get done around home,, and yup,, family plays into all that also.)

    (I,m just waiting for delivery this week of my new mill, my first,, so i am quite enthusiastic about it's arrival)

  5. So I guess it is too late for me??  I am a newbie and just bought my first lathe/mill and a bunch of accessories.  I have had the Lowe’s drill press for quite some time, but I do have the H.F. drills as well as a few others.  In either case, if this is going to be as bad as my other habit…… (I run a part-time photo studio)  I don’t understand why everything I consider fun, is so dang expensive.  I buy and customize Harley’s and take pictures, and now I want to make more of my own pieces for the bikes other than just cutting and welding.   I guess once again, I have come to the dark side.  (Boy am I lucky to have a wife that is extremely understanding!)

  6. Yep Blaze, you’re definitely in trouble! You’ve been sucked into this hobby and you’ll never be free from it’s grasp again. Laugh

    Interestingly there are several other members on this site who are into photography. Including Barry himself (the author of this article). Barry has a darkroom in his basement and a sticker on his truck that sames “god darkroom?”. There are also a few motorcycle enthusiasts. So methinks you’re in good company!