Tuesday, March 29, 2016

To Lathe or Not to Lathe

As many of you know, I have been doing pretty much all of my lens conversions, modifications with glue, tape, and filter rings and a Dremel.  It's getting to the point where I am not happy about this BAND-AID solution any more.  I really want to use the right tools, such as a lathe, and a milling machine, but I have zero experience with either, so I started reading more about these tools, especially the mini-lathes.

To start with, what I want is really simple.  A tool that allows me to create a tube/ring that can be securely mounted on a lens, like an enlarging lens, and then mate to a helicoid or a lens mount, with precision, and if it looks nicer, that would be a bonus.  I probably don't even need to do threading initially, but I would love to be able to create threads like M39 or M42 that can easily work with other standard parts, but cutting threads is probably not easy with a mini-lathe.

The world of the lathe is full of confusion for beginners like me.  The dazzling variety of them is already headache inducing, but it's the accessories/tools needed to make the lathe work, that really screw my head and sometimes I feel I am slipping into a coma out of helplessness. One resource I highly recommend, is Frank Hoose, whose site www.mini-lathe.com is an excellent source of information.  However, I am more of a visual person, and Frank's Youtube videos are detailed, easy to understand, and well presented.  If you are thinking of getting a mini-lathe, be sure to check out his site/videos.  I learned a lot from him.  But, reading and watching video can only help so much.  There is no substitution for learning by doing, so I have decided to jump in with both feet :)

Buying a lathe is not like buying a camera or a lens, that you can hide from your significant other, so it's probably a good idea to clear that first with him/her.  I talked to my wife, with my oiled tongue, extolled the virtue of a machine that can do amazing things, like making useful household gadgets for the home.  Unbelievably, she went with it, and even encouraged, as long as I can cough up the money myself, which means I have to sell some of my toys, er, tools first :)

The tough part, of course, is deciding what to get.  I have a small house and space is limited.  Noise is a factor too as I share walls with neighbours. I don't want something so small that it's uses are severely limited, but on the other hand, not something very big and noisy.

At first, I thought about the micro lathe/mill combo that you can put together like Lego blocks. These usually have a small 30-60 Watt motor, which really is not suitable for working with metal.  But, they are very small, and relatively cheap at around $350.  Great for teaching kids or learning, but probably not able to do what I want.

My next target is the Taig Micro Lathe II.  This is an extremely popular lathe for home hobbyists and is available in Toronto through Lee Valley Tools.  It's very compact, well made and crafted in the USA.  The basic kit is reasonably priced and there are immensely vast number of accessories/tools available to make it into a full blown CNC lathe/mill machine.  But, in its basic form, it does not have power feed, thread cutting, etc.  Adding these features costs a lot of money and for beginners like me, might be a challenge to setup.

The last group of machines I consider is either a 7x12 or 7x14 mini lathe.  7x12 or 7x14 describes the size of material you can work with, which is 7 inch high by 12 or 14 inch long.  In practice, the length is 2 to 3 inches shorter, as you will need to account for the chuck and the centre that support the stock/work piece.  Usually, these machines have power feed and thread cutting with a variable speed DC motor.  On the Taig Micro Lathe II, speed is set by using different sized v-bells on an AC motor, although one can make a DC motor option for the Micro Lathe II.

What makes finding the right mini lathe so frustrating is the lack of availability of low end models in Toronto, unlike in the USA, our lucky southern neighbours, or our friends in China whom I envy for having such affordable and variety of lathes.  There used to be more variety of models and cost a lot less, when I looked at them few years ago, but now very few machine/tool shops stock low end metal lathes.  The lowest price ones I found is the Taig Micro Lathe II, costs around $380 without the $150 motor, and the King Canada 7x12 (probably made by Sieg of Shanghai, China) for a cool $1000 CAD. When the Micro Lathe II is configured to have the features of the 7x12 lathe, the price is probably more, or close to $1000.

I am leaning towards the 7x12 mini-lathe.  If I am not able to find a reasonably priced used one, this is probably the one I will get, but it will probably be a couple of months before I get one, and it would take even longer for me to get familiar with it to make it useful.  But, I am excited and look forward to the new tool.  There are so many possibilities!

True Love Cafe - Nikkor-H 48mm f2 rangefinder lens from Nikkorex 35 on Sony A7 at f2.


13 comments:

  1. Looking forward to reading how you come along with this. I've been toying with the idea of getting a mini lathe or mill for some time. I too would like to build custom pieces for lenses and my macro rigs. Good luck and please keep us in the loop concerning your adventures...

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    1. Thanks William. I am very excited myself and I will sure share what I learn.

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  2. Perhaps you could join an evening class or find someone to let you have access to a machine to learn the basics. After that you maybe will know exactly what you need or wether you have an aptitude for this work.

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    1. I think I am pretty good operating machines so I should be fine with a lathe. Probably a pretty big learning curve, but it will be fun!

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  3. maybe an alternative solution might be a 3d printer? I know people are printing adapters themselves these days.. I'm sure you could print custom sized tubes too

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    1. That's probably something I want to consider in the future, bit I like mechanical work almost as much as photography :)

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  4. You should be happy with either lathe, as they both should do what you want. I would invite you to join the hobby-machinist.com forum. It's a friendly machinist site. Best of luck

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    1. Thanks for the link to an excellent site! Joined.

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  5. Nice posting - digging into the world of mini lathes sounds like fun. I haven't had my hands on a lathe or mill since college so its been awhile. Not hard to learn/use at all. The ones I used were old full size units that were practically working antiques but they did the job well. I'd recommend checking out the Makerspaces in your area - that will free you from the space, noise and capability constraints that a mini lathe will impose. But will impose a membership cost so the trade-off is certainly there. There are certainly experienced people there, some of whom may also be photogs.

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    1. Thanks Ian. Russia a great idea, bit I doubt there is such a club/organization where I live. They do have community courses on this stuff, I think. Still, I want to be able to use the lathe when I want to, instead of booking time on machines. This will also allow me to practice more often.

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  6. Why not 3D print the parts? Freecad to design and then a service like shapeways or sculpted to print. You can do plastics and metals.

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    1. 3D printing metal parts are expensive and not really good for one off or low volume orders. I really like making stuff with my own hands and there is a certain joy comes with that. Thanks for the suggestion.

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