I Need a Machine Shop…

I have a tendency to obsess over certain things.

More often than not, these “things” take to form of projects or tools.

For example, when I came up with an idea for how to store my bicycle, I couldn’t think about anything else for the better part of a week while I waited for the weekend when I would have time to complete the task.

I made designs in Sketchup, even though I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I even spent my Friday evening boring my friends with excruciatingly detailed explanations of exactly how I planned to store my bike (“no, you don’t understand, this is really cool because the bike will be sideways… on the ceiling!“).

I just can’t think about anything else until I complete the project or buy the tool.

Another aspect of my personality is that I am always concerned with my capabilities, and making sure that I don’t disqualify myself from doing something I might someday want to do.

I focused on getting the best possible grades in my undergraduate studies, just in case I wanted to go back to school for a master’s degree later. And then I did the same during my work on my master’s degree, just in case I decided someday to go back for a P.H.D..

I have since concluded that I will not be pursuing a P.H.D. (I dropped out of my second Master’s program), but I don’t regret removing the limitation that low grades would have presented.

These two facets of my personality have recently collided… again.

I have often said, in partial jest, that I need a machine shop (actually, very often).

As far as woodworking is concerned, I have all the tools I need to make pretty much anything I would want to make; but, although I have a welder, a grinder, and a hacksaw, I don’t really have the ability to make something out of metal.

I had come to terms with this fact, and concluded that I would probably never have a machine shop, since I would never be able to afford one.

Then, one fateful day, I found a small metal lathe on Craigslist for $200. At first I was dismissive, but since it was fairly inexpensive I decided to do a little research on the make and model. It was a Taig Micro Lathe, and although it was small, it seemed like a very capable and precise little machine, and a fun way to get into metalworking.

Of course, by the time I convinced myself I wanted it and got permission from my wife, the lathe was already sold. But the obsession had taken root, and there was no turning back: I had just discovered that I could start my machine shop for less than $500, and I couldn’t think about anything else.

While researching small metal lathes and their prices and capabilities, I came across a site offering extensive input and reviews (mini-lathe.com), which in turn led me to it’s companion site on mini mills.


I had seen small mills on the Harbor Freight website, but I had no idea that they were actually respectable machines with a large and active community of hobby machinists.

It turns out that a Chinese manufacturer called Sieg makes a generic line of small milling machines and metal lathes that are re-branded by Grizzly, Harbor Freight, and others. These mini mills have steadily improved in quality and are often regarded as the standard mill for hobbyists and amateur machinists.

This triggered the perfect storm of my tendency to obsess over tools and my desire to remove limitations: I had in front of me the possibility to have the “machine shop” I never thought I would have, I could someday soon be able to make anything.

But now I had a problem. The Lathe would cost me around $500, and the Mill would cost around $600, but how could I justify spending $1100 on a set of tools I’ve never used before?

I shared this dilemma with my wife, and we came up with a solution: If I sold my motorcycle (a Honda Rebel 250), I could use the money however I wanted.

We had this conversation last week… and now I can’t even sleep.

Every night I’m tossing and turning, dreaming about the pros, cons, and prices of the Sieg x2 and the x3.

Instead of nightmares of showing up to work in my underwear, or forgetting about a final exam, I’m waking myself up with all the unanswered questions…

…How much money should I allocate for vises and tooling?

…If I don’t sell the motorcycle for enough money to buy both a lathe and a mill, which should I buy first?

…If I sell the motorcycle for more than I expected, should I only buy a milling machine and accessories and upgrade to a better machine?

…Should I buy new or should I wait for a deal on Craigslist?

…If I find a used commercial milling machine that I can afford, do I really want one that weighs 1000lbs?

Why won’t my motorcycle start?!?!

<to be continued…>


5 thoughts on “I Need a Machine Shop…

  1. I believe we live on the same planet! Several months ago I purchased a Taig lathe and several accessories from Lee Valley. Because of heath issues, I didn’t try it yet. Sniff! I still have a milling machine in mind but I’ll make a move only went my energy level will be back up.

    By the way, I always keep in mind that one: “If I don’t spend my money on something I like, I’ll spend it on something else anyway.”



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  4. For others who may happen by here, if you can, Craigslist South Bend lathes in the 9 or 10 inch range. Benchmaster mills, Burke Mills, or the Hardinger. Best is to find a cheap bridgeport, and there are lots of those, but you really need a lot of space for that choice.

    Old tools are cheaper, far more capable, more spare parts (if you buy the best brands). Sounds odd to buy an SB lathe from 1937, but lathes and machine tools are different. On the one hand, if you buy a really worn one, they are shot to hell. Maybe it was run 24 hours by guys hot racking for war production, but it is easy to find decent ones that have minimal wear. Machine tools aren’t woodworking tools. Sure some table saws are different than others, but they pretty much all do the same thing. Lathes became obsolete for primary production as they were constantly refined. So with say and SB 9″ the cheaper models might have been owned by a hobbyist, and he took good care, or the fancy ones might have been obsolete in a few years and got replaced. As a result there are lots of good old machines to choose from.

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