Mobile Metalworking Station

Aside installing sprinklers and a new lawn in my front and back yard, one of the major obstacles to getting a lot of use out of my metal lathe has been the fact that it’s sitting on the floor in my garage, rather than being kept at a reasonable height on a workbench or stand.
Metal Lathe Belts - Installed

My intention was to build a rolling workstation that held both my milling machine and the metal lathe together.

There were a few problems to solve with this idea:

  1. How would I make a rolling platform stable enough to be very top-heavy without risk of tipping over?
  2. With a 32″ wide lathe and a 30″ wide milling table that moves 18″ left and right, how could I create a shared space that wouldn’t be too big for my garage?
  3. How should I construct a platform strong enough to support 600+ pounds of equipment?

My initial thought was to build a long, narrow, freestanding workstation that would have the milling machine on one end and the lathe on the other; both aligned so that they could be used from the same of the workstation.

The problem with this is that the milling table when moved towards the lathe, would hit the tailstock on the lathe, and if I made the workbench long enough to accommodate the length of the lathe combined with the full movement of the milling table, the overall construction would be around 6 feet long.

Another problem is that the workbench would have to be fairly deep (at least 24 inches) to make sure it would not tip over during use or movement. So the overall footprint would be 6 feet by 2 feet, which is really just too big for the space I have

After a few mental gymnastics routines (one floor and two balance beam), I had an idea:

Since the workstation will be freestanding and I can access both sides, I may as well take advantage of that fact.

I decided to place the lathe on the back of the workbench and put the milling machine on the front.

So I took some measurements and figured that a 3 foot by 3 foot platform, about 30 inches tall, would fit both machines very well, be wide enough to eliminate the risk of tipping, and provide some good opportunity for storage.

The design was simple: plywood case and a bottom frame of 2x4s, held together with screws, and supported on four casters. I was confident that the structure would be strong enough to support the heavy tools, and the casters had a combined capacity rating of over 1000 pounds.
Platform Frame

I cut all the pieces out roughly on the floor with a circular saw and then trimmed them to their final dimensions on the table saw.

I ordered casters from mcmaster.com; one pair of fixed casters and one pair of locking swivel casters. Both of these had a listed mount height of 3 1/2 inches, but when they arrived there was about an inch of difference in height that I would have to account for in order for the platform to sit flat.
Different Caster Heights

After building the bottom frame and platform, I started working on mounting the casters. I traced the casters on paper to compare the sizes, and found the difference in height was pretty close to 1 inch. Since my daughter was already asleep for the night, I had to find a quiet way to make a 1 inch spacer.
Different Caster Heights - Quantified

My solution was to put a 2×4 in the milling machine (which runs very quietly), and run it at a high speed to remove about half of an inch off the top of the board. This ended up working perfectly.
Making a spacer to extend the smaller caster
Making a spacer to extend the smaller caster
Making a spacer to extend the smaller caster
Casters... close enough
Small Caster installed

After installing the casters on the base I started working on the walls. Since I had already attached the 2×4 frame to the bottom, I could not run screws from the bottom into the edge of the plywood, so I had to figure out a different way to attached the walls to the base.

I briefly experimented with pocket holes, but quickly abandoned the idea, since I don’t have any of the bits or jigs to do this properly.

Instead I decided to make brackets out of short sections of angle iron that I quickly cut to length with my hacksaw and punched holes in on the drill press.
Attaching walls to the base

Once I attached the wall pieces to the base and each other, I attached the top, using Clamp-Its from Rockler and F-Clamps from Harbor Freight to hold everything square while I pre-drilled and attached the top with 1 1/4 inch deck screws.
Keeping it square during assembly
Keeping it square during assembly

I probably should have also used glue… but I didn’t, and everything seems very sturdy without it.

To answer your question: No I will not be using these pictures as part of my portfolio if I ever apply to work at a cabinet shop.

One corner of the work station has a 17 inch by 17 inch alcove in it, designed to house the base of my milling machine.
Installing the milling machine

Since one side of the installed milling machine would be up against a plywood wall, I needed a way to install and tighten bolts without being able to reach the top of them.

To get around this, I used relatively long bolts and taped washers to the top of them (to keep the washer from falling to the bottom of the bolt). I placed the bolts halfway into the pre-measured and pre-drilled holes so that I could slide the machine into place with the slots properly aligned with the bolts (if you look closely you can see the bolts in the back of the alcove in the above picture).

I got the machine most of the way up the ramp when things shifted a bit I was stuck needing an extra hand while balancing the machine. So I called my wife with my cellphone

  • first call: no answer
  • second call:
    • Me: “Hi, can you give me a hand?”
    • Wife: “Right now?”
    • Me: “Yes.”
    • Wife: “I’m trying to send a text, just a minute.”
    • Me: “I’m holding up a 300-pound milling machine, and I really need a hand right now, can the text wait?”

…and she helped re-position the ramp and keep the newly constructed workstation from rolling away while I scooted the milling machine into position.

Fortunately, the bolts I placed in the pre-drill mounting holes lined up properly with the slots in the base of the machine, and I was able to use a pair of Vice-Grips on the end of the relatively long bolt to hold it in place while I tightened down the nut (laying on the ground and working blindly to tighten these bolts reminded me I really need to do some maintenance work on my truck…).
Milling machine installed

It was then a simple matter to put bolts in the other pair of mounting holes and make everything nice and secure.
Milling machine secured

One milling machine done, one lathe to go.
Surface for the lathe

Although my lathe is not very big, it is heavy, about 250 pounds. And since my wife presents less of an obstacle to gravity than myself, I had to move it without her help (sure I could have called a friend, but I wanted to install it now).

I started by working back and forth between the two ends of the lathe, moving each side onto and incrementally taller stack of materials.

  1. Cinder block
  2. Cinder block on end
  3. Cinder block + a piece of wood
  4. Cinder block +  a bucket
  5. Little decorative end table + cinder block + 2 pieces of wood

…and then finally lifting the heavy end into place on the workstation.

bringing the lathe close to the height of the work surface

Almost there...

I was concerned that the stack of items supporting the opposite end would shift while I moved the heavy end onto the work station, so I had propped it up with a 2×4 clamped to the wall cabinet.
keeping the lathe from falling while one side is lifted into place

And it’s a good thing I did. You can see in this picture where the lathe shifted off the top of its pile and was resting against the propped up 2×4 rather than the pile I had built.
dents in the rig that prevented the lathe from falling while the other end was lifted

But all’s well that ends well, I supposed, and I now have a metal working station on wheels that houses my milling machine and metal lathe in a relatively compact space with lots of extra room to add shelves and drawers… someday.
Lathe and milling machine installed

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