Join Date: July 15, 2012
Location: Wonderful, Windy Wyoming
You're most certainly welcome.
The machine tool industry has gone through a huge change in the last 50 years or so. First, manual machines took a back seat to CNC machines. Today, if you're running a machine shop based on manual machines, you're typically not making much profit. CNC machining is the way you crank out volume with rapid turn-around.
We used to make a huge amount of machines and machine tooling here in the US. The midwest and northeast were filled with companies that made machines and machine tooling.
Today, there is NO US company left that makes a manual (ie, non-CNC) lathe that would be a good fit for gunsmithing. None. There are plenty of companies that are making tooling, fixtures, reamers, gages, etc, but there are no manual machine manufactures left other than Hardinge/Bridgeport, and they're making Bridgeport mills, not lathes. What little is left is just support and parts for previously manufactured machines.
OK, so where to look if you're looking for a new lathe for gunsmithing?
There are plenty of guys running the Grizzly lathes mentioned up-thread. I've used one of these, it seemed like an OK machine. The president of Grizzly is the captain of the US F-Class team and a very experienced rifle shootist, so he's certainly sympathetic to the needs of gunsmiths. Many of Grizzly's machines are made in the PRC and some are made in Taiwan. You can tell just from the price which is which - if you're looking at a 13x40 lathe and it costs from, oh, $3500 to $6K new, then it is probably a ChiCom lathe. Around $8 to $11K? Taiwanese.
The Taiwanese lathes are generally OK. You'll see lathes with all manner of names... but if you compare them closely, you'll notice that their controls on the headstock are in the same place, their specs are the same, etc. These lathes are indeed the same - with slight (very slight) differences like lights, coolant pumps/nozzles, paint jobs, badging etc. If you look around, you'll notice the same thing about ChiCom lathes too - you can see the same lathe sourced with different details to Grizzly, Jet, and several other companies.
These lathes are OK for light use by a single owner who doesn't push them hard - and that's gunsmithing, in a nutshell. In gunsmithing, it's very rare that you'd try to take the sort of cuts and feeds that you'd take in a production machine shop. In a modern production machine shop, they use lots of carbide tooling and the chips come off the workpiece a smoking-hot blue. There's no fooling around with light loads. In some production shops, if the boss comes by and sees that you don't have the machine loaded down to 80% or more capacity on the motor, he's going to ask "What are you doing?"
I honestly can count on one hand the number of times I've loaded a machine to 80% capacity when doing gunsmithing work, and all of those times, I was working on fixtures or tooling, never on actual guns.
If money is no object, there are some nice manual machines available out of Europe. For most people, money is a consideration, and these machines are generally priced out of reach for most people.
Lots of people will tell you to get an older American machine. OK, that's a nice idea. But it depends on the condition of the Older American Machine. There are some people who have found the legendary NOS (New Old Stock) machines that have been sitting in warehouses, slathered in cosmo, just waiting to be sold for dimes on the taxpayer dollar (many of these NOS machines were bought by the military contractors or government... and then forgotten for decades). You'll read of people bragging on boards about how they found some cherry machine, and you should try to do the same. If you're waiting for one of these machines, I've got news for you: I hope you're young, because you'll be waiting for quite some time. They're very rare now.
Then we get to the lathes you can find in your area, in good condition. If you live in Michigan, the northeast (NJ, CT, MA, PA, NY), southern California or Texas, you might very well be in luck. These are hotbed areas of manufacturing and there are dozens of small(er) lathes, sitting in businesses, basements, etc.
If you have plenty of time, you could get a lathe that needs serious work - and fix it up to have a really nice machine for a very modest investment. If you don't already have access to machines to make replacement parts, or you lack mechanical skills, this might not be a good way to go if all you really want to do is work on guns.
If you're in one of these areas, start sniffing around. You can find some screaming deals... but you're going to have to learn what good machine tools look like. It takes some training and experience to be able to walk up to a machine and in five minutes, make a "buy" or "leave it right there" decision. The learning will serve you well, and if you can find a good machine at the right price, by all means, go for it. These classic American-made lathes work very well for gunsmithing. Look at the list I gave you up above and start making a list of machines you'd consider. Do some homework on the various brands/machines/sizes, so when you see an ad pop up, you know that the machine is in your list of "possibles."
If you're not in one of the manufacturing centers of the US, where machine tools were widely available... you could hunt for a lathe for a long, long time. This was my problem, and why, while I have the know-how to evaluate machine tools, there's almost nothing in "gunsmith size" in my region (Wyoming) to be found. You can find nice manual lathes from 17" swings, 6 to 8 feet between centers and larger, but you can't find many small machines. So that's how I ended up with a Taiwanese lathe...
Last edited by wyop; April 8, 2013 at 08:20 PM.