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Metal lathe, possibly hand-built


Nov 16, 2023
My wife is the executrix of an estate. The deceased used to work at the GE aircraft plant in Albuquerque before it closed. He had this metal lathe in his home workshop. It has no identifying markings. It's belt-driven and the AC motor is behind the big door in the cabinet. The other doors and drawers contain tools, and parts for the lathe. Can anyone help identify it? Eventually, we'll be listing it for sale locally. Thanks!


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What your pictures show is, indeed, a hand built lathe. The person who built the lathe was most likely a machinist or toolmaker. The lathe looks like what is called (in slang) a "government job". Amongst people who worked in machine shops and similar industries, doing a job for home or getting materials from work for personal jobs was known as a 'government job'. The lathe looks like a government job. Something the builder could machine parts of using stock that was at hand in the shop where he worked. The use of socket-head screws and plenty of steel plate milled to dimensions also speaks of a government job. The knob to t he left of the headstock and set up high (which looks like a knob from a combination lock) apparently is part of a mechanism to use the lathe spindle for 'indexing' (dividing a circle into equal parts such as for cutting gear teeth, splines, or other mechanism parts).

The fact the builder assembled the lathe using screws also speaks of a government job. Using screws to pull the various parts together would let a person machine the parts at work then take them home to assemble them. Truth be known, it would have been a lot easier to have built the various sections of the lathe using welded fabrication and then machine the completed part. It was more labor intensive to have to make all those connections using screws (and probably dowel pins) rather than welding. My guess is the builder worked in a machine shop or toolroom without access to welding equipment, or may have been taking the lathe home "one piece at a time" with what fit in a lunch pail or inside one's shirt or coat to get out the gate un-noticed.

At the same time, there is a lot of machine work that went into building this lathe. Possibly, the builder had the OK from management to work on the lathe on his own time in their shop, still as a government job.

The builder went to a lot of trouble to design and build this lathe. I kind of doubt that cash was so tight that he could not afford to buy a small bench lathe such as a South Bend, Logan, or Atlas (sorry about using the "A" name). It may have been the challenge of building a lathe, or maybe the builder had some definite ideas in mind such as the indexing feature on the headstock spindle.

I'd suggest you contact Tony Griffiths who runs the "Machine Tool Archive" website. Tony posts articles about 'unknown lathes' built by persons unknown and of interesting design. A writeup of this lathe would be the kind of thing Tony Griffiths would add to his website.
Wow! That is a wonderful description of this piece of machinery. Thank you for taking the time to write such an informative and educational piece.
Appears to be a chain behind the leadscrew - curious what that might do? Is it for the apron?

EDIT - Looking at it closer, I guess it must be, as I don't see any gear rack under there.
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The chain does appear to be a substitute for a rack.

Also looks possible that the bed is a casting. There are no visible screws in it, aside from two that are visible in the view from the headstock end on the operators side. Those two are evidently through the plate and into the bed.
Looking over the pictures some more - I just need to know what that 5 digit counter on top is for! Very interesting machine. I wonder if the bed was re-purposed from some other object? Hard to imagine being able to cast the bed, but assembling all the other stuff from plate stock.
There is a 3-ring binder behind the big door with what looks like setup information. I'm not a machinist so it's all greek to me. The last time I ran a lathe was in high school metals class and that was almost 50 years ago!
I have mixed feelings for machines like these. IMO they're best to stay in the family as they're indeed a testament to an individuals skill and ability to make due,


on the market they often have far less value than a "store bought" machine. Kinda like the great depression migrants turning sedans into trucks. Fantastic testament of skill and determination, but in no-ways equal to an actual truck. There are always exceptions, but the home-built lathes I've seen are often over engineered in a few areas, but under engineered in most others. They certainly work to a degree, but the nature of working with the materials and components at hand often means lowering your expectations. I think it would be fun to make a lathe from scratch, but my expectations mean I'd be making patterns for heavy iron castings leaning heavily on borrowed and fantastical designs, and the time it would take to accomplish such a project means I'll likely never do it in this life. In that regard, hats off to those who strike out and accomplish such a project to any degree, but personally, unless I had a hand in making the engineering decisions on a machine like this, I have a hard time putting faith in the accuracy and longevity of a strangers decisions when that stranger seemingly wasn't a professional. Really I'm just spoiled in that I've never been so desperate for a lathe that making one from scratch was the preferred solution to buying something new or used and making needed repairs. But there again, I'm a romantic about old American iron thinking about how it was made by someone's family/countrymen to give working men the tools they need to work, and a home-brew lathe fits that description.
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Looking over the pictures some more - I just need to know what that 5 digit counter on top is for! Very interesting machine. I wonder if the bed was re-purposed from some other object? Hard to imagine being able to cast the bed, but assembling all the other stuff from plate stock.
I'll try to get over there and take more pics of that part of the machine. I'll also scan a few pages from the setup book. That might help explain the dials and indicators.
What a beautiful machine , Back gear too . All them screw's , yep " he built it one day at a time " . Johnny Cash would be proud . I wouldn't kick that lathe out of my shop for eatin crackers .
Years ago, I bought a nicely made home-built lathe, sort of a cross between a Unimat SL and a watchmaker's lathe. I got it because the spindle he used was a Unimat watchmaker's spindle, which is quite valuable by itself.

My favorite government job was the large steel-hulled sailing ship with motor auxiliary power built in the backyard of a truck mechanic where I worked. He was on the night shift and had access to our large machine shop with no management around to notice when he did a little part or two in his spare time. He was, of course, a very talented person. When the time came to quit his job and go sail around the world, he welded a truck axle or two under the keel and towed his baby 100 miles to Lake Erie and launched it. If he wrote a book about his life, I think it would be amazing.

The veeder-root counter was probably used for coil winding. Also a hand crank with worm on the combination lock fine dial. The smaller chuck in the larger chuck, probaby also for holding small coil forms.

Around here the term was "G-job" which became very ironic as the regular work around here was, for a time, almost exclusively G-related!

None of the new guys have the slightest clue what a G job is. =)
However it was made, it's gotten a lot of use.

But I see features that wouldn't be needed for just coil winding. The bed isn't particularly heavy, but I'll bet it could do quite a bit of work on soft metals or small enough hard metals. A clockmaker might really like a lathe like this--8mm watchmaker lathes are really too small for clock work and so a popular alternative is a Sherline. This lathe is far beefier than a Sherline.

Is that a concrete bench top that it's bolted down to?

This lathe would not get kicked out of my shop for eating crackers, either.

Rick "betting it's more serviceable than a lot of cast iron lathes of this size" Denney
Yeppers , Johnny came to mind real quick . It looks like a prototype big brother for a Taig lathe .
I have 15 pics of the indexing attachment and some notes the builder made as well as a few pages from a magazine article on making an indexing attachment. That's a lot of pics. Is it ok to post them all here or should I put them on a webpage and just put a link to it here?