Deal or No Deal: Late 1930s RockFord Economy Lathe 12"
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  1. #1
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    Default Deal or No Deal: Late 1930s RockFord Economy Lathe 12"

    New Member! Been lurking for a few weeks & looking to buy my first lathe for personal use (I am registered on Home Machinist too). I am a total noob to machining; a computer guy by trade. I found a late '30s Rockford Economy lathe with 12" swing advertised locally. Being a noob, I am probably using the wrong search terms, so apologies if I missed a post to answer my question(s).

    I inspected the lathe today and seeking opinions if I should buy & repair or am I better off walking (running) away. I've been looking at a new Precision Mathews 1228VF-LB for about $3500, so $$$ is the main reason for considering this option.

    Issues: When operating the crossfeed manually, there is at least .050 of play when going forward to back. The main feed(?) there is play in the lead screw, I can see the whole shaft move when going from left to right (toward headstock versus toward tailstock), probably .020 to .030. The most troubling issue is when the half nut is engaged the lead screw stops turning. Are these problems major issues or can be reasonably repaired?

    The positives are this has been converted to a 3hp 220hp V-belt driven motor, comes with 2 boxes of drill bits, misc tooling, and 2 massive chucks. After negotiating a bit, we are at $1,000 - pending research. So... deal or no deal?

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    Well, given that this is the Antique Machinery forum you're likely to get feedback that is a bit biased. I, like many others,am a big fan of the old machinery. The downside is almost all of them need some work and parts must be made. However, the point of getting into machining is to be able to make your own parts so i don't see this as a real downside. On the upside, these machines tend to be very rigid with unmatched quality. I own machines from the 20s, 30s and 40s. The technical progression over these 30 years is amazing. My personal favorite are the machines from the 30s. They are capable but simple. Fabricating parts is within reach of mere mortals, particularly with the support of the considerable brain-trust in this forum. Under no circumstances would i buy a new machine but that's just one guys, very biased opinion. Good luck.

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    Ha! I guess that's true, it's like if I posted on a Classic car form - should I restore this mustang or buy new. :-) I'm just not knowledgeable enough to know if this is a "rusty heap" not worth messing with.

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    Welcome Rob, pictures would be good. Being that parts are probably non existent, it would depend on your ability to make anything that you might need.this can be a challenge even if you are skilled and have other machinery available. I am a proponent of that old iron is more desirable than new also, so if you desire a challenge and can get the machine for a good price that may be the way to go. However, you should be prepared for a learning experience that may or may not be frustrating depending on your tolerance level. A thousand bucks seems a bit high for such an old machine, but it comes down to availability of machine tools in your locale and what is included tooling wise. Jim

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    One of the how to threads on posting photos

    Posting Pictures on the South Bend Forum

    have fun

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    I looked at a Rockford Economy lathe once... it appeared to be a well made machine, but I don't think I'd pay $1000 for one that wasn't in excellent or better condition.

    Probably the best question to ask yourself is what you hope to spend your time doing... making things with the lathe, or repairing the lathe itself. Both are worthwhile pursuits.


    Sent from my SM-G950U using Tapatalk

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    Here are the pics...










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    Catch is there is "old iron" and "worn out old iron".....the latter fetching $300/ton.....IMHO condition of the bed ways under and adjacent to the chuck would be where I would be looking for assessment.......enough bed wear to round off edges,score sliding surfaces ,and cause visible steps would make it scrap.......I also note its a plain bearing spindle machine,could be a world of hurt inside the gunked up, scored, and neglected precision surfaces generally considered to be essential to any semblance of accuracy. .....if ,by some chance I desired the machine...incidentally ,why is it tied down...earthquake?....I would make a careful inspection,and then either make an offer ,or walk .....(Offer in the low hundreds....old drill bits aint worth much)

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    You can tell by the bearing caps that it has "plain" spindle bearings - such as Bronze or Babbitt.

    All this amounts to is that it will never have a "speedy" spindle. I doubt its placarded spindle speeds go above 500

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    unless you live in an absolute machine tool desert, i would pass on it. My preference would be for a mid 30s to early 40s gear head with frictionless bearings.

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    What you have found is a plain bearing geared head lathe. Plain bearing = bronze or babbitt bearings. The amount of clearance or free play between the spindle journals and the bearings is adjustable, but condition of the bearings & journals is unknown until you pull the bearings caps. I doubt the seller is likely to allow you to do this as it amounts to starting to take the lathe apart. Clearance in the headstock spindle bearings can be checked with a dial indicator and a bar (a piece of round stock which fits into the spindle bore x about 24" long). The indicator is clamped so its contact point is contacting the spindle at 12:00. You insert the bar and you force the spindle down to squish out any oil in the bearing and take out any clearance. Zero the indicator and then pull up on the bar with about 75 lbs of force to see how much clearance there is between spindle journals and the headstock bearings.

    Try to run the lathe under power in ALL speeds and listen for any clicking or irregular noise (sign of damaged or broken gear teeth in the headstock. The lathe has a clutch on the drive to the headstock. Try this under power and see if the clutch engages and disengages properly. Taking a heavy cut on a piece of scrap steel will tell you if the clutch is slipping.

    I'd suggest opening the headstock top cover, but with gearshift levers on the top of the headstock, opening the top cover might give you a bit of a challenge to get the shifter mechanism (forks, collars, etc) synch'd to the levers when you put the cover back down.

    Backlash in the cross feed is one of those things old lathes develop with use. A machinist will know how to 'take out the backlash' when cranking the cross slide to take a cut. Lathes with some hellacious backlash in the cross slides can produce fine work if the person operating that lathe knows how to 'take out the backlash'. This is not an adjustment or repair, it is simple cranking the cross feed screw further than it needs to be backed off, then cranking in the direction the cut is to be taken. This puts the backlash on the side of the cross feed threads not taking the thrust load from the cut.

    Axial play in the lead screw is likely the result of thrust nuts on the lead screw being out of adjustment. Most lathes will have a set of thrust nuts on the lead screw and these are made up and locked once the end play (if plain thrust washers used) or preload (if ball or roller bearings used) has been set.

    As for the lead screw disengaging when you throw in the half nuts, I am going to go with the simplest possible cause: in most engine lathes, there is a mechanical interlock in the apron of the lathe. This interlock prevents engaging the half nuts if the power feeds are engaged. I have never seen or operated a Rockford Economy lathe, so am shooting from the hip on this one. From your photo, it appears that there are two hand knobs on the apron. These would be the clutches for power longitudinal (along the bed)feed and power cross feed. There is also a lever below the half nut lever which has a 'quadrant' and three (3) detented positions. My guess is that lever is a feed reverse lever. In your photo, this lever is at the extreme right hand position. This would have the gearing for the power feeds engaged in either of two directions. The power feed gearing picks up its power from the 'feed rod' or 'feed shaft' below the lead screw. There should be a mechanical interlocking mechanism in the apron to prevent engaging the power feeds and throwing in the half nuts at the same time. Put the lever with the 'quadrant' in its centered position, this should be neutral (no power transmitted from the feed rod to the gearing in the apron). In using the power feeds, you would select direction of travel on the lever with the quadrant, then turn the 'hand knob' on the feed you want to engage. The hand knobs work friction clutches inside the apron.

    Other thoughts: see if there is a sliding gear or shift lever on or near the RH side of the quick change gear box. Some lathes will have a small lever and some will have a simple sliding gear to engage or disengage power to the lead screw. Most lathes spend most of the working time using power feeds rather than thread cutting, which is the sole purpose of the lead screw. To prevent undue wear on the lead screw due, a means of engaging or disengaging it from the feed gearing of the lathe is usually provided.

    The lathe is a middle-weight geared head engine lathe, probably from the 1930's since it is a plain bearing machine. It appears to have a taper attachment (or at least part of it attached to the cross feed saddle). It is an old workhorse, and cannot be expected to perform like a tight toolroom lathe. However, as someone who has worked around plenty of these old lathes, I was always able to get good work done on them, often to within a thousandth or two. The other downside is the lathe is going to have relatively slow spindle speeds. This lathe was designed in an era when high speed steel cutting tools were in common use, and some machinists and shops were still using forged high carbon steel cutting tools. As a result, there was no need for the higher spindle speeds more modern lathes can run at. Modern lathes were designed in an era when carbide cutting tools were in common use, hence high spindle speeds. This old lathe will do very well with high speed steel toolbits. You grind them yourself from blanks, and you can grind them freehand on a bench grinder. High speed steel tool bit blanks are cheap and you get two-for-one as you can grind a cutting tool on each end of each blank.

    Other points to consider: this lathe has a threaded spindle nose. There was no standard for the design of threaded lathe spindle noses, and manufacturers used whatever diameter and pitch of thread they thought was right for their lathes. As a result, if the lathe comes with chucks and possibly a faceplate, you are ahead of the game. If you have to get another chuck for this lathe, you may well find yourself machining a backplate from scratch, boring and threading it in the lathe to fit the lathe's spindle nose.

    I agree that $1000 does seem a bit high for a lathe of this type and in the condition you describe and which your photos depict. I'd say 5-600 dollars is a realistic price for an old lathe of this type.

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    Do your self a favor - ride down to Mountain Home AR and check out the 12 X 30 late model 1500 RPM Pratt & Whitney - and work on getting that one down to 50%

    No, its not mine - but I owned one for over 20 years - and I can email you the manuals

    Metal Lathe - tools - by owner - sale

    have fun

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    "Tied down" - The owner became disabled a few months ago. The lathe was then moved to his brother's house to sell and left with lift chains still in place. THANK YOU for the bearing info! I was told this was used for rifle barrels back in the day and given its age - I assume was heavily used during WWII, so it has to have some serious mileage on it.

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    Joe - great write up. Many thanks! Yes, you are correct on the 3 detents. left and far right is for in/out for crossfeed, the center is 'neutral' for the bed. I played with the clutches and every conceivable lever/dial and while I could engage leadscrew (watch it turning), as soon as the bed was engaged - in neutral - the leadscrew would stop.

    I'm gathering from the wonderful feedback if restoring lathes was a hobby and the price was right, this could be a fun project (I love this old crap anyway), but my need today is to gear up quickly to build tooling for a car project, so this is probably a pass. If I can get it cheap enough, say ~$500, it could be worth stuffing in the corner as a future project. Hell, I spent more than that for junk carburetors that had the right part #.

    Thank you for the great info.
    Last edited by Robrods; 01-03-2021 at 10:06 PM. Reason: grammer

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    So what? No nasa
    contract right? If you like it buy it. You know its old and worn, but anyone can still make uaseable parts off it with some practice

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    Since you arent sure what you are looking for....(for instance a bit of backlash isnt bad)....possibly a good idea is to ask to see some of the work that was done on the lathe.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Robrods View Post
    Joe - great write up. Many thanks! Yes, you are correct on the 3 detents. left and far right is for in/out for crossfeed, the center is 'neutral' for the bed. I played with the clutches and every conceivable lever/dial and while I could engage leadscrew (watch it turning), as soon as the bed was engaged - in neutral - the leadscrew would stop.

    I'm gathering from the wonderful feedback if restoring lathes was a hobby and the price was right, this could be a fun project (I love this old crap anyway), but my need today is to gear up quickly to build tooling for a car project, so this is probably a pass. If I can get it cheap enough, say ~$500, it could be worth stuffing in the corner as a future project. Hell, I spent more than that for junk carburetors that had the right part #.

    Thank you for the great info.
    There are surely better lathes to be had.

    If the alternative was a "Precision Matthews"? For free, even?

    I'd just keep looking.....

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    If you're new to machining a lathe of this size might not be the best fit - parts are not available, tooling is larger and more expensive and it'll eat you up without blinking if you make a mistake. Not saying that you can't learn on a larger lathe, but a smaller belt drive lathe like a South Bend 9 or Logan 10 will be much more forgiving and easier to fix anything broken. Plus they hold their value (easier to move, easier to fit in a small space, the reasons above) so will be easy to sell on when you do want to step up to a larger heavier machine.

    ^ that's not gospel by any stretch, but I'm very glad I got most (ha!) of my more stupid mistakes out on a small lathe The learning curve from no machining knowledge to being somewhat competent is really steep for the first couple of years in my experience.


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