I know that city kids today want iPhones and Pokemons and Bluetooth speakers. But when I was growing up in Manhattan I only wanted one thing, and I wanted it badly. This came about because my father had given me a book called "How to Run a Lathe." My father knew I liked mechanical things, and the super in our building was an ex-machinist and had left it behind, so my dad scooped it up and gave it to me.
Well, that did it. I read it, I dreamt about it. I wanted a lathe, a real lathe. Never mind that I was six years old; I had a great plan for how to get one.
See, in those days there was a huge machinery district around Grand and Canal Streets, where you could buy any machine tool you could think of. There were just blocks and blocks of machine shops on the ground floors and through windows and open storefronts you could see big lathes and milling machines that were always running.
A few blocks down from this area were the New York City court buildings. My dad told me he'd been called for jury duty, and then I found out what jury duty was, and then I realized he had to go downtown to the courts--and would have to pass Grand and Canal to get there! So I made him promise he would get me a lathe. I remember his answer being vaguely unsatisfying but I was sure he would come back with a lathe, and I couldn't wait to get home from school that day.
Well, he didn't get me a lathe. He got me a timer. A wind-up timer. It was one of the big disappointments of my youth.
Later, when I graduated high school, my father did buy me a small Unimat Lathe. I used that lathe for years, but it's very small and the roundways aren't very stable. Still, as I started Tools for Working Wood it got dusted off, oiled and proved pretty useful. We made a lot of shop jigs on it and prototyped a bunch of things we needed for tools we were developing, like the Gramercy Tools Bow Saw and even the saw nuts on all of our backsaws, like our Sash Saw. (See how I snuck some plugs in there?)
Anyways, last week I crossed something off my bucket list, and got what I have been waiting for since I was six years old:
Enter a caption (optional)
This beautiful machine is a 1951 LaBlond Regal Lathe! Fourteen-inch swing! Thirty inches between centers! Power cross-feed! And very little wear despite the fact that it's older than I am. I saw an ad online from a close-out guy selling this thing and I had it in my shop three days later. We also got a milling machine at the same time. These tools are mostly for prototyping rather than production but we needed a big lathe badly, much more badly than I did when I was six.
The lathe as it arrived in our shop on 33rd street
As of now the lathe is all leveled, the machine is mostly cleaned and the electrician comes Wednesday. I am thrilled, even if it'll be my guys, and not me, who will be using it most of the time.
It came with a fair assortment of collets and chucks. We use them all the time. The elegance of the various levers, not to mention how good they feel in the hand make this lathe a pleasure to use. The gearbox with its forward, reverse and gear changer for screw cutting and power feeds is the coolest part of the lathe for those of us who never had a machine with power feeds.
Oh, one more thing. The lathe came out of a stamping company somewhere in the Northeast; might've been upstate, or Jersey, or PA, and who knows how many times it's changed hands or moved. But we do know from a plate on the base (see below) that originally the lathe was purchased from a store in downtown New York City. So, after wandering around for 50 years, our boy has finally come home!!!
Enter a caption (optional)
An Update: I wrote the above a few years ago, and allowed Core77 to reprint it here. Since then the electricians came, and then last year the riggers came and moved the lathe to our new location on 26th Street in Brooklyn and then the electricians came again. Incidentally, in case you are unfamiliar with moving machine shops, the lathe weighs about half a ton. That's actually pretty light for a big machine tool, but it has to be set level or the bed will be out-of-accuracy at best, or it'll break, at worst. So whenever you move machines like this you don't let regular movers touch it. You call riggers, who basically have the cranes, jacks and levers to move just about anything precisely and carefully. You really have to think about where exactly you want this machine--it's not like moving a coffee table.
The lathe and our Bridgeport mill are from a dead age of totally analog machines. And the 1950s design attracts tons of comments. (By comments I mean actual verbal comments from people walking through our space, not the kind you tap out on a keyboard.) It might be an industrial machine but it is also a thing of beauty, at least in my eyes. We use it a fair amount and we take care of it. It does leak a little gearbox oil, but that's not uncommon.
And who knows, in ten, twenty years it might move into another shop with some other person who will be as pleased with it as I am.
By the way, that "How to Run a Lathe" book still occupies a treasured place on my bookshelf. And I'm glad I didn't know, at six years of age, how long I'd have to wait to get the lathe I dreamed of. I probably wouldn't have been able to bear it.
We love a good tool story. If you liked this one, check out this other one here by David Waelder, about a very different tool. --Ed.