Precision Metal Carving
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Precision Metal Carving

Some folks can cut, hammer, and beat metal into submission with little more than a few hammers, files and drill bits. Most folks, myself included, tend to think of metal as a hard and unchangeable substance that only The Chosen Few can create parts out of. That's where these tools come into play - they allow regular folks to carve out custom shapes in chunks of metal with a high degree of precision and without having to learn too many black arts, sell your soul, or anything similarly distasteful. They're also fun to use and any self-respecting tool-lover knows full well that they want one of each for their shop.



I purchased a 7x10 mini-lathe from Harbor Freight, and it's incredibly cool. I was thinking about it and unsure of whether to take the plunge or not, unsure of the quality of a $370 lathe from Harbor Freight, and unsure of exactly how to go about using a lathe once I got it. I started searching Google and I stumbled across an awesome site devoted to this specific lathe - It has an incredible amount of detail about this specific tool and many great pages devoted to how to use it to get excellent results. I also stumbled across a great site devoted to providing extra tools and accessories for this class of lathes - Between these two sites, and the sites they linked to, I was able to learn everything I needed to know to get started and to feel confident that I was buying A Good Tool. My initial experiences with the lathe were very positive with my very first cutting attempts being successful. I did have some trouble with the motor (it burned out after only about 20 hours of use), but Harbor Freight shipped me a new one free of charge, so I can't complain about too much here.

Some of the things I learned very fast are that some form of stool to sit on while machining is mandatory (I used an old rotating bar stool with a back for some support), some padding on a concrete floor is helpful (Harbor Freight sells foam rubber pads that work quite well), and that you will definitely want to add some extra tools and accessories so you can do more work. Below is my quick list of "must have" additions once you get the lathe set up and working. See for more details and for all your shopping needs. The lathe doesn't come with any tools - you have to supply your own. I was lame and didn't take this into account, so I had a brand new lathe sitting in my garage with a chunk of aluminum bar stock ready to carve up for fun - and no bits to do any work with. While I was waiting for the tools to arrive, I was so desperate to start playing around with the lathe that I ground an old screwdriver down and used that as a cutting tool. Seriously.

  •  Cutting and facing bits in various forms
  •  A parting tool holder and parting bits
  •  A 5" 4 jaw chuck and adaptor plate
  •  A boring bar set and holder
  •  Chip brushes
  •  A bucket or bin to brush metal chips and shavings into for later disposal (aka, recycling)
  •  T-handle hex keys to adjust the lathe with
  •  Dial indicator and dial calipers
  •  Apron to keep metal chips off your clothes
  •  Safety glasses to protect your eyes.
  •  Metal to cut


Drill Press

This is my basic drill press, courtesy of Harbor Freight. It's got a nice set of features and a decent range, and the price was right for a floor standing unit. A drill press is a nice step up from a hand-held drill. It allows for precision holes to be drilled anywhere in a part at any angle you can get the "table" on your particular drill press to adjust to. Much better than a hand-drill, but at $160 and up, it's not anywhere near as cheap as a $40 hand drill from Sears.

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Band Saw

This is a small unit from Harbor Freight and it does both horizontal and vertical cutting. I'll mostly be using it in the horizontal cut mode - it's perfect for cutting small pieces to length for various projects and is way faster, easier, and more accurate than a hand-operated hacksaw ever would be in my barely-trained hands. It's fairly quiet in operation, reasonably easy to set up, and does angle cuts if needed.

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In the future I plan on purchasing a mini-mill to augment my meager metal shop and enable me to do even more custom work. When I do, I'll post pictures and details here.

For the unfamiliar, a mill is a cross between a lathe and a drill press and looks a lot like a drill press with a moveable "table" to put the part on. When using a lathe, you typically spin the part and the bits are moved with precision spinner wheels to cut the part how you want to. When using a drill press, you clamp the part to the "table" and the drill bit is spun and moved down and into the part with a large non-precision arm or wheel. When using a mill, you mount the bit and part similar to a drill press - the part is clamped to the "table" and the bit is spun from above. The up and down control of the bit is via a precision wheel, and the "table" also has precision wheels to move it forward and backwards, and side to side. The bits are also designed differently than drill bits in that they can cut material sideways and they typically have a flat bottom instead of being pointed. The allows you to precisely remove material from a piece of metal in all three dimensions without the removal having to be done with the part rotating. A lathe is an excellent tool for cutting any rotational-based shapes, but has very limited capability to cut flat surfaces - basically you can only "face" a part to make it flat. If you have ever heard of "CNC milling" or seen custom aluminum wheels being cut out on a computer controlled machine (such as on American Hot Rod or American Chopper), then you know what a mill is. The kind a typical home shop would have is not computer controlled, but the mechanical and machining principles are the same. You just move the part yourself with small hand wheels to get the result you want.

Comments? Kudos? Got some parts you'd like to buy/sell/barter/swap? Nasty comments about my web page so far? You can email Mike or Debbie.

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Page last updated 03/10/2010 11:19:04 PM