Preparing For A Lathe: How to Move 3000 Pounds of Iron

You say to yourself, “Self, I want, nay, need a lathe”. Being a good little trooper, you then did all your research, having chosen Import or American, Imperial or Metric, and all your feed options and such. You then pulled the trigger and the machine is en route to your shop. Now what?

Choosing a Spot for a Serious Tool

First and foremost, you need to figure out where to put it. Sure, you probably should have done that before you bought it, and maybe a pulling a tape measure would have been a good idea. Never let pesky details like that get in the way of buying something cool, though. You can make room. How badly do you really need a refrigerator? In a pinch you could sleep under the workbench and gain all that space taken up by the bed. Get creative in your shop layout.

If you bought a bench-top machine, you will of course need bench space for it. Some smaller machines, such as watchmaker’s lathes, can be stored in a cabinet and pulled out for use. Anything larger will need a permanent home, and should be bolted to the heaviest bench possible. The more mass you can inject into the system, the fewer issues you’ll have with tool chatter. Mass also damps vibrations when turning stock off-center or spinning up oddly-shaped things. Make sure the bench location you choose is close to power, because extension cords are to be avoided for machine tools. You’ll also likely need a bit of room behind the machine to access fuses and such.

If you bought a large floor-standing machine, be aware that these often require access to the back side of them for some types of adjustments and setup. This can mean anywhere from a few inches to several feet, depending on the machine. Large lathes are often placed in the middle of a shop partly for this reason. Big lathes also often need access to an overhead crane or chain fall for changing large chucks, or manipulating heavy stock.

The author’s Precision Matthews lathe, bolted to a steel bench, with plenty of space behind and to the left.

Regardless of the type of machine, make sure to leave space to the left of the headstock. You need room for long stock to protrude through the spindle. If you’re limited to only working on stock that fits entirely inside the spindle, you’ll limit your projects quite a bit, and you’ll be forced to waste a lot more stock.

I also recommend giving a thought to cleaning. Machine tools throw chips everywhere, and all the shields and trays and guards in the world won’t prevent it. Make sure you’ll be able to clean in, around, and behind the machine. You don’t want oily chips piling up forever. In some cases, this can even be a bit of a fire hazard.

Next, you want to look down and see what’s there. If your shop is in a bouncy castle, you’re no doubt having fun, but perhaps machining is not for you. (Small children also tend to gum up the change gears, which are a hassle to clean.) A concrete floor is ideal, whether under the machine itself, or under the workbench the machine is sitting on. Wood floors are not ideal for a floor-standing machine, because it shifts and warps. Less stable flooring can be okay, but you’ll need to re-level your machines more often. The same goes for mounting a bench-top machine on a wooden bench.

Delivery Day is About Heavy Lifting

The author’s Precision Matthews lathe on delivery day.

With all that sorted out, it’s time to think about taking delivery. New bench-top machines are likely to come on a pallet. Unless you have a loading dock, that means you’ll need lift-gate delivery service, which costs extra. If you’re buying used, don’t assume the seller has any way to put it in your truck. You’ll also need a way to get it off your truck and on to your bench in your shop. An engine hoist (sometimes also called a cherry picker, engine picker, or shop crane) is a great tool for all these jobs. They fold up nicely and are incredibly useful for lots of things around the shop. The rule of thumb for these is to get one at least double the size you think you need. If your machine weighs around 300lbs, get the 2-ton crane. The reason is that the ratings for these are based on the shortest extension of the lifting arm, which renders them useless. They operate (typically) at one-quarter their rating at full extension of the arm. Note that engine hoists can handle up to medium-sized floor-standing machines as well. Just make sure you really know how much it weighs.

Using an engine hoist to set a small lathe on its stand. Note the use of a lifting sling, and the properly-chosen lift point around the ways webbing.

For a large floor standing machine, you’ll need to get more creative for loading in your truck. Forklifts and front-end loaders are a good option, and can be easily rented. If the seller has a gantry crane or overhead chain fall hoist of some sort, that’s also good. Failing all that, it is possible to winch them up a ramp on to a trailer, but don’t underestimate the difficulty of this for 3000lbs of cast iron. It can easily be an all-day job to load this way, and it’s not the safest option. Unloading is the reverse of loading, as the saying goes (not really — I just made that up). If your machine came with a manual, be sure to follow the lifting instructions therein. Machines often have an unintuitive center of mass, so it can be tricky to know where and how to lift it. Use proper lift slings and good crane etiquette. This means absolutely no meat parts under the load at any time, be in control of the momentum, and always assume the worst is about to happen.

Using round bars and a prybar to move a large milling machine.

Once in your shop, floor-standing machines can be moved with various methods. A pallet jack is a great option if the machine is already sitting on something that allows you to get under it. Failing that, a common method is to go Full Egyptian. You can jack up the machine a little at a time and slide round steel bar stock under it. With a piece every foot or so, you can roll and slide the machine with a large prybar. It’s possible to move huge machines by yourself using this method.

I’ll close with the word that sows dread into the heart of every machine shop enthusiast. That word so heinous that many dare not speak it aloud: Stairs. Yes, the real world often has stairs in it, and people have moved huge machines down narrow basement death ladders. The first rule of doing this is to reduce weight as much as possible. Tear the machine down as far as you can. I’ve seen people strip lathes all the way down to a bare ways in order to slide pieces down the stairs one at a time. If you’re doing a restoration project, this is no big deal because you were going to dismantle it anyway. Plan ahead for this, though. It can be a long project in itself to dismantle a large machine, and you don’t want to be doing that on your front lawn on a school night in the rain.

Once you get your machine in situ, it’s time to get set up. Next time we’ll talk all about the fine art of lathe leveling.

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