What lathe to buy


Well-Known Member
Feb 24, 2010
And never put any machine within 2' of a wall. You will hate yourself forever. 3' is better. And I dont hate myself anymore. :D


Well-Known Member
Aug 5, 2009
Carlisle, PA
There is a lot of good input here, but some of it, while good practice, is quite frankly overkill for a lathe in a hobby gunsmithing shop. To the extent overkill keeps a guy (or gal) from getting a lathe and enjoying it, overkill is bad. So I'll offer the following opinion based on my experience.

I understand it's better to have a lathe on a foundation that goes to bedrock with lots of rebar in it, leveled to a gnats eyelash, but frankly, in 60 years of running a lathe on a hobby basis I've not found it necessary for lathes of hobby size - 12 x 36 or even 14 x 40 (or even my friends 15 x 40). I've had my two lathes in three garages and now my detached shop building. Until now they sat on a 4" poured concrete floor in a So. Cal. housing development, earthquakes (Sylmar, Northridge) and all. And it worked just fine. Now it's sitting on a 6" poured concrete floor.

This is especially true of barrel work through the headstock. The carriage travel is two or three inches right near the headstock - if you don't do anything but set a decent lathe on the swept floor and go to work the barrel tenon will be just fine as long as it's correctly aligned with the spindle axis which takes patience but is relatively easy to do with the right tooling.

The tail stock with a home made reamer pusher that has radial float like mine (made in less than two hours) will chamber a barrel through the headstock dead true even if the tail stock is aligned .005" high as long as the bore is correctly aligned with the spindle axis. I know that because that is the case with my 12 x 36 import lathe (sitting on a 6" concrete floor with 2" square x 3/8" thick steel pads under the 4 leveling screws).

Tail stock alignment is really critical only if one doesn't use a reamer pusher that has radial complaince. So use one that has radial compliance. Radial compliance is as easy as the reamer being pushed by a flat surface! The reamer will align itself with the bore unless you push it out of alignment. That fact is completely ignored by most. The reamer is constrained by the physics of it's application to want to exactly center itself in the bore. The only time it won't is if the operator forces it out of alignment or the bore is aligned so that the reamer can't stay centered in it because the pusher won't let it.

Crowning only requires cross slide travel with the carriage or compound moving a few thousandts for creating about any crown one can imagine except Richard Franklin's quiet crown and that one doesn't require precision for the bore. For all the barrel work, the cuts are light, the loads on the lathe are relatively light, and the small movements mean that even if the bed is off .003" from end to end you still won't see it in the tenon threads or the chamber working with the barrel correctly aligned through the headstock.

Even for action truing the loads are light, speeds are reasonabe, and carriage travel is relatively short. It isn't necessary to have a lathe leveled tracable to the national bureau of standards to do it. Use a precision level and leveling screws and you're good to go. I know because that is how I've done it.

Pressure fed coolant is better than stopping, cleaning, dipping the reamer in cutting fluid, and starting atain every 0.015" to 0.025" depth of cut, but millions of chambers have been cut with out pressure fed coolant, and more will be cut every day with out it - probably around the world there are a hundred being cut with out pressure fed coolant as I type this. For production work it would be mandatory because it would make the process so much faster, but for a hobby guy like me, taking 3 hours to cut a chamber means I have 2 hours and 45 minutes more fun per barrel than if I did it in 15 minutes.

Chad Dixon has a wonderful setup, I drool all over pictures of it and read every one of his posts more than once, but one can make very good and accurate rifles with equipment that costs less than 10% of what he has invested. It just takes longer. He can turn them out in quantity but for hobby gunsmithing that isn't required. He is trememdously skilled - if I could afford it I'd just have him build my rifles, but I can't and I love doing it myself. He is also very good at programming the CNC machines, a skill that isn't learned over night.

It isn't necessary to have a professionally reconditioned Monarch or Hardinge either. There are gunsmiths all across the country making their living with Grizzly gunsmithing lathes sitting on 4" thick garage or shop floors. They have happy customers that come back for more. If it works for them, it will work for a hobbiest as well. It works for me.

We aren't trying to make rocket engine parts on a production basis. What's under consideration is a hobby gunsmithing lathe for the original poster, or folks with a similar desire. Barreling, chambering, maybe some action trying, and support for bedding and stock work. Either Grizzly sitting on a 4" or 6" concrete floor (that isn't cracked under the lathe) will do the job - so will a number of other lathes in the same price range. I recommend Grizzly because I've seen them in the show room, seen photos of them being used by professionals, and I think they can provide long term parts support should there be a problem. A lathe is a long term investment. My 9" South Bend was bought by my Dad in 1950 - I still use it several times a month in my hobby shop 60 years later.

The most important thing about a gunsmithing lathe is to have one that's adequate. The perfect lathe you don't have doesn't get it done. What it needs is relatively simple:

1-3/8 minimum thorugh headstock, 1-1/2" is better. 2" is even better but one can make lots of rifles with a 1-1/2" spindle bore.
Maximum of 70 rpm for minimum speed, 1/2 that is better. both my lathes have a slow spindle speed of 36 rpm. I'm about to do the square threads on a 1903 Springfield and I'm thinking of changing the pulley to make it even slower.
Maximum of 18 or 19 inches from the front of what ever is used for a chuck to the centering bolts in the tail of the headstock.
The ability to do both imperial and metric threads.
The tooling (measuring instruments, cutting tools, work holding, tool holding, reamers, thread bits, etc.) to accomplish the work with the lathe.
A reasonably flat uncracked section of concrete floor to set it on far enough from a wall that you can walk behind it.

An extremely desirable option IMO is to have a 3 phase lathe powered off a converter (converters are dirt simple and easy to make). A three phase lathe so powered can be plug reversed (flip the switch from forward to reverse) which is very handy for cutting metric threads to a shoulder that require leaving the half nuts engaged (which is most of them if the lathe has an imperial leadscrew). This is not a good idea if the chuck is threaded onto the spindle, but most new lathes will have a D1-4 or similar spindle nose and with these it works just fine.

As was posted earlier in this thread, either of the Grizzly lathes, and many other 12 x 36 import lathes meet these requirements. Just don't get a Smithy or some other combination machine - you won't like that for gunsmithing at all.

Finally, don't get a lathe that has a headstock so long the barrel won't reach thorugh it and stick out the back end of the spindle an inch or two. That makes aligning the barrel through the headstock a lot more difficult than it if sticks out both ends like it does on my lathe. It also makes using the alignment method in Gordy Gritter's video essentially impossible, at least totally impractical.

Spend the money saved by buying an adequate lathe on a Bridgeport or BP Clone vertical mill. You will find all sorts of things it can do for bedding, cutting extractor notches in barrels, cutting sight dovetails, etc.

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Well-Known Member
Jun 11, 2010
greenwood, IN
Thanks trickymisfit I will make sure I do that we are going to build shop at my ranch so I will have the slab beefed up and will get u to talk me thue it LOL
I recommend a 6" square piece of 1018 steel plate for leveling pads. You may have to drill a hole thru it for the lag bolts (these are more important than the leveling screws!). I know it's a little more work, but before you set the machine take a small body grinder with a sanding pad on it and actually sand the bumps in the concrete away. The pads need to be at least stoned so there are no bumps on them (especially the side facing the floor). Leveling the machine just makes the coolant and oil stay in the right places, so take little stock in the quality of a leveling job on a machine! Use the biggest fine threaded screws you can for lag bolts and by all means use a jam nut. I have had floors so bad that I had to use different thicknesses of pads on one end than the other, so don't be alarmed if that happens. The trick here is to keep the feet of the lathe as close to the pad as you can (I do not like a gap bigger than .10"). If the floor is very rough (I've seen this a few times), spray the bottom of the pads with Johnsons Pledge, and coat them with a good heavy coating of Devcon epoxy (this will help fill the gaps between the plate and the floor). Lastly! (this is very very important) Never ever place the bed of the lathe accross a crack in the floor. Be it a seperation joint or just a run of the mill crack. The machine will never stay aligned, and actually will wear much quicker.

You get ready to do a finish alignment; let me know and I'll help you thru it.


Well-Known Member
Sep 29, 2003
THANK YOU FITCH!!!!!!!!!!!

I can't stand it whenever somebody asks about purchasing a "hobby Lathe" to thread a few barrels for himself and a few friends and the "machinists" show up and start talking about buying some lathe off a WWII battle ship that needs more work than any home shop fellow is capable of. "Scraping Ways"...Are you kidding me!
They start talking about lathes with HUGE headstocks that you can't use for any barrel less than three feet long! Or the fellow asks about a "reasonably priced lathe" and they get suggestions for $15K , three ton machines with three phase motors..........

I started out with a Smithy machine and built some amazingly accurate rifles and handguns. Won a few matches with them. I really had to use my head and figure out how to machine a 26" barrel on such a machine. But it was great fun just in the planning. I sold the Smithy for more than I paid for it.

On advice from the "machinists" I then bought a Southbend that really was from a WWII submarine! Took me over a year to just get it running in a fashion you could call accurate.
I had to chamber with a steady rest and I hated it. I was told if I bought anything not made in the USA, I was "unAmerican".
I attended a bunch of the NRA Summer Gunsmithing Schools and got to use lathes where we chambered through the headstock. Some of them were made in Italy, Japan and God forbid, China!

Sold the SB and bought a 1985 Taiwan Jet 12X36BD........Still have it!. Makes GREAT barrels. Added a DRO and a DC motor with speed control. I LOVE this lathe. I've used much more expensive machines but I can't make any better rifles with them.

I know a bunch of folks making fantastically accurate rifles with the Grizzly Gunsmith lathes. Winning matches and having a blast!

In my book, any lathe is better than no lathe.........When I look at the machining on my 1906 Mannlicher Schoenauer and realize what they used to build this rifle, well, you get my drift....



Well-Known Member
Dec 21, 2010
Yes, I agree that you can get carried away and pay big bucks for a new machine just to fit and chamber a few barrels a year. There are different ways to look at that however. You can drive from here to California in a 1982 Chevy truck just as well as driving a 2011 truck and the end result is the same-you arrive in Calif. The trip might be more enjoyable in the 1982 due to the fact you only paid $1500 for it as opposed $35000 for the 2011. Then there is someone like myself, who would rather drive the new truck for the enjoyment of the ride.
A good friend of mine is one that goes to auctions and buys used machines and starts working on them. He is capable of doing this because he has a machine shop and the skill to fabricate almost anything. He has a 3 ton Sidney lathe made around 1950. I have a 14x40 that I bought new and prefer it over something old(even though his machine is heavier,sturdier and so on.)
Knowing what I know now-I would do it a little differently if doing over. I wouldnt buy the $15K lathe that I bought-I would buy a new import-the largest spindle that still used single phase(probably a 14x40 is biggest lathe and still single phase) and had no smaller than 1-9/16 hole through spindle. Buy a quality 6 jaw chuck and Aloris tool holder and you are set.

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