"One Perfect Part at a Time"

Thoughts on Miniature Machine Tools

I don’t own any large machine tools. I have often called my larger machines, the X3 mill and the LatheMaster, my midi sized machine tools. It’s not I don’t like larger machines; I just don’t currently need them. Someday I may but not so far for my personal use. To be honest there are some larger machines I would own if I had the work to support their use. That’s another story. See the last line.

I have smaller sized machine tools here in the shop that I use on a regular basis. Two popular American product lines are the Sherline and the Taig manufacturers. Both produce high quality run-out-of-the-box micro machines. I could enjoy making small size parts for the rest of my life with either brand of these tools.

I have selected Taig for my use (and to sell) because I personally know the quality and I like the design. By the way, I don’t have a “Fandom” mentality on a brand name. That’s for the obsessed, defending a product as “best” just by the “brand” name it wears. The fashion (clothing) business is much the same case. I buy a shop tool (or anything actually) because it fits my need, works for me and is available. There, done with the decision, I soon get over brand obsession and am happily using my purchase.

I personally own and operate a few Proxxon brand tools. I even sell a few. The Proxxon market niche is the micro to mini size machine tool and includes powered (and now non-powered) hand tools. Made mostly in Germany and imported to the USA, they are higher priced but also fuss free and very high quality. I just open the box and use them.

The cost on most of the Proxxon line items (except for lathes and especially mills) is well within competitive range to similar quality products. The machine tools are not in the premium price range but rather mid range as costs go. They are usually better in the details like collets, bearings, good fit and smooth and quite operation compared to lower cost machines.

A concern I have is if new buyers understand how small micro and mini tools should be used. They’re for hobby or craft use and small industrial applications like dental labs. Small and medium size hobby crafts are their real sweet spots. Most tools this size are not suitable for major construction use like building real furniture. There are operation limits that can be exceeded because of their size.

Not selecting the lowest price machine in this class size doesn’t automatically make them bigger, heavier, or stronger. It just permits investment into better tool finish, great attention to detail, more operational (use) finesse, and a longer lasting value. Proper use must still be understood and practiced.

OK, enough about brand names and sales pitch.

I spend time thinking about small parts made by hobbyists who are NOT pure machinist hobbyists. These are folks who become a casual machinist and use machine tools just so they can make what they need or want for another activities they enjoy.

A hobbyist who wants to make telescope parts or kids’ scooter parts wants to get the job done. Someone making model train parts for a Garden Railway hobby, wants a small bench tool that plugs in the wall outlet and works. Fixing broken or poorly made and fitted milling or lathe machine parts is not part of their fun. For them inferior tools is a great frustration.

Next consider a fine furniture builder (ha!), like me. If I can afford quality, it can be safely assumed I am not interested in constantly rebuilding a low quality cabinet saw or fussing with an inaccurate fence. Once a quality saw is purchased and set up, I want the next ten years to be spent making furniture and occasionally changing the blade. A quality investment pays me in the long run.

So I believe most beginners (and pros) don’t want to take the time to re-build a new purchase just to have a usable tool. Publications and web sites that cater to the Machine Tool Hobbyist (Yes, my own web sites included) show a lot of effort to the Nth degree, on improving the low cost machines. I point out weaknesses or defects to “fix” or features I would like to have, or have just installed. I actually like to spend my hobby time fiddling with the machines to get them “right.” This is probably more or at least equal to the amount of time I use them. This “fix it” impression can be intimidating to a first time machine buyer just wanting to make a custom part.

The machinist hobby is one of the few where the first bought machines can be so poor that they need to be rebuilt to just get started in the hobby. That is going about it all wrong for some buyers. Like I said above, I accidentally promote low quality first time purchase because I show how to make corrections. It is the nature of the hobby of machining, to machine machines but it is not the only way to purchase first time machinist tools.

So there is a “buyers beware” trap out there in purchasing lowest cost mini sized machines. I sell a lot of steel gears to improve popular versions of one of them.

I am not condemning the cheap and fixable approach. Again I admit, I did it that way myself. It’s just not the only way to go. Especially true if you don’t own the tools and machines needed to fix the defective machine’s problems.

Quality micro and mini machine tools are an important consideration for the budget minded hobbyist crafts person and model builder trying to get started in machining. If the project is small, then the machines can be simple, not requiring a lot of quick change gears and expensive options. Options can be added later of course. The micro/mini machines I mention above are well built and easy to maintain and understand. The small size makes them low enough cost that spending more for a quality tool is affordable. This is my reason to stay away from spending the same on poorer quality larger than needed machines.

Bottom line, in a free market, quality is never the lowest price. Broken stuff is sold at the lowest price because it is broken. If the process of creating high quality limits volume (the yield) then the price is driven up by those who can or will pay for the quality of the limited production. DeBeers has played that game with diamonds… forever.

It’s low labor, high speed, high volume, mass production that has made things (which are made that way) low in cost and generally lower in quality. This is the mass production process used when “good enough” is a lot less than slow and deliberate perfection.

One way I reduce cost and maintain quality is to not buy the lowest cost (unless I know how and are willing and capable of fixing the quality issues.) The exception is when the items are EXACTLY the same and the only difference IS the price. I don’t buy more size or features than I need. Small is OK if it fits my task.

I don’t have a 10 inch lathe because I don’t need a 10 inch lathe and if I needed a 10 inch lathe I’d probably want to spend $10K+ for a very good one.

If I were a rich man, Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum…

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