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Inexpensive tooling - a JOAT's perspective

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  • Inexpensive tooling - a JOAT's perspective

    I'm not a master machinist, but I did receive an associates degree in Machining Technology, and I have been passionate about the trade since I was just a little shaver watching my father and grandfather make all sorts of parts from scratch in Dads little 700' garage, a good 30+ years ago. Right out of college (1999) I went into industrial repair as a "Millwright/Machinist" at a local refinery that used trapped natural gas to make anhydrous ammonia, prills, and granules, and life was good. Margins were high, we had a great budget, and I was able to purchase any tool I wanted without question. We had nothing but the best and lots of it, from any sort of carbide insert to the nicest measuring tools I could find. We had a full time tool room attendant and a massive selection of well maintained tools from Kennametal inserts to Snap-on ratchets. The work was hard, very high pressure, but the pay was good and I was in it for the long haul.

    Fast forward 5 years. The world market had been crushed, margins disappeared, and layoffs started. Politics between the represented hourly hands and the salary corporate folks had risen to a new high so I was ready to find another employer. I volunteered to go with the first round, burned through my severance while looking for work, but was fortunate enough to find a job at a neighboring refinery as a Rotating Equipment Mechanic/Machinist. (2005) Life was different. This new refinery had been through hard times and still operated with the same philosophy that made them successful even when their stock had dropped to an all time low. IE: They were TIGHT with their money.

    It was complete and total culture shock. I went from having three CNC machines (Laguns and Bridgeports), a dozen manuals (LeBlonds, Laguns, and various very nice, well made boring mills, large gap bed lathes, grinders, etc.) and a vast tool room to an import 12x40 lathe, a very worn out Bridgeport with a very sketchy 2 axis DRO. We had one tool box full of broken end mills, worn out inserts, and a 40 year old set of Craftsman non-carbide tipped micrometers. Not only did we not have Snap-on tools, we had a corporate wide ban on the purchase of them, and many of the mechanics had put so many miles on their Proto wrenches that the 12 point box end had worn out so completely that they were no longer capable of breaking loose even the easiest bolts. It was a very quick and brutal introduction to the extremes of operating philosophies.

    Since hiring on I have seen some great changes. I was able to justify a decent CNC 3 axis mill, a nice LeBlond gap bed (43" swing), and a nice old surface grinder. We finally are able to buy a few decent measuring tools once or twice a year and get the mechanics new wrenches when theirs wear out but being responsible for the purchase of new tooling I find myself looking for sales, bargains, and little places where I can save as much money as possible while still keeping our equipment reliability above industry standards. Our numbers are significantly higher than our competition and I am proud of it. We are able to do great work with what bigger companies likely couldn't imagine.

    How this translates into the home shop machinist world...

    I've been doing fabrication and machining at home, in my own little 700' shop, since the winter of 2000/2001. I started with a garage sale buzz box, one grinder, and a small set of oxy/acet torches I bought on a student discount at a local Air Liquide. My personal budget has always been tight, my shop always small, and my goals always large. Since the beginning of my career I have had the privilege of full use of the company shops after hours. This allowed me to make a lot of really cool parts for any number of projects. At the first job I had everything I could ever want at my disposal, at the second I had very little, yet in both places I managed to tackle projects small and large, some that consumed nearly every waking moment, sometimes for years on end.

    Recently some things worked out to pile up in my favor financially so I took the opportunity to finally purchase some machine tools of my own. Over the last 3 months I've been able to spend about 10k on some machine and fabrication tools, all of which are second, third, fourth hand, or imported from various countries most hold in low regard as they relate to machine tools. I bought a home built CNC knock off Bridgeport 9x42, a completely worn out South Bend 9, and a bunch of small tooling to support those machines, a Jet belt/disc sander, and a no name 48" box and pan brake. These machines are supported by my AHP imported TIG welder, Husky tool boxes full of garage sale Craftsman, Proto, and import wrenches. I've bought some nice Ingersol Rand impacts, Mititoyo calipers, Starrett micrometers, and Snap-on Ratchets, but the majority of my tools were bought at Home Depot, Harbor Freight, Ebay, and Amazon, and do not carry a high end name brand. All in all I have just about every thing I need to re-wire a modern luxury car, build 1000 hp hot rods, fabricate complete tube chassis race buggies,modify firearms, and build high performance racing snowmobiles. All in my little home shop, and I am quite proud of it. Its rewarding to do much with little. Having to make due has taught me ways to do more. Being thrifty has lead me from failing basic electronics in college to re-wiring my house, shop, and cnc mill. It has introduced me to fine body work, precision TIG welding, mass production fabrication, automotive machining, computer programming, and endless other things I really learned to enjoy.

    Last week I took delivery of my first import tool that let me down. I bought a set of ER32 collets and the cheapest R8 collet holder I could find. The collet holder had .010" run-out on the collet taper! Junk. 27 dollars of absolute garbage. The key way was cut too short and the key was biting into the tooling radius up by the tapered R8 shoulder. But... it came with a nice spanner wrench which works just as well as the 30 dollar shiny anodized wrenches you can find online. I was inclined to throw the collet holder away, or send it back to the seller with a nasty-gram, but I decided to see if I could fix it myself. I did just buy a lathe right?!

    I've spent a few hours working on that junk tool, while I could be working on the race truck that's taking up the majority of my shop, but no. I'm going to fix that thing myself and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. I have a job. I make decent money. But I enjoy coming home and relaxing in the shop, tinkering, thinking, and making or repairing things. Finding ways to make chicken soup out of chicken... Its satisfying. So if I find myself repairing another junk tool in the next 10-20 years, so be it, I feel like I am way ahead of the curve. I might choose to fix it myself or I might just toss it into the trash and go back to working on something else that I think is more important at the time.

    The collet holder in question... two hours of testing, setup, and machining and it runs out less than .0005". The only error left is in the nut and the collet. I'll spend another half hour tuning up the nut to get another tenth or two out of it then test the collets and see which ones I may or may not need to replace. I'd love to follow philosophy #1 at home and at work but I can't. I couldn't do half the things I do if I bought high end tools for every thing I want to do. I gambled with the home built import cnc mill and won but even that I could justify in the big picture. My shop doesn't even have sheet rock! But I've enjoyed every tool in it and every minute I've spent in it.

    I'll never say one way is better than the other, but I will say that for me and the work I do, with the experience I have had, I like buying inexpensive tools. All those words to simply say... adopt one philosophy or the other, or something in between, but make sure you get maximum enjoyment from your choices. Take time to appreciate what you have or are able to acquire and envy none.

  • #2
    I agree with your philosophy. Machining is not much more than a hobby for me, and I don't mind spending extra time fixing or improving on worn out or cheap machines and tools. I enjoy the process of machining as much as finishing a given project, and in fact I often leave things unfinished when I lose interest or find something else more challenging or useful.

    My profession has been as an Electronics Design Engineer, specializing in high current test equipment, and my most recent interests are EVs (especially tractors), battery chargers, BMS, DC-DC converters, and AC drives. I also enjoy making air/steam engines, but even more electric motors, particularly SRMs (switched reluctance motors). I also have quite a few pieces of electronic test equipment, some professional quality name brands, but mostly imported from China. And I have found that most of these items work very well, although sometimes they have needed some fixing, which also often provides an interesting challenge.

    Welcome to the forum!
    Paul , P S Technology, Inc. and MrTibbs
    USA Maryland 21030


    • #3
      It's mainly cheap import tooling that can be poor quality, when I say cheap I don't mean what you pay but what the importer pays, he will negotiate a price and will often save a dollar on a product at the expense of quality.

      I use some Taiwanese Nine9 engraving tooling which is very high quality and which gives excellent results,

      - Nick
      If you benefit from the Dunning-Kruger Effect you may not even know it ;-)


      • #4
        [cracks knuckles]

        Wow, after being on this board for what, fourteen years, finally another local boy shows up.

        Right off the bat, there are very few home-shop machinists who can afford to buy the best, or buy new- and of course, as you just found out, "new" doesn't always mean even "good", let alone 'the best". It's been my experience that a few of the better-off types will splurge on something really nice- a Monarch 10EE, a Hardinge HLV-H, that sort of thing- but most of us buy what we can afford, and what happens to be available.

        I went to work for myself- as a very amateur machinist- some 18 years ago, starting off with a well-used Jet mill-drill. I then picked up a new Grizzly 9x20, because I needed a lathe, and as you've undoubtedly found out, used lathes are few and far between 'round the Peninsula.

        The Griz gave way to an old Logan/Powermatic, which was better in some ways, worse in others. I lucked out on a better Logan a year or so after that, and eventually I sold off the Powermatic to make a down payment on a good-condition Sheldon with a truckload of tooling. It's still my main machine today.

        The Jet eventually gave way to a Grizzly Bridgeport clone, made in Taiwan. Again, I went that route because actual Bridgeports may as well not exist up here, and the few that do come up for sale are clapped-out and only good as drill presses.

        With the exception of the two Grizzlies, all the rest of my machines I bought as cheap projects, because that's the only thing I could afford- hell, most times, it was the only thing I could find.

        I have a pretty nice collection of tools today- although a fair number of them still need work, and even that's a collection it took nearly two decades to amass.

        My hand tools... same deal. I pick-and-choose from the bins at the secondhand stores, I buy off eBay when I find a deal, I horsetrade. Most of my standard sockets and wrenches are Craftsman- maybe not the best, but pretty good, common, and affordable- and my hand power tools are DeWalt, Milwaukee and Sioux.

        I have splurged on a few things- when I got the Bridgeport clone, I sprung for a real Jacobs ball-bearing superchuck. I have a $60 pair of scissors that cut like a dream. I paid maybe a bit too much for a DoAll bandsaw that I then had to partially rebuild, but it's rapidly become one of the handiest tools in the shop.

        BUT... I still recall doing some damn good work with a clapped-out mill-drill, and no lathe at all. I recall the days when I owned a total of six endmills, and having to resharpen them on occasion using a Dremel tool. I remember taking a broken drill bit and grinding it down into a corner-rounding bit, because I couldn't afford the real thing. I still have it- I just used it a few weeks ago.

        In the... four, four and a half years I used the mill-drill, I never once had a proper mill vise. I used a $35 Craftsman drill-press vise. I owned two files- total- and all of three bars of HSS, two of which O'Bie gave me when I took his class. My first carbide tooling was a couple holders I made, using inserts I salvaged from his coffee can of scrap- I just rooted through it until I found some inserts that still had a good corner or two.

        I remember once spending my last ten bucks on a diamond tile saw blade for a Dremel, and using that to put a point back on a carbide insert in order to get a tough job done, so I could get paid and eat that week.

        The craftsman uses what he has available, to do the job. Yes, better, fancier and more powerful tools make the job easier and faster. But not having a top-of-the-line machine doesn't mean the job is impossible.

        I made this...

        ... and this...

        ... On an Asian-import manual mill and a sixty-year-old manual lathe. No CNC, no CAD, and in several cases using drills and endmills I resharpened myself.

        'Course, I also built this...

        (yeah, I'm that guy )

        ... With no machine tools whatsoever. Or for that matter, no air tools and damn few power tools. I owned a gas torch, a buzz box, a 9" angle grinder, and enough tools- in total- to almost fill a 5-gallon bucket. About halfway.

        Don't worry about what'cha got. Worry about what you can DO with what'cha got.

        And you ought to stop by sometime. This week I've been working on my CNC lathe conversion, and just picked up a Shapeoko CNC router.

        Last edited by Doc Nickel; 12-14-2016, 06:43 AM.
        Doc's Machine. (Probably not what you expect.)


        • #5

          Originally posted by bgreen776 View Post
          ... I enjoy coming home and relaxing in the shop, tinkering, thinking, and making or repairing things. Finding ways to make chicken soup out of chicken... Its satisfying.
          That's what it's all about for me. Import or domestic, new or old, manual or CNC, carbide or HSS, whatever. As long an you enjoy doing it, then the details don't matter.


          • #6
            Qualify your question/poll a little bit. Imported meaning USA/European tooling makers that have offshored some of their manufacturing or Chinese companies mass producing tooling. Sorry, but I see a large gulf between the two.


            • #7
              bgreen776----As I'm another hobby machinist (kinda, wannabe) on a tight budget I'm following this thread closely. And, I also buy some imported tooling when I can't seem to find what I want/need at yard sales, flea markets, etc. But, before I officially cast my vote my natural skepticism and curiosity re: internet "stuff" makes me wonder about the "View Poll Results:........'poll will close on 08-23-2030....'". Just wondering. Sammy


              • #8
                Originally posted by microshop dinker View Post
                bgreen776----As I'm another hobby machinist (kinda, wannabe) on a tight budget
                Some encouragement for the guys beginning and on a tight budget.

                point 1) After 25 years at this, and being rather into it, I've at this point pretty much got at least one of everything. Probably a dozen lathes, 3 full size mills, 2 small ones, every kind of grinder and bit of meteorology equipment, its embarrassing how much I've accumulated and everything is top brands. Cripes, I counted the other day - 5 sets of friggin gauge blocks! BUT...... I had just as much fun day one with my first lathe and mill....point is having everything is really nice, but it it doesn't mean the passtime isn't just as enjoyable with a beginner kit.

                2) I probably don't have a net dollar into it. Trading up, bit of wheeling and dealing, looking for deals and buying in bulk and selling the duplicates has let me build a shop without spending much. Its the old group of 3 want it high quality low and it fast, pick two. All things will come to he who is patient....its that serendipity idea, you start thinking about and stuff comes your way

                3) sort of corollary to high quality used stuff. You can't believe how many tools and tool kits I've seen and its very very rare that stuff is not in great shape. Except for the 1" mic and 6" caliper, most of it sits a drawer 99% of the time. I would never buy a China mic because its so easy to have Starrett, Etalon, B&S, Mit, etc for the same or less money.

                4) You really don't need much. I like have a lot, its llike collecting......but its not necessary. Look back. Once upon a time, before cheap asian imports, pretty much all tools were excellent quality and very expensive. A hobbyist buying a quality lathe could spend as much as a small car - he couldn't afford a mill so learned to do everything with the one machine. Look back further still to when there was less disposable income, and guys talked about having a micrometer as a luxury. Yet with technique they built very high quality and complicated model engineer projects that would win awards today. Read some old, like pre WWII Model Engineer Mags for a sense of what quality guys turned out with very limited tools - including their own micrometers!
                Last edited by Mcgyver; 12-14-2016, 11:44 AM.
                in Toronto Ontario - where are you?


                • #9
                  bgreen776 - I really enjoyed your post and welcome to the forum!

                  I fall somewhere in between. I like quality tools; using them and even just owning them puts me in a good mood. If I have to use junk tools, I feel my mind set is "git r done" and the quality of my work becomes hurried and sloppy. That said, I also enjoy tinkering and restoring machine tools and accessories. I have more project machines than I do working machines! I look at a lot of the stuff coming out of Harbor Freight and - previously - Enco as "kits". For instance, I have one of those band saws from HF and I use it all the time but I also made a number of changes to it to make it work better.

                  I have a mix of Husky, Craftsman, Armstrong, Snap-On and Proto tools. I'm trying to sell some tools and build up a collection of just Armstrong and Proto tools. Snap-On are nice, but I actually like Armstrong ratchets way better. I also have some HF tools kicking around from when I was in high school. I really hate using those and they are now reserved for those special cases where I need to modify a wrench or socket for something unusual.

                  For me, it's more about the mindset I have when I pick up a tool. A quality tool helps me to slow down and do quality work.


                  • #10
                    You start with what you have & a list of what you want. Using what you but always looking for that deal on what you want. I have a friend who thinks if meant to be a deal will fall in his lap(hasn't yet). I wake up expecting to find "That deal" every day & actively look for what I want at what I want to pay (until recently I've been downsizing). But I enjoy getting great deals & upgrading, moving, hauling & selling what I replaced. Most times you can upgrade for free or less but you have to be quick, take cash & have a way to get it moved as you have to read what the sellers motivation is, room, health, he upgraded, family member died, etc & make the sellers motivation happen. The great deals go quick. Everyone's different that just how I'm wired.


                    • #11
                      1+ on both Mcgyver and Fastrack--Sammy


                      • #12
                        As some of you may know, my shop is primarily there for me to make money. When I first started up my shop, money was tight; no way I could afford all the tooling I needed or wanted. As a result I focused on price over quality; because of that I learned a valuable but expensive lesson.

                        First starting up, I bought 5 machine vises; imported by a big (animal) name vendor. I spent several hours truing these vises up. Within a year, 4 of the 5 vises had cracked, and were in the scrap pile. My shop was making money, and I decided to upgrade and bought a Parlec from Enco on one of their 20% off + free shipping. That vise is still strong and tight as the day I bought it 10+ years ago. A couple of years later, again using Enco’s 20% and free shipping, I purchased a Kurt. That vise see’s daily use without a hiccup. Later I purchased a used Bridgeport vise off eBay, 6 + years in the shop…no issues.

                        Now those import vises ran about $125 each for a total cost of $625. I estimate that I paid $ 800 for the three quality machine vises so $175 more. Four of the import vises died within a year, so cost was $500 per year.

                        I paid roughly $300 for the Parlec, 10 years ago, so far cost is $30 year. Kurt $400/8 years =$50 year. Bridgeport vise $100/6 years = $17 year. So, Cheap import = $500 year, quality tools= $97 year and going down every year.

                        I purchased three bench vises for the shop….. Again all cracked within a year or two. I replaced all of them with used Reed vises off eBay, I suspect that my son will be using them when he is my age.
                        Import R8 collets were terrible, the drawbar threads weren’t even cut right on half of them. Replaced with Crawfords about 8 years ago, no issues.

                        Drill chucks, could barely hold a wet noodle without the jaws marring. Replaced with Bison or Albrechts off EBay that I rebuilt. I will probably never have to buy another drill chuck.

                        I can give the similar examples for end mills, V-Blocks, grinding vises. Dial indicators and DTIs.
                        In just about every case when I cheap out I lose money.
                        Mike Hunter



                        • #13
                          I enjoy fixing things, like the made in USA $30 electric die grinder at an estate sale that was given to me after the seller discovered it didn't work. I spent two hours one evening taking it apart and re-soldering a loose wire. Not a profit making thing to do considering the time I spent, but fun to salvage a good quality tool that might last me a lifetime.

                          What I won't do is fix new junk. It may be equally satisfying for some. In my opinion it does no more than encourage sellers to continue peddling junk. Sending junk back causes an inconvenience for the seller which is my intention.

                          (Just noticed the OP is in Alaska, considering shipping cost and time to Alaska, I suppose might reconsider fixing something if I was up there.)


                          • #14
                            The poll question could be better. "Import"... Swiss? German? Chinese? "Like".. loaded. I assume that by 'import', Chinese is what is meant. I never 'like' to buy MIC, nor do I set out to.. but I do sometimes depending on what it is, what other options are available, etc. If it's just dirty cheap and either gets good reviews and/or isn't real critical, I do buy MIC (or India)... don't like it though.


                            • #15
                              Yeah, "import" doesn't always denote poor quality. My new-to-me vertical mill is an import- from a quality manufacturer in Spain. Both the small lathes have Phase II toolposts- a Taiwanese import, but ones that have proven themselves very good over the years.

                              The Grizzly mill, as I noted, was also imported from Taiwan, and it's given me 13-some-odd years of trouble-free service ever since. When I picked it up, I also "splurged"- if that word can be used here - on an import Kurt-clone vise. That vise worked great- I still have it today- although later ones from the same supplier have gone steeply downhill in terms of quality.

                              I have lathe chucks from Bison, a vertical mill from Spain, VFDs from Japan and China, a drill press from Sweden, a surface grinder from Taiwan, a hydraulic press from Denmark...

                              Doc's Machine. (Probably not what you expect.)