One tool/machine to level up a moderate shop

This question has been asked many times before, so I will pose it in a slightly different way.

Say your team has a modest shop facility. You have most mid-range tools such as cordless drills, manual hand tools, calipers, jig saws, chop saws, drill press, band saw, grinders, and belt sanders. Basically, you can generally do small scale fabrication without a lot of precision. What is THE ONE tool/machine you would get to level up your shop?

I know the usual top two machines that get suggested but I want to ask, if you can only get one, what one should it be? Don’t worry too much about price, anywhere from a couple hundred to a little over a thousand is reasonable.

Actually the next step I would take is some precision measuring tools. Calipers, depth indicators, etc.

A lathe would be the first machine tool I would recommend.
There are many uses and it does things that none of the hand tools and general tools can do. It is the first step towards precision. You can make many things from HDPE to serve as a low speed bearing. Shafts, spacers, etc etc.

It is not necessary to have a digital readout for the lathe (although it is nice if you can afford it)

It is often said that with a lathe you can make a mill. I wouldn’t try it though.

Just remember that when you take the step toward machine tools you will need at least an equal budget for the “tools” that you will put in them as you do for the machine itself.

Good luck

A manual milling machine probably used from someone that took care of it.
I often see them under $1,500 if you can find a way to move it.

While you search for that you might be surprised and end up with a lathe and mill for that price.

Watch Craigslist - there’s a few Bridgeports right now in your price range in the Philadelphia and NJ areas and I searched the NC area and found several hits for around $1,000 for the term milling machine.

I’ve had a few cases where a skilled craftsman has this stuff at their home shop and is just trying to be rid of it for one reason or another. I’ve brokered whole Bridgeports with tools for at little as $400 in the past.
I have a ShopTask mill/drill/lathe in my garage that I got for $1,000 with 2 large tool boxes of tools and the CNC mounts.

Just make sure you understand what power is actually available in your shop (single phase, 3 phase, etc…)

We invested in a horizontal band saw this off-season. So far we’ve found it’s been much easier to get accurate cuts and the newer students seem to be a little more comfortable using it compared to the vertical or miter saw.

One thing I didn’t see on your ‘standard’ list is an arbor press. Get an arbor press if you don’t have one, makes pressing bearings so much easier.

That’s not a big budget, frankly: This puts you in the very small hobbyist market or the used smaller machine market, at best. You can never tell, though: I’ve seen full-size (many-thousand-dollar) milling machines given for free because it is for robotics.

For your specific needs, I really can only be generic: I would need to see what you build now to identify from which capabilities you may best benefit. Maybe you can do this yourself, or enlist someone unfamiliar with your team (but familiar with machining or constructing things) to take a close look.

That being said: Well, the top 2 are there because they are the most useful.

Data point: At home I have a lathe and mill. I make a LOT more things with the lathe. I find that I can almost always make things that might have been milled…without the mill.

Data point: A lathe for $1k is no problem. A mill for $1k is iffy. Both include tooling.

I have to put my vote for a mill. If the part can be held in a collet it can be turned in a mill with out much trouble. Trying to mill in a lathe take special attachments.

For piece of mind, it’s hard to beat a Coldsaw as an upgrade from a chop saw. For $1,000 you can be assured that students would have to work REALLY hard to cut off a finger when cutting aluminum. The saw only turns at about 70 rpm and the material is firmly clamped.

I have one of these, pretty handy:
http://www.evolutionpowertools.com/us/build/rage3.php

It’s got a special blade and the drive is geared.
Not quite cold saw RPM though.
It is around $300.

We did that last year, picked up a used Craftsman Atlas lathe for the shop. We’ve made some tweaks to it–it came without a cover for its belts, so we found a used one, picked up a new chuck for it, and one of the other mentors spent last weekend removing slop from one of the control handles. (It did come with a nearly complete tool set, too. That was nice.) It didn’t take us more than a couple of weeks to put it to good use.

We’re in about the same position you’re in: Couple of bandsaws, welder, drill presses, grinder(s), table saw, plenty of hand tools, and now a lathe in one corner of the shop.

I high recommend a mill. We have a bridgeport and a low-power Jet lathe (it’s barely decent). The mill sees work throughout the whole build season; you can mill gearbox plates, WCD siderails, hole patterns, and cut material to very precise lengths (given the measuring tools are at hand). We only used our lathe last year to cut spacers, and that can be done on a mill as well given round bar stock.
However, it does cost more to tool up a mill properly. You need endmills from 3/16" up to 1" diameter, holders for taps and dies, triangles, v blocks, parallels, a drill chuck for the mill, countersinks, and a few other thing you probably wouldn’t have in the shop.

For $1000-$2000, you could pick up a used Bridgeport (or at minimum a medium sized mill, not a Harbor Freight) and tool it up properly. That would be a very useful thing to have.
A digital readout or long indicator is almost a must for drilling holes at spacings though. I highly recommend the former.

Yeah, I’m aware, but it is the budget we are working with. In fact our “shop” is really just an unused building with tables that our team built to support various donated used tools on top of them. As our program makes a bigger impact however, we attract sponsors and can start to make permanent improvements. Slow and steady improvements to quality facilities will be part of our path to success :slight_smile:

So, a bit of a follow up question then. A couple of people have said that with additional tooling you can do many “mill tasks” with a lathe. Is it feasible to purchase a lathe now, and then over time step up the lathe to do a couple milling tasks? It wouldn’t give us the machining power of a full mill, but we could make do with a little pain and extra effort? And it would satisfy the “one machine” part of the question. :rolleyes:

I ask because, like I said above, I envision a gradual increase in our tool quality and abilities, not a big jump one year. Getting a cheaper tool that can do some of the things that a more expensive tool can do, may tide us over until we are able to step things up further.

If you do get a lathe, pick up a good condition used one on craigslist rather than buy new. A new lathe will cost many times more than a used one of similar size.

If nobody on your team knows how to use a mill or lathe, check your local community college for machining classes. They’re fun and often times you can use the tools there anyway.

This. Back when I was in high school, I did this. A couple of times I saw another team whose members had also taken the class down working on parts; one of my classmates found the time to build a small part for his truck.

Do check the community college’s policies, though, just to make sure.

Knee Mill - Bridgeport.

Call around to your local manufacturers. Ask if they can part with a mill in exchange for a sponsor-level.

We got a knee mill donated byDarter Plastics inc - a local manufacturer.

The company may find a way to rid themselves of an old piece of machinery that will become invaluable to your shop.

For FRC use, definitely lathe>mill if for no other reason than how many COTS parts now are made for hex shaft.

There are ways of getting around these issues. You can buy spacers and shaft collars.

Fair point, especially with FRC time constraints when it may not be practical to spend time making tons of snap ring grooves. Although it is at the cost of a little weight.

Lathes have other uses however. Centering holes in round stock to quickly make standoffs is a big one. You can also tap holes with a lathe, and I have even known some teams to use it to broach.

IMO it is also much quicker to learn how to correctly use a lathe than it is a mill, an important thing to consider when you have high school students using machines.

A decent quality, used lathe will unlock much more potential than any other tool at the same price range.

This will work, but it’s gonna be really slow as it’s designed for ferrous metals and not aluminum.

I would recommend the Rage 3 saw that someone else mentioned. It’s going to do a faster job with nearly equal cut quality and save you a bunch of money.

Originally Posted by Dale View Post
For piece of mind, it’s hard to beat a Coldsaw as an upgrade from a chop saw. For $1,000 you can be assured that students would have to work REALLY hard to cut off a finger when cutting aluminum. The saw only turns at about 70 rpm and the material is firmly clamped.

This will work, but it’s gonna be really slow as it’s designed for ferrous metals and not aluminum.

I would recommend the Rage 3 saw that someone else mentioned. It’s going to do a faster job with nearly equal cut quality and save you a bunch of money.

What I like about the cold saw is the increased safety. The clamps make it pretty much impossible to cut anything with your fingers near the blade. Our little Jet version cuts through 1" box in about 2 seconds with a blade made for aluminum.