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  • Writer's pictureJoJo

Learning to use a Lathe

This week’s post is a little on the short side but it features a brand new kind of making process, which I’ve never tried before.

I’ve been down south in Cambridge looking for somewhere for Husband and I to live and was fortunate enough to stay with two very lovely friends of ours, who happen to have a workshop in their garage. The lady of the house is a knitting expert and I plan to bargain sewing skills for knitting tips once we’re set up in Cambridge more permanently.

But the piece of kit I got to play with this week, under careful supervision of the knitting legend’s husband, is a lathe.

A lathe in a workshop

I have never used one of these before, though I have spent many a happy hour watching lathes spin around on the My Mechanics YouTube channel. If you want to see an absolute masterclass in painstakingly turning things that anyone else would consider scrap into functional and beautiful pieces of kit I suggest heading over to this channel and warning your colleagues that you won’t be answering your emails for a while. The way he works is unbelievably satisfying and you’ll be stunned at what meticulous sandblasting and polishing can achieve.

Anyway, I got to have a go with a lathe this week and eventually had the bright idea to make this useless but absolutely adorable dumbbell. My friend/instructor asked what I wanted to make and I had no idea so he suggested we had a little play around until an idea came to me. We started off with a solid piece of brass rod and gradually chipped away at it. As we chamfered the edges of the brass rod, the shape of the dumbbell immediately leapt to mind and on we ploughed with this tiny shiny project.

I’m an extremely long way off being a lathe expert so I’m just going to give you some quick thoughts about the process and hopefully expand my lathing adventures at a later date.

First of all, using a lathe myself was just as satisfying as watching someone on YouTube using one. If you get the depth of the cut just right and move the tool at an even pace you produce lovely long springy spirals of metal. It’s also lovely to watch the diameter of the circle on the face of the rod gradually shrink as you move the tool nearer to the centre of the piece of brass.

Measuring dials on a lathe

Second observation, this is precise work. When I’m sewing, I don’t tend to worry about anything smaller than an eighth of an inch (forgive me metric system, I’m stuck in my sewing ways). Maybe I’m just lazy but considering how much the human body swells and shrinks and most of the stuff I make isn’t extremely fitted, this seems like an appropriate level of accuracy.

It’s a different matter on the lathe. An eighth of an inch is frickin’ massive. Each turn of the levers on the lathe moves the tool a mere millimetre. You can reach a level of precision I simply can’t be bothered or don’t feel the need to achieve with a sewing machine. My tiny dumbbell is not quite perfectly symmetrical, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but if you have a better eye for detail or a greater devotion to doing a proper job than me, the lathe is nicely set up to make all your accurate and symmetrical dreams come true.

And my final observation about this lovely piece of kit is that it’s not as scary to use as I thought it would be. I find power tools quite intimidating. They certainly seem to have far more potential for causing damage to my fingers and other body parts than a sewing machine does. I like to think of it as a sensible respect for the tools that I’m using but sometimes it’s just straight up cowardice.

The lathe has a very reassuring emergency stop button as well as several other features that will stop you accidentally using it to inflict pain upon yourself. The tool for tightening and loosening the jaws has a spring on it so you can’t accidentally leave it in the machine and cause it to fly out and hit you in the face when it starts spinning. It also has a plastic cover that must be in place or it simply won’t start. All in all, it appears if you buy a reasonably sensibly designed one of these beauties it will have been built with human idiocy in mind, which I find very reassuring.

Tiny brass dumbbell next to an actual dumbbell for scale

So, that’s what I’ve made this week. It’s adorable and essentially pointless but I love it. I’m hoping to make several more visits to my friends’ workshop as and when I have more ideas for more creations. Some may even be less pointless but hopefully they’ll all be equally adorable.

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