"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…

6 Responses to Thoughts on Miniature Machine Tools

  • I have been searching for a milling machine to satisfy my desire to delve further into shaping metal ( I now have a Emco/maeir Compact 8 that I have owned for perhaps 20 years) i have rescearched the web and have decided that i must have a Seig SX4 soon to hit these shores late Winter-early Spring.2011.
    My problem is that there are more than a few companies that will handle this machine but each of them Buys from Seig at a ” Price point” that is determined by qualit”. There appears to be several versions of the same machine as sold by Seig to importers that are divided up by Quality or , Lack there-of” and I am looking for a guide to which importers here in the USA but the best quality that Seig is capable of getting from its local manufacturers in China. Harbor freight, Grizzley, Little machine Shop, Lath master and several others will all offer the SX4 but they will all differ ib quality and price.
    How do i decide who is offering the best quality ??? for that specific machine model

  • You are correct. There is often several versions of the same machine tool be it Seig or other brand name. If you purchase (as a retailer) a sufficient quantity or any machine tool, the manufacturer is more than happy to build a custom edition for you.

    Manufacturer/retailers like Industrial Hobbies and Tormach have custom made parts from Asian manufacturers.

    Micro-Mark has private label Proxxon tools for example, as well as custom versions of the minilathe and minimill.

    Grizzly and Lathemaster offer a near identical (looking) small mill but the Lathemaster version has an oil filled head and the Grizzly does not. Grizzly seems intent on having a version of every mill made in Asia.

    There is no “master list” to sort this out. Specifications can change without notice (clearly stated by most suppliers) so such a list would be near impossible to maintain. It’s not like the days when an Emco was an Emco wherever you bought it.

    Best advice is to pay very close attention to what is said or not said in ad copy. Even that is not a good rule but it is a start. Ask and pay for a user manual if you must so you know what you are getting.

    Price is always a good indicator of best quality. Features are removed to reduce price. I sell steel gears for mini mills and lathes because plastic was used in the originals to reach a price point as you describe. There is not massive hidden profit in hobby grade machine tools. The market is too price conscious.

  • Sir: can you direct me to a hobbiest to do small jobs

  • That is a bit off topic but here’s one answer, Stan. You need to find someone in your local area. It’s best to explain in person what you need or expect. Some larger towns have clubs or hobby machinist associations. Contact machine shops in your area. They likely won’t be interested in small projects so don’t push them. Just ask if they know any hobbyists or clubs in the area. Check into the machinist forums on the internet.

    You have to make some noise (like you are doing here) and keep looking/trying. Some hobbyist are looking for extra work. I have done a few outside projects but I am not currently interested. I probably will be after I retire… 🙂


  • Dan you are quite eloquent on these matters. I would like your opinion on a tool choice, since you have own(ed) both machines. Which lathe would YOU CHOOSE, given the needs I will describe, choice between 7 x 10 mini lathe (sieg) or Taig Micro lathe. My needs are: must turn O.D. up to 3.25″ for locomotive wheels, material use would be 1018, leaded steel, or possibly 303 ss; need to bore same wheels and many others 0.25″ up to 0.5″ for fitting axles; and need to mount and turn wheel and axle assemblies between centers, the longest of which would be 5″. I would probably be pushing the limits of the Taig…..I lean toward the 7×10 because it has a lot of cast iron, but the quality scares me….however, with each machine I’m willing to tear down,tweak, and modify and would find it fun in itself…. what do you say?

  • You are correct. Both machines could handle your specifications. The big parts would be pushing the limits. The question is how often would you be making the larger locomotive wheels of better yet, how many.

    The limitation of the Taig is it cannot do power threading. The new power feed is not a threading accessory. The benefit of the Taig is the cost and suitability for making small parts and using die threading.

    Today I would take a very serious look at the new mini lathe offered by Little Machine shop. http://www.littlemachineshop.com/4100

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