[Headline: Stepping up your workshop]
Before I begin, I miscaptioned a photo in my November 2014 column. On page 100, Vance Gilbert’s model is actually his D.H.95 Flamingo entered in FAC Rubber Scale. Vance averaged 48 seconds per flight for a seventh-place finish.
In previous columns, I discussed the basics of building and how you don’t need expensive, fancy tools to get the job done. There is no question that many great models have been built with little more than a single-edge razor blade, a scrap of sandpaper, and a tube of glue, but as you progress to more-complex models and increasing levels of fit and finish, you can find yourself staring at a part that would be an insurmountable challenge with a basic tool kit.
I think many modelers would lump a Dremel rotary tool among the basics. These handheld chameleons are indispensable for drilling, grinding, contouring, and sanding in workshops across the country. They have been adapted to countless other tasks, and are commonly used as routers and even mini lathes.
Despite this versatility, there are tasks where a high-speed rotary tool falls short—most noticeably where precise stock removal becomes more important than speed. At times like this, I turn to the precision world of desktop machining.
With roots stretching back to the late 1960s, Sherline Products has long been known for its high-quality miniature lathes and mills. Although you can pay less for other brands, Sherline products have hit a sweet spot for quality, capability, ease of use, and value. They are widely known for bringing precision capabilities to the home workshop for relatively modest prices. Sherline has one of the most extensive tooling lineups for any machine tool manufacturer, regardless of size. Its tools are durable, a trait that will see many easily outlast their original owners.
One welcome tenant of the Sherline philosophy is that no tool shall ever be orphaned. Yes, that’s right—a Sherline lathe built more than 40 years ago remains compatible with nearly all of today’s accessory lines.
Another great advantage of Sherline tools is their small size. Not everyone has unlimited workshop space, nor the need to work on their car engines. While capable of most tasks demanded by today’s modelers, these versatile tools can easily be stored under your workbench or in a closet.
Making Things Round
Approximately 15 years ago, a friend of mine loaned me his 4400-series long-bed Sherline lathe. A few years later he gave it to me outright when he realized how little he was using it—and how much I was.
The 4400 is a manually operated 31/2 x 17-inch lathe that I have used for more tasks than I can remember. I’ve cut screw threads, turned dummy engine cylinders, landing gear axles and bushings, hubs and rims for spoked wheels, drill-bit depth stops, custom washers, and small steam engines, and made custom Christmas gift pens, among many other pieces. I’ve turned brass, aluminum, free-machining steel and stainless, along with various woods and plastics.
Perhaps the strangest thing I’ve turned was a penny, reducing its thicknesses to fine-tune the weight of my son’s Pinewood Derby racers during his Cub Scout days. I’ve even used my Sherline lathe to rotate a Tru-Turn spinner while I airbrushed it French blue for my Caudron racer.
Like many good brands, Sherline has attracted third-party vendors that support and augment its product line. One such company is A2Z CNC, based in Colorado and owned by Tim Goldstein.
A2Z CNC is a Sherline dealer, offering knowledgeable support and modest, but appreciated, discounts from the Sherline catalog. It didn’t take long for customers to start asking for specialty accessories. For instance, my lathe usually sports the A2Z CNC Quick Change Tool Post on its cross slide.
My big toy from A2Z, though, is its Monster Mill. This three-axis tabletop mill offers a large working envelope, while also maintaining rigid construction and full compatibility with Sherline accessories.
Knowing that I would be cutting wood nearly as often as metal with the mill, I equipped mine with Sherline’s 10,000 rpm headstock. I am also using the Sherline milling vise, tilting angle plate, and Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) rotary table, among many other accessories.
Unlike the manual lathe, I set up my Monster Mill with CNC from the start. I have a set of Kelling stepper motors, commanded by a Gecko G540 driver. A basic Dell computer is running Windows XP, while Mach3 and D2NC software programs convert my CAD drawings into useable tool paths and guide the mill while running.
Like the lathe before it, I often marvel at how I got along without the mill for so long. It has proven invaluable for many modeling tasks, as well as supporting many household projects. Perhaps the most visible pieces I’ve made at this point have been the louver tooling components for the Caudron cowl panels. I’ve also taken advantage of its CNC capabilities to repetitively turn and drill the hubs and rims for spoked wheels.
Less glamorous, but just as valuable, have been bits and pieces such as G-10 control horns for a 1/3-scale model, landing gear fittings for a 1/4-scale glider, plywood spar joiners and motor mounts, aluminum servo mounts, and countless other pieces that help set my current models apart from earlier efforts. I’ve also used the mill to make puzzles, Christmas ornaments, simple storage trays, and steam engine parts.
One Step at a Time
Such tools are often considered luxuries in the hobby workshop. On the other hand, their functionality and usage have justified the initial outlay many times over. If you want to stretch your tooling capacity and learn a few new skills at the same time, I strongly recommend the Sherline and A2Z CNC tools. If you buy only the basic tools and pick up accessories as needs arise, I think you will be surprised at how affordable it is to get into desktop machining.[dingbat]