Have you ever sat back and really taken a hard look at the many components of a clock or watch movement and wondered how they were made? You would probably be surprised to find out that the lathe had something to do with just about every moving part in that mechanism. Without some means of presenting a cutting tool to a spinning piece of wood
or metal stock the clock or watch would never have evolved into what it is today. The fact is that todays technological world wouldn't even exist if not for the lathe or "turns." Hard to believe? It's true, the lathe is one of the most meaningful tools ever invented by mankind. Ok.... flint, clubs, spears and arrows probably dwarf the lathes importance in mans evolution but I think you know where I'm going with this. The lathe has played a vital role in every area of the industrial revolution as well as in todays modern world. It's indispensable in any watch or clock shop where serious repair and restoration is undertaken. It was and is still the most important tool used in the restoration of antique watches and clocks. The person who devotes all of his or her time to the restoration of fine antique timepieces will spend much of that time fabricating, altering and polishing parts on the lathe, it's as important to the serious clock or watch smith as the anvil is to a blacksmith. I can't think of any complete restoration job I've performed over the years that didn't involve the use of a lathe, or at least the process of "turning."
So what type of lathe will you need to get started? That will of course depend on whether you'll be working on clocks, watches or both and on how much your budget permits. Considering the remarkably high quality of timepieces made over 200 years ago using an extremely basic predecessor of todays lathe called the turns, we really must wonder just how fancy we need to get when purchasing and setting up our first machine. You won't need much at all to get started. What's important is to buy the most accurate machine for the particular type of work you'll be doing. If the lathe's too large or small to deal with the parts you'll be working on it's not going to be much help around the shop. The jewelers lathe fits the bill for the watchmaker and can also handle many of the jobs that the clockmaker will come across, but unlike watches, clocks cover an extreme range in size, extending from miniature carriage clocks to very large Grandfather or even tower clock movements. So the person who restores all types of clocks will eventually do well having a couple of different sized lathes. Fortunately today, clock and watch smiths have many options to choose from. Used machines can be had for pennies on the dollar when you know what you want and where to look. One great place to find lathes and other horological tools is at www.ebay.com. Type "jewelers lathe" or "watchmakers lathe" or just "lathe" in the search box and watch what happens. Another good one is Tom Misters site at www.Dashto.com. The NAWCC mart which is published bi-monthly is a great place to find tools and lathes for sale. If you're not a member of the NAWCC (National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors) you really should consider joining. Check them out at www.NAWCC.org. There are a lot of different types of lathes to choose from out there and it can be a bit confusing during your search for the perfect machine. Following are a few questions I'm often asked from people in the market for a lathe.
Should I buy a three jaw or a four jaw chuck?
Definitely a three jaw! I've never really figured out why many people just starting out feel a four jaw chuck is more important than a three jaw. Maybe they feel that having one more jaw makes it a better chuck. The truth is that the person who has a lathe with only a four jaw chuck will rarely use the machine. A three jaw chuck is a "self centering chuck" which means when you put a piece of round stock in and tighten the chuck down, the stock will run fairly true. The chuck in your hand drill is a three jaw chuck.
With a four jaw chuck each jaw must be adjusted or closed individually which means that there's a very good chance that once you're locked down on a piece of round stock it's probably going to be way off center with relation to the center of the chuck. You can adjust the jaws with a dial indicator until the round stock is perfectly true, which is ok to do once in a while but this process can take some time and can really be a pain in the petunia if you're in a hurry. A four jaw generally is used for offsetting round stock for machining such things as cams and eccentric rotors or pieces other than round stock which might have some sort of irregular shape. It's a very useful chuck when you need it but you won't need it for watch and clock work nearly as often as a three jaw chuck.
Should I use collets or a three jaw chuck?
I'm asked this question more than any other and it's a good one. Collets or "chucks" are more accurate having little or no "run out" and if they're in good condition and are used correctly, will out perform a three jaw chuck where exactness is crucial. For watch work a jewelers lathe with a good set of collets is an excellent choice. You can always purchase a precision three jaw chuck for a jewelers lathe later as it will be a useful addition to the machine but here we're talking first things first and collets will prove far more useful. I might use a three jaw chuck one time for every hundred or more times I use collets but that's for watch work in my jewelers lathe. Clocks are a different story. When working on clocks I find myself using a three jaw almost as much as I use collets. Some clockmakers will use a three jaw exclusively. The reason I rely so heavily on collets is probably because I work on both watches and clocks and I really don't draw a definitive line between the two. Much of the work I perform on watches carries over to clocks as well. I prefer to use collets whenever I can.
As a clockmaker what type of lathe should I get?
Another good question. As I said earlier a jewelers lathe works very well for many repairs encountered in clock repair and restoration and is certainly a good and useful addition to the clock shop but the additional tooling that you may want to add to the lathe later for clockwork such as a three jaw chuck, compound tool rest etc. can be pretty pricy. There's an excellent alternative to the jewelers lathe that I highly recommend which offers tons of accessories at very affordable prices, that's the Sherline lathe. This lathe is great for clock repair and restoration and pocket watch work but isn't really suitable for some types of small wrist watch watch work. If you decide to order one you can add a set of collets as well as a three jaw chuck. There are lots of accessories that can be added later if you have a need for them. I would recommend adding the T-Rest when you purchase the lathe so you can use hand gravers whenever you wish.
I don't carry Sherline Products but I do provide tons of info at the web site if you want to research their product line.
Should I use hand gravers or tool bits?
I highly recommend learning to use hand gravers. They are one of the biggest time savers you can use with your lathe. There are times that you'll need to use tool bits clamped down in the tool post (picture left) but much of the work you'll be doing can be done much faster using hand gravers. There are a few tricks you should learn before attempting to use hand gravers.
One of the biggest mistakes made by beginners is trying to machine metal with a dull graver. This holds true for both hand gravers and tool post mounted tool bits. You must keep the gravers VERY sharp at all times! The "rake" or cutting angle of the graver is also critical. The first video in the Learn to Turn Series - Learn to Turn Lesson 1 "Learning the Basics First" - covers these and many other important topics in great detail.
Do I need a collet holding tailstock for re-pivoting arbors?
No way! Most used jewelers lathes are found with the common dead center tailstocks. Many people believe these tailstocks to be nearly useless. They're wrong, these simple basic tailstocks are deceiving at first glance. It's surprising how versatile and functional they can be for doing advanced repair and restoration work when you know how to use them. The center (the pointed metal piece) that's sticking out of most of them can be quite useful at times. It can also be removed and replaced with countless other helpful tools that can be made quickly, right on the same lathe, when needed. Just take a look below at some of the things you can use that simple tailstock for.
Easy to make runners for quick pivot polishing, burnishing, rounding off work can be made from tool steel for precision watch work (above right) or from brass or wood for clock work (below).
The tailstock center can be used for centering up homemade flags and applied drill fixtures for drilling and pivoting clock and watch arbors, centering up piller plates or other parts on a face plate, the list goes on and on.
Don't be fooled into believing you'll need the best of everything when it comes to lathe work. You'll be absolutely amazed at how little you really need to do excellent restoration work! Ingenuity, creativity, inspiration and a little elbow grease will take you alot futher in this field than anything else. A little dumb luck always helps too!
Learn to Turn Video Lesson 2 "Pivoting and Doing the Jig" shows how you can easily make different types of runners and other tools that can be inserted into the tailstock spindle of your jewelers and Sherline lathe as well as other valuable lathe accessories and pivoting flags. You'll learn a great deal about using these small lathes for clock and watch work.
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Streaming Video Clips of the Learn to Turn Videos.