Drill press lathe from bicycle hub

Drill press vertical lathe
Drill press vertical lathe

Any trained machinist will tell you that a drill press with a cheap jig is no substitute for a proper lathe. I’m not a trained machinist, so now that I’ve said that, let’s get on to accomplishing something interesting.

I recently saw an idea for using a drill press as a simple vertical lathe. If you make a “live center” and attach it to the drill press table, you can do some basic wood turning in a vertical position. A live center is a pointed shaft on a bearing, which rotates with the work being turned on the lathe.

Eccentric Cubicle
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New Wood Puzzle Designs
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200 Original Shop Aids & Jigs for Woodworkers
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This is not a new idea. One has been sold commercially for years as the Vertilathe, and Grizzly sells a lathe attachment for a drill press also. It has shown up in several books, including “200 Original Shop Aids & Jigs for Woodworkers” by Rosario Capotosto, “New Wood Puzzle Designs” by James Follette, and “Eccentric Cubicle” by Kaden Harris.

Needless to say, I had to try it out. If you want to make one like me (which of course you don’t because such endeavors are both tedious and hazardous), you might (or might not) do it as follows:

  • Acquire a bicycle wheel. This will be found rusting next to the apartment dumpster, or perhaps readily retrieved from the neighbor’s garbage can. Do not take the wheel off your neighbor’s working bicycle; they will frown upon this. Make sure you grab the cheap wheel with nuts that hold it on a solid axle, not the one with the cool and coveted lever clamp through a hollow axle. (Actually, snag that one too, but keep it for later.)
  • Remove the spokes from the hub. If you got the rusty one from next to the dumpster, you’re in luck because half the spokes will snap right off quite easily. If you are impatient and/or feeling destructive, use some heavy wire cutters to clip the remaining spokes. If you are feeling a little more retentive, remove the tire and unscrew the nuts holding the spokes to the rim. Toss the spokes and rim into the nearest metal recycling bin. We don’t need them for this project. If we need some for another project later, well there’s no shortage of rusty bicycle wheels in the world, now is there?
  • Disassemble the hub and axle. Unscrew the nuts on each end of the axle. You should find that both ends simply unscrew, and that the axle is just one long threaded rod. Behind the nuts there should be some ball bearings. Take it all apart and soak it with your favorite rust remover, such as WD40. Don’t use water; it isn’t a good rust remover.
  • Clean the parts. Use a rotating wire wheel to remove the rust from the hub, axle, and nuts. Chuck the wire wheel into the drill press and start cleaning the parts. You do have a drill press, right? This lathe jig isn’t going to work with a hand drill. And don’t accidentally clean your fingers with the wire wheel; it hurts. Don’t ask how I know.
  • Put a point on the axle. Use a grinder or file to make a rough point on one end of the axle. Then chuck the axle into the drill press and use a file to make it nice and pretty. And centered. That’s more important than the pretty part. Mostly.
  • Grease and reassemble. Load up the bearings with grease and reassemble the hub. Just like those Brady boys on TV, working on their bikes instead of riding them. OK, I never actually saw them reassemble a hub on one of their bikes. In fact, while they appeared to be working on their bikes, I don’t think I ever saw them actually fix anything. Hmmm.
Live center from bike hub
Live center from bike hub

Once you have done all this, you will have a rather hazardous-looking sharp pointy bolt that rotates. My wife says it looks like something Speed Racer would have coming out of the side of the Mach 5, so he could pop the tires of the other cars in the Grand Prix. Why were all the races always called the Grand Prix? Aggh, stupid TV. Where was I?

Now we need to hold it to the drill press table.

  • Cut a piece of wood to size. Make it fit the size of your drill press table, so you can clamp it or bolt it down. (This is where those cool bike axles with the lever clamp come in, if you were lucky enough to find some.)
  • Drill a hole in the center. Make it large enough to fit the other end of the axle, which will stick through the wood and drill press table. We want the axle to rotate freely, and not bind against the wood. That would defeat the whole purpose of those fancy ball bearings in the hub, now wouldn’t it?
  • Paint the wood to look official. Perhaps a nice gloss grey, just like they would do in the Navy when using a piece of wood and an old bike wheel to make a lathe out of a drill press. Ahem.
  • Screw the hub to the wood. OK, the real part you were waiting for. Put some screws through a couple of those little spoke holes in the hub to secure it to your fancy-pants painted board. Make sure the screws don’t go all the way through the wood and scratch up your nice drill press table.

Congratulations! You have built yourself a live center. You have now completed half of the project. You’re in good company, because I’ve only completed this much also. I’m too impatient to wait, so let’s see some results now.

Sample wood turning
Sample wood turning

Line up the live center on the drill press table directly beneath the chuck, and clamp it down to the table. Put a wood screw into the top of your piece of wood and chuck up the screw, or chuck up a Forstner drill bit to press into the end of the wood. Raise the table or lower and lock the chuck to hold the wood firmly between the chuck and the live center. Now you can spin the wood. Give it a short spin, then tighten the gap again after the live center presses into the bottom of the piece.

Spinning wood is fun, but shaping it is even more fun. We are only half done, because we don’t have a tool rest to use for any carving tools. But I can’t wait that long, so we can use a wood rasp and files for some quick wood turning results.

This is the point where you go read up on safety somewhere. Holding a jaggedy rasp against a spinning piece of wood is a recipe for having a tool thrown at a vulnerable spot on your person, or some other such hazard. Seriously, be careful with this stuff.

Having said that, the rasp and files actually work nicely. Using combinations of straight, half-round, and rat-tail files, you can actually produce a moderately interesting piece of turned wood with this little jig.

Buying Cheap Tools

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Experienced people tell me that you should always get the best tools you can buy, because there is no substitute for the proper tool for a job. Don’t be fooled into buying cheap tools, because you will be disappointed when the tool doesn’t provide precision results or it breaks down on you.

I agree that in home improvement, woodworking, metal working, and other pursuits, it is always important to have the proper tool for the job. But what is the proper tool for the job, and how much should you spend on it?

I’ll share my thoughts on how, why, and when you might want to spend less on tools.

Investing Your Money

Everyone agrees that investing your money is wise. But there are multiple ways to invest money, and this applies with tools also.

Spending money on high-quality tools is an investment.  The money you spend will save you time and hassle; it is an investment in productivity.  If you just want to get a job done, buy a good tool and get on with it.

But spending money on cheap tools can be an investment also.  If you are like me and have a short attention span, ahem, I mean a broad variety of interests, there are many repairs, activities, and hobbies you might like to try.  If you buy the best tool available for each one, you may spend a fortune on equipment that you rarely use.  Buying a cheap tool can be an investment in your education, allowing you to try out many things that you could not otherwise afford.  Once you have tried things out and know what you are likely to pursue further, and have a better idea of what features in a tool matter to you, then you can spend more money on selected better tools.

Cheap Retail Tools

Modern manufacturing has brought the ability to mass produce complex items at incredibly low costs. Today, Asia is the low-cost manufacturing powerhouse. The U.S. is hard pressed to compete with overseas manufacturing.

Harbor Freight Tools is a nationwide chain of stores in the U.S., selling primarily Asian import power tools and hand tools. While they are not top-quality and most won’t stand up to heavy use, they are incredibly inexpensive. I signed up for their email mailing list where they send weekly advertisements and coupons, and have gotten some excellent deals. They send out 15% off coupons on a regular basis, which are even good on sale items. I bought a bench-top drill press for $35. A drill press like this might typically sell for $80 to $100 in most stores. Harbor Freight normally sells it for $70. It was on sale for $40, and I had a 15% off coupon, and they have a store within driving distance so I didn’t have to pay shipping. Getting deals this cheap requires some patience, waiting for sales to come up and keeping track of the coupons. But in this case it was worth it.

For higher-quality large power tools, Grizzly Industrial imports power tools built in Taiwan. Better quality but still good prices.

Used Tools

The other way to get good tools inexpensively is to buy them used. Most American power tools built in the last century were made to last and will keep on running, given some cleanup and care.

I bought a tablesaw at a local estate sale for about $20. A comparable saw at the store would probably cost about $100 or more. Mine is fairly solid, and I got the advantage of the previous owner’s upgraded motor. It took some cleanup but mostly worked fine immediately.

I certainly like the satisfaction of taking an old piece of equipment with some history and personality, and adding some more life back into it with some cleaning, oiling, and perhaps a little paint. There is too much waste in our society in my opinion. Just as I get satisfaction from using tools to fix things, I enjoy fixing the tools also.

One thing to watch out for if the tools are more than a few decades old is the safety features, or lack thereof. I added some guards on to my tablesaw, and you’ll want to watch for similar situations with older power tools.


At some point you have to make the decision on when to buy a more expensive tool. This is a personal judgment call, which needs to fit in with your values of time and money.

I bought a cheap heat gun from Harbor Freight for $10. I had not owned one before, so I didn’t know how much I would use it. I ended up using it a lot. I burned it out, bought another one for $10, and ended up breaking that one also. By that point I knew this was a useful tool to me, so I went to another store and bought a better one for $30. It has performed great and I expect it will last a long time. Was this a waste? I don’t think so. I spent $50 altogether and ended up with a good tool that will last. If I hadn’t shopped around, I might have spent that much anyways. I balance this against all the other expensive tools I didn’t buy for occasional use, and I have definitely saved money.

Status Symbols

Some people like to buy expensive tools because they see them as a status symbol, for showing off. I don’t think tools (or other material items for that matter) should be used in this way, but the reality is that our posessions do reflect something of our values to other people. Therefore, I like to reflect the values of not wasting money and being creative with less. Using an inexpensive tool to get the job done, or better yet fixing up an old tool to do it, is quite satisfying to me, and I hope it inspires others to do the same.

Merry Chrismoose

ChrismooseMany people have light-up Christmas decorations in their yard. A popular one is the white-wire reindeer, covered with mini lights. Having another yard with another reindeer sounded boring. What really sounded good would be to have what almost nobody else has: a moose.

ChrismooseI bought a reindeer from the store and overhauled it. I studied pictures of moose, and got an idea of how their heads and shoulders varied from deer. And, of course, the antlers. I sketched the new shape in full size on paper, tracing around the existing wire deer head.

I got some heavy-gauge steel wire from the hardware store, and bent it to match my drawing. I scraped off the white paint from the deer head where the wires met, and soldered it together with a propane torch. Then I painted it with white spray paint.

Chrismoose outsideSince the head and antlers were bigger than before, it needed more mini lights. I got more lights and redid the shoulders, head and antlers. The result: a one-of-a-kind Christmas moose. Merry Chrismoose!

Submitted by amillar on Mon, 2007-12-03 10:08