When did machine construction go wrong?

One of the regulars sent me this photo of a 40″ bandsaw from a website dedicated to old woodworking machines, called www.owwm.com

Old 1890's Cast Iron Bandsaw

Old 1890's Cast Iron Bandsaw

The gentleman in the photo found this bandsaw in the States on eBay – no idea what he paid for it.  The bandsaw itself is from the 1850s – 1890s, and it is 40″ (the wheel diameter), which gives it a massive throat, and it has a significant resaw capacity.  The thing looks like it weights a ton (and that may not be that far from the truth!), being solid cast iron.

I started scanning through the large collection of other bandsaw photos on the site, just out of interest, and noting the dates I started to see a trend emerge.  The newer the bandsaw, the more likely it was that it was folded steel construction than cast iron (and sure, other aspects such as guarding began making an appearance!)

So the question began to form – when did machine construction go ‘wrong’?  When did cast iron stop being the material of choice?

I’m not necessarily proposing that modern, folded metal construction cannot make a good machine, and the cost difference is phenomenal. Cast Iron also has a bit of a bad rap – when done poorly (in modern, cheap productions particularly, when cast iron is used incorrectly in thin casting as a cost-saving measure, using poor material engineering techniques then it is a curse – castings break easily (cast iron is by its nature brittle, unless correctly heat treated to produce versions such as spheroidal cast iron), but it is still a superb material of choice in many situations.

It’s weight can be a significant benefit, particularly for machine stability, it can be easily machined (but leave welding it to the experts – low carbon steel (mild steel) is easily welded, high carbon steel is not, and needs serious welding procedures written to cope with it.  Cast Iron can be thought of as high carbon steel, with so much carbon added that it becomes a bit of a carbon/cementite/iron mix.  Welding it is a bitch!)

Because of the (micro) voids of graphite in the cast, cast iron has real vibration damping capabilites – an excellent property for a machine to have – reduced vibrations means a smoother running machine and less noise.

Finally, strength – put a heavy cast iron body against one made from folded steel – one has inherent strength from the material, the other from careful design and internal ribs trying to dissipate the stresses / tensions and compressive forces so the structure does not fail.  To get that in cast iron, just make the casting thick enough!

So back to my original question – when did ‘it’ go ‘wrong’?  From the OWWM site, the dates of the real transitions appear to be after WW1, but before WW2.  There were massive technological changes happening around that time, a depression, and so a possible emphasis towards lower cost production.  I’m not an historian, so wiser heads would be able to give a much more considered view, but that is what I am seeing as potential influences on machine manufacture.

I’ll stick with my cast iron machines as much as I can – sometimes the traditional is more than a romantic concept.  Sometimes it also makes good engineering sense!

Nautical Weather Station

I think the projects that always challenge me the most, are ones that I am making for others. I find myself really thinking a project through, trying new techniques and developing new skills.

This Nautical Weather Station is one such example. I made this a number of years ago as a Christmas present for my wife, and learned a great deal in making it (and have learned a great deal since!) What I find really satisfying, is even though something like this was made so long ago, I still occasionally look at it, and wonder “how the hell did I manage that?!!”


It also started my passion for Jarrah (as mentioned in the video earlier today).

A few details then: The whole unit is made from Jarrah, and although it isn’t so obvious from the photo, the central panel is quite a lot darker than the edges. This was deliberate, as I spent a week oiling and buffing that panel (literally, morning and night for a week, applying another coat and burnishing it in until I got the colouring and finish I wanted).

The turnings on either side were produced on a $90 lathe (GMC), and were my first attempt at duplicating on a lathe.

The top is a moulding, produced on the router table, then mitred to fit the 3 exposed sides.

The finish is a combination of burnishing oil, then buffed with a topcoat of Ubeaut Shellawax Cream.

All in all, it was a great project, and I learned a great deal in the process.

Timber purchases

Just got around to taking a photo of some of the timber I got from the Wood Show



The four pieces are:


top left – marble eucalyptus burl
top right – huon pine
bottom left – black hearted sassafras
bottom right – American Redwood

Someday I hope my skills improve to the point that I’d be prepared to actually make use of them, rather than feel like I’m just going to waste some nice timber. Sad to think we have to pay so much for a few scraps, and that some may not even be available in the future.

To a large extent, this seems to be this timber is being sourced from trees that grew wild, and that resource is becoming scarce, and there are not enough initiatives that recognise that tree crops need a long term approach – planting trees now that will often only benefit someone in 20, 30, 50 years time.  Guess there is no money in that, so it won’t happen. 😦

Sunday night (finally) came

It’s been a pretty massive 5 days, and for me, the Wood Show is over for another year. (Pity the poor buggers who still have days worth of packing and unpacking stock, let alone processing all the orders!)

For the first few days, I feel like I’d like the show to go for a lot longer, but by Sunday night, I’m wrecked! Didn’t even get around to taking a break today – was too interested in what I was doing (playing with the new Triton 8″ and 12″ Bandsaws). Had to stop about 3pm though – had to get some timber before you greedy lot bought it all up! Even then there were poor pickings. I did some nice bits even so.

I came home with about a dozen pieces of Huon Pine, which I can only describe as a very pure timber – it has a homogeneous consistency, and is a pale yellow / white. It is quite a soft timber, so excellent for carving, and easy to turn on the lathe. That’s where most of these pieces will end up – trying to learn techniques on cheap crapiata is hard – you don’t know if it is you making life difficult, or the wood. I did get one piece of round which will make a very nice bowl, but I won’t think of tackling that until I’ve had plenty of practice on the other pieces. I also treated myself to a very nice bowl gouge from Carbatec, so will be very interested to see how that works.

(Bit of an update, from one of the blog’s regular readers (thanks Andy) in response to my Huon Pine description about it’s homogeneous consistency: “You should see some the figured stuff! It has lots more character and, I dare say, would be very nice for turning. You probably know all this (no I didn’t, but I’m learning!) but it’s also a very oily timber which doesn’t allow ordinary estapol to dry off readily unless you remove the oil from the surface layer first. To save stuffing around with lime or acetone scrubbing, I use water based poly.

I found some black-hearted sassafras, a small piece of marble eucalyptus burl for pens, and a bit of American Redwood. As the show was packing up, I found a few lumps of Camphor Laurel that had been chucked out – not too much in there usable for any large project, but I’ll get a 1/2 dozen pen blanks out of it (and I won’t have any sinus issues for a month once I start hacking into it!!) It is the aroma that always tells me the Wood Show has arrived – you walk into the exhibition hall when the show is on, and it is that smell that hits you right off the mark.

Got some really interesting pen kits from Addictive Pen Kits (think they are based in NSW), so will be producing something other than Slimlines for once! Can’t quite remember what I got, but there is definitely a Sierra and a Cigar in there (and the associated Bush sets).

I’m sure there are other bits and pieces in there, but the last thing that comes to mind is the Triton demonstrators had their kit upgraded with the new SuperJaws so I’ll finally be able to do an up close and personal comparison of the old and new models.

So it’s all over for another year, strangely (for me) my wallet is reasonably intact, I have a few goodies to play with, and my feet are killing me!

It was great meeting all of you who visit this site (apparently there are some who actually visit here!), so to all of you, from Cam the Mad, to Russell & Corey, Clint and all the others (some names have slipped my mind, I’m sorry), it was great catching up!

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