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Big Lathe Story

August 13, 2011

In about 2003, I answered an ad from Ron Kyllo that he had tools for sale. After speaking to his wife Dorrie, I visited their home along the Red River south ofFargo.

It was a tragic story. Ron was a patternmaker in Fargo for many years, but a few years before had been paralyzed by a mysterious illness and now had to be on a respirator 24 hours a day. His wife Dorrie gives him awesome care.

Ron and Dorrie had some amazing tools for sale from his patternmaking business. I bought a couple of band saws, including the 20” Delta I still use. I also was intrigued by the huge Oliver patternmaking lathe that he had in his garage. He told me it weighed 3500 pounds and that he had used it to turn many patterns, including the patterns for generations of Steiger tractors. A pattern is a wooden form that a patternmaker turns to very careful specifications that is then used to give shape to a sand core and into which cast iron or steel is poured to make cast metal parts.

Ron said the lathe had originally been in a marine shipyard in Florida but had been shipped to Fargo Foundry years before and used for many years. It had a three phase motor with 4 speeds, but Ron had jury-rigged a way to turn larger patterns on the outboard end and he didn’t know for sure that it even still worked.

I decided that I didn’t have room for it so I didn’t proceed with it at that time.

But in 2006, when I decided to take a pastoral call in Perham, MN, and during the time when I had moved out of my Fargo shop and was waiting to build a new shop in Perham, I took a look at that lathe once again and bought it for $750.

My son Mark and I used a shop crane to lift the disassembled pieces into my tandem trailer and haul them to the metalworking shop of Jerry Swedberg in rural Rollag. Jerry is an excellent and experienced machinist and was willing to make a riser block to raise up the headstock and tailstocks of the lathe from 16” to 32”.

We had a few other challenges too.  We didn’t know if the lathe would run.  It hadn’t run for at least 15 years and the shaft was very, very stiff, though it did move.  I had a plan.  Even if the motor didn’t work, I would remove the motor, put a pulley on the outboard end and run it from another motor that I hung on the back of the lathe.  I had another Oliver lathe in which I had used the same system.  But I didn’t want to do that.  So I got some good advice, took off some guards and tried to dig out as much old grease as I could from the bearing.  Then I squirted in new grease and turned the shaft as I put in the new grease.  It became a bit more free.

I found more information about this lathe on the internet.  It’s an Oliver 25 Pattern Maker’s motor head lathe, built in the 1950’s.  I spent a lot of time looking at the electrical diagrams and at the lathe.  I saw that there had been some serious shorts in the electrical switches and that some of the circuit board material was burned and no longer supported the contacts.  I also found that the machine was wired incorrectly, for two-phase rather than three phase power.  So, I used some old outlet box material to rebuild the circuit board and reconnected the contacts for three phase power.

Then I ordered a 5 HP Variable frequency drive to convert from single phase to three phase power and give me variable speed.  I had retrofitted several lathes in my shop already so I knew how to do this.  Then, as a precaution, when I felt I was ready to plug in the lathe and try it, I called on Larry Lange, a friend from my church who had been a maintenance troubleshooter for the machines at Barrel of Fun in Perham for many years.  He brought a friend even more experienced than he and they looked and asked questions about the hook ups and they were encouraging.  And finally, we plugged it in, and nothing happened.  Nothing.  I jiggled the switches around, still nothing.  Then I tried changing the speed control on the lathe to the lowest speed, 600 rpm and the shaft gave a little twitch.  I used my hand to give the faceplace a little boost and it started to gain a little speed.  It seems the shaft was still very gummed up with old grease, but we kept putting in more and scraping out the old grease that pushed out.  The lathe started running faster and smoother and we cheered.  We were in business.

So far we were still in my garage because the shop wasn’t ready.  In preparation for placing the lathe in my shop, we poured an extra thick concrete pad under the lathe to handle the extra weight and vibration.  We also hung a steel I-beam from the ceiling on which we placed two thousand-pound chain hoists so we can move the heavy tailstock or lift large turning blanks into position.

Even before we moved the lathe into position in the new shop, while the lathe was still in my garage, I turned the large columns for the shop.

Here we are moving the lathe to its place in my new workshop.  This is my daughter who was an Army captain at the time, with her Italian paratrooper boyfriend.  They rose to the occasion of the moving like a military operation.  We were grateful that Dave Gausman lent me his moving equipment, a pair of heavy duty castors with hydraulic jacks that lifted the lathe right off the ground and made it quite easy to move.

Tom Lex, who poured concrete for my shop, suggested that I pour a double-thick pad for this lathe, so the floor was all ready for it when we moved the 4000 pound monster to its place.

I had also hung an I-beam over the lathe with two rolling dollies on it with 1000 pound chain lifts.  I carefully hung it from the trusses so that the weight is evenly distributed between many different trusees.

The beam and hoises allows me to lift my tail stock, because with its riser block, it weighs more than 1000 pounds by itself.  I am also prepared to lift heavy turning blocks into place, though I haven’t had to use it so far.  In the last picture, of the lathe moved into its final position, you can see the I beam and twin chain hoists.

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