THIS article is about my personal journey and how model engineering played such an important and rewarding part of my life.  I hope others from any career background can see how they, too, can experience the same. While having an engineering background can be beneficial, the hobby is there for everyone and these days without having to spend a fortune. 

Early days

I have been interested in engineering since I watched my father working a small lathe in the back bedroom! The fact that my mother even allowed him to do this clearly made me realize, even at a young  age, that he must have been very passionate about engineering or just plain stupid! This for me was the start of my interest and life-long love affair with mechanical engineering and now some 65 years later that feeling has never diminished.

So what is it about people who have this strange love affair with engineering and why? I think the answer has a lot to do with our British heritage but I also suspect it may well be related to a human desire to enquire and invent. It seems people from many disparate disciplines find engineering design and function visually attractive, probably because a lot of mechanisms are easily observed and eventually understood.

The converse of this is typically the electronic marvels which now dominate the modern world. Here the interest is primarily in the end user function and not the engineering behind this. The reason for this difference is I think because the engineering detail is completely hidden from view and even after disassembling  a device it reveals little about the inner workings.

“My first lathe was found at the back of a shed covered in black tar and bought for the huge price of £1...”

Looking back over my long affair with mechanical engineering I now understand just how important it was in shaping my career and ambitions. My first lathe was found at the back of a shed covered in black tar and bought for the huge price of £1, it was sold as scrap by the widow of its former keeper who like me at the time had no idea of its value or condition. I was at this time aged 12 and desperate to own my first lathe. It turned out to be a flat bed Drummond powered by a treadle and also included a complete milling and dividing head attachment which I later learned was highly desirable and much sought after. When all the black tar had been scraped off it was in pristine condition which led me to believe the former owner treasured this lathe and was ensuring it would last forever. Except for a serious crack in the front headstock bearing housing the lathe was in the same condition as when first made. The actual bearing was made from bronze using a taper design which on tightening the bearing nut adjusted to give the correct running fit for the spindle. 

My father had long since lost his battle to have a lathe indoors and so was more than interested in my new acquisition and contacted one of his engineering friends, a tool-room manager at a large engineering factory to get advice on how to repair the cracked iron casting. This basically meant after an interesting visit he took away the headstock and some weeks later returned with it fully repaired and the crack welded, a difficult job to weld cast iron, I was told.  The treadle was discarded and replaced by an electric motor but the old flat belt drive remained using its metal comb-like connectors that looked very precarious yet never failed. 

Getting started on a low budget

Anyone wishing to start a model engineering hobby, like I did all those years ago, should initially  buy an old lathe or one of low cost because this is the machine on which you will learn the most and in so doing make all the mistakes!  In most cases an old or inexpensive lathe will probably lack some accuracy but despite this you will learn how to compensate and make adjustments to overcome this problem.  I have seen remarkable work done on machines that appear to be ready for the tip but the operators know and understand their machines and make allowances.

This is a great way to start in model engineering as you will be forced to understand exactly how these machines work. For me, starting new careers and family life, a model engineering hobby had to take a low priority, especially where money was concerned. This financial restriction should not deter a newcomer to model engineering because even with a low budget there are many used lathes available or even new low cost import lathes.

You don't need everything at start up time, with a Myford lathe for example, there are a huge number of accessories which enable virtually all machining tasks to be undertaken.  For many years I managed that way with just a basic ML7 lathe and then gradually over years bought additional machines and tools as and when they were needed. 

“My current workshop, even now after a lifetime of acquiring bits and pieces is still basic.”

My current workshop, even now after a lifetime of acquiring bits and pieces is still basic. I still have a Myford ML7 now 44 years old; an import basic milling
machine; another import basic 12" swing lathe for larger work; a very old and worn band saw and a very good substantial  (industrial) floor standing drilling machine. Many of the small tools and accessories, for example the Stent tool cutter and grinding machine, I have made to supplement or improve the main machines I always reconcile this approach, because any fool can buy stuff but only a few can make it themselves and after all, this is a hobby with so much to learn and thankfully no need to always buy the professional end kit. A great deal of satisfaction can be had by making working tools. 
The single machine that I rate as very high on my list of importance is the pedestal drilling machine which in my case  is a professional drill.  Newcomers
often overlook the humble drilling machine instead relying on shaky bench top versions or use the milling machine. A good drilling machine will provide ease of use, a full range of speeds, accuracy and above all safety. A drilling machine can also be very dangerous if misused or if not up to the job in hand. 

I often smile when I read about newcomers buying modern tooling inserts for their lathe, because they think these will enable them to produce finishes just like the professionals however it may be just an excuse because they don't know how to sharpen cutters!  Even today I have only one insert cutter, a parting off tool, the rest are all HSS or home made from silver steel which incidentally,  given the right cutting speeds will produce excellent results. This readily available high carbon steel (silver steel or drill rod) can be formed into many different shapes which is especially useful when a 'special' cutter is needed. 

“I often smile when I read about newcomers buying modern tooling inserts for their lathe...”

I should also mention that inserts often have quite different relief angles and clearances which are not always suitable for the smaller less rigid lathe! This does not mean they cannot be used, it all depends. The mirror finish that we see on parts made on modern production machines, are most likely done using carbide inserts and this is not just down to the expert insert geometry but also the robustness of the overall machine, high cutting speeds and feeds. Most hobby type machines are simply not robust enough to perform in the same way and the insert geometry may actually be a bad choice.

Basic HSS tool steel can easily be re-sharpened many times and can produce equally good finishes but the lathe speeds and feeds will also need to be suitably adjusted. Newcomers often say grinding a cutter is complex but there are only a few angles to understand and even these need not always be that critical. The trick is to grind a cutter approximately to shape with the associated angles and then hone the cutting edges using a stone or diamond file so that the edge is really sharp. Inserts rarely have the same sharp edges because the carbide compound easily chips because the extreme edge is weak. 

When wanting a superior finish I often run the lathe spindle at a slow speed and use a fine auto-feed, applying a dab of soluble cutting oil as the cut proceeds, this approach is in stark contrast to the modern production machines that use a very high speed and sometimes heavy feed!  Modern production lathes are vastly different to the home model engineers lathe and specifically designed for speed and repeatable accuracy even when cutting hard steel alloys which are very tough if not impossible on a small lathe.

Career changes putting a hobby on hold

My career after school started, unsurprisingly, in mechanical engineering as a student apprentice with British Railways at Crewe Locomotive Works. Prior to that I worked in my school holidays for a local jobbing engineering shop! I should also mention that. although a lot of model engineers are obsessed with railway engines I was not. and only worked in a railway workshop environment because my father told me it was a good place to learn a lot about engineering. He was completely right and thankfully as a student apprentice my time there over the next five years gave me the opportunity to work in almost every engineering department within the factory. 

I was not classified as a skilled craftsman, which was certainly the case.

This indeed was a brilliant introduction to engineering as Crewe Works covered most engineering disciplines,  but meant at the end of my apprenticeship, since I was a student, I was not classified as a skilled craftsman, which was certainly the case. As a student, I and a few other fortunate companions, were taken on to hopefully later continue in a management career, assuming of course we passed the mandatory HNC qualification which was done at day release and night college sessions.

Crewe Works was designed to be totally self sufficient and so they manufactured virtually everything from nuts, bolts, steel, iron, brass, tools etc. all to manufacture locomotives (steam, diesel and electric). During 
this time as an apprentice we were also expected to do production work
 which meant being thrown into different working teams and expected to
add  to the shared  weekly team bonus.   In this capacity it was generally a
 case of getting on well with the craftsmen and learning  quickly how to
  make a useful contribution. 
I learned a great deal during this time, the
 craftsmen had no time for onlookers or part-timers and  they demanded
  hard work from us.  Failure to do this meant a life of misery and probable
 demotion to craft apprentice! The fact that locomotives endured such a
 hard long working life with such remarkable reliability was down to these
skilled craft engineers who had pride and determination to produce
  excellence. A failed part earned no bonus so as a team they had to satisfy
the quality inspectors demands which meant 'get it right first time, every
  time' or go home with a light pay packet.
My career then took a strange turn. The expected future career as a trainee
railway manager had evaporated with the run-down of nationalisation and
so I left the old and relocated to the modern engineering world of car
manufacture working as a Methods Engineer.  This new role allowed me to
  seek out areas where improvements could be made in the manufacturing
  process and one of those improvements was to see if computers could be
  used to this end.  This opportunity required a year long interlude to train
and learn computer programming.

“The only skill that matters is the desire and determination to make things.

My major application success in this
  new and exciting environment was to computerise a technique, known then
as line balancing, or more simply,  scheduling assembly work at the best
time. I mention this computer work because it was a world away from
engineering and after a subsequent transfer to Canada for a couple of years
  I was able to further consolidate all this. On return to the UK I had to
forget all about my mechanical engineering hopes because there were no
engineering jobs about! So I then joined a major UK computer
manufacturer and stayed there until I retired. I mention this because I
suspect many people who wish to get involved with model engineering
 will also have unrelated career skills but that should never be an obstacle. The only skill that matters is the desire and determination to make things.

During the many years working in computers I had never lost my love of mechanical engineering and so had a parallel and severely time-restricted hobby as a model engineer. I can still recall the time working as a computer consultant visiting a client and next to the car park was a large engineering works. The smell of cutting machine oils drifting across the car park. I knew right then and there that I had lost my way in my career and should have remained in the traditional mechanical engineering environment especially as it was now starting to exploit computer technology in a big way.

The point here is that engineering and the desire to understand and work on engineering projects is deeply embedded within the psyche of many of us and not easily forgotten. I guess many model engineers can recall the times as a child staring at the motion of a steam locomotive and witnessing all the excitement of steam bursting violently from the exhaust as the huge lumbering hulk of steel progressed along its track pulling its passenger train.

It is a plain fact of life that while we may all dream of our hobby desires most times they have to be put on hold until the time is right when there is more time and money to get started properly. It is my theory that no matter what career we end up in, if the engineering gene is within we will probably end up as model engineers at some future time.  Indeed, a large number of the medical fraternity are active model engineers which is quite surprising, but I understand they find it mentally relaxing because one has to concentrate on the task in hand and so doing momentarily forget their medical concerns. 

Imported machinery

It is actually a lot easier now to start in this hobby because many of the major tools and machines needed are readily available and often at very low cost which is mainly thanks to imports. Those that condemn the Chinese workmanship and blame them for the closure of European manufacturers are, I think wrong. The plain fact is that many established manufacturers failed to recognise competition and emerging new markets and showed little or no degree of urgency to address this. Cost became the significant driver for new sales with high quality requirements now relegated mostly to the professional engineering market. 

I have heard so many of the model engineering fraternity scorn the imports, the lack of precision, the demise of so many established good British manufacturers however while this may be true, the low cost and maybe lower quality etc.,  does not mean imports are unable to perform good work and meet the requirements of model engineers.  It is fair to say that quality and accuracy of imports lathes in the early days was generally poor but they are getting significantly better all the time.  Compared to my beloved Drummond, they are considerably better, but manufacturers like Myford, for example, failed to modernise their manufacturing methods, designs and it seems they lacked enthusiasm to invest in new production machinery to meet the challenge head-on. They historically owned the hobby market and provided high quality machines, but to retain this market share was only going to happen if the costs and product designs were able to compete with the imports, especially on cost!   This could have been achieved but above all else there must be the desire by the manufacturer to compete and undertake radical changes in the way they made products.  Inevitably this would mean radical design changes to facilitate modern production processes.  Cost was always the major decider but buyers would pay more for better quality, but not significantly more!

It is my view that unless engineers actually buy an import lathe and use it they will never appreciate just what these import machines can do and never understand the relevance of quality and associated cost differentials.  Many complain about the lack of fit and finish with imports, which was true some years ago but these days they are much improved and most machines can be used straight out of the box.  It has to be said that some will still require some additional preparation and checking over and possibly re-fitting of parts but this does not mean these machines are incapable of being used in a model engineering environment. 

I think it makes a lot of sense for newcomers who buy a new import lathe to first strip the machine of minor parts/assemblies for cleaning purposes and then check how well the parts fit together. This process is a valuable learning experience for any engineer new or experienced since many obvious problems can often be easily resolved. Clearly major stripping of the larger key parts which affect manufactured alignment and accuracy must be left untouched since these are difficult to reassemble and in most cases are rarely problematic. If this was not the case then every import lathe would never be able to perform accurately and would fail basic turning dimensional acceptance tests.

“...the guaranteed high level of quality from the old days is no longer available at affordable cost...”

The degree of accuracy may be argued but in most cases it can be said that a new import, as delivered and following basic checking, will be able to produce accurate work suitable for most model engineers. Quality is now a variable and cost a significant driver when it comes to buying decisions but one thing is sadly evident, the guaranteed high level of quality from the old days is no longer available at affordable cost and this is reserved only for the professional end of the market which unsurprisingly is high cost. 

It is reasonable to attribute the degree of fit and finish of import machines on the UK seller, after all they buy to satisfy a market need and demand the cost to satisfy that need.  A quick search of import manufacturer products available show they can manufacture machines of very high quality and finish but the cost is much higher!

Buying machines and accessories

Model engineering is now more readily available to everyone and at much lower start-up costs. Inexpensive machines are wonderful for new users to gain experience and develop the skills needed and after a time, assuming money is available then a better machine can be bought with the knowledge it is likely to be treated more kindly.

When I first decided to get a milling machine the only 'low' cost entry point was to buy a kit of castings, the Dore Westbury.  Fortunately, the supplier provided part machined bits which would have been difficult for a model engineer who typically only had a Myford lathe.  At the time this was a 'low' cost solution, or so I then thought, but actually when compared to the cost of a similar import machine today,  it was a comparably 'high' cost and of course that only included a set of parts which still had to be made! When the milling machine was finally completed it was a wonderful accomplishment but only as accurate as my skills and machinery allowed.

“The days when manufacturers advertised their machines would last forever has long passed.”

It was a quality machine I thought but later I sold it to buy one of the infamous import mill-drills which offered additional table space and that was of comparable accuracy. That mill-drill was many years later sold and replaced by
yet another import having better specifications. This chain of buying and swapping machines shows how today's model engineer can easily make changes at relatively minimal cost.

The days when manufacturers advertised their machines would last forever has long passed. Unfortunately, the machines that would last a lifetime now pass through many owners and that ultimately means their longevity is severely reduced. The hobby in this respect has changed enormously such that machines now need to last a decade rather than a life time so quality also has a different meaning.

“Savings can often be made by not going for the latest digital wonder...”

With the acquisition of the major machine tools, which could be just a lathe or possibly a milling  and or drilling machine, comes the need to buy accessory tools. This includes all the essential tools needed for measurement, cutting and re-sharpening. Now I personally believe that this is an area where it pays not to cut corners and to get started you don't always need all the accessories from day one. The cost of measurement type tools is relatively low and here used micrometers, for example, are often very affordable.  Even those from the very best manufacturers such as Moore & Wright, Starret etc. are still very affordable. Savings can often be made by not going for the latest digital wonder and keeping to more traditional tools which are possibly a little more complex to use but very much cheaper and possibly even more accurate.

Because these accessories can be acquired as needed I always advocate buying new however, many used micrometers can be in pristine condition, for example, those that have had only occasional use e.g. a 3-4 inch micrometer. Cutters can be expensive if one starts down the road of buying modern inserts, which in a production environment is essential these days but it is not difficult to learn how to grind inexpensive HSS tooling stock and these will cover a lifetime of use because they can easily be re-sharpened.

What is model engineering?

The next area to consider relates to the fundamental definition of model engineering, which is really a generic term for this hobby but it covers so many different types of engineering. The term probably was more relevant in years past with people predominately making models of full size engines such as steam locomotives or I/C engines etc. but the scope for making models of all varieties is vast and covers a such great range of items which are suitable for modelling.

The trend these days seems to be for larger scale models having more power. In the case of steam locomotives a larger engine is able to transport twenty or more passengers with ease. Because of this, the modern hobby lathes now have larger capacity to enable these to be more easily machined. Equally, some model engineers like to make accessories and tooling for their workshop machines rather than buy ready-made tools. I personally have seen the value of this and it is a major interest for me to design tooling which can often make a special machining task simple or can enhance a lathe or milling machine at very minimal cost. 

An example of this type of tool making is the screw cutting device, designed by Graham Meek.  I made this for my import lathe,  by working remotely with Gray so that he was able to adapt his design to meet my requirements and lathe. This tool now offers a superb enhanced screw cutting facility which is only found on specialist tool room lathes. This type of work is typical in my engineering hobby world since it enables me to make the tool myself and then have something which often is impossible to buy ready-made yet allows me to enjoy the use of a professional tool. 

Another extension of the hobby related to this, which I personally enjoy, is to design and build a machine in miniature form which is similar in function to that of a full sized commercial machine. It is most unlikely that any drawings exist for this type of endeavour and my recent exploits in designing the Sunderland Gear Cutting machine was done based purely on the words in a book which described the mechanism used. This for me offers the ultimate opportunity to
design a machine based on my interpretation of its function and in the case of the Sunderland with no knowledge of the full size machine. This project is still ongoing and the enjoyment, sometimes frustration, is all about having to conquer and resolve problems along the way.

“The key is to start in a simple way and not to get hung up about this machine or that machine, accuracy or long term investment.”

An unexpected aspect of this project has been the realisation that many of the obstacles and design issues must have been similar or the same as those experienced by the original engineers when the first prototype machines were designed and built. Often the resulting solutions are very different.  In my case the model was severely compromised due to its small size and lacking space to incorporate similar mechanisms used in the full size machine.  Success is not a given with this type of venture but the process of discovery and solving problems makes for the ultimate challenge.

For any prospective newcomer to model engineering I hope my experiences in this hobby will help them to start getting involved.  The key is to start in a simple way and not to get hung up about this machine or that machine, accuracy or long term investment. These days the new import machines are getting better as each year passes, accuracy is good enough and often only dependent on user skills.

The age of buying a lathe to last a lifetime has now gone, simply because the acquisition costs are relatively low and we as engineers will have changing needs. So my advice to new engineers is to buy a basic  inexpensive lathe and make some simple accessories and when you feel the time is right consider making a model. Be careful not to start on anything too ambitious and consider the materials cost.  A steam locomotive model, for example, requires castings and high cost materials (especially the boiler) which can easily exceed the cost of the lathe. Once the model engineer feels comfortable with his new skills then it is time to reconsider future needs and machines.

A personal journey
by Graham Howe