11 December 2010


I recently took an interest in machining, particularly to turn aluminum and brass on a metal lathe to make flashlights and other interesting items. Unfortunately, I still have my last project taking up space in the garage, so I've been very very motivated to finish it ASAP so I can start making metal chips (that's a little machinist humor; you see, the chips are what you throw away after removing them from your metal bar stock to form your desired shape).

My "last project" is converting a gasoline '88 VW Jetta to diesel. I had the engine block bored out some time ago, so I took it off the shelf and masked it off for paint:

Once painted the factory Volkswagen diesel color, I attempted to use a homemade tool to install the intermediate shaft bearings (the intermediate shaft drives the oil pump and vacuum booster for the brakes):

See that little star pattern? Yeah, that's where my tool broke into pieces shortly after destroying my $30 bearings. So, with another set of bearings in hand, I dropped off the block at a machine shop. If I had my metal lathe up and running, I could have made a proper tool to do it myself, but I had no room to set up the lathe -- and Lemontree wants the Jetta done before the lathe makes chips -- so it was just easier to wave money in someone else's direction until it got done.

...And that's where I hit another snag. I started working on the cylinder head, but I had to use the kitchen table, which was a right pain for both myself and for the owner of the kitchen table (that's Lemontree, of course). The garage was just too cramped and crowded to work in, so I decided I needed a work bench. The previous owners of our house had installed some homebuilt shelving in the garage, but it was a massive 4 feet by 7 feet so there was no way you could reach the back corner. Also, it was under-engineered and the shelves sagged in the middle (especially the one that got water spilled on it... oops). Driven to get the Jetta done, we started ripping out those useless shelves to make room for a work bench. We were in such a hurry we didn't even take any "before" pics, sorry. But here's what it looked like after we removed them and started hanging vertical rails for improved shelving and a horizontal beam to support the back of the work bench.

We used some serious lag screws that claimed they didn't require pre-drilling. Well, maybe if you have a bigger drill than I did, which literally smoked before fully seating them. So, we started predrilling and drove them flush with the ratchet I use for working on cars.

Where the previous owners under-engineered, I over-engineered. The dark bar you see underneath the work surface is just that -- a 1" steel bar. There's a second one just behind it, too. I can sit and bounce all my weight on the front lip of the work bench and it is rigid. I can literally drop an engine on there.

You may be wondering why that left leg is not at the corner. Well, there will be another leg at the corner, and between those two legs will be shelves for power tools.

Here we've hung a few of the new height-adjustable shelves and Tiffany and I are testing out the location of the bench grinder (for sharpening lathe tool bits) and, of course, the lathe itself. B-)

The lathe, if you are interested, is a 7x10 mini-lathe. The '7' means it can theoretically spin a metal bar 7" in diameter, but in reality, it would struggle with much more than 4" (still much larger than any flashlight I intend to machine). The '10' is the length of the bed, or how long of a bar you can work with. 10" is also a little optimistic; while it can indeed turn a 10" bar, in the factory configuration various things get in the way so a little modification is required to take full advantage of the bed length. Despite these shortcomings, it is incredibly cheap, er, inexpensive compared to a "real" lathe, and you already know I'm cheap, er, frugal, so there you are.

Now, since we'll be doing all sorts of dirty/greasy/oily/messy jobs on this workbench, we decided to slap a coat of paint down. I don't really care if the surface gets messed up, because it's just a sheet of cheap plywood and I designed it to be easily replaceable , but I wanted to be able to at least kind of wipe it off from time to time. At the hardware store, we looked at the colors of oil-based enamel available. One was a dark gray that I thought would be too dark, so we went with the lighter gray labeled "aluminum". Imagine our surprise when we opened the can and discovered that "aluminum" is not a shade of gray but is, in fact, a bright silvery metallic aluminum color! Ah well, splash it on!

So here I am typing this out while the paint dries. Work will resume on Monday! Gotta get the Jetta done!!

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