Plans, projects and how-to's for home machinists

Machining trade insight–Nial McCabe

Professor Nial McCabe teaches applied mechanics at the County College of Morris. (Photo courtesy of

Nial McCabe’s machining workshop at the County College of Morris campus is a good example of where the American economy could be headed in the next decade. After all, as McCabe says, we need to become a society that makes things again.

Most of you probably remember Nial from his steam engine plans that we’ve linked to before, and may also remember that he teaches applied mechanics at County College of Morris in New Jersey. As a professor at the New Jersey community college, Nial has taught the trade for the last two decades and in that time its progression from being closely guarded to one with communities spread across the internet, ready to share stories and plans.

Growing Interest in Home Machining

Hobbyists—and especially their proliferation on the internet—have helped bring about a resurgence in home machining, Nial said. He recalled that 15 or 20 years ago, as he was learning the trade, he could rely on his father or a few others to help him learn the ropes, but there were many more who guarded their knowledge.

Today, because of the internet the secretive nature is gone and even a complete beginner can learn about using a lathe or building a simple project with one click on You Tube. With more people wiling to share their knowledge Nial hopes it could mean more interest overall in engineering.

Early Days

Nial got into engineering because of his father, a railroad mechanic born in England. His father would bring home bits of locomotives or other parts for a fascinated Nial to explore. From that early experience he was hooked and always worked with his father on projects and “typical immigrant stuff” like fixing cars or working on plumbing.

“I always stood around and watched him doing stuff,” Nial said. “And he was a good sport about it, showing me and my brothers how to do it all. Then when I got to high school I decided I liked the idea of working on stuff, and from what I thought teaching looked like a good job for me.”

So he went to Trenton State College where he studied to be an industrial arts teacher. He found work in a high school, working primarily in drafting and a small auto shop, and there some of the older teachers taught him to use the lathe and drilling machine.

In the last few years he has seen a boom in popularity in the hobby, especially among men who work in professional settings. His theory is that most of these people went to college and got degrees in things like accounting or medicine, and never got to do the hands-on work that their fathers or grandfathers did. So now, with more free time and money to spare, this generation is going to Home Depot for equipment and trying on small projects.

For the moment, that means increases in sales and a suddenly wide-open market for internet companies catering to these hobbyists, Nial said. But in the long-term, it could lay the groundwork for a resurgence in engineering itself.

“A lot of hobbyists realize now that it’s fun and they can get into it, and most of the growth we’ve seen in the last 10 years has been from those hobbyists,” he said. “But now I hope there’s a second tier and as they get involved their children or nephews or nieces will be inspired to work in the field of engineering and innovation.”

Job Market for Machinists

For his own students, skills on the lathe and other machinery translate into one of the most important factors for students and their parents—jobs after graduation.  Students at County College of Morris are required to work in co-op settings, and Nial is seeing more openings in the tool and die trade than anytime in the last 30 years as many of the older workers retire.

There are also openings for these students in installing and setting up machinery equipment, or designing CAD drawings for machine systems. With the sudden interest in energy efficiency and building new facilities to LEED standards, Nial said many of the students find work in designing and installing HVAC systems. Another 25 percent of the students work in the military, he said.

Even with the increase in jobs, enrollment for mechanical programs has remained steady, Nial said. In the 90s he watched computer science programs grow in popularity, as the “unsexy but solid” mechanics programs lumbered along. Then, when interest in computer science crashed along with the dot com bust of the early 2000s, mechanical programs still lumbered.

Nial doesn’t predict much will change with that, and interest in this trade will keep steady. The positive about that, he said, is there will never be more graduates than there are jobs.

“A lot of times a students goes to college and gets a degree in business but ends up working wherever they can find a job,” he said. “I think the thing that’s remarkable is we have such a high percentage of students who end up in the careers they want to end up in.”

Nial’s Personal Web Site

Nial maintains a personal web site that has close to three dozen detailed plans for projects, mostly steam engines, including one called “The EZ Engine.”

This is a simple “wire crank” engine that uses a small piece of aluminum plate and coat hanger wire. Like most of his designs, Nial’s page for the EZ Engine includes a brief description of the project, a photo and 3D image along with more detailed blueprints for the project.

The EZ Engine. If that looks like coat hanger, that's because it is a coat hanger.


Bernie Vinther, blind machinist

Entering into machining as a hobby can be a bit intimidating for the uninitiated, but Bernie Vinther had no fear.

The 65-year old former electrician took up the hobby 10 years ago after a medical condition forced him to retire at only 38. He enrolled at classes at a local community college, and began the slow process of learning to transfer his skills designing, building and fixing radios into machining.

His entry into the hobby sounds the same as countless others, but what makes his story remarkable is the medical condition that forced him to retire: Vinther is blind.

Now, Vinther has another battle. He and his guide dog were crossing a busy four-lane road in Kennewick, Wa., last month when a driver who was looking behind to change lanes struck them both. The dog was killed on impact, and Vinther was sent to the hospital. He suffered a cut on his eyebrow and cracked a few teeth.

The dog had served as a guide for Vinther for nine years and without him Vinther is forced to use a white cane and a Braille compass.

During his time living in Kennewick Vinther has gained a bit of notoriety for his work in the machine shop and the lengths he went to in learning it. To complete a required course for blueprint reading he used a drawing kit that included Velcro and yarn and made three-dimensional images from clay.

He listens to the machinery to judge its relative speed and uses a special device designed by a non-profit eye institute to read out the more precise measurements. Vinther also labels all his cutting tools with Braille printouts and has a multi-page index of drill sizes in Braille that he spent hundreds of hours to create and organize.

It sounds difficult—and even Vinther concedes that it is—but he said becoming blind was “one of the best things that ever happened to me” because it helped him learn his true capabilities.

“Most of the challenges of being blind can certainly be very frustrating, but I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in striving to keep blindness from becoming an obstacle that keeps me from doing all the things I like to do,” he said in an article published in the American Foundation for the Blind. “I just won’t take “No” for an answer. Blindness has taught me not to sit in the corner and be passive.”

Vinther came into machining after retiring. In 1988 he bought an IBM 286 clone and took a booth at a local industrial products fair to try to find work designing and prototyping electronic devices. He found work with a machinist who was working on a gas bottle warning flasher, and after visiting the man’s shop Vinther asked if he could use one of his lathes for a simple project.

Soon Vinther started working more and more on the lathe and milling machines in exchange for doing some light work making duplicate parts. Vinther decided he should learn the skill more intently so he bought a lathe and enrolled in a two-year machinist program at his local community college.

After completing the program he tried to find work using his new skills, but had no luck.

“I got some calls to come in for various interviews, but when I walked through the door with a white cane and a guide dog, the interview was over before it could begin,” Vinther said in the American Federation for the Blind article. “A couple of times they acted insulted that I had the nerve to even come through the door. Being blind, I figured it would be harder to get a job, but not this hard.”

So now the work he creates is mostly for people he knows, but Vinther does some contract work too, including making stainless steel parts for LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory at Hanford operated by the California Institute of Technology.

A fund has been set up to help Vinther get a new guide dog, and donations can be sent to:

Washington Trust Bank
c/o Guide Dog Fund
3250 W. Clearwater Avenue
Kennewick, WA 99336

(509) 734-0450

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design

I’m not exactly sure who Dave Akin is, but he’s obviously a wise man.  He wrote these 33 Laws of Spacecraft Design that are full of astute insights and observations that can be applied to many other engineering, design and management situations.  He’s kindly granted permission for them to be reprinted, and so here they are:

1.  Engineering is done with numbers.  Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.

2.  To design a spacecraft right takes an infinite amount of effort.  This is why it’s a good idea to design them to operate when some things are wrong .

3.  Design is an iterative process.  The necessary number of iterations is one more than the number you have currently done.  This is true at any point in time.

4.  Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design.  Learn to live with the disappointment.

5.  (Miller’s Law) Three points determine a curve.

6.  (Mar’s Law) Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker.

7.  At the start of any design effort, the person who most wants to be team leader is least likely to be capable of it.

8.  In nature, the optimum is almost always in the middle somewhere.  Distrust assertions that the optimum is at an extreme point.

9.  Not having all the information you need is never a satisfactory excuse for not starting the analysis.

10.  When in doubt, estimate. In an emergency, guess.  But be sure to go back and clean up the mess when the real numbers come along.

11.  Sometimes, the fastest way to get to the end is to throw everything out and start over.

12.  There is never a single right solution.  There are always multiple wrong ones, though.

13.  Design is based on requirements.  There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.

14.  (Edison’s Law) “Better” is the enemy of “good”.

15.  (Shea’s Law) The ability to improve a design occurs primarily at the interfaces.  This is also the prime location for screwing it up.

16.  The previous people who did a similar analysis did not have a direct pipeline to the wisdom of the ages.  There is therefore no reason to believe their analysis over yours.  There is especially no reason to present their analysis as yours.

17.  The fact that an analysis appears in print has no relationship to the likelihood of its being correct.

18.  Past experience is excellent for providing a reality check.  Too much reality can doom an otherwise worthwhile design, though.

19.  The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field.  If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.

20.  A bad design with a good presentation is doomed eventually.  A good design with a bad presentation is doomed immediately.

21.  (Larrabee’s Law) Half of everything you hear in a classroom is crap.  Education is figuring out which half is which.

22.  When in doubt, document. (Documentation requirements will reach a maximum shortly after the termination of a program.)

23.  The schedule you develop will seem like a complete work of fiction up until the time your customer fires you for not meeting it.

24.  It’s called a “Work Breakdown Structure” because the Work remaining will grow until you have a Breakdown, unless you enforce some Structure on it.

25.  (Bowden’s Law) Following a testing failure, it’s always possible to refine the analysis to show that you really had negative margins all along.

26.  (Montemerlo’s Law) Don’t do nuthin’ dumb.

27.  (Varsi’s Law) Schedules only move in one direction.

28.  (Ranger’s Law) There ain’t no such thing as a free launch.

29.  (von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Program Management) To get an accurate estimate of final program requirements, multiply the initial time estimates by pi, and slide the decimal point on the cost estimates one place to the right.

30.  (von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Engineering Design) If you want to have a maximum effect on the design of a new engineering system, learn to draw.  Engineers always wind up designing the vehicle to look like the initial artist’s concept.

31.  (Mo’s Law of Evolutionary Development) You can’t get to the moon by climbing successively taller trees.

32.  (Atkin’s Law of Demonstrations) When the hardware is working perfectly, the really important visitors don’t show up.

33.  Space is a completely unforgiving environment.  If you screw up the engineering, somebody dies (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right…) founder Chris Wood

When Chris Wood started, it was only supposed to be a test.

Wood and a partner were writing manuals for a Japanese printer company and he realized he should learn to build e-commerce sites for the clients he worked with.  Wood had his own mini lathe at home but found he had few choices when it came to buying parts, so he decided to set up an online shop to sell them himself.

The timing couldn’t have been better.  It was the beginning of the dot com crash, and as his other work fell off, the site Wood had conceived as a backup became his main business. Logo“A year or so before, I started working on mini lathes and had to go around to different places to find them,” Wood says.  “In the beginning we never sold complete machines, only parts.  Now we’re selling CNC milling machines and are looking into other new areas.” is big now.  They sell nationwide and the weak American dollar has helped push international sales, which now make up 7 percent of the company’s total sales.  Wood says most customers are hobbyists, but he also has several large clients who purchase parts for the machines in their prototype shops.

Lockheed Martin is a client.  So is NASA.

“They’re not building aircraft with our parts, but they’re trying some things in their shops,” Wood says.

The company has six employees, and other than a few down months at the beginning of the current recession it has grown in low double digits each year.  Wood says he’s also negotiating with a large international company to be the exclusive provider of new and more powerful equipment (but he’s still a bit uneasy about giving too many details until the ink is on the paper for the deal).

Wood is a mechanical engineer by training, and earlier in his career worked more directly in the field.  He designed cargo loaders for airlines and served as an engineer for a garlic distribution plant.  When it came to machining, the only formal training he had was a shop class in college and his home shop.

From his perspective as an entrepreneur and a hobbyist, Wood says machining is anything but exploding.

“I’m not going to tell you this is a fast-growing hobby,” he says.  “There are always people getting into it but then there are some falling by the wayside.  It’s a real small niche hobby, especially compared to woodworking. You probably have three neighbors that are woodworking, but you probably don’t have any neighbors that have a machine shop in their garage.”

But that’s not all bad from a business standpoint.  There are fewer opportunities for growth but also less competitors, and Wood says he commands a significant share of the market.  The difficulty is in finding the customers, who can tend to skew older and are less connected to the Internet.

“We have a large percentage of retired customers and it’s not surprising if I ask a guy for his e-mail address he’ll say he doesn’t have a home computer,” Wood says.

The hobbyists also tend to be less concentrated.  There are still only a handful of clubs people identify with, Wood says, while woodworking or car repair clubs are found in every medium sized city.’s offices are in Pasadena, but Wood says the nearest club is a day-long drive across the Los Angeles basin.

Even though machining magazines report proportionally more subscriptions in Southern California than most other areas, Wood says machining has remained a largely solitary venture there as it does in the rest of the country.

This is driving most machinists to the Internet, to congregate on blogs and message boards and share their designs, he says.  His own site, aside from being one of the largest on the Internet devoted to machining, also serves as a jumping-off point that sends users to a number of specialty sites for mini lathes, mini mills and home machine shops.

“That’s been growing exponentially on the web over the last few years” he says.  “People have machine shops for all different reasons.  Some of them do it because machining is their hobby, but some just like to fix motorcycles and that’s their hobby.  The Internet is where they all meet, and it’s only going to grow.”

Random Quote

You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.

— Wayne Gretzky