Old iron and my favorite Web site

There is no arguing about the appeal of a new, good quality, “high tech” machine. There is something about the sleek lines, the digital readouts, the touchpad controls, the overall look and feel, that makes us want them in our shops in spite of the fact that they can be hideously expensive or that we might not actually need them or have sufficient applications to keep them running at the clip we would need to in order to justify the cost.

But as tempting as it might be to invest in new machines, I am much more enthralled by a finely restored “vintage” machine. Here we have good old American iron with massive castings and huge nickel plated wheels and not a bit of plastic to be found anywhere. The only piece of equipment I actually own that falls into this category is my DeWalt radial arm saw, a mid 50’s model with the red knobs that was completely rebuilt by Chuck Wolfe. Even though it is used primarily for rough crosscutting – my newer Omga crosscut/miter saw doing most of the precise work – it is, without question, my favorite machine.

I am a sucker for “vintage iron.” I would much prefer to drive a 1940 Ford 2-door sedan than the Volvo station wagon I drive around in most of the time. Ah but no AC, no power steering or power brakes, and you would actually have to raise and lower the windows using a crank. But those lines! The seats that resemble living room sofas! The solid “clunk” that results from rapping your knuckles on the fender. Those things would be worth the trade off. And I feel the same way about woodworking machines. I love those old “aircraft carrier” Crescent and Oliver jointers. The big old Tannewitz band saws with their beautifully cast spoke wheels and gracefully curved iron frames are so much more appealing to me than the boxy welded steel enclosures that are typical of “modern” band saws.

My favorite woodworking web site is Old Woodworking Machines (www.owwm.com). You can spend hours looking at fine vintage machines, most of which have been restored to new (or better than new) condition by their owners. Some of the “before” pictures look pretty grim. But the “after” pictures show what you can do with some time, a bit of metal working ability (or a very good friend who is a machinist) and a bit of paint.

Of course, restoring old machines, like restoring old cars, could easily become an addiction. But many of the vintage machines I see that come up for sale are useable “as is” and it’s often simply a matter of making space for them and having a way to transport a couple thousand pounds of cast iron. I don’t know if I will ever buy another major machine since I pretty much have everything I need. But then again, my planer is a bit too small and is not going to last forever. And there is that old Rockwell 18 incher I saw for sale …



  • Mike Olson says:

    You can’t get machines that will standup to hard use like the old iron. I inherited a Delta drill press built in 1938. I hardly bother to use my 1993 Taiwan built Delta.
    Our Sebastian lathe was built in the 40’s. The guy I got it from was running it on 240v 3ph. When I went to reconnect it to 480v I found it was already wired for 480. The insulation was burned off the leads.
    After slipping shrink tubing over the leads and replacing the wire nuts it purred like a kitten. Try that with a newer motor.

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