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Graduate lathe, a great machine for bowls, though not without faults.

The Graduate lathe was designed in consultation with Frank Pain, one of the first turners to write for the amateur. He was a professional of very long experience and knew a thing or two about lathes and woodturning.

I bought my Graduate lathe many years ago. At the time it had little competition. It was perhaps the most solidly built machine available for non-industrial use, and the lathe you bought if you wanted the best. It was intended primarily for use in schools, back when schools taught woodwork, although my own first turning experience at school was on a Myford. Ray Key, another well known turner, described the Graduate as being ‘head and shoulders above the rest’.

This lathe comes in a long bed and a short bed format. Mine is a short bed, better for bowls and boxes because it takes a larger diameter and you can stand in front of the work without bending. It can be used for spindle turning, though not very convenient for this, and the maximum workpiece length is short. I have now bought a larger machine, but happily used this lathe for bowls and any larger work. It was a great improvement over the small spindle lathe that I owned at the time.

One problem with the Graduate lathe is that its centre height is low. Most people would want to raise the height. I had a welded triangular platform standing on steel pillars made for mine. This brought the centres up to elbow height, which is the normal standard. It also increased the footprint a little, making it more stable. I have not found it necessary to bolt the machine to the floor.

It came with a 3/4 horsepower motor and 4 pulley speeds with a range from 425 to 2250 rpm. This was not suitable for the large discs that I later began making for globe stands, which needed more power and a lower speed. I therefore upgraded with a bigger motor and a Variturn variable speed drive and had a special large steel faceplate made for these jobs. This goes on the left hand end of the spindle and allowed me to turn discs of over a metre in diameter. I installed the Variturn kit myself. It’s a great addition, quiet and smooth, but the lathe still lacks power for very large work. It copes with large bowls, but I prefer a 2 or 3 HP motor to let me work faster.

Although the Graduate lathe was a great machine in its day, and performed very well for most of my work, it has some weaknesses. The shortbed version seems to have been a design afterthought. For all its good points, its design leads to some problems.

The strange tailstock causes some problems. It is not used on the long bed machine. I didn’t often use the tailstock, so the problems I describe below rarely caused much inconvenience in practice.

The curve of the tailstock casting increases the distance between the centres. It is partly hollow, being open at the back. This causes lack of rigidity, and you can sometimes see it flexing as the work turns. The tailstock position sometimes falls where the two bed slots join at right angles to each other. In this position it is not properly supported. Both the foot of the casting and the locking plate below the bed are too small to bridge the slots at this point – an obvious flaw. You can see this in the photo below. I used an extra-large washer below the bed to help bridge the gap.

Graduate shortbed lathe
Graduate shortbed lathe showing unusual tailstock and crossed slots in bed.

The curved casting has its foot closer to the headstock casting than its centre point. This means that when you want the point close to the headstock the locking lever below the bed will not turn. The headstock casting obstructs it. This means that you can’t always give a shallow bowl blank on a faceplate tailstock support. You can’t pin a disc against a faceplate with the tailstock.

The tailstock ram is just a screw (hollow, to take a No. 2 Morse taper) with a cross hole for a tommy bar to advance and retract. I made a winding handle to use instead of a tommy bar. The alignment of the screw on my lathe is not good. The upper part of the tailstock twists in the casting. A pin locks it, and there is enough play to throw the centre slightly out of true.

The toolrest holder casting is also curved and hollow, as shown in the photo. You can mount it in either of the two slots in the bed, with the same problem at the point where the slots meet. I find however that it is normally set in the cross slot clear of the junction. When the tailstock is in place, the feet of the two castings and their locking levers below the bed can sometimes get in each other’s way.

The tool rest holder also lacks rigidity to some extent. The foot of the casting is not directly under the tool rest stem, which allows slight flexing. The holder can slide along the bed slots and swivel, which ought to give free movement of the rest. But as it swivels, there are times when you cannot put the rest in the right position. and the toolrest locking handle, which is another tommy bar, can foul a large workpiece. With the tailstock removed, which is how I usually have it, the toolrest holder has more freedom of movement and there is rarely a problem in practice. The rests themselves are excellent for faceplate work – rigid, and with a good slope and narrow top. They are not so good for spindle work if you like an underhand grip with a finger behind the rest.

The headstock consists of a single iron casting from floor level up. The shell is heavy and robust, with a thin wall. Bolts attach the cantilevered beds to it.

The lathe came with an outboard bowl turning bed on the left of the headstock. But the inner and outer beds are the same height, so there is no more capacity when using the left hand bed on the short bed model. You cannot use the tailstock outboard. The spindle rotation originally was fixed (now reversible with the Variturn), so the threads are different and accessories aren’t interchangeable. Turning on the outboard side is in the reverse direction to the normal anticlockwise. Left-handed turners might like this. It can make some cuts easier, for example when hollowing bowls.

The outboard spindle thread is the opposite hand to the inner side. Because of this, if you reverse the rotation, the chuck is likely to unscrew. But the outboard bed is at least a convenient handle when moving the lathe. It would be useful for large diameter work when attached to the long bed lathe.

With the inboard bed removed, you can turn large pieces inboard. The limiting factor is when the headstock casting gets in the way. It bulges out half way down to accommodate the motor. Without the bed, a free-standing toolrest is essential.

With the left hand bed removed, you can turn even larger pieces outboard. I have used my Graduate lathe to turn built-up oak discs of 60 x 1100 mm. The lack of power was a problem though.

Both beds come off easily by removing the fixing bolts. There are dowels to align the beds accurately when replacing them. One person can do this with the help of a temporary wooden prop to help support the weight during this process. Some people set up a disc sander on the outboard side. The bed is then useful to carry the sanding table.

Conclusion

No lathe is perfect. The Graduate lathe in its short bed version is in some ways a poorly designed and under-powered machine. But because of its mostly great build quality the lathe performs very well and can do excellent work. Any of these bowls could have been made on the Graduate. You may sometimes come up against its eccentricities. But it is usually a delight to use and a Graduate lathe is still a good buy. It’s far superior to most of the cheap lathes on sale now. I used mine for many years and was always able to find a way to overcome its limitations. I have never used the long bed version, which has a more traditional toolrest support and tailstock. It should be excellent for spindle work, though limited for bowl turning.

 

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