Should I buy a 3-In-1 machine?
I have done several automobile restorations and rebuilds in the past and am currently involved with a project that requires that I machine several small parts on either a lathe or milling machine, but I have access to neither of them. Though I could farm these parts out to a machine shop, that won’t be inexpensive and I would miss the fun of doing it myself. My shop and budget are small, so I have been considering the purchase of a 3-in-1 machine (lathe, vertical mill, and drill press). I have looked at a few machines of this type from the low-price end (such as is sold at Harbor Freight for around $1K) to some at a higher price and have focused on two: the Smithy Granite 1324 (smithy.com fromAnn Arbor, Michigan) and the ShopMaster Patriot (shoptask.com from Las Vegas)— both of which sell for around$3500.
They also both have accessories and add-ons, which appear to provide a fair amount of versatility to the machines.
While I have some limited experience from the past using single-purpose machines (Bridgeport mill and South Bend lathes) I have none with one of these 3-in-1 machines, nor have I personally ever seen one in use. I understand the argument for single-purpose machines, but that option simply is not open for me. I will be working on relatively small parts and though precision is a real factor, I am not building a nuclear reactor or heart-lung machine, so the closest tolerances will be in the thousandths. Also, speed is not a factor for my work, nor is massor even limited-production.
Do you have any experience with these types of machines as to their usefulness and ability to do reasonable quality work?
My friend Tommy Vinciguerra, master fabricator and owner of SuperPro Performance Chassis in West Babylon, New York, regularly uses a Smithy 3-in-1 machine in a working, professional shop so I turned to him for his opinion.
He states that a 3-in-1 machine has certain limitations but is still a worthwhile addition to your shop as long as you understand those limitations and can make use of its capabilities.
As a starting point, you should definitely spend more if you can afford to do so in order to get a better quality machine such as the Smithy or ShopMaster.
The main limitation of either, according to Tommy, is the size of the milling head. The head is short and there is not
a lot of room for the material or item being milled so you can only work on relatively small parts. There’s no way around that short of buying a dedicated milling machine that’s considerably larger.
The other limitation of the 3-in-1 machines, according to Tommy, is the time it takes to switch from one setup to another. He uses his Smithy almost exclusively for its lathe, which he finds to be quite accurate and useful, and almost never for its drilling capability because it takes a little bit of time to move things around to get it into drill press mode. And since he happens to have a high-quality drill press in his shop he doesn’t want to waste the time setting up the 3-in-1 for drilling. If you don’t happen to have a good drill press and don’t mind the setup time, you’ll find the accurate drill press quite useful as well.