Monday, 26 March 2012

Getting Machinist's Measuring Tools Cheap

Careful measuring takes time
When it comes to machining, you are really limited in your ability and accuracy by your measuring tools. After I traded some scaffolding to get my lathe (I will make a post about that story at a later date), I came to realize the importance of measuring tools. I have never been lucky enough to have an abundance of money so I have had to wait for the deals to come along. This has taken me about 2 years and for the most part, my measuring has been done by a set of calipers I salvaged from the metal shop I worked in previously.

Metal rulers, the foundation of measuring tools
It does not matter how many fancy tools you own, you seem to use the humble metal ruler the most. I am a sucker for old tools and when I saw these babies, I had to save them. They were rusty and well used but probably spent hundreds of hours in the previous machinists hands. The block on the longer ruler is a nice addition which allows you to alter the length for scribing lines on sheet stock if repeatability is necessary. These rulers are lovely old things with pedigree blood lines...

Micrometers for every occasion
When I purchased my milling machine, I noticed some old dusty micrometers hanging on the wall. I made an offer to the old gent and walked off with a set of old fashioned micrometers. I was happy with the deal because despite the cheap price, these were quality measuring devices made in Sweden and the US of A. When it comes to these tools you need to make sure they have not been dropped or that the carbide surfaces are not chipped or rusty. These should be tested regularly and I will be giving them to my neighbour who happens to be a certifier for measuring tools and test equipment.

Keeping things on the level
When I received my lathe I realized without a good level, my accuracy and repeatability will suffer. The lovely old gent I purchased the mill and micromoeters from tossed in an old level too. I had doubts about it's accuracy since it's resolution wasn't as high as I would have liked. It did the job reasonably enough however I was still looking for what I would consider a "real" machinists level. This turned up about 6 weeks ago.

The first level I received is in the foreground and is a Union Tool Co. level. My guess is it was probably made in the 60's or 70's at the same time my mill was produced. The level in the wooden box is a little more interesting. It was manufactured in Czechoslovakia in the early 70's and appears to be of very high quality. It was made by a company called Kinex and was sold by Tor Karlsen Maskinforretning when phone numbers in Norway were only 6 digits in length.

I bought along with a bunch of other measuring tools from a whole-sale company that buys and re-sells auction lots. I paid significantly less than the 150 pounds that rotagrip UK is charging for the identical level on ebay:

12" Kinex level on ebay

Dial guage and dial test indicators
You really can't do much work precisely on a mill without these tools. These were in fact the items I have been researching the most and realised that they were an absolute must for milling work. Compromising here could result in a poor fit or a simple job made impossible. Luckily, the same company I bought my machinists level happened to have a bulk lot of Mitutoyo indicators as well. Some had been abused, other apparently were ok but had mechanisms that were not reliable. I chose the best of the bunch, happy in the thought that my neighbour who works in certifying these has a workmate who is the service agent for Mitutoyo in Norway.

Now eagle eyed readers have probably noticed the 2 little knife edge straight edges in the picture. I threw these in with the pile of tools from the wholesaler and confirmed my hunch that they really were not concerned with what you were buying and merely based their prices on how much you bought. These straight edges are both Mitutoyo and are straight as they come. I bought these on a hunch that they will come in handy as my skills in machinig improve and I attempt more precise projects.

The beauty of Mitutoyo test tools is that provided they are not electronic, there always seems to be parts available for them at reasonable prices. They are considered high quality so it's worth checking these out used.

Electronic precision
As I mentioned earlier, I had come to the realization that the wholesaler I was purchasing used tools from seemed to be selling by the weight, not the item. This is when I decided that it might be worth taking a gamble on a used Mitutoyo Digimatic digital caliper and a used Roch Caliper. The screens would not turn on but since they seemed to be in great condition, I grabbed them. A battery change later and I was presented with this:

Although I had never heard of Roch, this little detail:

... caught my attention and I pulled the trigger on it. European tools seem to generally be of a high standard and if the French's ability to make measuring tools exeeds their ability to produce sexist, smelly men, then it's a sure bet this baby is good.

A precise hole
I had taken notice of some Helios measuring tools at the wholesaler and the fact they are German made. I like German tools. The Germans approch precision with a no-nonsense, humorless manner that ensures that their tools and measuring instruments are probably only second to those made by the Swiss. Knowing what I do about German tools I threw this Helios depth guage into the steadily growing heap of precision tools:

Square edges and multi measuring card
I threw some more items together that I dug out of a heap of miscellaneous items. There was a no-name square that appeared to be of high quality. I figured this was an expensive tool because someone went to the trouble of making a wooden case for it that was definately non-standard (judging by the handsawing a carefully applied stain over the tear out). I also included a no-name electronic edge finder and a Helios angle and thickness guage.

The point of this all
I didn't post this to gloat about the deals I have managed to find. I posted this to show other young guys that you don't have to go out and buy new or use the credit card to buy the things you want. Getting a bargain just takes time and you have to be patient. All these tools probably cost me no more than $300 in total yet would have cost well over a thousand (or even two) if I didn't hold off from buying new. Check wholesalers and used machine dealers. Check ebay or craig's list if your in the USA. Don't let anyone walk off with your money easily because it's too darn hard to save it, and too easy to spend it.

Take care.


  1. Do you have any suggestions for calibration for those of us who aren't neighbors with professional calibrationists?

  2. G'day Hexmonkey. I would recommend purchasing a set of gauge blocks. These can be had for about $40 USD. This video gives a demo of how to check if you have a mill:

    Let me know if this helped.

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