Restoring a 1919 Oliver Lathe

Earlier this spring I got a call from Chuck Hess about a lathe he was looking to part with.  The lathe was in "as found" (if that's the term for it) condition, and I think Chuck, who already has a very respectable fleet of Oliver lathes (most of which more closely resemble battleships than what you or I might consider a "lathe"), was thinking he needed to put another lathe back together like he needed a second pair of elbows.  Anyway, the lathe in question was an Oliver 56-A "Motor-Driven Speed Lathe".  My friend Russell Gale had recently restored a 56-D (which is the 8' version, as opposed to the puny 3'-bed of the "A" model), and I knew it was a sweet, sweet lathe.  Chuck made me an offer I couldn't refuse (it was something to the effect of "Either you're getting it, or it's getting sold for parts and scrap."), and plans were underway to once again venture into the deep, unforgiving wilderness of western North Carolina.  (Or "Asheville," as some call it.)

As luck would have it, Russell (who also lives in Asheville) still owed me a from a trade we had cobbled together a few months earlier.  The plan was to drive to North Carolina and pretty well loot the place of its old iron.  All told, I made it back to Texas with the Oliver lathe, a 1-HP Cincinnati Grinder (complete with new bearings, courtesy of Mr. Gale), a Hammond Trimosaw, most of an Ekstrom-Carlson edge sander, and a phase converter.  It was a pretty solid haul.  Above, the "as-collected" lathe.  

Above, the requisite badge.  Oliver prominently stamped every one of their machines with a serial number.  Luckily, the fine folks at Eagle Machinery still have all the original sales and manufacturing records from Oliver dating back to 1900.  (How cool is that?)  As it turns out (in case the title of this post didn't already give it away), this lathe was built in 1919, and was sold to the Domestic Engineering Company of Dayton, Ohio.  What's awesome about that is that Domestic Engineering eventually became known as (and for) "Delco-Light", after the line of small (but wildly successful) domestic generators sold to farmers and rural homes throughout the 1920's and 30's.   (Sadly, the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 put a serious damper on Delco's operations, and it never quite recovered.)  Anyway, in a roundabout sort of way, this lathe helped make machines that helped light up America!  How cool is that!  

(Image courtesy of If any of this is even half as interesting to you as it is to me, I would highly recommend stopping by Doctor Delco.  I am always fascinated by otherwise viable technologies that, for whatever reason, just get put by the wayside and forgotten.  (Anyone remember MiniDiscs?  They were amazing.  I am super-jealous of my cousin Joe, who still has his old Mini Disc head unit.)  I would also recommend Alexis Madrigal's Powering the Dream for much more eloquent, insightful look into the messy history of energy technology.  What were we talking about again?  Right, this lathe:

My guess is that Patterson Tool and Supply was the distributor for this machine.  I'm still on the lookout for an old catalog...


The first step to putting this thing back together is needle-scaling off the nine or ten gloriously-lead-based coats of paint the lathe has accumulated over the course of its 90-odd-year history.  Here my dad is getting to work on the tailstock legs.  This is loud, messy (and probably kind of dangerous) work, but well worth it in the end.

Closeup of the lathe bed.  The "Oliver" cast into the bed was a surprise - there were so many layers of paint built up over them they were barely visible!

Freshly-scaled legs, ready to be wire-brushed and de-greased.

The legs, motor carriage, step-pulley, and a few other bits and pieces all ready for paint.  

All of the machined or mating surfaces are masked off, and the first coat of primer is on.  That stuff went on like chocolate syrup.


On the recommendation of the folks at the paint store, we went ahead and primed all the parts.  This probably wasn't necessary, as the lathe will still be getting a coat of heavy-duty alkyd paint on top of the primer.  If I had to do it again I think I'd just as soon skip this step.


A fresh coat of Sherwin Williams' "Graphite Grey" direct-to-metal alkyd paint.  Not the proper "Oilver Blue", I know, but I think the Graphite looks pretty sharp all the same.




The lathe as it stands now.  I think she's looking pretty sweet.  All the cast parts are scrubbed and painted.  Now to find a motor, a belt, a starter, and a switch.  You know, all the stuff you need to actually make the lathe run.  Man oh man I cannot wait to start turning on this thing...