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Clarke CL500M Lathe Review


A 10 year revue
Which now has run into 15 years with no change other than purchasing a separate milling machine for my own convenience

 By George



You are curious about the Clarke CL500M lathe, otherwise you would not be here, right?

You want to know what it is like to own and work with a Clarke CL500M lathe? You want to know the ins and outs? Whether it is a reliable and easy to use lathe? Whether it will suit your requirements and I'm sure you want the truth without any flannel, right?

Having owned one for the last ten years and built many live steam models with it, from the rough and ready learning stage up to a complete 1½ inch scale traction engine, you can use my experience to guide you along the way.

So, let's begin...

When I first started off my steam engine model making hobby I was faced, much like you may be right now, with the question of what sort of lathe to buy, and being a little on the tight fisted side owing to my doubt in my ability and totally inexperienced in model making and workshop practice and also being full of ambitious ideas I jumped in and got myself a Peatol lathe as it wasn't too expensive for me to learn on (it’s the Taig lathe, imported into the UK under the name of Peatol), and that was a real disappointment  to me!

I was taking two steps forward and slipping back one in those early days.

It was barely big enough to do anything with. With a centre height so small at 2¼ inches, I would be lucky to turn anything larger than a golf ball. It was accurate, if you like watch making, apart from the carriage travel, as there was no way you knew how far you had gone, other than physically measuring the work being done. It was the same with drilling. It was an absolute nightmare.

In reality, I reckon they are only good for sharpening pencils, and you have to watch that you don’t strain it by sharpening anything harder than a HB.

So I plodded on for a year or so, making attempts at fiddly little brass and gun metal models no bigger than the width of your hand as the lathe wouldn't cope with anything bigger, learning by my mistakes all the way, obviously realizing the scale of the lathe was important, along with the need for a milling capability, and I was in a position where I did not want to buy any extras for a lathe that I was so disappointed with.

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I had to do something about this lathe predicament if I was to get any further in my live steam model making adventures, so if I was to go down the path of purchasing a decent lathe, would I need to purchase a milling machine separately? And what about all the extra tooling they needed? If I bought a lathe/mill combination like the Clarke CL500M lathe then I would be killing two birds with one stone, surely?

That would save me some room in my workshop and at the same time free up what I had saved for the various castings for the models I wanted to build.

Sound familiar?

It was decided!   So the next choice was the size…

Most bench lathes generally have a 3 to 3½ inch centre height and this limits the diameters you can turn; many are even smaller and fiddlier than that (like the Peatol/Taig), almost watch-making scale, but that old adage kept popping into my head ‘what’ll hold a lot’ll hold a little’, and as the Clarke CL500M lathe had the milling arrangement built in (at that time for an extra £100 over the price of the basic lathe), along with a 6 inch centre height and a good distance between centres, it fit the bill admirably, although looking back on it probably something a little larger, like a Shop Fox M1018 Combo Lathe/Mill would have been better for the same sort of price.

What you need to think about is the size of the models you want to produce. If you want to go down the path of railway engines or a 1 inch traction engine, then a 3½ inch centre height lathe may well suit you, but if you want to build a bigger scale traction engine or steam-roller, or anything like a 5 inch scale loco, then you may well need something a little larger because of the various parts needed.

I wasn’t too sure about the metric side of things back then either and wasn't too sure whether or not to get a second hand imperial lathe, as most of the drawings I was looking at were for imperial measurement, but the dual scale on the Clarke CL500M dials convinced me, although I found the threads are metric on all parts and this means that the imperial scaling is just a nadger’s out. This needs to be watched out for if you still work in feet and inches, but with a bit of practice the metric measurements seem to become second nature (and I found it is very helpful if you have a digital calliper for conversion purposes).

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When it was delivered I had to get some help moving it to my workshop (my steamshed) as it is a solid lump of around 3½ cwt (175kg), but the Shop Fox is even heavier still at 478lbs, so it must be chunkier, so that was a blessing in my limited space.

It was purchased with the stand and that lift to get the Clarke CL500M combo in place took three of us owing to the limited space available. I managed to get the milling head lifted in position myself, although I had to remove it around six months later when I realized it wasn’t sitting square to the lathe bed and was drilling and milling cock-eyed after trying to complete a couple of the smaller models I was building with my original lathe.

It was very easily remedied, but once I'd got it off, like a dope I then realized I did not need to remove it at all.

The base of the milling head is shaped like the bottom half of a ball sticking out of a flat base with the drive in the middle, and this ball shape sits in a cup shape on the top of the lathe headstock. Obviously, the milling head needs lining up before the four securing bolts are finally tightened up, and this I did not do initially. The instructions did leave a lot to be desired (as usual), and I just placed it on, naively expecting everything to line up perfectly.

I simply used a straight rod in the drill chuck sat in the milling head and set it square to the bed with an engineers square. Another option would have been to sit the rod parallel to the edge of the raising block, referred to as the machine block in Clarke’s advertisement found at Machine Mart that came with it.

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Talking of raising blocks, sometimes there are positions where the raising block is too high, and not having one is a little awkward or even too low to work with, so a cheap and easy option is to have an off-cut of a kitchen work-top, cut about the same size as the saddle, with holes drilled through to match your vice so that you can bolt your vice mounted on top of your worktop to the saddle. You will obviously need some longer bolts, but they are easy to find.

These worktops are amazingly parallel, the top and bottom face, relatively tough and durable, and this raises your work (vice) up to a better position.

Glue two together to give a further option for height above the saddle if the need takes you.

I also found that the milling tool holder had a burr, a flashing really (poor manufacturing standards back then in China – much improved nowadays) causing the milling cutters to sit off-set a little and duly trimmed this with a fine file.

The milling chuck (tool holder) and the drill chuck are both held in place by a draw bar pulling them into an MT taper and the same taper is in the milling chuck as is in the tail stock, so you can swap things around easily.

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The draw bar is basically a threaded shaft dropping down through the milling head, and when mine was first delivered I was flummoxed as to how to hold everything in place when I first tried to use it as a drill.

I didn't believe in reading incomprehensible instructions too much, and it eventually dawned on me what the spare rod was for and I duly installed it, only to find there was no way of gripping it to tighten the supported tool holder or drill chuck and that way lock them in place.

I found a couple of large nuts with the correct thread for the draw bar top and screwed them on so they sat level with the top of the draw bar, then tightened the lower one up against the upper to lock them in place.

I now have one 19mm spanner to undo the draw bar one turn and give the top a quick rap with a hammer to dislodge the outside tapered end of the tool holder from the inside taper of the milling head.

============

Moving on to the vice supplied with the machine. This is not a good vice for milling or drilling purposes. In fact, the best use for it is as a door stop! This is not an extra, so you pay for it whether you want it or not (I suppose they have to get rid of them somehow).

What happens is that when you screw the movable jaw to grip your work, the gripping (movable) jaw tries to twist the tighter it goes. As you are screwing clockwise to grip your work, then the jaw tries to rotate clockwise. It can move four or five degrees out of true and can make a big difference to your milling surface if you are trying to be accurate, along with not drilling squarely into your work.

A second fault is that the movable jaw is pushed at the centre, so if you are gripping anything in the top recess of the jaws, say a piece of plate for drilling, then the moving jaw pivots upwards causing your work to be quite a few degrees out of level from front to back.

It obviously needs the slack taking out of it to achieve any good, but the easiest option is to dump it or weigh it in as scrap and purchase a proper, precision milling vice.

============

The chucks are sound. I have both the 5 inch, 3 jaw self-centering and the 6 (and a bit) inch, 4 jaw independent, and have had very good service from both. The 4 jaw is a little on the heavy side, but with packing underneath to support the weight while you bolt it on, it can be installed easily before the packing is removed for use.

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I have to admit I bought the face plate too, but so far have only used it once, as the chucks cope very well with large work. I must also admit that I tried the screw cutting and succeeded very well with it, but for the sizes I use, there is really no need for that function as I prefer to use taps and dies.

==============

On top of this I purchased a live centre for the tailstock and this has been used regularly. They do supply a dead centre with the machine, but I prefer the live centre.

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The saddle has the option of being driven along the bed by the lathe itself for screw cutting purposes or for surface metal removal, although that is about its limit. The fact that there is no travel stop has to be watched out for when in use. Also there is no drive across the bed, and the drive is disengaged when the milling tool is in use.

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So basically, the lathe is a robust model with good workability, is highly suited to a novice engineer and requires big arm muscles to cope with the lack of drives. It does everything you want, is accurate, with only the tail-stock needing centralizing on mine initially, an easy job, along with the mill holder needing trimming.

The mill is functional, but appears to be more like a part that has been added on as an afterthought.

The only crib here, other than the height adjustment with the raising block as mentioned above, is the downwards or upwards adjustment.

Whereas on the lathe, all dials are calibrated at 1/20th mm (almost 2 thou), the depth gauge on the milling dial shows only in complete mm, so any milling has to be done by feel and needs constant checking for depth with a digital caliper. It's a bit of a pain, but you soon get the hang of it!

At first, when I tried the drilling/milling side of things, I was running the drills backwards. The power switch is a rocker switch giving forwards and reverse, and no mention of this was made with any details I received. Luckily common sense took over and I soon realised the problem, stopped the motor, flicked the switch into reverse and the drill rotated the right way.

==============

Another little problem I have had is with the levers and some bolts. Whether, back then, the manufacturers used inferior metal, and to be honest China was well known for using inferior metals at that time, or whether the levers are any stronger now, I don’t know, but the few levers and bolts that snapped on me were easily replaced with sturdier metric ones. Heck, I may even be just a bit heavy handed.

The ones that first gave up (after about two years) were the tool clamp bolts in the tool post, and I now have one side of my tool holder that cannot be tightened owing to the threads being stripped. I could tap them out to a larger size, but as there are three other options, the need hasn’t yet arisen. I have more important projects to get on with.

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So, all in all, the Clarke CL500M lathe is a robust work-horse with just a few little niggling problems, much as you can get with any other lathe.

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The electrics are sound, unlike the very early ones were, giving me no problems at all as they are very basic, being either on or off, being far better than the totally unreliable, problematic variable speed options offered with the 3½ inch centre height lathes (or smaller) from China, which is where most modern day lathes and mills are produced to a price, although I believe the present day controller cards are now produced in America and are proving to be much better for reliability. 

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The belt drive is very good, but tends to be a bit tedious when changing gears, so what I do now is to leave the lathe in the third highest gear unless I am working large diameters as then it needs to be running as slow as possible.

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The slide-ways are sound (with a touch of oil now and then), and all the gears are sound.

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Literally nothing has gone wrong other than the lever and bolt breakages, and I would happily recommend a Clarke CL500M Lathe Mill combination from Machine Mart in the UK or a similar machine like the Shop Fox from AMAZON to anybody.

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In the ten years of ownership, the drive belts between the motor and the head stock have only been replaced the once - it got to the state where I could not tighten the belts any more as they had worn thinner through friction and sat deeper in the pulley grooves, while the belt for the mill drive is still original. This may well be down to the fact that most of my work has been done in the lathe rather than the mill.

As far as cutting tools go, the ones supplied with the lathe are functional, but you will need a grindstone to keep them sharp. What I would recommend is that you purchase some lathe tools with indexable tips as they are much better to use. Also, you may well have very little need for a 2 inch milling cutter – sounds good, but again very seldom used.

Hope my experience gives you a better understanding of the Clarke CL500M Combo lathe!

George.



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