Rediscover Lost Knowledge – The Concrete Lathe

Concrete multimachine lathe/mill/drill by Pat Delaney

In today's Internet connected world where practically every bit of information seems to be at our fingertips, it's hard to believe that some old and very unique know-how sometimes slips away. Lucien Yeomans, way back in 1915, invented a method to construct the beds of metalworking lathes from concrete instead of cast iron. Pat Delaney, who was trying to come up with a method to build machine tools in developing countries, rediscovered the process and adapted it so it could be used to build The Multimachine, a 12" Swing, Metal Lathe/Mill/Drill for about $150.

Pat, is a lot like Dave Gingery who we told you about about when we wrote the Build Your Own Foundry post a few months ago. Pat uses scrap metal and cheap parts to build some incredible tools and this one is his latest.

It is well known that concrete shrinks as it sets up. This is not important when you pour your sidewalk but this shrinkage would force a concrete machine tool out of alignment as the concrete casting dried. Yeomans solved this problem by casting a concrete frame or “bed” with oversize cavities where the parts would normally go and then let the concrete season and shrink. He would then align the metal parts and hold them in place by pouring a non-shrinking, low temperature metal alloy over them.

Yeomans developed the process to build a lot of precision metal lathes for producing large artillery shells in WWI, when they needed a lot of lathes to be built quickly and inexpensively. Those lathes were very large, but the process can be used for machine tools of any size as you can see with this one developed by Pat Delaney.

This is definitely a superb example of creative thinking and problem solving, very impressive!

Link: Multimachine Yahoo group
Link: Multimachine construction guide
(pdf) via Make


  1. HomageMotoWorks says

    Fantastic! What a great idea. Hmmm…ya know, I have this defunct Jet 9×20 lathe that could be stripped for parts. Even if it doesn’t work, I have a big lathe and I definitely got my use out of the Jet so no loss. I think I have a new side/side project.

  2. Auz1237 says

    It would be great if we could actually see this design completed and working to prove out that the concept works, it would be really neat to see it actually cutting metal.

  3. Eric says

    I might get some flame for this, but I’m a little skeptical that you could make a precision machine with this method. That said, for $150 I’d be tempted to try it out.

    • HomageMotoWorks says

      I doubt they’re implying NASA level ‘precision’, nor are they probably hinting at Boeing level ‘precision’, but some shmuck who’s lucky to turn a screw….this is probably great. Even more likely… some remote village where the closest thing to a machine tool you’re likely to find is a big rock and maybe a tree? PERFECT!

      It’s adjustable, I’d bet one could get pretty decent linear accuracy so long as the ‘ways’ are ground nicely. fit

  4. Paulinator says

    The most accurate piece of equipment in my R and D lab is a granite flat-slab.

    I think that this lathe is brilliant, but I wonder how it behaves with vibration and harmonics? That said, I’d try to eliminate the sharp corners and add lots of chicken wire to the mix.

  5. todd says

    It’s a better use of concrete than bunny rabbits or gnomes. I already have access to a number of different lathes and mills otherwise I’d do something like this – more for the fun of it than the accuracy.


  6. BigHank53 says

    The precision tools we have today weren’t handed down from on high. People started with crappy tools and used them to make better ones, and so on. The very first leadscrew for a screw-cutting lathe was filed by hand. One needs to have a great deal of spare time available to make building your own machine tools an attractive investment–it’s usually quicker to get a second job and buy the tool.

    • Paul Crowe - "The Kneeslider" says

      One needs to have a great deal of spare time available to make building your own machine tools an attractive investment–it’s usually quicker to get a second job and buy the tool.

      It’s always quicker to buy the tool ready made if it’s available and you have the funds, but in both cases, when the concrete process was first used in WWI and with the smaller version shown here designed for developing countries, one or both of those factors was/is missing. That’s the beauty of it. There’s also the third factor of when someone wants a cool project to see if they can do it and make it work which leads to a feeling of accomplishment and pride.

      Things like this are of even greater benefit to all of those who believe they lack the money or resources to build things, when what they need is sufficient desire and ambition because with proper know-how, you can make do with what you have.

    • Eddy Current says

      Second job? I’d like to have a first job, at sixtysomething I don’t expect ever to work for anyone else again, the bias against older workers is just too difficult to overcome even without the medical insurance nightmare. I fall neatly into the gap of too old with too many “preexisting conditions” for regular employment in this economic climate and too young for Medicare.

      That being said, in the last eighteen months I’ve done a complete mechanical restoration and electronics/motors retrofit on a 1982 Bridgeport Interact Series 1 milling machine I bought for the scrap metal price as well as building a much smaller CNC mill from an old drill press X-Y table and a lot of scrapbinium. My high speed spindle was made with thrift store ABEC 7 skateboard bearings and an old Dewalt cordless drill motor using a hardware store O ring for a drive belt.

      Thrift store computers run both machines through Mach3 and yet another thrift store computer (a dual core Pentium D) runs my CAD and CAM programs (shout out to Meshcam Art).. At the moment I’m mostly doing arty type stuff, custom carvings in exotic woods being my main product.

      Bootstraps, they’re what’s for dinner..

      My little machine..

      The Bridgeport..
      And after..

      • BigHank53 says

        I didn’t mean to knock the DIY aspect of the project, nor suggest that buying the tool was “better”–only quicker. (My post was originally meant as a reply to Eric’s pessimism about its accuracy. Darn captchas.)

        I’m in the middle of building a bicycle frame jig myself. Building only two or three frames a year makes the $3500 investment in a professional jig a foolish proposition. I recently walked away from an auction where $1200 would have gotten me a lathe and mill (college lab surplus, essentially 20-year-old new machines) because I don’t have anyplace to put the damn things. When I do finally have the workshop space for ’em, there’s no guarantee I’ll have the money to buy them, and I may very well wind up casting my own lathe base…

        Congrats on your Bridgeport restoration, Eddy.

      • HomageMotoWorks says

        First off Eddy….nice job on the bridgeport though why it woulda been left to go that bad is anyone’s guess. As for the rest, that’s a tough one. My Dad is 68 and while damned and determined to stay here on the job it’s just not working out for him. You have my sympathies mate.

        • Eddy Current says


          Thanks for the kind words..

          The electronics were long dead on the machine, mechanically it really wasn’t bad after I removed some rat nests and cleaned thirty years of crud out of it. The ballscrews were still good as were the hard chromed ways and the pressurized oiling system. Trying to troubleshoot and repair the original 1982 computer system and driver boards would have been a first class nightmare, much easier to just rip everything out and rewire from scratch with modern electronics. I used stepper motors and Geckodrive stepper drivers (made in the USA, another shoutout) rather than servos because I’m already familiar with steppers from a couple of other machines I have built in the past and didn’t want the added learning curve of retrofitting modern encoders to the original servo motors and then tuning the entire shebang, servos are high performance but tricky to set up. The stepper system is not as capable as the servos would have been but I’m not doing any big stuff that really needs high speed traverses so the steppers are adequate for my purposes, I can get 60 inches per minute as it sits now.

          I even reused much of the original wiring, contactors, switches, terminal blocks and so forth and still had enough left over to fill a five gallon bucket pretty tightly in addition to the refrigerator sized electronics cabinet that got pulled off and another cabinet about the size of a large microwave that held the original monitor and control switches.

          I found the machine on Craigslist after about a month of searching and drove 400 miles one way to get it, took a long day made longer by a bad tire on my dual axle flatbed trailer that had to be replaced after we picked up the machine..

          I still see other similar bargains on these sorts of machines from time to time on Craigslist, there are a lot of them up around Michigan, Ohio and so on but fewer down in the south where I am.

  7. OMMAG says

    Old ideas are always a good place to look for inspiration.
    It’s good to know your history and how we got from there to here as well.

  8. Mean Monkey says

    Amen to Eddy Current,
    I lost my job last year and at age sixty-two with a minor cardiac problem, I’m having a tough time reassuring employers I’m able to work.

    Twenty-odd years ago, I found a small imported lathe/milling combo machine at a hardware show. My dad always wanted a lathe, and I was able to snatch it up cheap as a gift for his sixtieth birthday. Between his buddy from next door and the old man, they beat the living hell out of the machine. Dad passed away a couple years ago, and I reacquired the tool. The 6″ bed is chinked and bent from pieces flying out of the chuck and I think it may have been dropped to floor, too. The concrete bed idea is looking like a good way to try to save the tool when I rebuild it.

  9. says

    If this looks like a good idea to you, check out Cheng Concrete. Their into casting of countertops but the mold making tech is where you need to go.

  10. Sick Cylinder says

    There’s a lot that can be done with concrete! Does anybody remember the concrete ships – the complete hull and superstructure was made of reinforced concrete. They were made when there was a shortage of iron for shipbuilding.

    I remember seeing one called the “Crete Block” which after cluttering up Whitby harbour for many years was towed out to sea and delibertaly wrecked off the Yorkshire coast. At low tide you could climb on it and examine the structure.

    • Paulinator says

      I scuba dove a wreck off Bimini. It was a concrete boat hauling (wait for it) cement. There are still lots of Ferro-cement yachts on the water (and a few under), as well.

      A smart guy told me that there is no bad material – only bad uses for materials.

  11. B50 Jim says

    Why not?
    Reinforced concrete is rigid, stable, massive and absorbs vibration — four qualities necessary for a good lathe. A great many lathe benches are filled with concrete to provide a solid platform for the tool, so why not make the whole works from the material? I’m sure a concrete lathe can be made to deliver high precision as well. Concrete has a great many uses that have been forgotten with the advent of modern materials. The ancient Romans were masters at its use — the Pantheon’s dome is unsupported, 200 feet in diameter and made entirely of concrete; nobody knows how they did it. So bring on the concrete machine tools — they might be a solution for areas of the world where “standard” machines are too expensive or impractical. It’s far easier to transport bags of ready-mix and components than complete machine tools.

  12. Wave says

    Concrete is amazing. At my university, there is an annual concrete canoe-building competition between us and the other local universities. They float them on the river and have a paddling race!

    As far as making cheap machine tools available, that can only be a good thing. Helping people get access to tools empowers them to learn and make things.

  13. Robert says

    With a little luck, it’s possible to find a bonafide precision lathe in a barn sitting unused and the owner willing to give it away for nothing. I know, because I have been in such a situation. There are a ton of old lathes, millers, surface grinders out there and since they are so unwieldy they often are left where they are and the new property owners see no value in it. Just get out there and look around. I can tell you a couple of places in New Jersey where lathes are just taking up room

  14. texlenin says

    I’ve been following Pat for several years now, and have never,ever been able to get signed on to the Yahoo group. Really wish he’d get his own forum software and move it all there.
    His original idea was to use engine blocks as the basis of the Multimachine,which is how I will be building mine. Two Datsun L-28
    blocks, since I own a Z. They found Yeoman’s work while researching tips and tricks, and many over there seem to prefer it. Either way, I think rolling one’s own helps you gain knowledge about machine work, if you are starting with no schooling and are dirt-poor, as I am.