Ten Letters Re: 3-in-1 Home Workshop Machines


One of your readers asked: “I want to buy a 3 in 1 machine. Does anyone have any experience with them? Perhaps a brand to recommend or stay away from?”

Having considered that choice extensively myself, my home shop amateur opinion is to recommend separate machines. Now that I see what a real mill table looks like, I realize there isn’t enough table space on the 3-in-1 to set up anything. Instead, get the cheapest lathe you can stand, and the best mill you can afford. If you still want a combo for space reasons, get one of the lathes with the vertical mill attached at the back center of the bed, like the Grizzly G0516.

As one example of a machine combination, I would propose the 250 pound Harbor Freight 8×12 (8×14+, actually) lathe, and the 700 pound Enco Rong-Fu 45 clone (square column, geared head). I’ve found real-world machine capacities are better described by weight than work envelope.

Budget spending twice as much on tooling as you do on the lathe and mill. If you can only afford one, get the lathe. People did clever work with a lathe for hundreds of years before the vertical mill was made practical by cheap end mill cutters. Machine tools are only as clever as the user, but others’ cleverness is recorded and available inexpensively in books from Lindsay Books.
Of course all this equipment is made in China. The EPA, OSHA, and the unions have made it impossible for industry to be competitive in the US. Thanks to what remains of free trade, you are better off being able to get Chinese iron than to get nothing at all. The purpose of autarky is to be able to starve a population into submission; see also
Curtain, Iron. Buy soon while you can still buy at all.

Chinese machine tools tend to be a fix-up project from the start. There are lots of little details which will want to correct, which you wouldn’t be willing to pay the manufacturer to have done right.
Popular machines have deep user communities on the Internet.
Here are some suggested vendors and places to get ideas:

Harborfreight.com [JWR Adds: Beware! Nearly all Harbor Freight products are made in Mainland China, and mostly junk with scant spares or warranties!]
Lindsay Books

Regards, – B.B.


Hi James,
I have had a Shoptask 3 in 1 for 6 yr’s now. As far as I can tell, the Harbor Freight designs are [clones of the] older designs of the Shoptask machines. Grizzly also makes a similar machine,which in my opinion looks better, but I have no firsthand knowledge of that. My experience with any of these machine’s is that out of the box, they are junk. These do not have high quality metal, hardened surface’s and such. The belt drive’s are poorly designed, extremely noisy, and prone to breakdown. The best thing to do with one should you purchase it,it to tear it apart, clean and adjust everything! Mine came with casting sand all over, and inside! Everything was sloppy or loose. If you have any mechanical background,these can be made into a decent machine ,but with lot’s of sweat and time. These are great for making odds and end’,or quick repairs,but not heavy duty stuff. They are not,and will never be, intended for 8 hour a day use. For a home hobby machine,they can be handy, but not for true business use. The switches are junk, the motors are junk, the bearings are junk, the belts are made of old rubber bands or somesuch! The milling portion of it is nothing more than a drill press, and just as inaccurate.

If your an experienced machinist, I have 30 year’s worth,they can be a handy machine, given time and effort. I personally have three other older machines, two CNCs and a chucker, each one cost about the same as a new Shoptask. If room is an issue, I’d prefer to get a Harbor Freight machine, as it need’s the same amount of work to be decent,and cheaper. My experience with Shoptask was less than stellar,as it took 8 months to arrive, a really slow boat from China! If shop floor space isn’t an issue, I’d prefer–and wish I had bought–an older full size machine. Even an older “worn out” production type machine would have been less effort than this was! – Dean



In response to your letter regarding 3-in-ones:
The ones you see for sale are a combination machine tool that combines a metal lathe, drill press and vertical milling machine. They are used a lot by hobbyists here, and I have heard that in Vietnam and similar locales, they are the #1 machine for small motorcycle rebuilding shops.

I have been using a Smithy 1220 for about 5 years, and here are some observations:
Most of these machines are built on a pretty heavy lathe bed that uses a small milling table as the platform for bolting the lathe tooling to. As a lathe, they are pretty stout. Most of them lack a back gear for slow turning operations (such as threading) and you’ll want to check on whether they have a split nut, power feeds and a thread dial. The basic 1220 I have does not have a thread dial or a slow speed, which basically means threading is done [by ‘hand-spindling”] with the lathe powered off. The upgraded Smithy models have more of these features.
In general, these machines do a good job as a lathe. Be sure to get a 4-jaw chuck with the package, as you will need this for gunsmithing or any precision work. The import 3-jaw chuck you will get with most is not anything I would use on work that needs to be repeatable.

In drill-press mode, they will all work fine. They are really overbuilt compared to even a good drill press, so you will have no problems locating and drilling precision holes, countersinking, etc. I recommend tossing the import drill chuck that comes with these and purchasing a proper American-made Jacobs, as they are much better.
The main weakness in all of these machines is the milling aspect. The table is usually fairly small, most do not have a knee for raising/lowering the table, and they are not that rigid. Your work envelope will be quite a bit smaller than a full-size Bridgeport or even a tabletop mill. Get rid of the vise that comes with these and pick up a Kurt or a good import knockoff of this design.
Also, build a heavy-duty table to bolt the unit to, and it will run with much less chatter. I made a stand for mine out of 2×2″ steel tubing filled with concrete. I can mill steel if I use good US cutters (pick these up on eBay) and modest feed speeds.

From my experience, I would say that the Harbor Freight model is probably the least desirable, in terms of initial quality and aftermarket support. The Grizzly is better, and they generally stand behind their products and offer replacement parts for sale. My Smithy has been okay in terms of quality, and I would say that their support is excellent (reasonable prices on parts/accessories and excellent US phone support). I do not have any experience with the Shoptask, but I hear good things about the machine and its capability.
If you want more first-person accounts, sign up for the Yahoo 3-IN-ONE discussion group. Cheers, – JN


In response to the questions about 3 in 1 machines. The two most common brands are Shoptask and Smithy. Both are imported, quality is pretty similar from what I can tell. I have owned and used a Shoptask for more than a decade.

Both machines have real limitations. For a neophyte or hobbyist who wants to make the odd part for a motorcycle restoration or old gun, they’re fine. If you’re trying to scratch out a subsistence living with a part time job as a machinist, you’ll never make it. The mill/drill function of the machine is extremely limited in the “Z-axis”, which is the “up and down” motion. There are other limitations as well.

I bought one because I knew I would be moving 5-10 times in a decade, and would have to put it in a basement or utility room. They are somewhat “portable” and take up less room than three proper machines. You can do decent work on them, but it’s slow and tedious and takes more skill. But to do really good work, and do it efficiently enough to make a living on, you just have to have a real lathe, a real milling machine, and a real drill press.

If you shop around, you can get both a used lathe and a used milling machine, probably with some tooling, for around $5,000, give or take. Occasionally there are terrific deals around and you might get the job done for half that amount. A real lathe and a real milling machine could produce parts at about 10 times the rate of any combo machine.

Don’t forget that it is entirely possible to spend as much on tooling as you do on the basic machine, so the initial lower price of the 3 in 1 machine isn’t as great a deal as you might first assume, compared to a used machine with goodies included. Sure, there are worn out junk machines on the used market, so you have to know what to look for there. It’s not an automatic slam dunk that all used machines are better than all new 3 in 1 machines.

If you bought new Grizzly equipment, you could get a small mill/drill machine and a modest size lathe for $5,000 including shipping. If you decide you really have to have one, stick with either the smithy or the Shoptask. Many of the off brands are junk. Some of them can’t even cut threads, which is a key function of a lathe. HTH, – Troy


Dear Editor,

Personally, it has been my experience that no one, unless you are a “hobbyist”, should use one of these machines. They are fine for very small parts only, and parts made of either plastics, brass, or aluminum. Why? They cut really fast, easily, and require no specialized tooling. No extreme pressures, but the speeds are up there, about 1,200-1,800 rpm.
It all comes down to one word: Rigidity! If it isn’t solid, you have wasted time, money and energy. You cannot get gold, from junk.

1) A lathe was made to turn ’rounds’, period.
You can dress them up with a number of additions, to make a lot of items not easily made by the lathe itself. (everything you do, costs more money!)

2) Mills are what they are, and anyone that has ever operated one, knows what’s their most important feature/factor.
Not just weight, but the rigidity of the entire unit, from the “quill” to the bed, to the knee, (if it’s that type of mill).
You cannot do much with a small lightweight machine, it’s like trying to mill on a drill press! (It just Won’t work!)

Like I said, those smaller combination units may work ok, but not for any serious metal turning or milling, especially of steels. It is comparable to soldering-versus-MIG or TIG welding!
You have to have the right machine for the correct operation.

I own a “very well used” circa 1939 metal lathe, belt driven, 9-12″ swing, and 32″ length material capacity. Geared head and has a range of 12 speeds.
It still, holds within .002″-.005″ accuracy, and I’ve never “adjusted” it so far.
It weighs in at 400+ lbs. With the small 3/4 horse 115 volt ac motor, it can make anything I want it to. It only cost me $800!
(With that being said, 1 collet chuck cost me $600, alone! Then there were the collet sets and such, as well as the replacement 3 and 4 jaw chucks that ran around $280 each) Not cheap to get into, and not for just anyone! If you don’t know what you are doing, in this area, then get some knowledgeable help!
BTW: they can, and they do, tear people up, if you make “1” single mistake!
Stay away from a lot of imported stuff, unless you know it’s a real “brand name” that you can easily get parts and tooling for .

A machinist friend of mine bought a “Jet” lathe a few years back, then discovered it was smaller than what he thought…It had a swing of only 3 1/2 ” and a material capacity of 11-3/4 “.
He paid over $600 for it, and it only weighed about 45-47 lbs! It was great , if you were making model aircraft or train components… He has it sitting on his desk, as it’s only 18″ long, and makes an interesting paperweight!

Look for the stability, and “serviceability” of the tools you select for the “proper” job.
In other words don’t use a chisel in place of a screwdriver, and vice-versa!
There are quite a few older models out there today, and…not all Chinese made tools are that bad either.
For example, a mill I used a lot in aerospace manufacturing , was an old “MaxMill”, a big old “boat-anchor”, that wouldn’t quit. The writing on it’s electric motor was in Chinese, and I never did know much about it! We also had an “X-Cello”. (I have no clue [about its origins],) but it was a good solid machine!

For “our” lathes, nearly all were made in China, as the really older ones made in Japan were deceased by then. My personal favorite was the “WEBB” or “Takisawa” (same same), the guys in the shop called it the “widow maker”…It had a broken detent, that allowed it to drop into crossfeed mode at it’s own whim. Once it was repaired, I’d have paid $5,000 for that old junker! (Cost to replace the detent: $0.10).

Note: Most of the older DOD contract requirements mandated that any part made for them or by use in any military equipment, had to be made on a machine based in the United States only!
That meant out of our shop’s six mills, we could only use three of them (the Bridgeport’s) and of our lathes we could only use one, the “Hardinge”. (A nice toy if you have the money.).
That included all manual mills lathes and all CNC machines. We had machines from Germany, Holland, China,and Japan.

Today, thousands of these older ‘dinosaurs’, are on the market… You can get an older “Southbend Lathe”, for a song and a dance, and with all the tooling! You’ll need a lot of guys and maybe a forklift to move it though! Bridegports are the same way!

Stay away from all of the CNC machines, unless you know programming! In the machining business, you have to figure it this way: “Weight is equal to quality and accuracy”! – Bill in Phoenix


Go to Sherline.com. They are the best American-made machines (for lower cost) available. Their only limitation is [their small] size, which is true of any machine. – Mr. XYZ Axes


Mr. Rawles,
Any multi-task machine is a trade off. They do nothing well,but do save space. When ShopSmith brought out theirs in the early 1970s, I saw many demos and was about to buy one. I am glad I didn’t.Wood or metal working is the same basic concept.

I would recommend that a person buy the tool they need most and add “toys” later. If you need a mill, buy a mill. But if you only do a little mill work but do a lot of drilling, get the best drill press available. You can put an end mill in a drill press chuck and do light milling. See my point. As for things made in China, almost all tools that have a high cast content like vices, anvils, clamps, drill presses, and such have been made in China or India for over twenty years. One good place to find tools and machinery is school district auctions. They upgrade the shops from time to time. Also, government auctions are worth looking into. I know the depot in Columbus, Ohio has had some good deals recently.

It’s a sad state of affairs that our government lets this happen since China will not let an item be sold there that’s not made there. Then they scream protectionism if we add a tariff or restriction.
Thank you for your blog, it is very good. – BKM



Grizzly.com industrial has good quality stuff from taiwan, including mill/lathes 3 in 1s
Smithy.com has been around a long while. (only 3 in1s) (made in China)
Sherline.com is from USA but they are specialized for tiny things.
kbctools.com has Chinese stuff, but is better than nothing, they have good customer service.

STAY AWAY FROM HARBOR FREIGHT! Most everything they sell is shifty shady and breaks fast. (it is soooo tempting though) I haven’t used their machine tools, but to their credit, I have seen their smallest mill in three separate catalogs. Harbor Freight micrometers have some merit. My machine shop teacher had a few sets, but when things really needed to be precise he whipped out his Etalon micrometers.
I have been disappointed by every purchase from Harbor Freight I’ve made. I stopped buying from them awhile ago.

If two is one and one is none, [when buying from] Harbor Freight [, the ratio] is 10 is one and 9 is none.
Real machine shops give a wiiiide berth to the multifunction machines. It’s like the AR-15 with every attachment you can think of . They get in each others way. But they’re much better than nothing.

Mainland China and Taiwan are the most common machine tool builders. Korea and Japan make better ones–and of those, Japan the best. Germany makes them too (real good). Italy a few.
Basic machine tools from the USA no longer exist. Only the super precision, extremely large, specialized, and a few CNC.

Again, Moore, Hardinge, HAAS Sandvik. Moore machines can cost millions, Hardinge/Bridgeport cost tens of thousands (not pure USA either) and HAAS is only CNC, (great machines though–when they break, their software tells you what to fix!) Sandvik is super specialized.

Get used to working High Speed Steel. (HSS) It is more robust and cheaper than carbide, it does fine. It just likes slower speeds.
Dig through this Thomas link, and you’ll find next to nothing in USA-built machines.

Kannon is a good middle of the road (hard to find)
Fowler is hit and miss (mostly hit), but reasonably priced
Mitutoyo (expensive), Starrett, Brown and Sharpe, and Etalon (expensive). You get what you pay for with these.
Stay away from any plastic/fiberglass/resin measuring devices. they loose accuracy fast when temperature changes. – Tantalum Tom


To the reader in Hawaii looking for a 3 in 1 machines, he might check out Grizzly.com. They have four different machines listed in their 2008 catalog. I bought a Shoptask 3 in 1 machines about 12 years ago. The he lathe part of it is fine, but the mill leaves a lot to be desired and I have had to repair the multi position switches several times. I am not a machinist, but a master machinist has thought me the basics and beyond over the years. I still use the Shoptask, but I also needed larger machines. Bridegport machines were out of the question as simply too expensive for just hobby work. In my search several years ago I found Grizzly.

The main reason I went with Grizzly is that they make large machines in 220 V single phase. Most other companies that sold similar machines of those larger sizes were all 3 phase motors and I didn’t have 3 phase and I didn’t want to buy a phase-o-matic system to convert from 3 phase to single phase. I have a 14″ x 40″ lathe and a 2 h.p. horizontal/vertical mill with a 9-1/2″ x 39-3/8″ table. Both machines are outstanding. I also liked Grizzly because it is a large company, with help line, and replacement parts are no problem. I am not affiliated with Grizzly. I just like their products. I have also bought a large wood planer and a large joiner from Grizzly. Again, they have outstanding pieces of machinery, but it is made in China. -Regards, – John in Montana



As a non-professional amateur hobby pseudo-machinist that likes to play with machinery. My suggestion is don’t buy a 3-in 1 unless you have very little space or will do very little machining. I know there are many that won’t agree with me. The problem is you will have a project set up and then want to work on something else. then you will loose the first set-up to make another set-up. I started with a 6″ Atlas lathe 30 years ago and used a hand held drill. later was added a new bench top drill press (Taiwan built) then 4 years later I found a 16″ Jet mill/drill that came from a burned-down fabricating shop. I’ve since added a 13″ Enco lathe (Taiwan built) and many Taiwan and Chinese made add-ons. They are not the highest quality tools but they are what I can afford. I did add a strong magnet to the lathe gear box to catch chip. Without imports, I and a lot of others could not afford this type of machine. I have had to redesign some things on the machines but the machines allow me to do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have a Bridgeport and an American made lathe and drill press if I could afford it.

Keep in mind, a lathe is the only machine capable of reproducing itself. It can drill, mill, bore and turn metals and wood. The skill and imagination of the operator is what determines what it can do.

Used machines do sometimes become available, both import and domestic. A lot have been abused, some well cared for. If space is not a concern then consider separate machines, and take care of them. – Frank from Indiana

JWR Replies: The current economic downturn will mean that hundreds of small prototype and production machine shops will go out of business in the next two to five years, particularly in and around Detroit, Michigan. There will be some genuine bargains found at auction. Watch your local sale papers closely. Some high quality US and German machine tools, bits, dies, jigs, brakes and so forth may sell for pennies on the dollar!