Photos by Rich Keller
I suspect most readers of this article will have at least considered purchasing a used machine at some point in time, if they have not already had the experience. The opportunity to save mountains of hard-to-come-by cash has a certain allure, especially to the hobbyist who can only dedicate “surplus” funds to the shop. However, I also suspect that the fear of (or possibly experience of) buying a “lemon” keeps most people out of the used market. Especially on an unfamiliar piece of equipment, how can a buyer be sure that he or she is getting a usable piece of equipment?
For those of you who don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rich, and I make my living fixing stuff. Namely, tools of all kinds, but most specifically those related to woodworking. I also have a shop of my own, and most of my machinery was bought in the same state: old and well used. Some older than others, some more abused than used. But I was willing to trade some time woodworking for some time tinkering in order to upgrade my shop. While it was mainly to try and save a few bucks, that wasn’t the only attraction. There is also a chance to purchase a part of history, and “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.” The same principles and techniques I use to purchase antique machines can be applied to the purchase of any piece of used equipment, so if you’re considering a used machine for your next shop purchase, read on!
Pro by Day – Machine junkie by night. Keller repairs used machinery for a living and has seen pretty much everything. Just like in his day job, Keller must weigh the time spent on repairing a machine with what it’s going to be worth once it’s up and running, and only then make a decision if a piece of machinery is worth it.
The first consideration in purchasing any piece of used equipment is time. If you are not interested in trading some of your time to keep some of your money, used machinery will probably not be the best experience for you. I’m not saying every used machine has problems, but at a minimum you will need to spend some time evaluating potential buys, and possibly tuning them up when you get them home. Used equipment is also not conveniently lined up in one store, so you will need to be prepared to do a little “running around” to look at different machines. You may need to look at more than one potential buy before finding the right machine for you. Therefore, enter the proposition prepared for the potential investment of time.
A second consideration when buying used machinery is condition. Are you prepared to buy a machine that is not brand new in a box? Be aware that while some used machines really are like new, most are not, even those advertised as “like new.” Consider carefully if you can live with a scratch or dent on a machine, even if the price is right. Remember that not too many sellers are going to deeply discount the price of a used machine because of a scratch or dent if the machine otherwise works fine.
Before I go look at a machine, I like to try and find out as much as I can about it. If the owner has not included a make and model number with the advertisement, I contact them for that information. I then search the Internet for a couple of things. First, I like to get ahold of any owner’s manual or parts breakdown. I also like to check out a couple of parts websites to see if parts are still available for the machine. More searching may also turn up information on common problems with that make and model of machine. If I do find any information on common problems, I like to make careful note of how the problem is diagnosed, so I can examine the potential buy carefully. I don’t assume the machine I am about to look at has every problem ever vented about on the Internet, but I will be prepared to check closely and see. Some machines may not have a manual available due to their age, but sometimes photos can be found, and this is better than nothing. I also like to check and see what the machine regularly sells for new (if still available) or what a reasonable replacement sells for new. Be fair in your comparisons if the exact model is no longer available. You will not make too many deals for Lamborghinis based on the price of used Pintos.
If you decide to have a look at a vintage machine, it’s not uncommon that the manual will not be available, which makes matters a bit tricky. An Internet search will usually come up with different pictures of the machine. These pictures will typically be taken by machine owners, with the machines in various conditions, but they can still provide helpful information. These photos will help you identify what parts normally come with a machine. Also owners’ comments can help you be aware of operating procedures. You can also look at manuals from similar machines to get an idea how the machine operates. One drawback with vintage machines is the fact that parts are not available off the shelf. For myself, I have not worried about this in the purchase of my machines. I have had to make a number of parts over the years, but that was something I could live with. If you are unwilling or unable to make a part (or have a part made for you), then you should avoid used machines that are no longer in production.
Once I arrive on site to see the machine, I usually start with a general once over. Look carefully for cracked or broken parts, especially plastic and metal cast parts. Sometimes breaks are more obvious than others, so take a good close look everywhere. I always take a flashlight along on my shopping expeditions, as I don’t want to assume I will have enough light to do a good inspection. Dark garages are notorious homes for used equipment sales, and it pays to be prepared. Give the machine a good look over, front, back, sides, underneath, and see if you can see any cracks, or any attempt to repair cast parts. Again, a broken part does not mean you can’t buy; it just means you want to do some research on the repair cost before you make an offer. One thing that might not be obvious if you don’t have the owner’s manual is missing parts. If you did find the manual online, take it with you (never assume the owner will have it) and compare pictures and diagrams in the manual with the machine to make sure everything is there. Always note in the manual any caption that says “optional accessory shown here” to avoid embarrassing yourself by asking if the owner has parts that never came with the machine.
Look closely at any bare metal surfaces and see if there is any rust. Minor surface rust is not a big concern, but if I can see deep pitting and heavy rust anywhere, that could be problematic. Internal parts and mechanisms such as gears, pivots, and dovetail slides may require serious elbow grease to clean up. There is a saying in real estate which applies nicely here: “Price fixes everything.” So, as long as the deal is good enough, I am always up for buying, but I do calculate my time spent scrubbing rusticles as part of the cost.
If the machine passes my overall inspection, I like to move on to the bearings. For myself, I actually don’t care if a machine has bad bearings. After all, I fix these types of problems all the time. What I am concerned with is: Can I get bearings for the machine? If you’re looking at something made within the last 20 or 30 years or so, this will likely not be a problem, but it pays to do a little research beforehand. Most machines made now use either standard 6000 or 6200 series bearings, which are readily available from any bearing supply house, and usually for the sizes found in woodworking equipment you or I might buy, under $20. However, some older machines use odd sizes no longer mass produced, and therefore expensive, or just plain not available. If I found the owner’s manual online, I might already know what type of bearing the machine has, but more often than not, manuals give a manufacturer’s coded part number which doesn’t tell me anything. All bearings have (or at least originally had) standard size numbers etched on them, so as long as the bearing is not damaged or rusted so badly you can’t read that number, it’s pretty easy to figure out what they are. Using this number, I can order bearings for just about any machine from a bearing supply house, even if the original manufacturer of the machine has gone out of business.
Some bearings are easier to see in the machine than others. Sometimes you have to take half of a machine apart to see what a bearing is. Of course, that’s not feasible when buying a used machine, and you’ll not find many machinery sellers who will let you disassemble their machine before buying. If online research does not yield this important information, you will want to evaluate the machine very carefully and proceed with caution. Again, the newer the machine, the more likely you can find the bearings you need. I have dealt with repairs on literally hundreds of machines in the last decade, and I can only think of one or two occasions when I couldn’t get bearings. So it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
Once I am done thinking about the bearing type, I like to try and roll any shafts and see what they are like. As I said earlier, I am not actually that concerned if the bearings are a little rough, because I always plan on replacing the bearings when I get home. What I look for is end and side-to-side play. Very slight movement is a concern, but acceptable if the bearing is very rough. Some movement can be attributed to bearing wear. However, excessive movement is a major concern. If a bearing has seized, and the machine is kept running, either the shaft or the bearing housing (or both) is going to be damaged and require replacement. If it’s possible to remove the drive belt, I always do so. This allows me to isolate any possible trouble down to the source. Try and move each shaft and/or pulley side-to-side to see if there is any play. If you can see movement between the shaft and bearing, you will be sure to be replacing major parts.
I also like to note the size of the drive belt if there is a belt on the machine. This is well worth ordering a replacement. Belts have a service life of a few years, after that the rubber becomes hard and brittle and the power transmission is greatly reduced. Standard belts will typically be printed with a size, beginning with A, 3L, or 3V, and followed by a number. These are common for the types of machines commonly found in wood shops, although other sizes do exist.
While I’m poking and prodding, I like to try every adjustment on the machine. You want to see if anything is stiff or loose. Take your time and wiggle everything carefully to see what happens. Normally moving parts are loose enough to move with ease, but not so loose that they wobble around. Moving parts also shouldn’t be so tight as to be impossible to move. If you’re uncertain as to how much stiffness or looseness should be in a given component, consult the owner’s manual or research the machine online. It’s a good idea to remember that at this point the machine is not yours, so don’t get so forceful checking things that you break something.
Once you’ve had a good look at everything it’s time to make a decision. Weigh how much work you think the machine needs, how much time you’re willing to spend and how much money you think you can save. Once examined, some machines will prove to be nearly like new in which case the savings are worth it. Some machines will need extensive work and therefore need to be bought at a very low price. Your research will hopefully have shown a range within which the machine typically sells, of course based on condition. Keep this range in mind, and be fair in evaluating the condition of the machine to assess if the asking price is appropriate.
This covers the process of evaluating a machine. Next issue I’ll be sharing some useful techniques for restoring machines. I’ll look at cleaning up rust, paint techniques and replacing belts and bearings.