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Mini-Mill – Part 1

It turns out that getting the mill was a little premature. Three things are needed before I can start setting up the mill:

  1. I had to have room for the mill.
  2. I needed light for the mill
  3. I needed a support for the mill

Let’s go over each of these.

I. I had to have room for the mill.

Although I have a two car garage, my garage is quite full. Two motorcycles, a motorcycle trailer, my yard tractor (better known as a riding lawn mower) and yard equipment all occupy my garage. In addition, the area serves as storage for my model train equipment, Some chairs that Anna has awaiting repair (actually, a full dining room set’s worth plus a rocking chair that’s a family heirloom), and… Well, you get the idea. Basically, it is a two car garage for everything but two cars. It took a long time just to consolidate and repack my trains and some of the furniture items to make room for the mill.

II. I needed light for the mill.

The garage is rather poorly lit if you don’t consider that the garage door can be opened. It can. This light is useless once the sun sets, and this time of year, it sets early. Lighting consisted of a single bulb overhead fixture, and the light from the garage door opener. The single bulb was a 150W tungsten bulb that, after living here 15 years, finally gave up the ghost. The garage door had a 60W bulb which might be enough for getting in and out of a car parked in the garage, but was completely inadequate to work from.

This begs for a nice 4-bulb fluorescent tube fixture to be mounted in the ceiling. Unfortunately, this would have been a project unto itself. A trip to Home Depot came up with a quick upgrade – a 65W compact fluorescent tube that put out an equivalent of 300W of light. Double the light for less than half the power of my tungsten bulb? A quick and easy upgrade.

III. I needed support for the mill.

This is a bench top mill. That means I need a bench top. I really didn’t have a workbench to put it on. I have two tables in the garage. Both were discards I found at the curb. One is a very nice solid wood computer table that I use for my drill press and for other work. With it already supporting the drill press, I didn’t want to risk overloading it with another piece of heavy machinery.

So I had to build one.

The internet is rife with plans and videos for how to build a workbench. About 99% of these are for woodworking. There is a little bit on metal working shops. Little Machine Shop also has suggested layout for the minimum size and placement of a mini-mill. So, between all these, I formulated a plan.

One of the other tables I had was also rescued from the curb. It had a top that was 1-1/2 inch think, laminated from solid wood pieces about 4 inches wide. It was about 30 inches deep, and 36 inches wide. It resembled a huge butcher block. The plan was to use this for the top, and put some metal legs under it.

The problem was that there was a reason that the table this top came from was thrown out. It had split – seperated at one of the glue joints. I talked this over with a friend of mine, and we decided it would be pretty easy to reglue the joint. Apply Gorilla glue to the joint, clamp it up, and it would be good as new.

Well, to make a long story short, I tried that, and one side had become warped. I started to plane the warped side flat and flush, but the top split again at another glue joint. I repeated this process, and another glue joint opened up. It became apparent that I would eventually have to completely reglue and replane the top. Thus, I abandoned this idea.

Plan B was a top made from laminated MDF – Medium Density Fiberboard. Not quite the “saw dust and spit” that much cheap furniture is made off, but not really plywood either, this stuff is quite popular for workbenches. Starting with a 4×8′ sheet, and two free cuts at Home Depot, I had them cut it into 2 3×4′ pieces that I would  glue and clamp with screws. I then cut the remaining 2×4′ piece into w 12×18″ pieces for risers.

The mini mill is designed to be mounted near the edge of the table, where the front hand wheel can hang over the front edge of the workbench. I didn’t want the wheel sticking out where I could snag it, so I planned on having the mill back from the front edge of the workbench. This required the risers to accommodate the handwheel.

So the top is two pieces of 3/4″ MDF, 12×18″ in size, glued and screwed together. This is glued and screwed to the top made of two pieces of 3/4″ MDF 3×4′  in size. That gives me a 1-1/2 inch thick workbench, with the mill raised 1-1/2 inches above that.

Once glued up, spar varnish was applied. The MDF has to be sealed against moisture, or it will swell and start seperating. Since this was going in an garage that was not air conditioned, and I live in the tropics, this meant everything had to be sealed. The original plan was for 2 coats of Spar Varnish on the bottom and 3 on the top surface, with the second coat on the top being sanded before the final coat to provide a smooth finish.

Two coats were applied to the bottom, and it was quite rough. So I decided to sand the bottom and apply a third coat. Once this had finally cured, I could lift the top into position on the legs – a set on sale from Harbor Freight rated at 500 lbs. They were quicker and cheaper to assemble than wood legs. Plain shop rags on top of the powdercoated steel allowed for positioning the top without scratching it, and once in position, it was fairly easy to pull the rags. The top is held to the feet with 8 1″ lag screws. Once the mill is in place, with the weight inside the outline of the legs, I think this workbench is going to be very stable.

The photograph shows the top being positioned after the first coat of varnish on the top had set up. After drilling the holes and mounting the legs to the top, I vacuumed up and applied the second coat. That’s where it stands today. Tomorrow the top will be sanded, and the last coat of Spar Varnish applied.

This has been a lot more work than I thought, but the sense of accomplishment has been worth it. There’s something, addictive, perhaps, about building something. Or, at least, making progress.