Friday, November 12, 2010

The Allure Of Old Iron

When I started this blog I wasn't quite sure where it would lead. I first thought I'd use it to announce new products and services for my oud-related ventures. A lazy way to update the website, if you will. It quickly morphed into a sort of "research" medium for exploring everything from music and vintage photography to planemaking and French workbench construction.

Since I began another blog over at Benchcrafted, this blog had suffered a bit. And I apologize. I'm doing some interesting things that I'd like to share, but the past few months have been a bit slow regarding new personal work. And frankly, some of what I'm doing is quite boring. A 10' Shaker dining table in cherry, another iteration of this carved piece, some more benches. I'm actually not a fan of blogs unless they have something useful to offer. So that may explain the gap in posting. Nobody wants to read about what I had for breakfast.

So onto the topic at hand. Old Woodworking Machines. They've always held a great appeal. Especially when machine manufacturers put some style into the castings. Back before the bottom line ruled the design process.

I recently picked up a Powermatic 1200, 20" drill press. This is one machine I've been searching for for quite some time. I'd needed a new drill press, a real drill press if you will, and after some research on new options, I decided to throw my hands up and just buy a Chinese Jet from the local Menards. I was never happy with it, and I figured it would fill the bill until something more substantial showed up.

The PM 1200 showed up on Craigslist, and I was the first one to call. I offered the man (who had bought the machine at auction, without realizing how huge it was) half of what he was asking, and after I came up a bit we shook hands and hoisted the press into the back of my pickup, all 500 pounds of it. I drove home with a glint in my eye and a feeling of great satisfaction. This machine is about 40 years old. Just a bit older than me.

It was all downhill from there.

I've never had so much fun getting greasy and dirty on a Sunday afternoon.

Right now I'm about midway through the restore. It's highly satisfying work. So far it's mostly been about stripping and painting. The press was brushed with at least three post-factory colors, and the meathead who applied it didn't seem to think that moving parts ever needed adjustment, just paint over everything. It was a mess. But slowly it's coming together.

There is a bittersweet aspect to this restore though. Powermatic is not the American company they once were. Indeed, almost none of the old guard machinery manufacturers produce machines on American soil. I don't know what the future holds for American manufacturing, but I do know that my efforts to bring this American machine back to hopefully better-than-new condition will be greatly rewarded by the thought of future generations enjoying a piece of American manufacturing history. As is often said, we are not owners of these tools, just custodians for a time. I hope the next owner gets as much enjoyment out of this machine as I do.


  1. Hi Jameel,

    I bought a reconditioned Powermatic jointer of the same vintage as your drill press last year from a shop in Vermont, Woodshop Specialties, that does incredible restoration work. I feel that I have a machine that's better than new, really, because all the movement in the castings has taken place, everything reground and trued. This machine is really fine. The owner, Mike Shannon, also deals in new equipment, but, although he sells new Powermatic tools, doesn't sing their praises.
    A new, real drill press is also on my wish list and I'm thinking of contacting Mike again
    about a recondition Powermatic. But 500 pounds? What did you have for breakfast?

  2. The loss of USA manufacturing is indeed a real shame. Black and Decker now owns most of the old brand names including Delta and Powermatic.

    I purchased a smaller sized drill press from General out of Canada. It is very nicely made. That company has two product lines, one is made in Canada, the other is made in Asia.

  3. Powermatic is owned by WMH Tool Group (which is a Swiss company), not Black and Decker (which is an American company). WMH also owns Jet, Performax and Wilton. Most brands of woodworking tools source product from outside North America because of the lower cost.

  4. That is some absolutely fantastic work you've done with the restoration. I don't know where you picked up those skills, but I am in awe. Good on you.

  5. Hi Jameel,
    Now a blog article after my own heart. Good work Jameel! Can you give us a mug shot of you standing next to it to give a perspective of size? Of the drill, not you...!

  6. Mug shots later Chris. I don't want to turn anybody off before it's done.

  7. Jameel,

    Would you mind giving us some insight into the restoration process? I've got a big ole' Jet drill press coming my way that looks a lot like your "before" picture..


    - Matt

  8. Matt, This being my first restoration I'm not in the best position to offer advice. But I'll give you my impressions of how this is going so far. As you can imagine I was pretty gung-ho when I started. After I started stripping the machine down I got a bit overwhelmed by it all. Lots of parts (which I put in ziplock bags and labelled according to the location on the press. "Quill and Feed", "Motor Mount" etc.) I quickly realized that its mostly a dirty job involving chemicals, wire brushes, abrasives in various forms, and lots heavy lifting (these parts are heavy! the column is 1/2" thick wall cast iron and weighs close to 100 pounds). But once I got the column polished and the base stripped and painted, my enthusiasm was back. I'm taking it basically one part at a time. Strip it down to bare metal (or nearly so), prime, paint and reassembled. That keeps it manageable and it keeps the shop clean. Doing this in a woodworking shop is not the best idea. Metal dust, grease and grime spread easily and find their way onto workpieces. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying the process and I know the result will be worth it. I can know see why other folks get into outfitting their shops with the old machines. They can be excellent quality. If you're hungry for more, take a look at and I've learned an enormous amount from these sites during the restore.

  9. Thanks for the advice, Jameel.. I found your thread on owwwm and will be following that. I couldn't believe you chucked the column into your lathe to polish it, but I guess it makes sense when you think about it.

    Thanks again!

    - Matt

    ps. I ordered the benchmakers set last week, really looking forward to building a split top in the coming year.


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