The Adept Lathe

© Andrew Webster  a.webster@sympatico.ca





This document provides an introduction to the little Sheffield-made Adept modeller’s lathe, built in large numbers[1] and, while constructed down to the lowest price, many thousands survive in use or awaiting restoration.  This document, therefore, is primarily meant to assist restorers and users of this attractive, crude, and definitive “cheap lathe”. An updated PDF version of this article – with additional background data - can be downloaded here


Pre-History of the Adept Line


The origin of the Adept lathe can be found in the Models A and B Heeley-made “Portass” lathe introduced in 1926 and produced for under a decade.  The Heeley Motor and Manufacturing Co. took its name from a former cluster of villages now a suburb in the south of Sheffield, but it was founded ca. 1889 by Charles Portass.  The familiar Portass brand appeared ca. 1926, but as a line of lathes built by the firm Heeley before a firm named Portass existed.  This 2-1/8" plain “Portass lathe”, soon nicknamed the "Baby Portass", was briefly described in the 22 Apr 1926 Model Engineer.  I own one of these machines.  They were popular during the decade they were in regular production.[2]  


The early history of Portass lathes concluded when the Heeley business was split, following the founder' death in the late 1920s, between Portass sons Stanley and Fred.  Portass Senior may have died in the 1920s but the firm was not split until 1930 or 1931.[3]  Stanley Portass renamed the existing Heeley firm the Portass Lathe and Machine Tool Company and moved into the still extant "Buttermere Works" off Abbeydale Road, near Millhouses.  The Portass Lathe and Machine Tool Company continued the development of the 3rd generation of Heeley lathes and also added new models.  The firm also produced large machine tools, and all Portass machines regardless of size were characterised by massive castings and known for their rigidity.


After the Heeley split, Portass brother Fred commenced trading as F.W. Portass, producing tiny, inexpensive machines for modellers: the Adept line.  Fred Portass, with less money to work with, made the tiny machines in a much smaller Abbeydale works not far distant from his brother’s in Sheffield.  Fred miniaturised the cantilever bed architecture of the 2-1/8” ‘Baby’ Portass, creating much smaller and lighter machines with brilliantly engineered castings.  Stanley Portass has bigger fish to fry and never attempted to compete with his brother for the tiny sized modeller’s niche.  His smallest product, the Baby, was comparatively massive and far heavier.  Its successor, a longer 2-1/8” lathe with a double-footed curvilinear bed, made no attempt to match the Adepts for compactness or lowest possible price.


Both Portass brothers were conservative in their design philosophies, refusing to modernise in the face of vicious competition after WW2.  Stanley made minor changes which allowed him to continue business until the early 1970s.  Fred changed hardly anything, apart from introducing improved hand shapers (his other core product) and ceased production about 1961.




‘Baby’ Portass: Predecessor of the Adepts.  Model Engineer 22 Apr 1926.



History of the Adept Line


Two versions of the Adept lathe were made by F. W. Portass: the "Adept" (ordinary model, with bolt-on simple slide-rest) and the more complex and expensive compound slide-rest and leadscrew "Super Adept" model.  The Ordinary appeared about 1931, available with a plain, lever, or screw tailstock.  The Super Adept appeared at the August 1933 Model Engineer Exhibition, at the Bond's o' Euston Road stand.  This firm billed itself as "the Home of Hobbies" and sold "everything 'modellish'" for four decades.  The 14 September 1933 Model Engineer reported that "their principal exhibits in the lathe line comprised practically all the models made by 'Portass'.  Notable among these last were a new specially made lathe called 'Bond's Maximus', a 3 in. back-geared S.C. lathe...at the other end of the scale was the one and only entirely new 'Adept' lathe of the same make, which is now designed with a sliding saddle, carrying the compound rest.  This is illustrated, but price on application."[4]  The latter marks the introduction of the Super and the start of several decades of confusion between the two Portass firms who, probably by arrangement, catered to different parts of the market and periodically sent one another misdirected correspondence.  




Tyzack Ordinary Adept advert, plain tailstock, ca. 1935.


The Great Depression caused a rapid die-back of the multitude of small British lathe makers who appeared right after WW1.  For the most part these firms produced machines of undistinguished quality and design.  Of the model engineer class producers, Stanley Portass’ well-capitalised firm thrived, as did newcomers Ross & Alexander and Myford.  The two Adept lathes occupied the model-maker’s lathe void when the Baby Portass and its competitors vanished, and filled this void  until copycat competition like the Flexispeed and Wizard appeared in the late 1940s.  But the initial rise to popularity of the Adept products, during hard times, was quick because they were priced to sell.  Until the early 1950s it was difficult to engage in scale railway modelling in the absence of a small lathe, and model engineering was out of the question. 


How common were small lathes in these hobbies?  In 1937 a bare-bones, ordinary Adept cost a mere 13/-9 (60p or $1.25!).  It included a hand turning rest, two unhardened centres, plain tailstock, and a faceplate.  For 22/- you also got a bolt-on slide-rest (a quarter of an average weekly industrial wage) and for 15/- more an independent 4-jaw chuck capable of precision if the work was carefully centred.  No other manufacturer approached the prices of the Adepts.  It is fair to say that these machines did more than any other to put miniature machining within the grasp of the ordinary man.  These little (13” long) cast iron machines were the archetype “small lathe” for modellers and model engineers lacking space and money.  Fred Portass soon advertised them correctly as “world renowned”.  Examples have been found in Holland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and America. 


Like most of the other makers, Fred Portass advertised his products aggressively in 1939, already emphasising "world renowned".   Then the War came.  Commercial model production plummetted in 1940, when Fred Portass still regularly advertised Adept lathes using the familiar plate depicting the popular Ordinary with a non-screw tailstock.  In June the Ordinary was 24/- with slide-rest and 15/- with just a hand rest, screw tailstock 6/- extra.  The Super was 35s. 6d. and the 4-jaw chuck 16/-.  In 1941 he less often advertised that Adepts were "Still available though we regret we cannot give our usual prompt deliveries, owing to the urgency of Priority Orders for Government Work”. 


The production of metal toys was banned in January 1942.  So too, a year later, was the commercial sale of new or second hand models, either whole or as components.  Unable to buy manufactured items, amateurs were desperate for lathes to make their own components, but the sale of new machines now required a licence attesting to their use in war work.  Persons still modelling used discarded or hoarded material, aided by a weak private trade in used models.  The Model Railway News shrank to 14 tiny, thin pages but the Model Engineer, its sister publication, fared better because model engineers were sought in armaments factories.  Practitioners like Edward Beal and L.B.S.C. kept writing, furthering techniques and keeping up morale. 


Model engineering firms made war supplies such as fuses and aircraft instruments.  So did machine tool makers whose products were not up to the needs of military establishments or factories.  This probably included the firm F.W. Portass.  By September 1947 the firm was again supplying Adept lathes to the public but advising of a 12 month wait list after placing an order, on account of being “inundated with orders”.  In fact, the Austerity decade had begun, and materials were in short supply.  Five years of pent-up demand exploded and any lathe seemed worth its weight in gold.  The Adepts, still the cheapest, sold vigorously.  Unfortunately Fred Portass, made complacent by this surge in demand, failed to modernise his designs or increase his tiny range of accessories when a host of competitor lathes began to appear.  Worse, he failed to advertise in the model engineering press until 1950 when new competitors were long advertising aggressively.  By then, various new small lathes, especially the new 1-5/8” Flexispeed and the 1-3/4” Lane (formerly the 'Wizard')[5], were clearly taking a substantial bite out of the Adept’s market share. 

















Lane and Flexispeed Adverts, from the Model Engineer, ca. 1948.


There were others too, of comparable size, like the gimmicky Grindturn with an ill-advised extended spindle bearing a large, unprotected grinding wheel beside the head bearing!  At first, the Adept’s new competition tended to be better-specified or at least more highly-featured, and more expensive, and so less of a threat to the Adept line.




Grindturn 2” Model ca. 1947.  One of the high-specified, more expensive small lathes.


Flexispeed steadily worked towards market superiority.  In 1947 their 1-5/8” model was adopted by Tyzack as the new Zyto small lathe.  The major distributor Garner began promoting Flexispeed products on favourable terms, not mentioning Adepts which they also carried.  The year 1950 telegraphed an irreversible decline of the fortunes of the Adept’s maker.  The main agent of this decline was Flexispeed who now moved strategically to occupy the niche held by F.W. Portass. 


Flexispeed took out a half-page advert promoting their Adept-like 1-5/8" models and budget horizontal bench mill (£20), an item that Fred Portass ought to have introduced.  The Standard Flexispeed lathe was £7-6s-9d. with back-gearing for £2 extra.  Fred Portass did not try to compete with this higher-specified and costlier machine, evidently feeling secure that established name and experience as the lowest priced lathe would see them through.  Yet Flexispeed had more surprises.  They introduced a 'Student' 1-5/8" lathe for just £4-17s.-6d., almost the same price as the Super Adept.  This was the first ever real attempt to build down to the Super Adept's price, although no one tried to out-beat the simpler Ordinary Adept.  By then it hardly mattered because buyers expected more and the Ordinary was becoming too elementary.  The Flexispeed Student's tailstock ran on the bed dovetail, not in a slot, making for more consistent alignment than the Super Adept.  The larger (1/2” vs. 3/8”) spindle was drilled through and accepted standard 0MT tooling.  Yet no compound top-slide and spindly bed casting still made the Super Adept more lathe for the money. 


By 1953 the Adept’s distributors seldom ever mentioned Adept lathes in their advertising, possibly prompting Fred Portass to regularly advertise in the ME using the familiar, archaic engravings. 

By 1953 the name and address of Fred Portass' firm had changed to "F.W. Portass Machine Tools Ltd., Adept Works, 55 Meadow Street, Sheffield 8".  The reasons for the apparent relocation are unknown but a brand makeover was certainly being attempted.  Stung by new competition, Fred Portass was now regularly advertising in the M.E.  He still emphasised "world-renowned", "world famous", and "full range of accessories" including a new three-point steady.  The expansion to his accessories list was too little, too late.  Despite competition from, Robblak, Cowells, and other firms, Adept shapers remained popular and for a while this offset some of the losses in lathe sales.[6]


Flexispeed was now in cutthroat competition with F.W. Portass.  In 1953 they carried a similar advert for their 1-5/8" lathe, priced down to £5.17.6. versus £5. 15s. 0d. for the Super Adept.  Flexispeed's independent chuck was £1. 17s. 6d. versus £1. 18s. 6., and Flexispeed offered a tailstock die holder (15s. 0d.) which Adept did not.  Flexispeed's steady, at 11s. 6d., was 3s. 6d. more than while the Adept.  Fred Portass was losing the lathe price advantage.  What is more, the Flexispeed had a larger (1/2") hollow mandrel and better alignment due to a tailstock running on a dovetail bed.  The Adept’s lug-in-groove had a reputation for being a sloppy fit.


This was the Jurassic of the little, cast-iron lathe.  Only the evolving Flexispeed would survive the impending die-back.  As the 1950s progressed, most of the British makes of traditional modeller's lathes disappeared.  Notwithstanding the occasional interesting but not revolutionary feature, these machines remained grounded in turn-of-the-Century design and manufacturing technology.  In 1954 this obsolescence became clear when the early Unimat (DB200/SL1000) appeared in the UK.  This had 1.42" centres with 6.75" between centres.  The machine-cast alloy castings were generally superior to the old sand-cast iron type.  Best of all, the Unimat looked modern, had a self-contained motor, and came with numerous accessories such as the elusive 3-jaw scroll chuck.  By then the tired old Adept, with few accessories, called for more patience and machine-shop acumen than modellers of the day were prepared to accept.  They now sought a “universal machine tool”, and while the Adept assuredly was not, neither were most of the machines which claimed to be. 


Production of Adept products ceased about 1961.[7]  Some dealers a few some in stock for several more years; in itself a statement about how demand for this type had plummetted.  Improvements kept the Flexispeed line selling into the 1970s,[8] but by without doubt the new archetype was the evolving Unimat.  Machines such as the Flexispeed and Unimat did not do the firm F.W. Portass in.  Fred Portass did his own firm in.  When attractive, modernised small machines appeared in the late 4040s onwards, the Adept slid towards oblivion because its maker failed to modernise the design.  It would have been simple to offer as extras features like back-gearing, a decent vertical slide accessory, indexed handwheels, integral motorisation, a larger ½” diameter spindle drilled through and with a full 0MT taper, or a spindle pulley with index holes and a locking pin.

Specifications of Adept Lathes


Adepts were produced under basic conditions which limited the size and complexity of the machines produced.  Precision lathe authority Peter Clark comments on their origins: “Years ago…a friend of mine, told me about visiting the Adept maker, Fred Portass at his little workshop in Abbeydale Road, Sheffield.  The story was that Portass started with only two machines.  These were a small capstan lathe of 5/8" capacity and a single-geared lever operated bench milling machine.  The design of the Adept was supposed to have been governed by the capacity of these two.  Certainly the cast iron used was beautiful stuff that could well have been necessary for milling on a tiny mill, using one cut!”  Somehow, he found ways to organise production around basic equipment such that he could produce large volumes of machines at consistently low cost.  Adepts were the cheapest and most rudimentary miniature lathes to have seen sustained production. 


Adept lathes have 1-5/8” swing (3-1/4” diameter) over the bed.  The gap in the bed admits material 4-1/4” diameter.  Six inches between male centres at maximum tailstock set-back.  Spindle and tailstock barrel are 3/8” mild steel running in cast iron housing without bushings; many owners bored these out and fitted bronze bushings.  Articles on Adept improvements from the M.E. showed how to make this, and other improvements, with no machines beside the Adept itself.


Cast iron's most striking characteristic is its high resistance to sliding wear.  Few lathes of the time featured pre-stressed ball or roller bearings.  These were costly in the smaller sizes until the 1950s.  The better large lathes therefore often had replaceable bushings of bronze or gunmetal, but many gave excellent service with a hardened and polished steel mandrel running in a lapped iron split-housing.  Most, if not all, of the small model-maker's lathes had an unhardened mild steel spindle running direct in an iron housing.  These were seldom polished or lapped, and the sometimes the housing was bored without reaming, like the Adept. 


This being said, the longevity of this arrangement is remarkable if attention was paid to cleanliness and lubrication.  It is nevertheless likely that an Adept or similar spindle will exhibit significant wear, especially at the tail housing where an excessively heavy chuck could cause headstock centre drop.  Some owners fitted cycle oil cups which did much to keep things oiled.  Some fitted fibre shims to stop oil running quickly out of the sawn housing.  Others neglected the oiling, paid no attention to iron and corundum dust, and responded to heavy wear by screwing the housings together until they fractured.  This is a common fault on small, old lathes.


The Adept’s spindle nose is threaded an uncommonly small 3/8” BSF.  The spindle and tailstock barrel are both 3/8”, so it was a simple matter to fit up some 3/8” steel in the headstock and turn up special-purpose barrels.  Owners of plain and lever tailstocks were especially apt to do this.  Many Ordinary Adept owners had only a plain tailstock with just a point.  They drilled many a hole by centre-popping the butt end of a drill, holding in a tap-wrench, and forcing in with brute force by pushing on the hand wheel.  Clever owners turned up a female-centred tailstock barrel.


Tailstock and mandrel have 0MT-angled tapers but regular 0MT tooling will not fit.  This is because, in order to get a socket in a tiny 3/8” mandrel, Fred Portass extended the small end of 0MT so that his sockets, while the right inches-per-foot taper for 0MT, have a large diameter of ¼ inch while the small end of a standard 0MT taper plug is 0.252 inches.  This conclusion follows inspecting a dozen Adepts and a report from someone who visited the works just after the War.  The non-conformity prevented Adept owners from using the wide range of standard 0MT taper tooling carried by tool shops in the 1930s to 1950s.  (Aside: Curse Mr. Morse for his system of tapers with approx. 1.5° included angle but varying several thou per foot!  God bless Mr. Jarno and his entire family for inventing a rational taper consistent for all sizes of socket.  A fatwa upon lathe builders who still cling to the Morse system.)


The Super Adept was preferred when finances permitted, but the Ordinary version appealed for reasons beside low price.  It was ideal for workers (e.g. doll-house and pen makers) only interested in hand-turning against a T-rest.   They needed little extra besides chisels or gravers, a prong centre for wood turning, and maybe faceplate or drive-plate with carriers and male centres.  When required for metal work, the T-rest could be unbolted and replaced with an optional slide-rest. 




Ordinary Adept ca. 1937 with screw tailstock.  Before restoration by A. Webster.


The Ordinary Adept’s slide-rest top slide rotates for taper turning (same item as on the Super).  The lower slide’s base has a cast iron lug which fits into a 3/8” milled slot machined down the centre of the bed.  All WW (Webster-Witcomb) pattern watchmakers' lathes have a bolt-on slide-rest, so this idea was hardly new.  Some American WW lathes of the time (e.g., Mosley, Peerless) had a central slot to guide lugs beneath both slide-rest and tailstock; the bed was not prismatic form, meaning that there was no outside surface for guidance as with, say, a Boley WW or a Levin. 


The Ordinary Adept shares with such machines the disadvantage that a bolt-on slide-rest permits only a limited length of cut to be taken.  Many users would find this no limitation at all.  On a positive note, All Adepts have a cast iron English Pattern toolpost.  While lacking the adjustable jackscrew found on, say, the Myford or Flexispeed, it can clamp a wide range of tools, tool-holders, and work pieces.  The Ordinary Adept's extraordinary cheapness stems from well-executed castings, few parts, and few exacting machining operations.  The headstock was made as accurately as the Super version, and well-aligned with the ways, elsewhere the quality control could be lacking. 


It seems that the better castings went into Supers while Ordinaries often got the ones with roughness, non-critical fissures, or pits.  Parts also seem to have been sent the Ordinary Adept assembly line when machining revealed a void in the casting.  I have seen an Ordinary Adept with matching, undersized female tapers.  The angle is right but the holes are not bored deep enough to grip more than the end of a regular Adept male centre.  This strongly suggests that Ordinary Adepts were sometimes built from parts not good enough for the posh model.  The Ordinary was often gaily painted, at the request of distributors, in order to camouflage its deficiencies.  I have one in vile cream with handwheels picked out in green, but others have red highlights.  The Supers are sometimes described as characteristically black stove-enamelled.  In fact the most common colour was dark blue.  I have three of that colour.


Do not let these occasional deficiencies dilute your enthusiasm.   Many surviving Ordinary Adepts are quite serviceable for purposes like turning H0 scale or 4mm scale locomotive fittings.  They were not been built for more accuracy than this.  Remember also that S.C. Pritchard did the experimental work for his PECO products on an Ordinary Adept, during the War and on his dining room table.As when they were new, fitting and bodging are called for when greater precision is demanded.  One of my Ordinaries arrived with bearings, spindle, and tailstock barrel as good as a Super Adept that I had extensively tweaked into top condition.  

The more popular Super Adept features the same compound slide but atop a saddle (or carriage) which is driven by a full-length leadscrew. The three slides have adjustable gibs made of press-flattened steel strip.  The saddle runs smoothly and accurately on outside-vee'd ways which do not feature on the Ordinary version.  The saddle is propelled by a left-hand leadscrew whose hand wheel has a pleasant, properly-waisted handle.  The central slot of the Ordinary Adept remains to guide the tailstock's lug.  This is severely prone to wear, but the solution is simple: File it off and screw on a block of steel that fits nicely between the ways.


The Super is a much more useful machine than the Ordinary.  The tool bit can traverse the full length of a six-inch rod held between centres. The top-slide can be set to cut a taper yet ordinary 90° x-y turning can still be done by means of the saddle and cross-slide leadscrews.  This is handy when making tailstock tooling like a drill pad.  The top-slide can be removed and an angle plate put in its place for simple drilling, boring, and slot-milling.  With some bodgery the top-slide can be mounted on the manufacturer’s angle plate, thus making it a vertical milling attachment.  No other little lathe offered this simple, cheap facility.




Super Adept carriage, showing vee-ways and top-slide.  Collection A. Webster.




Super Adept on test bench after restoration.  Collection A. Webster.



Super Adept headstock.  Note the light 4-jaw chuck.  Collection A. Webster.


Variations of Adept Lathes


The Adept lathe may have been sold, or even produced, in the U.S.A. by the Adept Tool Co. of 2342 Hampton Road, East Cleveland, Ohio.[9]  This firm illustrated an Ordinary Adept lathe fitted with the firm’s own low-speed, backgear replacement system involving an extended spindle with 6” pulley, driven from a 1” pulley on a line shaft.  An unremarkable looking “Adept sensitive drill” was also illustrated, but this may have been a product of Adept Tool Co. rather than F.W. Portass.  The Super is known to have been produced by F.W. Portass in the 1930s, for the Department store Gamages and maybe for other distributors, with cosmetic changes to the bed casting but otherwise identical.




Adept Tool Company (Cleveland Ohio) Brochure Illustration ca. 1930s.

An Australian version of the Super Adept was sold as the "TNC" after WW2 and perhaps just before.   I have good reason to believe that this was produced in Australia by Australian lathe manufacturer Fred Hercus.  An Australian “TNC” brand shaper was also available, and possibly the Adept ordinary lathe and the rumoured (but never authenticated) Adept horizontal mill.  The TNC Super lathe was an exact copy of the Super Adept except for: (1) a straight (not waisted) carriage leadscrew handle; (b) “TNC” cast on the base and “British Made” removed; (c) different paint job; and (d) an improved top slide which greatly simplified taper turning.  Fred Portass produced a modified Adept for the department store Gamages.  This was identical save for cosmetic changes to the bed casting.  Other pseudo-Adepts seem to have been produced.


The design of Adept lathes changed hardly at all over three decades of production.  The pulleys of early specimens have 90° vee-grooves for the ¼” round leather belting.  This was prone to slippage so later (certainly Post-War) machines had 60° grooves.  Most or all of the pre-War lathes featured an inferior system of securing the slide’s feedscrews.  A flat slotted keeper plate, screwed onto the slide, engaged a groove turned in the knob end of the screw.  Eventually the plate wore down and the groove developed rounded edges.  This caused serious backlash and in bad cases the feedscrew and plate could seize up.  Later lathes had a more expensive feedscrew, turned from larger diameter stock, with a substantial turned collar.  The plate was no more.  Instead, the collar sandwiched the drilled casting on the inside, with the knob on the outside.  Backlash could now be eliminated by altering the knob’s endplay, then locking with a grubscrew.


Sellers today often describe Adepts as “watchmaker’s lathes”.  Based on this, an unwitting buyer may pay far above what a well-used specimen of the cheapest lathe ever made is worth.  Adepts were far from precision machines, but some workers especially in the early Austerity years were desperate for any platform to rebuild, and reconstructed Adepts in impressive machines.  The famous model engineering writer and illustrator Terry Aspin wrote of such a conversion.  The machine illustrated below was remade by L.V.P. Clarke into a collet-holding, screwcutting watchmaking lathe of true precision grade.  Bear in mind that little remained of the original but heavily machined and scraped castings.  Adepts were certainly made of good quality iron!


Some speculate that a screwcutting Adept lathe was produced.  I agree with Tony Griffiths that many British workers were able to adapt standard machines to screwcutting.  Indeed, the Model Engineer  has articles on how to do this, including making an Adept-based screwcutting watchmaking lathe!   Ah…Those were desperate days in the Austerity years after WW2.  This accounts for the rare but diverse screwcutting and draw-in spindle Adepts occasionally seen today.




An ultimate makeover.  Model Engineer 17 July 1947.

Manufacturer’s Spares and Accessories


The standard kit for the Ordinary and the Super models comprised a drive chuck, two male centres, and in the case of the Ordinary, choice of a bolt-on hand-rest or slide-rest.  Spares were available from the very beginning.  These included mandrel, top-slide, a pair of male centres, and two-step pulley.  In the late 1940s the range of accessories for the Super (besides countershaft and treadle “foot-motor”) was advertised as (prices in shillings):


4-jaw independent chuck, 2-1/4”                         32/-

3-jaw 'dog chuck'                                             10/6

Large faceplate, 3-1/4”                                     6/-

Carrier, 3/8” diameter                                       2/3

Carrier, 5/8” diameter                                       2/6

Hand rest                                                      4/-

Prong chuck for wood                                       4/-

Small angle plate, 2-3/8” x 1-3/8” x 1-1/2”            4/-

Drill pad with vee groove                                   3/6

Set of three turning tools                                   3/6

Set of six turning tools                                      7/-

Round leather belting, per foot                            6d


The 1963 Bond's catalogue listed three more accessories which seem to comprise the rest of the small range: drill chuck, 0-1/4”; three-point steady rest; and pair of female centres.  These were probably old stock since Adepts were out of production.  The drill chuck and steady were introduced late in the line’s history.  There was never a 3-jaw universal chuck because the maker could not produce one cheap enough.  The foul 3-jaw ‘dog chuck’ was borderline useless and repeatability was impossible; I have a good specimen so don’t tell me otherwise. 


The light, four-jaw independent chuck was excellent, but the thinly casehardened jaws wore down in a few years and users complained in the model engineering press.  Usually they take a lot of work to put in good working order including, sometimes, making new jaws from tool steel with your Adept hand shaper. 


Restoring and Using Adepts


Adepts are very cute miniature versions of the cast iron engine lathe, minus the back-gearing of course.  My own enthusiasm for Adepts relates to my interest in retro-modelling the North Eastern Railway in 7mm scale, using only the limited tools and materials available to a modeller in the UK during the awful post-War Austerity decade.  This is definitely an exercise in scratchbuilding and self-discipline.  What better suits this mode than the ultra-basic Adept?


Adepts are not hard to find, and seldom worth much money, but anyone expecting to use an Adept must do some elementary toolmaking which usually does not require an extensive workshop.  All Adepts now have at least six decades of wear so do not expect much.  Furthermore, the range of accessories was so limited as to be comical, since these machines dated from a time when their users were prepared to bodge up their own accessories and tooling.  A rich literature on upgrades and making accessories and tooling can be found in pages of the Model Engineer for the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. 


When you buy an old machine, like an Adept, you roll the dice especially if it cannot be inspected before purchase.  You may not get far if you lack machinery – or friends with machinery - to recondition certain components such as chuck jaws (almost always badly worn), taper sockets, and mandrel (spindle) nose.  In fact you may have to build a new mandrel if only because 3/8” BSF headstock tooling is rare as hens’ teeth.  I am planning to make a couple with ¾” thread to suit Sherline chucks.  Many or all of the tapers that may come with your machine will likely be scored or otherwise deficient.  I recommend making a small 0MT toolroom reamer and making a full set of taper tooling from scratch.  Quarter-inch, unhardened, mild steel rod was what Fred Portass used for his male and female centres.  If like me you really get into restoring small retro lathes, maybe you can justify to your spouse a Myford to manufacture spindles, cut ACME screws, and many other high accuracy machining jobs.




Super Adept as received.  Lots of work needed.  Collection A. Webster.



Final Thoughts


More photographs and further descriptions of Adepts can be found at Tony Griffith’s excellent lathe site http://www.lathes.co.uk/adept/index.html .  The Adept and early Portass pages have been updated recently to reflect correspondence with Tony.  Contact Tony if you have any thing to add on the early history of the Portass firm – He has a special interest and does a great service by making lathes information available free on the Internet.  He is always interested in interesting photos, historical information, and literature on old small lathes.


My interests are more focused.  Do contact me if you are an Adept, Baby Portass, or Pools 3” Special enthusiast and want to share ideas or knowledge.  I endeavour to share what I learn with other enthusiasts, and I am slowly preparing a book on restoring and using classic small lathes.


© Andrew Webster, Ottawa

a.webster@sympatico.ca  (Type it in – Not a hyperlink)





[1] 70,000 if we assume production of 200 a month for 30 years (ca. 1931 to 1961).  However, given profit margins of just a few shillings, 200 (10 per work day) seems too low to be economic considering they were the main product of a small machine-making firm.

[2] The Portass Lathe and Machine Tool Company often made its products in batches, sometimes temporarily vanishing from distributors’ lists, while the Adepts of F.W. Portass seemed constantly available.  The Baby appeared in the Portass Lathe and Machine Tool Company’s model range adverts into the 1950s, long after it became obsolescent, probably in the slim hope that some distributor would order a production run.  For a few years after the split, this firm’s name now appeared on the Heeley-style maker’s plaques still in use, and indeed, a few Baby Portass carried this new plate. 

[3] The Heeley Motor and Manufacturing Co. advertised in the Model Engineer in December 1929 and possibly into 1930.

[4] Note that the tiny, popular Adept No. 1 hand shaper appeared a year before the Super Adept lathe.  The 22 September 1932 Model Engineer described a new hand shaper, bearing the brand 'Adept', at the Buck and Ryan stand at the 1932 ME Exhibition.  The 27 September 1934 Model Engineer described, in positive terms, the larger No. 2 shaper displayed by Buck and Ryan and the Model Engineer Exhibition of that year. 

[5] Lane & Son issued an apology to the effect that they had unwittingly used the registered name Wizard, and re-issued the machine as the 1-3/4" by 6-1/2" Lane "Micro-lathe." 

[6] In 1953 the tiny No. 1 hand shaper sold for £9. 5s. 0d. against £15. 17s. 6d. for the slightly larger Perfecto.  Automatic traverse was available for the latter (£2 extra) but the Adept was still clearly the best price and value.  In late 1953 Fred Portass introduced a motorised version of the handy, mid-sized Adept No. 2 shaper at a very reasonable £28. 0s. 0d.  The attachment was available for £10. 0s. 0d., and for more £1. 10s. 0d. his works would fit it to a customer's shaper.  The powered model sold well, but reputation and eleventh-hour range improvements could not keep the firm viable for more than a few years.

[7] F.W. Portass issued a 2-page, folded Super Adept advertisement dated 1 April 1960, believed to be the last printing of this flyer.

[8] Through evolving successors Simat, Perris, and ultimately Cowells which are a highly advanced development.

[9] From a sales brochure from the 1930s marked “Adept Bench Lathes and Tools – Machine Tools Specially Designed for the Model Maker”.   Unfortunately I have only the first page.