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Adept Lathes
Sheffield, England and T.N.C Australia
Adept Shapers   Australian T.N.C. Adept   Specialist Adept Pages   

Manufactured from as early as 1930 until the early 1960s the tiny "Adept" and "Super-Adept" lathes and shapers and were made in Sellers Street, off Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, England (and possible at the very narrow-fronted but deep factory building at 56 Garden Street in the same city) by a branch of the Portass family, F. W. Portass. Although, by the most generous stretch of the imagination, these lathes cannot be called other than crude, they did provided the impecunious enthusiast with a way of getting his (and occasionally her) hands on very a hard-to-come-by product. Today they are sought-after items and using one provides a fascinating insight into times that were so much harder than our own.
Dating from the early 1920s, the very first Portass lathes, were badged as being made in the west of Sheffield by  "
The Heeley Motor Manufacturing Company" then the: "The Portass Lathe and Machine Tool Company". Although Sheffield's main heavy industries, and the larger-volume steel plants of Rotherham, lay to the east (and down-wind of the better-class housing), there had been a long tradition of both large and small-scale engineering (including grinding, scythe manufacture and even wire drawing) in the western Sheffield valleys originally using water power from the Sheaf, Loxley and Porter steams - the latter a playground for the writer in his childhood. A visit to this area is a must for students of early industrial archaeology.
Founded in 1889, by Charles Portass, the original Portass company was concerned with building and constructional engineering but, by the outbreak of the First World War (1914--1918), had evolved to the extent that it was able to take on a variety of government work. Although projects given to the company including the usual munitions work, more interesting tasks contracts were awarded including the manufacture of aircraft components such as landing gear parts for Avro, Bristol and Nieuport fighters, seaplane floats for Blackburn and Fairey, tail units for Avro and De Haviland and even (it was claimed) the building of a complete batch of 50 Sopwith Snipes. In the 1920s, and by now trading under the "
Heeley Motor Manufacturing" name, the company turned its hand to building bodies for the car, lorry, ambulance and bus markets but, as these had become an increasingly "in-house" activity for the chassis manufactures, Portass diverted their efforts into small machine tools for the hobby and light-industrial market. 
Following the founder's death in 1924 (and almost certainly at the point where diversification into machine tools was taking place), the business was split between his sons Fred and Stanley. Fred ran "F. W. Portass", a company that concentrated exclusively on tiny lathes and shapers badged  "Adept", while Stanley made only larger machines with his business eventually becoming, around 1953 (or earlier), "Charles Portass & Son". Stanley was based by the river Sheaf in the "Buttermere Works" (the building still stands, in Buttermere Road, off Abbeydale Road, near Millhouses) while F.W.Portass was located in Sellers Street - again off Abbeydale Road, but a mile closer to the city centre. Letters survive showing how, unsurprisingly, the two companies were frequently mistaken for each other with mail having to be redirected. At one time Sheffield, famous for its high-quality specialised steels and the many industries closely associated with them - munitions, general engineering, forgings of all kinds, cutlery, machine knives, springs and numerous hand and edge-tool makers - must have been something of a centre for small-lathe production for, besides the Portass concerns, Flexispeed, Faircut, Kay and (possibly) Graves were being made there as well. Later the tradition was carried on by the well-known woodworking-tool manufacturer Sorby who during the 1990s produced a top-quality wood-turning lathe (and a range of other wood-turning related products) in premises not 100 yards from what had been Stanley's factory.
Traced to 1931, the announcement of the ordinary Adept was followed two years later by the much improved Super Adept - when the latter was displayed at the August 1933 "Model Engineer" Exhibition on the stand of the then well-known tool dealer
Bond's o' Euston Road. Fitted with a bolt-on compound slide, the ordinary version of the Adept used the top slide to take a cut which, like watch and clockmakers' lathes, had a slide of sufficient length to cover a good proportion of the available between-centres' distance. The "Super-Adept" (which, judging by the numbers encountered, must have been the better-seller of the two) was fitted with a sliding carriage driven by a handwheel from a properly "waisted" handle fitted to the tailstock end of an overhung Acme-form, left-hand 12 t.p.i. leadscrew. The headstock was fitted with simple, bronze bushes in split housings that were adjustable over a small range; the spindle carried a 3/8" British Standard Fine (BSF) thread and a tiny taper, probably contrived as a non-standard type in the works, that is inconsistent in the quality of its finish from machine to machine and appears to vary a little either side of a No. 0 Morse. The saddle was fitted with an adjustable gib strip at the rear, not the best place to introduce a flexible piece of strip steel to absorb the tool thrust but, even if it had been correctly placed at the front, leaving the rear of the casting to bear directly against the bed, it would probably have made little difference considering the low forces the machine was able to generate. The tailstock on early versions had a simple push-and-lock barrel but the inadequacies of this quickly became apparent - and the makers were forced to introduce a properly designed version with the choice of screw or lever-feed operation. Both versions of the lathe were identical dimensionally, lightly built and just 13.75 inches long and around 6.5 lbs in weight; the centre height was 15/8" inches and the capacity between centres 6 inches; the gap, standard on both models, admitted a piece of material 4.25 inches in diameter. A small 3-speed bench-mounted countershaft was offered by the makers (though most of the impecunious enthusiasts who bought the lathe ignored it) or, at even greater expense, by a two-speed human-powered "foot-motor" and flywheel assembly.
Although inexpensive, lacking in quality control and obviously built down to a strict price (there was no attempt made to smooth out surface imperfections in the castings, or even machine the base of the foot) the black-enameled and sometimes blue-finished "Super" models were still capable, in the right hands, of performing some remarkable tasks. Britain's A.R. Walkley, who modeled tiny electric locomotives in 1 mm =1 foot (1:305 scale) used an Adept lathe to make his own miniature motors and reported that:
parts including a 0.25"-diameter cast iron armature were .. produced on the lathe. This says much for the Adept when one mentions that everything came out true even to the boring of the miniature armature - the sort of job that many more expensive lathes are not always able to do well.
A well-made 4-jaw independent chuck with a threaded body and stamped "ADEPT" was available as an extra, but its cost, at one pound, twelve shillings and sixpence, was 33% of that of the lathe; what everybody would have liked, a miniature, 3-jaw scroll-operated self-centering chuck, was unavailable - it obviously being too difficult to construct such an accurate item and sell it for a reasonable price. Instead, a crude non-self-centering "dog" 3-jaw was offered - a chuck that was inaccurate, frustrating to use and with a poor grip - though skilled users could still make it perform miracles.
It is possible that a proper screwcutting version of the adept was made by the works; pictures obtained show a modified headstock casting with a large plate bolted to the front carrying both a leadscrew bearing and a tumble-reverse mechanism. Unfortunately it is not possible at this stage to say with certainty that this was the case, for so many craftsmen in Sheffield would have been perfectly capable of undertaking such a modification, even in a very modestly-equipped workshop.
A range of small hand-operated shapers and a tiny horizontal miller was also offered under the Adept name and proved very popular (a delivery time of twelve months was quoted in the late 1940s for the lathes) and are increasingly sought after today by more experienced model and experimental engineers who relish both the tremendous potential they have to solve machining problems - and the fun to be had from using a miniature version of a "real" machine tool.
An exact copy of the Super Adept (and possibly the ordinary version as well) was sold in Australia before and after W.W.2 as the T.N.C.  A manufacturer of Engineering tools. Machines were marketed through McPhersons, a major supplier to industry but who also catered to the "home workshop" customer. Their 1937 catalogue listed the No. 1 and No. 2 shapers and just the Super Adept lathe, priced with a simple slide tailstock barrel at 2 : 5s : 0d or, with a screw-feed arrangement, 2 : 7s : 6d. Although a countershaft was not shown the foot-motor was, at 1 : 15s : 0d. The 1949 the catalogue did not list any Adept machines - though much other British equipment was included (Moore &Wright, Eclipse, etc) - but as this edition did not show other products for amateurs (such as their own 3.5" bar-bed lathe) it may have been for industry only. By 1955 the Super Adept and both shapers were back, though the foot-motor had disappeared and just one 3-jaw chuck was shown. Whether Adepts were exported with T.N.C. badges, or manufactured in Australia, is not known - and if any reader has copies of T.N.C. advertising literature the writer would be pleased to hear from you. Another Adept-like lathe was the "Wakefield", though this would almost certainly have been built by Portass who were well known for supplying machines for sellers to badge as their own.
F. W. Portass was not the only maker of miniature lathes in Sheffield; the Flexispeed was also manufactured there, with works in South Lane, some half a mile nearer to the city center than those occupied by Adept. Unfortunately Adept failed to developed their lathe to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of now more affluent modeller and by the early 1960s was gone. Flexispeed however, with a keener eye on the market managed to continue their lathes being steadily developed with the addition of backgear, power feeds and increased capacity - and even when the original company failed the design had reached such an advanced stage that it was taken up in turn by various concerns and marketed as the
Meteor, Hector, Norfolk, Simat 101, Perris and finally as the Cowells--with version of the latter still  being built today. A comparison of the Adept with some other simple and inexpensive miniature lathes (both contemporary and later) makes an interesting study.. - AM, Baby Grand, CAV, Clisby, David, Dignus, Edwards, ManSon, Flexispeed, Exclet, Goodell-Pratt, Grindturn (Haighton Cadet), Guilder, PerrisCowells, Centrix Micro, Jason, Portass Baby, Little Goliath, Rollo Elf, Taig and Peatol, UnimatWinkle (Cincinnati Mechanic Maker) and Wizard.
Below is a summary - in so far as it can be established - listing various start and finish dates.
1930
Ordinary Adept lathe is introduced
1931-32 Adept Tool Co. obtains US manufacturing rights to F.W. Portass products
1932
Adept No. 1 hand shaper introduced
1933
Super Adept lathe introduced
1934
Adept No. 2 hand shaper introduced
1935-38 'TNC' (likely Fred Hercus) obtains Australian Super Adept rights (this is a speculative assumption)
1940 Adept production ceases in England as WW2 (1939 -1945) begins
1941 Adept Tool Co. production probably ceases for good
1946 Adept production resumes in England after end of WW2
1946 Probably resumption of TNC production in Australia
1953
Adept No. 2 motorised shaper introduced
1956 TNC production (if true) likely to have ceased in Australia
1961 Adept production ends in England
1963 Last appearance of old-stock Adept lathes in distributor catalogues
More observations on the Adept
here by an experience Canadian collector and restorer, Andrew Webster.
Tony Griffiths

An advertisement from the December 1930 edition of The Wireless World magazine

The ordinary "Adept" version of the lathe was fitted with a bolt-on compound slide rest located in a slot machined down the centre of the bed (the edges were left unmachined). The longitudinal cut was taken, as usual on this type of arrangement, by the top slide and its length was accordingly limited. This lathe also has the maker's hand-turning rest fitted to the right of the compound-slide assembly. More photographs of the standard Adept can be seen here.

Although advertised in this form - fitted to a neat if perhaps unstable wooden stand complete with a treadle flywheel assembly - it is not known if the makers actually supplied such a complete kit or if it was just a "serving suggestion" for home construction.

Buying a new Adept Lathe
by Richard Clifton

My Adept lathe was bought in 1936, or possibly 1937, at Tyzack's in Old Street, London, where I lived at the time. I am one of the older guys, nearly 86 (in 2006), but in '37 1 was an optimistic youngster inspired by L.B.S.C., the long-time contributor to Model Engineer Magazine, who made so many difficult engineering concepts and processes look easy.
The simple Adept, with only a single tool rest and selling at 12/6d (12 shillings and sixpence), didn't seem to be a prospect for model engineering, but the "Super" with a compound slide rest, at 1 (almost double), looked much more promising. So, one Saturday morning, probably at Easter (with my slim apprentice pay packet in hand - I was a boy capstan lathe operator at J.A.Preswich, Tottenharn, makers of the J.A,P. motor cycle and stationary engines - I took the tram to Old Street to buy my first lathe. I also wanted a rack of 6 "Lark" turning tools, but Tyzack's were out of stock of these; however, the chap behind the counter got on the phone to Ross and Alexander at Bishopsgate (who vended the RandA lathe) and found that they had some. The two firms must have shared common ownership because I was able to pay for both the lathe and tools at Tyzack's and take the short walk to Bishopsgate to collect the tools and then get my tram back to Waithainstow.
The little Adept needed to be powered. Electric motors were much too expensive for me, but I had a stroke of luck. My elder brother worked with a chap who was deaf and dumb. An intelligent and practical man he had worked on the problem of being woken up in the morning when he could not hear an alarm clock. Lights didn't seem to work, so he'd rigged his alarm clock to switch on a motor - which then dragged the blanket off his bed! Unfortunately he'd bought a cheap 1/4 h.p. 1400 r.p.m. unit without self-start and it refused to work as requested. I relieved him of it at low cost. The lack of a starter didn't bother me, I just pulled the belt round, switched on the current - and away we went. With a pram-axle countershaft fitted with a large-diameter pulley (from a treadle sewing machine) running in two old ball races, I was in business.
A good little machine, the Adept was very handy, but naturally with limitations. The tailstock consisted of only a length of rod turned at 60-degrees at one end, a cast hand wheel, and provision for locking. The compound slide rest worked well, with plenty of travel on the top slide, but to turn anywhere near parallel needed very careful setting. I soon purchased the 3-jaw dog chuck which, despite it's simplicity, I found satisfactory and considerably expanded the range of work that was possible.
Possibly the worst thing about the machine was not being able to drill from the tailstock. Even so, I was still able to accomplish quite a lot: for example, I made a small crankshaft from a 3 in. length of 1/4" x 3
1/4" rectangular steel, drilling centres at each end for shaft and crankpin, hack-sawing the surplus away and turning between centres. Our quality inspector at J.A.Preswich declared it a good effort - but I never made the rest of the engine. To return to the tailstock problem: there were available at that time a number of small hand-driven bench drilling machines. I had bought a small 1/4-inch capacity one, but carelessly over strained it and broke the column from the base. I re-invested in the larger 3/8" model, but kept the bits of the original (as you do).
Here was a lathe needing a tailstock chuck, and here was a 1/4" drill chuck with a long spindle! I managed to find a long bush that fitted both tailstock and spindle and, with the addition of a lever feed assembly made from steel strip, I had my facility for drilling and tapping.
Looking at all the equipment (and junk) that I have now, I wonder at how much I accomplished with so few resources and such little skill. How did I sharpen tools and drills? I had a hand grinder, but I still don't see how I used it with only one hand free. The equivalent amount that I spent might, today, not quite run to even the cheapest Chinese lathe, but it would certainly buy a
5 speed D.I.Y. drill and a 6" grinder plus other tools.
Sadly the Adept got little use. Within a couple of years World War Two had started and lack of materials, and especially lack of spare time, severely curtailed my hobby activity. What became of the Adept? I don't know. It was still around when I acquired my Portass 'C' in the early 1950s, but after that I lost track of it.
Not much new information here about the Adept, I'm afraid, but I have enjoyed re-visiting my youth.

For the cash-strapped youngster the Adept could be adapted to undertake simple milling tasks by mounting the top slide on an angle plate.

A letter from 1947 mentioning both the extraordinarily long delivery time - and the common confusion between the Sheffield firms of F. W. Portass (Adept) and Charles Portass (Portass Lathes) whose works were within a mile of each other on the west side of the city.
1947, three years after the end of WW2, was a time of acute shortages when even the basic food ration was not as generous as it had been during the conflict. "Export or Die" was the cry of the time - and little was left for home consumption.

There was no attempt made to smooth out surface imperfections, or even machine the base of the foot

Simple compound slide rest without micrometer dials - and the most basic of nuts embracing the Acme-form, left-hand 12 t.p.i. Leadscrew.

The tailstock was guided by ways down the middle of the bed and was fitted with a No. 0 Morse taper barrel. The handle on the leadscrew handwheel was properly waisted.

Rear View of the gap bed

A basic Adept with the original supplier's transfer

Original or modified ? Certainly the casting bolted to the front face of the headstock is a complex affair with its integral leadscrew bearing and tumble reverse mounting.

Just why the crude Adept 3-jaw chuck was so inadequate is obvious from the picture. However, the jaws were hardened and, in skilled hands, remarkable results were possible.

Although it looks very Adept like, this "Wakefield" lathe was almost certainly built by Portass



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Adept Lathes
Sheffield, England and T.N.C Australia
Adept Shapers   Australian T.N.C. Adept   Specialist Adept Pages