email: tony@lathes.co.uk
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James Spencer Lathe
Manchester, England




Spencer, a long-forgotten maker (based in Hollinwood, a N.E. suburb of Manchester hard against the Oldham boundary), were specialists in overhead cranes. However, they also produced, during the 1800s and early years of the 20th century, a wide variety of machine tools. Amongst these were various conventional lathes (an example is shown at the bottom of the page), large and small planers and at least one rather interesting and unusual small lathe, a 4" x 12" backgeared and screwing type with its carriage guided exclusively on deep ways that ran down the length of the bed's front face. This was not, of course, the only lathe to have such an arrangement, the design enjoying a vogue during the closing decade of the 19th century with the Rivett 8-inch Precision and 608 models using a similar if superior system as did the wonderful Wade "front-way" & Ballou Lathes
For a small lathe (of its time) the machine was not only strongly-built (the bed was 5-inches wide, 5.25 inches deep and weighed 112 lbs) but also boasted a number of useful features: a large friction micrometer dial on the cross slide (though nothing on the top); a well-constructed compound-slide (the cross-feed screw was square but the top of Whitworth form); a generously proportioned  leadscrew clasp nut in bronze carried on horizontal V-ways in the centre of the apron and tumble reverse drive to the leadscrew fitted on the inside of the headstock casting. Perhaps most unexpected was the fitting of a geared-down hand drive to the carriage, a luxury almost unknown at the time on a small lathe. Unfortunately its design and execution left something to be desired and can only be described as crude: on early models the gears were completely exposed on the outside of the apron and the rack fitted so that its teeth pointed upwards, a sure trap for swarf and dirt to jamb it; even worse the movement was "cack-handed" i.e. turning the handle towards the tailstock moved the saddle in the opposite direction. Later versions of the lathe were equipped with a neat, cast guard covering the gears.
Bored though 3/8", the 15/16" diameter headstock spindle ran in a tapered bronze bush at the front and a plain, parallel bearing at the rear. A pair of locking nuts drew the spindle into the front bearing with the thrust taken against a fibre washer - a cheap solution but one that absorbed some power when drilling holes. The spindle nose was threaded 7/8" x 9 t.p.i. and had a No. 1 Morse taper - both on the small side for the lathe's capacity but well in line with contemporary practise and the limitations of carbon-steel tools. Three pulleys for drive by a 1-inch wide flat belt were provided with diameters of 2.75", 4" and 5.25", the last (on some but not all examples examined) having a circle of 120 holes bored into its front face for division purposes with locking by a spring-loaded pointer.
Mounted on the usual eccentric shaft, the backgears appear to have been hardened; changewheels were carried on a bracket with two parallel slots, an arrangement common between 1880 and 1910 and one that (in comparison with the forked design used later) made the setting up of compound gear trains rather awkward. However, unlike other small lathes of the time where the gears ran directly on their mounting studs, the Spencer employed floating bushes with gear retention by (slow-to-remove-and-replace) screwed collars. Instead of the drive to the changewheels being by the simple means of a gear on the end of the headstock spindle, it was taken instead through a lower shaft connected to the spindle by gears positioned against the left-hand inside face of the headstock  - in a manner more commonly used on larger lathes; the only advantage being the inclusion of a sliding gear to disengage the drive.
Although the top slide had a reasonable 4-inches of travel, the cross-feed was limited to one less, this resulting in the standard toolpost being unable to bring a tool into position where a small hole could be bored without some overhang or tool or holder.
The lathe must have sold in reasonable numbers and have been in production for a number of years for it spanned the time (1890 to 1920) when small lathes gradually switched over from round leather "gut" belts on narrow-section V-grooves (often chosen for treadle-drive types) to heavier-duty flat-belt drive, this being the better option when some form of motor drive was available.
Believed to have been sold in a period that spanned the last decade of the 19th and early years of the 20th century the Spencer was listed at an astonishingly high £75. However, the lathe was very well built and an analysis of the headstock concluded that its manufacture, pre-1914, would have cost in excess of £15, enough at the time to have bought a small but complete backgeared and screwcutting lathe
If you have a Spencer machine tool of any kind  the writer would be interested to hear from you..

An early Manchester-built Spencer lathe with its carriage carried on bed-front ways

Note the exposed reduction gearing on the carriage hand drive - its cover can be seen on the chip tray to the left of the carriage handwheel. The large leadscrew clasp nut was carried on a horizontal slide in the centre of the apron; the narrow-rimmed micrometer dial on the cross slide --that on the top slide is not original.

A Spencer with the correct cover guarding the carriage-feed gearing

A sympathetically-restored Spencer in good original order

The backgear was carried on an eccentric shaft and the changewheels on a bracket with twin parallel slots, an arrangement common between 1880 and 1910 and one that, (in comparison with the forked design used later) made the setting up of compound gear trains rather awkward.

While this Spencer has survived with the original cover over the carriage handwheel reduction gearing, the cross-feed screw handle appears to have been taken from an old gas valve….

For a small lathe the idea of taking the drive out to the changewheels by a lower shaft - instead of from the
end of the headstock spindle - was unusual. but allowed for a sliding gear for disengagement

A later Spencer modified to accept V-belt drive, fitted with a Drummond top slide and, possibly, a "foreign" tailstock




A conventional backgeared and screwcutting Spencer from the late 1800s

Note the rear-mounted power shaft that provided power cross feed though worm-and-wheel gearing - a common design feature of the era

2014: the remains of a large James Spencer planing machine that has lain at the side of the Bristol-Bath cycle path, just north of Bitton railway station, for over for 20 years




email: tony@lathes.co.uk
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James Spencer Lathe
Manchester, England