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The only thing small about this mini is the price. It's capabilities and quality rival machine costing far more.
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Rockler’s Excelsior 5-Speed Mini Lathe

Economical, tough and fully capable

Text, photos and video by Tom Hintz

Posted - 7-26-2012

Recently when I asked for story ideas from the NewWoodworker.com viewership the largest number of responses specifically mentioned mini lathe reviews and mini lathe projects. You caught my attention. Since Rockler is one of the major suppliers to woodworkers I thought a review of their Excelsior Mini Lathe (#MC-1018, exclusive to Rockler) was in order. In this review we will also look at the optional bed extension as that is a frequently purchased and equally economical accessory. In the coming weeks the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe will be featured in a few upcoming Video Tutor pieces on subjects from building/designing a mini lathe cart to projects on the mini lathe.

 

The Basics

The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe is made largely from durable cast-iron and features an induction 1/2 hp motor that provides plenty of power. The headstock is also made from cast iron and is fixed in place which is a good thing for a mini lathe. In its standard configuration the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe can turn bowls nearly 10" in diameter, and spindles up to 17-3/4"-long. Add the optional Mini Lathe Bed Extension (#32307) and the between centers capacity grows to 38-1/2”! This lathe uses a simple ON/Off switch with a removable key and has non-slip rubber feet for stability.

This is a manual speed change machine with 5 available speeds: 760, 1100, 1600, 2200 and 3200 RPM. And before you vapor lock over the prospect of manual speed changes, they are easy to do especially after you have done it a time or two. I have had both variable and manual speed change lathes and prefer the manual machines like this one because of their ease of use and durability. I noticed that with the variable speed machines I’ve had even though all I had to do was turn a dial to change speeds, I rarely did. Once you get used to turning the number of speeds you actually use seems to go way down.

The bed of this lathe (left) is cast iron, just as on the biggest of machines and for the same reasons - strength and stability. the 1/2-HP induction motor (right) provides all of the power needed on this size machine. I never felt even a hint of lacking for power while turning on this lathe.
Click images to enlarge

The headstock and tailstock of Rockler’s Excelsior Mini Lathe both have #2 Morse tapers to accept a huge array of aftermarket accessories. The tailstock taper is self-extracting in that when the quill is retracted fully it releases the tooling without a fight. A four-blade drive spur and a ball-bearing live center are supplied with the lathe. A knockout rod for freeing up the headstock tooling is also included. In addition to the drive spur a 3”-diameter faceplate is also supplied with the lathe.

One of the first things I do with a new lathe is to bring the tailstock up to the headstock to see if the points on the spur and live center match up. This is critical with any lathe as a major miss alignment here will haunt you as long as you own the lathe. If the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe is not actually perfectly aligned the amount of error is way too small to see, even in a close up photo.

The hollow spindle has the popular 1” by 8 outer threading that accepts virtually all popular aftermarket pieces such as a chuck. The spindle is mounted in dual ball bearings and runs silky smooth through all five speeds. A chrome handwheel comes already installed on the outboard end of the spindle and makes setup easier.

A 6” tool rest comes with the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe and mounts to a cast iron banjo. That banjo and the tailstock are both locked in place with adjustable cam action levers. This is a fast, simple and proven dependable locking system used on lathes of all sizes.

Speed changes are accomplished by moving the drive belt on stepped pulleys within the headstock. The belt is relaxed by adjusting the motor using a front-mounted locking lever. The doors covering the access ports are made of plastic and are removed for speed changes. I know that some will decry the plastic doors but after using this lathe I love them. I’ve had the supposedly “better” spring-loaded metal doors on lathes I have owned and hated them. They had to be held open (I use rubber bands) but they always tried to close forcing me to work around them or try to hold them open while making the belt/speed change. The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe system is probably a bit cheaper in terms of manufacturing but I think that it is a much easier way to change speeds.

 

It is crucial on any lathe for the points of the drive spur and live center (left) to align. If there is in fact a miss alignment here, it is too tiny to see - or matter. This is a manual speed change machine that uses step pulleys (right) for that system. However, the housing doors that come off rather than being mounted on springs make actually changing speeds on this machine much easier. I LIKE that!
Click images to enlarge

The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe itself is 30”-long, 7-3/4”-wide and 15”-tall. The lathe alone weighs about 81-lbs. The cast iron bed extension adds 22” to the overall length and 19-lbs to the total weight. This is a sturdy mini lathe with some heft that will soak up at least part of the vibration produced by unbalanced work pieces.

 

In the Shop

The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe comes out of the box fully assembled and nearly ready to fire up. You should check the belt tension and at least look everything over but that really is about all there is to getting it ready.

I began turning a 15”-long piece of spindle stock and found that even with the lathe running very fast (2200-rpm) it remained very smooth and made cutting a smooth surface on the wood easy. That also translates into forming shapes just as easily. The ball bearings in the headstock and the live center in the tailstock eliminate common mechanical sources of vibration and insure that you are not giving up excess power to friction but rather using it to turn even larger wood for this machine with ease.

After turning the short spindle I added the bed extension which increased between center capacity to over 38”, rivaling the capacity of many much larger machines! That means that the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe will handle legs for all but the tallest of tables and similar projects. That kind of length capability dramatically increases the potential project list without losing any of the smaller project capability.

It took just a few minutes to install the bed extension, including making certain that the ways were aligned perfectly so the tailstock slides up and down the full length easily. This is also critical to making sure the centers remain properly aligned as well so longer stock turns as smoothly as did the shorter stock.

The tailstock (left) is cast iron and features a self-extracting #2 Morse taper that makes life much easier for you! With the bed extension (right) added the between centers capacity rivals much larger (more expensive also) machines. the price for this extension is also surprisingly small.
Click images to enlarge

I put a 38” piece of round pine stock on the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe that I had used during another lathe review years ago. Since then the piece had warped noticeably so this was going to test the stability of the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe a bit until I was able to get it rounded it out. Also, the 4” diameter and 38”-length of the piece meant the ½-HP motor would have a bit of weight to spin. Watch the video for the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe and you will see that neither the warp nor the weight bothered this machine in the least. I was able to go right down the length of the piece and smooth it out in just a few minutes with a plain roughing gouge.

I also turned a rounded and bell-shaped cove into the tailstock end of the long workpiece with no issues at all. No vibration, chattering or anything else that wasn’t supposed to happen. The only flexing is in the wood itself, not any from the lathe. What all this means is that you can focus on working with the wood rather than deal with inadequacies of the machine. The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe suffers no such inadequacies despite a price tag that is smaller than can be found on lesser machines on the market.

The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe will turn things like pens, spindles and bowls (or platters) a bit over 9”-in diameter all day without a whimper. I will save the bowl and platter work for the upcoming review of the Oneway Talon chuck that I will use on my Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe. Suffice it to say that I have been doing a bunch of turning “off camera” and the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe continues to impress.

 

Conclusions

The Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe is a nicely made, even nicer priced machine that will greatly extend the capabilities of even small home shops without killing the tool-buying budget. This machine includes all of the features a small shop needs along with the capabilities to grow as your turning project list, skills and needs grow. Add the optional bed extension and the between centers capability of the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe rivals much larger lathes. You still need to know basic turning fundamentals but the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe will allow beginners to learn without growing out of the lathe immediately. Most woodworkers have few real world turning needs that can’t be accomplished on a mini lathe and this one brings all of those capabilities along with the durability we want in a woodworking machine.

 

Video Tour

With a street price of just $279.99 (7-24-2012) for the lathe and $75.59 (7-24-2012) for the 18” Bed Extension the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe is as good of a value as it is a capable machine. If you have wanted to add turning to your shops capabilities, the Rockler Excelsior Mini Lathe deserves a long hard look, with your tool-dollars in hand. There just isn’t a good reason to spend more of your tool budget to get a machine that sports a supposedly “bigger” name but no more features or capabilities.

Click Here to see the Rockler’s Excelsior Mini Lathe on their site.

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