Spindle Moulders!

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deema

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After lots of nudging by a few members I will attempt with hopefully lots of input from other users to help highlight why Soindle Moulders are a good machine for anyone taking woodworking seriously.

Firstly, I think that a good book that should be read and reread and thoroughly understood before anyone goes anywhere near either a spindle moulder or indeed a router table is the ‘Spindle Moulder Handbook’ by Eric Stephenson. Iys a very easy read, full of great advise of how to use and jig up parts for use on any spindle type machine of which a router table is also part of the family.

Spindle Moulders have a fearsome reputation, so, let’s not skirt the subject. Woodworking isn’t without its risks, if we use machines most if them are capable of inflicting horrible injuries if not used properly with care and with the proper guarding, push sticks and other forms of safe practice. Spindle moulders are no different, and is used correctly I would argue present a lower risk than say a table saw. The old timers who used them would often have a few fingers missing (if they were ‘lucky’) and some would have lost hands or even their life. This is where the fear of the machine has I believe grown from. Looking back however, the working practices and tooling used was very dangerous, over time with legislation coming in and advances in tooling technology the issues that led to these horrific injuries have been mitigated.

For anyone buying a machine, one of the first ‘Deema’ rules would be ONLY buy modern safety blocks. There is lots of old tooling available on auction sites that doesn’t meet modern safety regulations, it’s fairly cheap, and for good reason! Nobody in a modern shop employing people can legally use it. It is dangerous and should be IMO only considered scrap. Now, buying brand new blocks is expensive, but modern blocks are available secondhand at a far more reasonable price. The good news is that the thrifty user will buy them when they come up on auction sites knowing full well that worst case they can sell them for roughly the same price they bought them for and best case there will be a profit when they are done with them.


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So, let’s consider what a spindle moulder actually is. Well it’s a big router table, that’s it. It’s a machine that can mould almost any shape onto a pice of wood. It does the same job as moulding planes only faster and without the need of usually several planes to achieve the final moulding shape. It can also cut tenons, scribed to allow them to fit seamlessly with moulded edges for example windows, doors, kitchen / bedroom cabinets. It can plane like a planer, it can cut rebates, grooves for drawers and almost any joint you want including mitre locks , halving joints, mitre joints as well as finger joints for gluing up panels (far more effective with self alignment and much more glue area than any other method eg biscuit or dominos.

The three most used machines typically for making furniture of any kind traditionally would be a table saw, planner thicknesser and a spindle moulder. There is very little you can’t make efficiently with these three machines.

Most ‘modern’ ( since router bits became popular) spindle moulders have the ability usually with an accessory to mount router bits and use them. Your usually limited to bits than have a minimum speed requirement around the 10,000 RPM, which is usually the top speed of any spindle. So, if you’re making stuff that needs very small parts, that you want to use small diameter router bits, this is not the machine for you. I’d also argue that small parts of this nature are not good candidates for a router table either…..well if you value your fingers anyway!
 
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It soon becomes apparent that 2 things are paramount and sought after when machining. 1 accuracy 2 finish. People can go to great lengths to improve these things. The spindle can provide an immediate boost in both areas all whilst feeling safe and with good capacity and good dust extraction. What's not to love. The alternatives say router tables and table saws are inferior on many levels but mostly the above mentioned 2.
 
Spindle moulders are excellent and superior to a router table in most respects though I still think you need both in the workshop.
If I could only have one it would be the moulder every time.
A power feed is essential and a ring fence is very useful as well.
I have the book shown above and it is pretty comprehensive, unlike an American "Shaper" book I bought which could be described as actually dangerous.

The only problem with a spindle moulder is only having one, ideally I would like 2 and a tenoner for maximum efficiency and minimum faffing about.

Ollie
 
Let’s consider the Spindle machine itself, what makes a good industrial spindle and what compromises does say a hobby grade machine have.
Probably the first thing that would strike you about an industrial machine is its shear weight. Commercial machines are heavy, where as lots of hobby machines are light, and like to extol as a virtue how easy it is to move around a workshop.

So with very deep pockets you can get a Panhans weighing in at circa 880kg



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Or say a Charnwood W30 at 95KG
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There is a reason why commercial machines are heavy, mass reduces vibration and the harmonics of the vibration. Vibration is the enemy, it leads to a lower quality finished surface after machining requiring more post work, ie sanding. Sanding is bad, there is a lot of risk that ‘poor’ sanding technique, or indeed lots of good quality sanding will change the profile sufficiently that in the case of joints you end up with sloppy fit and finishes. So, does that mean that hobby machines aren’t with the money? No, it just means there may be a little more time to get the same level of result as a heavier machine. When considering a machine I would always advise getting the heaviest you can manage.

To make a machine light usually results in the use of lots of aluminium, which also has the advantage that many parts can be extruded, stamped or pressed making them much cheaper and easier to make than cast iron. Cast iron is the choice of quality machine tools, you will find at the heart of any good quality metal working machine for instance a cast iron frame. Cast iron is probably the best material for absorbing vibration, if you tap it, at best you get a very dull note. Aluminium on the other hand positively ‘rings’ in comparison like a bell. It’s a very poor choice of materials for reducing vibration. It also doesn’t wear as well as cast iron. So, aluminium fences and beds will wear faster than cast iron. That said, most hobby wood workers won’t put through the machine enough wood to cause problems.
 
Next to think about is the power house. How big is the motor! Most commercial machines will have say 7.5KW motors in them, where as single phase machines are limited to 3KW. The more powerful the motor the better the cut quality will be. Each time the cutters hit the wood it tries to stall the machine, a larger motor develops more torque to resist this stopping creating a smoother cut. It also means that the depth of cut and size of moulding achievable in one pass is greater than a smaller motor. That said, a 3KW single phase machine is hugely capable, more than adequate for just about anything apart from full production. It’s very rare for a 3KW machine to be operating at the full capacity of the motor, things your likely to be doing won’t need this. You’d have to be cutting very hard woods with large scale cutters taking the whole cut in one bite for the effect of lower power to be seen.

One nice thing about spindles is that modern machines are all braked. In other words the spindle stops in less than 10 seconds. A lot of the heavy duty old iron machines also had manual brakes in them. An excellent safety feature you won't find on ANY routers that are all unbraked. In fact I believe it’s actually illegal to sell in the UK a router table with a router inserted as this would require it to be braked. An interesting conundrum for those selling router lifts, tables etc…..I have queried a couple of well known retailers of such devices about the ethics of selling this stuff…they didn’t reply! but the smoking gun remains should they get sued following an injury.

So, what should yoi buy? Well I’d recommend a 3KW machine, or a 2.2KW machine but nothing any smaller. Clearly it’s preferable for it to be braked, however, if you’re working alone without employees it’s not a requirement. Brakes on machines became a requirement following a study of injuries that found that many were caused by fingers trying to change cutters etc before the spindle had fully stopped. Large heavy blocks can take a while to slow down without a brake. Personally I’d only buy a machine with some form of brake.
 
Speed control.
I think all spindle moulders use some form of belt and pulleys to change the speeds of rotation. Belt and pulleys allows the motor to spin at its optimum speed, this means that the maximum torque is available to the spindle. Any form of speed regulation by varying the power input reduces the torque available from the motor. So, for instance a variable speed router will produce less torque as you reduce the speed. This is exactly opposite what you want. You need to reduce the speed as the diameter of the cutter increases, the larger the cutter the more power you need. As you reduce the rotation speed of the motor, the internal losses inside the motor increase causing it to heat up, reducing its life. The biggest danger is that a the motor can stall completely, in which case the motor sees a short circuit and can without some form of protection catch fire! Routers are a very poor solution for driving large cutters in a router table.

Spindles usually have one of two main types of belt. The older and lower end machines typically will have V belt drive and the larger higher end machines will use some form of flat belt. Does it matter? Not really! Flat belts transfer power more efficiently than V belts. However for anything other than commercial usage it’s not really an issue to be concerned about……despite what the marketing geeks try to convince everyone about….

Motors are usually easily accessible, foot mounted and easily changed if necessary, below is the Felder 45 arrangement. This has a flat belt and 5 speed ranges. 4 or 5 selectable speed ranges is typical on virtually all spindle moulders.

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Spindle speed doesn’t need to be infinitely variable, you will need to change the speed depending on the diameter of the block that houses the cutters that you’re using. I have to say, about 90% of the time my spindle stays in the same speed. Higher specification machines often have automatic speed change with indication of what speed the spindle is set in. I have to say personally I’d avoid this type of feature…..just more to go wrong with IMO no real benefit. I can change my spindle speed in about 5 mins.
 
The most versatile machine in the woodworking world, there is not much a skilled craftsman could not achieve with a vertical spindle moulder and it's been the backbone of the woodworking industry for decades. Recent advances in health and safety have made the spindle moulder far safer to use than it was previously when it gained a dreadful reputation for inflicting horrendous injuries largely due to poor practices, it's now relatively rare to hear of spindle moulder accidents when back in the '50s through to the '80s it was a very common occurrence but that can also be coupled with the fact the industry has shrunk significantly since those years. I myself worked for a company of over seven hundred employees as a wood machinist, I very much doubt there are many companies in the woodworking industry with more than a hundred employed these days.

Eric Stephenson's book is certainly the definitive tome on the subject, but for those looking for a copy the older version from the 1980s is a better book than the modern ones as a surprising amount has been removed over the years. Of course, a lot of what's been removed is largely obsolete and dangerous methods of work that would not conform to PUWER '98, so if you're not interested in that go for the newer edition.
 
Spindle diameter.

There are two main spindle diameters used, 30mm and 1 1/4”. Typically older machines have 1 1/4” spindles and modern machines use 30mm (except for large spindles that can have 1 1/4”, 32, 35, 40 or 50mm) For practical purposes 30 and 1 1/4” are the most common with the others being rare.
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The spindle is the drive shaft that turns the cutters, the larger the diameter the more rigid it is and the better the cut quality it will produce. 30mm spindles are these days far more common that 1 1/4”, and spindles with 1 1/4” typically are cheaper secondhand than those with 30mm which is weird! The larger the diameter the better! Equally 1 1/4” tooling is just as easy to get brand new as 30mm and secondhand 1 1/4” tooling is typically cheaper than 30mm. There are spindles out there with smaller diameter spindles than 30mm, which I personally would avoid. Tooling isn’t really available and they are really a compromise yoi just don’t need to worry about. Which would I buy? Either, I really don’t care, for a number of reasons

1. Most spindles can be removed / have a final drive shaft that’s interchangeable. So often you can get a different diameter off the shelf. Equakky a machine shop can easily turn down a 1 1/4” spindle to be a 30mm!

2. Tooling is readily available for either diameter, usually with no price penalty.

3. The rigidity difference is so small between the two that it makes no practical difference.


Let’s consider and contrast the spindle moulder drive shaft against a router cutter in a router table, the maximum router shaft diameter is 1/2” which has a cross sectional area of (pi r2) ~127mm2. A 30mm spindle has a cross sectional area of ~706mm2. The stiffness difference between the two is massive. Equally if the cutter hits something very hard the spindle isn’t going to break, where are router bits are known to break. The bearings is a router are ‘skate board wheel’ size where as in a spindle moulder they are huge. From a safety, quality of cut, longevity of use a spindle beats a router table setup by a mile.
 
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Spindle Options.

I was trying to think of a good titled to describe this section, but failed…..then a member messaged a suggested which is what I now have…..thank you. I would always recommend buying a spindle with an interchangeable spindle. This allows for a number of options. Probably one feature that exists on most modern spindles includ8ng hobby spindles is the ability to mount router cutters within them.
The photo is of a SCM MiniMax adaptor.

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Some also have spindle sander options like the Charnwood.


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There is a reason why commercial machines are heavy, mass reduces vibration and the harmonics of the vibration. Vibration is the enemy, it leads to a lower quality finished surface after machining requiring more post work,
Ok so vibration is bad which is the same for the router table and also thinking about it the camera on a tripod but the washing machine sprung to mind, here they use a concrete mass to control vibration so what if your lighter weight machine has space in the caninet for some extra mass, it would not be hard to use concrete blocks if there is space which must help, thoughts ?
 
Reversible Spindle.
Most hobby and lower end machines will only spin the cutters in one direction. The higher end machines offer the ability to reverse the direction of rotation. This is a feature you will only find on a spindle moulder and isn’t available on a router. What’s the benefit? Well, it’s actually fairly limited, and I can think of only three situations where it’s of benefit.

1. When machining a circle or arch you can climb cut from either end avoiding spelsh as you exit. However, this can be overcome in most cases.

2. It can allow the cutter to remain under the work when reversing blades rather than having to cut from the too which is safer.

3. You can climb cut with a power feed for improved surface finish……not to be advised….in fact I would never advise doing it as it’s dangerous!
 
Tilting Spindles.
This is a feature you find on mid to high end machines. Literally the spindle can be tilted typically backwards 45 degrees and usually up to 10 degrees forward. This is a simply brilliant option and feature, it adds complexity to the machine and needs a robustly built machine to avoid issues of rigidity affecting the cut. Why would you want it? Well let’s take the example of a chamfer, with a single strait edge cutter you can cut just about any angle you want. You can tilt any cutter to produce cuts and shapes that a straight spindle simply can’t. It really comes int9 it’s won when trying to match a profile without having to invest in dedicated cutters us8ng what you already have.

My spindle doesn’t have this feature, I can’t say I really miss not having it, as there are ways around it.


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Ok so vibration is bad which is the same for the router table and also thinking about it the camera on a tripod but the washing machine sprung to mind, here they use a concrete mass to control vibration so what if your lighter weight machine has space in the caninet for some extra mass, it would not be hard to use concrete blocks if there is space which must help, thoughts ?
Interesting idea, I would say it would have a very limited affect, but I might be wrong. When comparing machines you will see that the heavier machines have everything beefed up. That includes all aspects of the spindle mechanism itself as well as the cabinet that supports everything. You want to stop vibration starting as opposed to damp it out.
 
Fences

A spindle has two fences, one either side of the cutter. These can be moved in and out to minimise the gap around the cutter. Usually one or both fences can be moved forward and back Independant of the other as well as both together moving to vary the depth of cut.

A spindle moulder fence will be larger, taller and far more robust than that found even in the top end router tables. For curved work, a spindle will use a special fence (ring fence) that makes cuts far safer than just a top or bottom bearing on a router cutter. This minimises the exposed blade as well as providing a proper lead in and lead out that stops parts being snatched and is a common cause of injury.

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Thanks for this Deema
I have a Sedgwick SM3, fairly old machine but it will see me out. Quite a revelation when I first got it as to what I could do on it, wonderful for grooving or rebating. I never lashed out on a powered drive and get along just fine.
The cutters are held in place on two pins which even if the main tightening wedge comes loose prevents the cutters flying across the room - and that’s if you’re lucky!
I really can’t imagine using the ancient blocks without this feature, it must have been really frightening.
Anyone thinking of going down the spindle route should be aware that the cost of the machine is only the start, as blocks and cutters are expensive, as Deema says second hand can save you a lot.
Ian
 
Thanks for this Deema
I have a Sedgwick SM3, fairly old machine but it will see me out. Quite a revelation when I first got it as to what I could do on it, wonderful for grooving or rebating. I never lashed out on a powered drive and get along just fine.
The cutters are held in place on two pins which even if the main tightening wedge comes loose prevents the cutters flying across the room - and that’s if you’re lucky!
I really can’t imagine using the ancient blocks without this feature, it must have been really frightening.
The really dangerous ones were the square blocks with blades bolted on to the outside. Then the various forms of french cutters, but these tended to be small and relatively safer.
They were abandoned in favour of Whitehill blocks, without pins, which were the safety blocks of the day, and many of them are still in use. They make the spindle very cheap to use as they hold all shapes and sizes of shop made or modified cutters. Cheaper to equip than a router in fact, but do demand a level of skill and experience.
Biggest danger with the later unpinned blocks is not the loss of cutters but the familiar story of getting hands too close. Push sticks or power feed essential. Ditto with the modern pinned safety blocks though they'll give you a shallower cut in theory, thanks to "limiters". But push sticks plus guarding, or power feed, make cuts very unlikely in the first place and should be top priority with one or the other always used
I had a cutter come loose once - somebody else had left it un-tightened. It dug itself into the workpiece and broke into several pieces. Would have done much the same of it has been a modern safety cutter. In fact they tend to break across the line of the pin holes. The days of the flying cutters coming off square blocks are long gone
Anyone thinking of going down the spindle route should be aware that the cost of the machine is only the start, as blocks and cutters are expensive, as Deema says second hand can save you a lot.
Ian
 
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In fact they tend to break across the line of the pin holes.

Please do not talk completely made up nonsense, they do not “tend to break across the line of the pinholes” because there’s no way for them to break there when the cutter is mounted in the cutterblock sandwiched between the clamping face and the gib. The only place they can potentially break is along the edge of the block’s rim and outwards. Even so, high speed steel cutters very rarely break and this typically only happens in the event of a crash involving the steel fence plates on the moulder.
 
Please do not talk completely made up nonsense, they do not “tend to break across the line of the pinholes”
They can if they are badly fitted and loose, which is my point. I have several samples in my collection - other peoples cast offs that is, I've only ever had one break myself, see above.
 
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