Book Review: Machine Shop Trade Secrets

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Machine Shop Trade Secrets 01/19/05

During the recent holiday period, I had some time to do some things I had been wanting to do for a long while. High on my list was digging into the newest book in my collection: Machine Shop Trade Secrets by James A. Harvey (MSTS from here on). I had heard about this book on another web site and had seen it listed in the Books section at,   and I was happy to have some time to spend reading it for myself. 

Machine Shop Trade Secrets

Now, this is not a book that you're likely to sit down and read in one, or even a few, sittings. It's really a compendium of tips: ingenious techniques and solutions picked up and figured out over James' lifetime career as a machinist and injection mold maker. If you were lucky enough to work elbow to elbow with some experienced machinists (who also happened to have the inclination and the ability to teach) you might pick up, on the job,  a lot of what's in this book. Then again, you might not. Now you can learn it at your own pace,  in the comfort, as we like to say, of your own home or shop. If you later need a refresher on what you learned, you can go back and read it again.

James writes in a relaxed and comfortable style - not unlike Guy Lautard, who wrote the Machinist's Bedside Reader series. If you don't own those, you'd better go out and get 'em along with James' book and a few videos by Jose' Rodriguez. All three of these guys can teach you a whole lot of good stuff without you even feeling a little bit like you're trapped in a classroom. Like the Bedside Readers, MSTS is a great book to peruse a few pages at a time, on the bus, at the doctor's office or any other situation where you can put otherwise lost time to productive use.

A picture, as we know, is worth a thousand words, and MSTS is chock-full of high-quality photos to illustrate whatever is being described in the text.  Nearly every page has one or more photos, and there are some things that are really obvious from a photo that would be hard to describe in words.

I'm gonna digress a little here, but the other day a reader of emailed me some questions about a problem he was trying to solve. He sent me a link to some pictures, but I couldn't get the link to work. He also described in words what he was trying to do, and I did my best to visualize the problem and think about solutions. A day later, this same fellow sent me a link that worked.

Once I saw the photos, I realized that what I had imagined from his verbal description was very different from the actual situation,   yet his words accurately described both his reality and my imagined concept. Therein lies the gold-mine value of photos and illustrations: Seeing is understanding.

Amateur or Professional?

Fact is, the target reader for MSTS is the professional machinist. The apprentice or journeyman machinist will find a lot of value here, and even the master machinist will probably find a few "well, I never thought of that" ideas.

Many of the machines and techniques described are unlikely to be directly applicable to the home workshop. Even so, I found it all to be enjoyable reading and learned a lot of new stuff about how the pros tackle a problem. Some sections of the book, such as 3 1/2 pages in Chapter 8, devoted to knurling, are every bit as valuable for the hobbyist as for the pro.

Some Examples

Let's dig into the book and look at a few samples of what you'll find. 

For the professional, time truly is money. With this in mind, James starts the book with a chapter titled Work Fast. This chapter is a collection of time-saving tips that help you to move the job along and on to the customer. Here's an example:

Use Stub Drills

Anytime you can drill a hole without first center drilling; you simply save whatever time it would have taken to do that center drilling. Normally, a high percentage of holes in parts are simply clearance holes used for bolting parts together. Clearance holes usually are anywhere from .015" to .030" larger than bolt diameter.

If you know you're going to be drilling clearance holes or other non-critical holes then you can use stub drills without center drilling. Even if the stub drill runs out a little bit as you start a hole, you'll probably have enough tolerance on a clearance hole so that it won't matter.

We all know that fast can be good when you're working against the clock to earn a living, but we also know that going too fast can lead to mistakes, and mistakes cost time and may also cost expensive materials and even personal injury. Thus, the second chapter is titled Get it Right. This balance of speed and efficiency while maintaining safety and accuracy is a continuing theme throughout the book. James will teach you some neat tricks that will save you time, without sacrificing quality or safety. Here's a tip from Chapter 2:

Use digital calipers instead of dial calipers

Once the gears skip in your dial calipers and you get an incorrect reading, you'll never fully trust them again. At least I don't.

Chapter 10, Rotary Table Magic, is a another good example of content that can be of as much value to the amateur as the professional. James explains a procedure to ensure that a part to be machined and the rotary table (RT) are both properly aligned with the milling machine spindle.

Chapter 13, Mold Making Tips, is clearly one of those subjects that a professional machinist is more likely to relate to than the amateur.  It starts out with the admonition:

Mothers, don't let your sons grow up to be mold makers

That should give you a good idea of some of the challenges that the pros face in this demanding specialty. Yet, while it is extremely unlikely that I will ever machine an injection mold, at one time I was considering having one made for an item I had hoped to mass produce. I found this chapter interesting because it helped me to understand more about what goes into this type of work. Perhaps the most valuable thing I got from the chapter was from a photograph; an idea that was new to me: mounting a dial test indicator on a surface gage. I've had a surface gage for many years but have only used it for scribing layout lines. I never thought of using it to hold a dial test indicator. This is typical of the nuggets of shop techniques that you will mine from the book.


While MSTS would not be the first book I would recommend for a newcomer to machining, I would definitely recommend it to any amateur machinist who aspires to learn new and better ways of doing things - or just enjoys, as I do, learning how the pros tackle a problem. I don't know any professional machinists, but if I did, I would certainly recommend MSTS to them. Applying just two or three of the things you will learn will easily justify the cost of this book.

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