Tailstock Center: Laser Alignment Thereof

Laser spot on tailstock center
Laser spot on tailstock center

I finally made a test bar to line up the (vertically mounted) rotary table and tailstock on the Sherline milling machine. It’s a ground-and-polished 0.500-inch rod from a defunct HP2000C inkjet printer; the print head zipped back and forth along the rod while printing, so you know it’s pretty smooth. You could probably salvage something similar from any dead inkjet printer.

Making the bar is simple: saw off a suitable length, stick it in the lathe, face off the end, chamfer the edge, poke a center drill into it, and it’s all good.

If you’re a tool-and-die jig-boring high-precision kind of machinist, you better stop reading right about now before you catch a heart attack.

Lining the bar up is almost trivially easy with a laser spot coming down the spindle bore. Move the table so the spot grazes the side of the bar and casts a shadow on the table, jog X to the other end of the bar, and tweak the angle for the same picture on the table.

Repeat until satisfied.

The trouble comes at the tailstock end, where the ram extends about 1.5 inches, tops. That’s good enough for the Sherline, but it also means the test bar must be pretty close to the length of whatever you’ll be machining, rather than as long as possible to get the best alignment.

However, after you get Sherline tailstock aligned to the end of the bar, vertically, horizontally, and angularly, the magic happens

The ram is quite stable, with very little radial play, so the point moves along the X axis (assuming you did a good job aligning the tailstock). Retract the ram a bit, jog X and Y to put the laser spot on the tip of the center (which should correspond to the Y axis coordinate of the center of the bar), and you’ll see a defocused spot on the table (I put a white card on the table to improve the contrast). Jog Z until there’s a nice triangular image of the dead center’s point in that bright round spot.

It turns out that the laser beam in the top picture is about 10 mils wide at the dead center axis, so you can easily see a difference of 1 mil in the Y coordinate. That’s perfectly accurate for the sort of work I do.

Now, remove the test bar, unclamp the tailstock, move it to wherever you need it for the actual thing-to-be-made, snug it down, and jog the table in X (only!) to move the spot over there, too. Move the tailstock around to align the image of the center point in the middle of the laser spot again and you can be sure it’s aligned to the same Y coordinate. Verify that the tailstock has the same angular alignment. Mine is consistent with the T-nuts pressed against the front of the table slots and it’s easy to slide it carefully along the Y axis to get the point in the spot.

Because the bar was parallel to the X axis to start with, the point is now aligned with the axis of the rotary table.

Laser spot focused on tip
Laser spot focused on tip

The minimum spot size depends on the beam width and the lens, but it turns out that for my setup, twiddling the Z position of the lens can shrink the spot down to essentially the width of the dead center point. As nearly as I can tell, the beam width is 3 mils and the point pretty much occludes the beam when it’s properly aligned.

The picture shows that situation; the spot is half-occluded because the point now looks like the side of a barn. It’s difficult to tell, but the lens (on the brass snout in the endmill holder) is lower in this picture.

All that jogging, particularly creeping up on the proper alignment, goes much easier with a joggy thing!