Shopsmith Mk5


  • Shopsmith Mk5

    Review of my used Shopsmith MK5 model 500

    No Kool-Aid

    I owned a shop-full of pretty decent individual tools when I had the opportunity to buy a like-new Shopsmith MK5 for $250. Since I was looking at buying a Midi Lathe in this price range, it seemed like a good option.

    I am pleased with my purchase. I have noticed that some people have "drank the Kool-Aid" and are a bit scary in their enthusiasm for the tool (similar to some Mac/Linux users and Amway sellers I have known). This is not really surprising, because anytime you have sunk that much money and time and pride into anything, you kinda have to convince yourself (and others) how wonderful it is.

    Those that don't fall into this group seem to unfairly dismiss the tool based mostly on it's capability as a Table Saw, its (new) purchase price and the setup required between operations.

    My goal is to document my own experiences, avoiding the emotional baggage.

    I'll start with the summary: I feel that a used Shopsmith in good condition would be a fantastic starting place for someone just fitting out their shop - especially if space is a concern. If the buyer goes into it expecting they will someday want to buy a dedicated table saw, they will likely be very satisfied with their purchase. On the other hand, if you are actually trying to decide between buying a Shopsmith or a large shop's worth of stationary tools, the Shopsmith may leave you wanting.

    I see lots of negative comments about set-up, mostly from non-Shopsmith owners. I'd like to put it into perspective. If you currently work in a large shop where you have a full range of woodworking tools permanently mounted, just sitting there waiting for you to use them - the Shopsmith will drive you crazy. On the other hand, if like me, you have limited space and your only other option is to have your large tools on wheels and your smaller tools on shelves, you already deal with quite a bit of set-up. I don't see the Shopsmith as being any worse. Heck, it takes me a lot more time to change the jaws on my Oneway Talon Chuck than it does to go from Lathe to Drill Press mode and back! So, while setup is a factor to consider, I'd recommend keeping it in perspective.

    One other consideration: Made in America - Dayton, Ohio to be precise. It may be very important to you or of no concern at all, but it is worth knowing.

    Shopsmith as a TableSaw

    I'll start off by losing all credibility... I have never used my Shopsmith as a table saw. I probably never will. I have a dedicated table saw that I love with the sort of irrational emotion that I previously accused other's of falling prey to. I know it. I admit it. I am OK with it. My saw is the Craftsman 21829. It is basically the much loved/maligned Ryobi BT3000/BT3100 updated with an amazing folding stand and some other nice upgrades. It is a very precise and capable saw that folds to a tiny rolling 2'x2' footprint, which makes it a great partner to the Shopsmith.

    The weaknesses of the Shopsmith as a tablesaw include low power, small work table (in the basic model 500) and the table tilts, not the blade.

    With that said, I'll make this casual observation: The Shopsmith table saw appears to be AT LEAST as useful as the sub-$250 table saws that I see sold in the home improvement stores every day. A beginning woodworker will be able to build lots of nice stuff while saving for a dedicated table saw. In the meantime (and after!) they will also have a large lathe, drill press, horizontal boring machine and disk sander. Eventually, you might end up leaving the Shopsmith set-up with a dado blade or other special purpose blade.

    Shopsmith as a lathe

    The ShopSmith is an interesting combination of features that on paper seem to stack up well against lathes that fall into the Heavy Duty (or "standard") category:
    • 16-1/2 inch swing
    • 34 inches between centers
    • Variable Speed 700 - 5200 rpm
    • 1-1/8th HP

    The reality is that size-wise it might match up well, it is simply too light-weight to compete in this class. When turning large bowls, the more mass the lathe has the better.

    Also, most of these lathes have a 1-1/2 - 2HP motor. Keep in mind though that these machines cost between $1500 and $3000 each. Since lightly used Shopsmiths can easily be found for $600 or less (I bought mine for $250) AND it is a multi-use tool, a fairer comparison would be the bench-top midi lathes that are increasingly popular.

    The Shopsmith falls neatly in between the two groups. It has much more power and capacity than any of the Midi lathes. Used judiciously, this can result in projects that would simply be impossible on anything other than a full-size lathe.

    The continuously adjustable speed is wonderful. All but the most expensive lathes will require either adjusting the speed manually with belt-changes, or even if they have variable speed, there are two or three speed ranges, so you still need to swap the belt when making large speed changes. With the Shopsmith, you can adjust it all the way from 700 - 5200 rpm.

    The bottom speed - 700 RPM is faster than ideal when working larger pieces. The only time this has been an issue so far for me was when roughing out a 14" bowl. It was very fast and the whole works was wobbly and scary until the blank came into balance. BUT - It would have been impossible on a Midi lathe.

    A speed reducer is available, but quite pricey. Still, you can accomplish a lot on this platform before it becomes a serious limitation. Keep comparing it to Midi-Lathes and you will likely be very happy with it.

    If you buy an older Shopsmith (pre-1984 I believe), you should consider replacing the old style one-bearing quill with the new two-bearing quill. One of the beautiful things about Shopsmiths is that you can still buy new parts - oftentimes improved - for a 50 year old unit!

    • Variable speed with no need to (ever) swap belts
    • Outstanding power and capacity (compared to Midis)

    • Somewhat noisy (but the sound is drowned out once tool touches wood)
    • Low speed (700 rpm) is a high for bowls larger than 10 inches or so
    • light weight for such a big swing
    • A little too low for best comfort. I am 5'10" and I would prefer it 2" higher.

    A speed reducer is available to bring the lowest speed down to commendable 100 RPM. I still wouldn't want to swing a heavy 16" off-balance chunk of green wood without taking steps to significantly anchor the Shopsmith.

    Some things are backward compared to most lathes. With the Shopsmith, you slide the headstock and extend the spindle, while the tailstock remains fixed. I don't know if this is better or worse - mostly I think it is just different

    I am just learning to turn, so I am no expert, but so far, the ShopSmith has easily handled everything I have thrown at it. I did add a Universal Lathe Tool Rest, which adds a good deal of flexibility and mass to the overall lathe tool.

    Shopsmith as a Drill Press

    Here again, I have some overlap. I already have a very nice heavy-duty drill press that meets just about any conceivable need. I'll review the Shopsmith drill press in a moment, but first a comment about convenience vs. space: I currently have my drill press in my shop and my first instinct is to turn to it when I have something to drill. It is more convenient because I don't have to take the three minutes to put the Shopsmith into the upright position. BUT I have a small shop and I'd like to free up the space the drill press takes, so I will probably end up storing it out in the garage and maybe even selling it. It is simply a matter of space vs convenience.

    • Variable Speed without changing belts
    • Outstanding power and capacity
    • Large, excellent table with fence
    • Very easy to use drill-depth setting.

    • Set-up

    I think a good approach might be to get the Shopsmith and if you eventually get really tired of setting it up as a drill press, buy a sub-$100 benchtop drill press that will handle 90% of your drilling needs. When you need the "Big Gun" flip the Shopsmith up and have at it.

    One additional consideration: Switching to vertical drill press mode is the most cumbersome changeover. I have found that most of the time, I can actually accomplish the "drill press" work I need to do, while leaving it horizontal. It requires a slightly different mind-set, but it is good to actually think through your processes from time to time.

    Shopsmith as a Horizontal Boring machine

    I consider this a "bonus" tool. I'd never buy one as a stand alone tool, but it is a great option to have. As mentioned above, I mostly use it this way when I can accomplish the drilling operation without going vertical. And, when I do eventually need to drill dowels I will know where to turn. It certainly is a nice option to have.

    Shopsmith as a Disk Sander

    12" disks, variable speed, and over 1 HP of power - This beats any disk sander I have ever seen in a residential shop. The work table is rock-solid and absolutely massive (for a disk sander - again, a weakness for the tablesaw is a strength with the other tools). Additionally, you can use the fence and or the miter gauge with the sander.

    Used disks are available one eBay, so you can switch to different grits in seconds.

    The only real disadvantage I see is poor dust collection. Note: Since I first wrote this, I built a dust collection box with a 4" port that provides nearly perfect dust collection and works with all three of the sanding disks that have been introduced over the years (I personally prefer the older aluminum ones because they stay true)

    The bottom line is that I doubt you would ever buy this capable of a disk sander except when it comes with the Shopsmith

    Shopsmith as a Bandsaw

    I bought a used Shopsmith 11" bandsaw and am very pleased with it. The bandsaw is limited to a resaw height of 6" but it cuts through 6" hard maple like butter. (Mmmm, I love butter and maple!) I have seen many bandsaws that can be configured for greater resaw height but lack the power to use it effectively. The Shopsmith's 1 1/8 HP motor provides plenty of grunt for the capacity

    If you are comparing it to a 14" dedicated bandsaw, it will fall short, but when compared to a 10" or 12" bandsaw, it fares much better. When you consider there are always Shopsmith bandsaws for sale on eBay and they seem to sell for an average of around $150 it becomes a compelling addition.

    Since it is my only "major" Shopsmith accessory, I leave it attached most of the time. The extra weight is helpful while using the lathe. It is easy to remove, light enough for even my bad back, and stows away in a much smaller footprint than an equivalent dedicated bandsaw.

    I am just as pleased with my bandsaw purchase as I am with the original Shopsmith purchase.

    Other Accessories

    I don't own them, but many other accessories are available. They include four major additions: 6" x 48" belt sander, 1/2" (or 1") by 42" strip sander, 12" Planer, 4" jointer. Additionally, there are many items that increase the capability of the tool, such as the speed reducer, speed increaser, biscuit joiner, universal lathe tool rest... Finally, there are the major upgrades to the 510 and 520 models that mostly add larger work tables and better fences.

    Manufacturer Support

    Rumors of Shopsmith's financial woes persist, but by all accounts, calling them for technical support results in quick and friendly help by knowledgable folks located in Dayton, Ohio. Still, they are fairly old-school in that e-mails are answered slowly and ordering parts is an exercise for the patient - it can take weeks for an order to ship. Still the fact that you can still buy parts for any Shopsmith MK 5 made in the last 50 years is remarkable. Additionally, the vast installed base means parts and accessories are widely availabile on eBay. To my knowledge, no power tool you can buy offers the same likelihood of available parts and accessories even 5 or 10 years after purchase.

    Before you put too much weight on the possibility of Shopsmith going out of business, compare this to the likelihood of your favorite tool manufacturer being bought up by a massive conglomeration and having half of its product line discontinued or "value-engineered" until they are a shadow of their former selves. Oh what's that? It already happened? Twice?

    It is also worth noting that Shopsmith has 24 video "sawdust sessions" - each around two hours long and broken into 4 to 6 topics. They feature the very capable and amiable Nick Engler. Most are very Shopsmith specific, while others would be of interest to any woodworker. They even provide a very complete video walk-through of how to bring an old Shopsmith back to life. What are the odds that Delta will ever produce and give away for free a video showing how to restore their old tablesaws?

    Overall Evaluation

    From what I have seen, the Shopsmith MK5 model 500, combines a fairly limited tablesaw, with quite good Lathe, Disk Sander, and drilling (horizontal and vertical) capabilities in a remarkably compact form. The 1 1/8 HP power plant, while undersized for a tablesaw, is outstanding for all other operations.

    Additionally, a 15 amp circuit provides more than enough current to run this tool in all configurations and every tool and accessory benefits from continuously adjustable speed.

    For those just getting started in woodworking, I think the approach of buying a used Shopsmith now and later adding a dedicated tablesaw make a great deal of sense.

    I don't want to write off the idea of buying the tool new. The cost does make it less of a no-brainer, but if saving space is important to you and you have the money and inclination to buy new, then the math may work out in the Shopsmith's favor.

    And of course, I would consider those who combine a Shopsmith MK5 with a Craftsman 21829 to be absolute geniuses!

    Update 12/22/09

    Since writing this I have added two major accesssories, a speed-reducer and the 6"x48" belt sander. I'll also respond to some of the comments made below.

    I bought the speed reducer on ebay for the purpose of turning large bowls. I have found it really useful for other tasks as well. I have used it with large forstner bits and to take the belt sander to a very slow speed. It can also be used with the bandsaw for cutting metal. It isn't something I use every day, but it is nice that one addition has found use with more than one function of the MK5.

    The Beltsander is simply wonderful. It is great having such a large sanding surface and I love the variable speed. It is so nice being able to dial in exactly the right speed that it would be very hard to go back to a single speed unit. The dust collection works pretty well and belt changes are easier than on my Hitachi combo sander.

    The cast iron miter table is very solid and can be attached in 4 different orientations. It is specifically designed with the idea of having jigs attached to it for handling large/awkward parts. The miter gauge locks into place which is very handy for ensuring work pieces stay square (or at the proper angle).

    Again, one of the beauties of the system is that for under $150 (used) I added a 6"x48" variable speed 1 1/8HP belt sander to my shop.

    Since I wrote this review, the current iteration of Shopsmith went bankrupt but was reformed under a different name (RLF Shop, LLC). It is owned by the same family and they kept the majority of their employees. By all accounts it has not affected the availability of new MK5 systems or parts. During this same time frame, Black & Decker was gobbled up by Stanley.

    There will always be uncertainty with power tools, but with Shopsmith, there are 50 years worth of (mostly) unchanged MK5s in people's garages and they even provide free videos on how to restore them. On any given day, there are 3-5 MK5s for sale in my local Craig's List, hundreds of parts on eBay and new systems and parts available direct on the website. I simply don't know of any major power tool that offers anything approaching this level of available new and used parts.

    As for "How American Made" they are, I don't know all the details. I do know that some parts are made overseas now. I own my own business and I both import and manufacture electronic devices here in the US, so I probably have more insight into the decision process than most folks. From what I understand, the company that manufactures Shopsmith is 100% privately owned by the Folkerth family and that all product design, customer service, and assembly takes place in Dayton (technically Vandalia) OH. I also know that a significant percentage of their parts are manufactured in the U.S.

    As I write this, I can't think of a well known power tool manufacturer that is more American Made than that. If you do and that is important too you, I encourage you to spend your money there.


    • dkerfoot
      dkerfoot commented
      Editing a comment
      Originally posted by tommyt654
      Thanks for the write-up. I am trying to get my fathers out of his old house to use as a lathe as well, man that suckers heavy,but on wheels and I'm having a go at it this week, How difficult is it to break down as I don't think I can get it up the stairs by myself ?
      Get a friend to help. Remove all the tables and any add ons (belt sander, bandsaw, jointer, etc) and it is a pretty easy two man move. Be sure to lock the headstock so that it doesn't slide while moving!

      If you can't get someone to help, look for a video on removing the headstock on a Shopsmith MK 5. It is easy to do, but there are a couple tricks that make it go much more smoothly. I'd personally leave the legs on but remove the headstock if it were me and I couldn't get someone to lend a hand.

    • woodturner
      woodturner commented
      Editing a comment
      Originally posted by dkerfoot
      The DVR technology used in PowerPro belongs to Teknatool. Shockingly, they did not give it to Shopsmith for free.
      Now we are arguably "splitting IP hairs". Technically, Teknatool does own the work product, per their contract with the consultant who developed what they call the DVR XP drive technology ("DVR XP drive technology Lathe to be manufactured in Qingdao , December 2006.Export to North America , Europe and 14 other countries...The Qingdao Facility will produce high-speed energy efficient intelligent spindles for a variety of OEM (Original Equipment manufacturers) Customers"). They also have also trademarked some specific terms. However, the basic Digital Variable Reluctance technology is widely used in other industries and is not unique to them or their product.

      According to their engineers, Shopsmith worked with the same consultant to develop their PowerPro drive. If they used Teknatool's trademarks, they would need a licensing agreement - but it seems they have been careful to not use those trademarked terms or reference Teknatool in any way.

      I do see that there is a lot of speculation and misinformation regarding this drive on various internet forums. Perhaps that is the source of the misunderstanding and confusion.

      I'll try out the engineering prototype Jim loaned me. I agreed to do a review for them if I like the unit, so watch for an engineering review, most likely in Machine Design, if you are interested in an engineer's report and teardown of the unit.
      Last edited by woodturner; 01-02-2013, 04:19 PM.

    • woodturner
      woodturner commented
      Editing a comment
      I did finish the review and returned the unit. The full report is available on the web or in the magazine.

      It's a decent unit, but my opinion is still that it offers minimal benefit. The mechanical sheeves in the basice Shopsmith unit work fine, and the DVR upgrade does not appreciably improve performance.
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