Radically Cheap: The Story of Pat Delany, Open Source Machine Tools Advocate

Radically Cheap: The Story of Pat Delany, Open Source Machine Tools Advocate


The ex-rancher felt empathy push his problem-solving mind into a new direction. He looked back at all those years he had tinkered with junk-built machine tools in his workshop — all that time spent poring over scans of antique how-to magazines looking for clever hacks to avoid having to buy new tools. It was fun and sometimes necessary for me, he thought, but what I’ve created here can also help many people.

This is the story of Pat Delany, one of the leading creative voices in Appropriate Technology — technology that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled. This 78-year-old grandfather came to the field as an outsider, inspired by a second-hand description of a news photo. But his visionary home-built machine-tool designs now have the potential to help millions bootstrap themselves out of poverty. Delany never had much money himself, or any formal engineering education, but his personal quest to develop open-source DIY machine tools has been embraced and spread by Appropriate Technology’s conference-hopping, grant-getting establishment.

Delany had worked with machines for his entire life and built many machines for himself. Back in the 1950s he paid his way through Tulane as an industrial electrician and then continued as an electrician in New Orleans. Working at the Jackson Brewery when it shut down in 1973, he followed an opportunity to move to Palestine, Texas and raise cattle, which he did until the sector crashed in 1982.

With his last $525, he started an oil and gas information service, Rigmatch Information, which originally ran via dialup on his son’s RadioShack Model 1 computer. A nearby lightning strike fried the computer, so he bought more than 30 replacements for $10 each at a RadioShack company sale. After many thunderstorm seasons, he finally ran out of these “servers” just as the worldwide web came along. By economic necessity, Delany worked on Rigmatch well into his 70s; only recently did his 39-year-old son Mike finish taking over the business. (The family also includes wife Clarissa, sons Stratton and Colin, daughter Megan, and seven grandchildren.)


The MultiMachine

About 13 years ago, Delany decided to build himself a horizontal milling machine on the cheap. He was stuck on finding the right parts until he came across the article “Build the ‘Engine Mill’” by G. A. Ewen, in an issue of Machinist’s Workshop. Ewen’s handy little DIY mill was built from a four-cylinder car engine block — a solid chunk of metal that’s sourceable from any junkyard — but has the strength, weight, and precise geometry to make an ideal frame for a small machine tool. As Delany explains in the documentation for his now-famous project, “cylinder bores are bored parallel to each other and at exact right angles to the cylinder head surface.”

Delany expanded on Ewen’s engine block idea to create an all-purpose metalworking station that he called the MultiMachine. It’s a creative mashup of old designs, new ideas, and cheaply available parts that functions as a combination lathe, mill, and drill press. Delany has used it to resurface a neighbor’s brake rotors, among other things. Naturally, he continued experimenting with the MultiMachine and improving it after he first got it working. He put a chop saw blade on the spindle, for example, and found that it also makes a great saw.

Making a MultiMachine

M37 Pat Delany Multimachine figure

Delany’s MultiMachine is built on two engine blocks. The six-cylinder block in back (A) uses one bore to hold the mill’s spindle (B) and another above it to hold an overarm (C), which extends out to hold a tailstock for using the machine as a lathe. The block is held up on a wheeled engine stand (D). Driving the spindle, and mounted around it, are a fast motor, a slow motor, and three pulley clusters (E), all of which allow the user to run the spindle at a range of speeds and torques by swapping belts around. These drivetrain components are bolted to existing mounting holes on the block, like for the oil filter or to angle iron brackets (F) bolted to new holes drilled and tapped in the block. The spindle itself is just a piece of pipe that rotates inside bearings salvaged from a car differential.

Key to his design is what he calls the “adjuster,” a small ring around the spindle that acts like a bike axle ball bearing adjuster. A variety of tools — like a lathe chuck, end or horizontal mill, drill, saw with blade up to 14″, grinding wheel, sanding discs — can be attached to the end of the spindle, enabling the MultiMachine to do virtually all metalworking operations. The overarm can be replaced with a shaper or slotter.

The worktable (G) is a metal plate bolted flat atop a four-cylinder engine block (H) that sits beside the main block. Each block has a vertical plate bolted to each side (I), and these pairs of plates interlock and serve as a slide mechanism that lets the work surface be raised and lowered by an automotive jack that supports the lower block. After you jack the table, you keep it in place by clamping the vertical plates together. And by applying a bit of jack pressure, releasing the clamps, and tapping the lower block with a hammer, you can raise the table just a few ten-thousandths of an inch, a level of precision that Delany calls “amazingly repeatable.”

Lost Wisdom

Developing the MultiMachine, Delany drew from an overlooked source of high-quality practical knowledge that is now his hallmark: how-to articles and books from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Numerous maker publications flourished during this time span, to serve a handy population with limited product options. Many of these books were reprinted by Lindsay’s Technical Books, which advertises in the back of hobbyist publications. “Lindsay is a cranky old man like me,” Delany remarks. “Several of my best ideas came just from his ads. I could never afford to buy most of his books.“

More, Google Books has published full-scan archives of old Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and The Mechanics’ Magazine, and archives of other titles exist elsewhere online. Delany’s MultiMachine plans include a DIY design from an 1925 issue of Popular Mechanics for a hand-cranked cross-slide to move workpieces across the table (although his own machine uses a commercial version). The plans also show how to make a cutting point for lathing from a broken drill bit (Popular Mechanics, 1925); how to make a chuck from an engine flywheel (Machinery Magazine, 1916); and how to cut screw threads without a lathe or die by using a stretched spring as a master (Scientific American, 1910).

Unfortunately, Delany also had an accident while building his MultiMachine. The suspended engine block came loose and knocked him through a window, seriously injuring his back. Now he describes himself as “a crippled inventor guy — the kind that rides a scooter in the supermarket.”

The Photograph

Around the same time that Delany suffered his back injury, a friend told him about the fateful photograph, which showed a missionary with a farmworker in the developing world. The farmworker held a machete with a blade that looked only about 4″ or 5″ long, and Delany’s heart went out to him for having to rely on such a meager tool. As an inventor with a lifetime of practical machine experience, he realized that he wanted to help.

Old car parts and scrap metal are available in much of the developing world, and if you build your own practical machine tool, then you will know exactly how to use, modify, and fix it. A MultiMachine outfitted with a chop saw blade and a grinding wheel could turn car leaf springs, or even body panels, into ample and effective machete blades for farmers everywhere. Even if you make just $2 a day, you can use the machine to start your own business and to make more tools, empowering yourself and your community.

And so, from his home in Texas, Delany entered the world of Appropriate Technology. He tried contacting dozens of large nongovernmental organizations involved in development work, as well as some university engineering departments in Texas, to tell them about the MultiMachine and its potential for the developing world. Even the simplest version of his machine, he noted, can resurface brakes and clutches, a job that needs doing anywhere there are cars. But Delany‘s front-door knocking proved unfruitful. “The NGO people had no interest in anything technical, and the university people seemed to be inflicted with ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome,” he recalls.

Open-Source Hardware

Having struck out finding institutional backing, Delany went the DIY route. He started a MultiMachine Yahoo Group in 2004 to collaborate on open-source machine plans, and it started to gain a following. Many others, in a broad range of ages, also wanted to build their own radically cheap machine tools and help marginalized communities around the world free themselves from poverty and dependence. He was encouraged to pursue his vision. In one forum thread from April 2005, Delany responded to a message from member George Ewen by writing:

It’s strange, but at my advanced age I realize that machine tools are about all that I believe in. The lathe, shaper, and mill built the foundation of our current standard of living and there is no reason why a cheap and easy-to-build multipurpose tool could not help the 500 million people that need simple water pumps or the billion people who live on a dollar a day or less. Thanks for getting a crazy old man started.

He also sees great empowerment potential for DIY metal casting, which he has tried in his backyard. Build a charcoal fire, intensify it with a blower (Pat used a Shop-Vac), and you can melt common zinc-aluminum alloys such as ZA-12 and ZA-27 in a steel pot. Pour into a wet sand mold, and your castings will be easy to machine and nearly as strong as cast iron. With a simple metal casting setup, a MultiMachine, and access to scrap metal, Delany notes, you can do an enormous range of useful metalwork.

The Machine Goes Wide

From 2005-2007, Delany’s MultiMachine project and online forum continued to gain attention and activity, with surges following coverage on the MAKE and Boing Boing sites and in Popular Mechanics. In 2007, he demonstrated the machine at Maker Faire Austin, and when he learned that the first Maker Faire Africa was being planned for August 2009 in Accra, Ghana, he decided to exhibit it there as well. “My only goal is to get the word out,” he explains, “and I’m willing to bankrupt myself buying plane tickets.”

There he met Noha El-Ghobashy, president of Engineering for Change (E4C), an online forum that enables formally trained engineers and makers to collaborate with NGOs, community advocates, and others on development challenges. “I found Pat to be a bit of an anomaly, given the other kinds of people there,” El-Ghobashy recalls, “but it was so fascinating how he uses 19th century technology to address current global needs.”

In the Appropriate Technology mainstream, no one was doing what Delany was doing, poring through antique books and magazines and trying out the ideas. But it was a valuable approach, so El-Ghobashy invited him to become one of the early members and contributors to E4C and also asked E4C’s main writer Rob Goodier to keep up with and report on Delany’s projects. “Engineers tend not to be the best communicators or marketers of their work,” El-Ghobashy explains, “Pat uploaded his work to our site, but it needed a push to get the word out.”

concrete lathe

The Concrete Lathe

In the meantime, Delany had been recognizing the limits of his original MultiMachine. It could work as a lathe for smaller work pieces, but it was neither big or powerful enough to bootstrap a factory, nor could it be controlled to reliably cut screw threads, which requires a point to engage with an advancing rod repeatedly in exactly the same place. “The metal lathe is the most necessary tool for industrial development,” he explains. “It makes everything that’s round, it makes the rollers that make everything flat, and you can use it as a milling machine to make fancy shapes. It all comes back to the lathe.”

He had spent years looking for a way to make a large, high-speed lathe out of scrap parts that would be stable, accurate, and hard to throw out of alignment. Finally, he found a clue: a single paragraph in a 1923 issue of Popular Mechanics that described concrete-body machine tools used for World War I. One of them was a 10-ton monster lathe that was used to shape artillery shells.

Concrete seemed like a great, inexpensive material for making solid machine tools, but it shrinks as it hardens, which would throw off the alignment of anything that’s anchored to it. So, how did the WWI armament factories do it? Delany searched for two years for more specific information about how the concrete lathe was built. Finally, MultiMachine forum member Shannon DeWolfe found the answer in a 1916 article in Machinery magazine, which described a concrete-body lathe in which the precision parts were held in alignment by casting them in poured molten metal. Delany updated engineer Lucien Yeomans’ 1915 lathe technique by using PVC pipe to create spaces in the concrete for fitting the metal parts and securing them in place with non-shrinking cement grout instead of metal.

But now, Delany’s back injury prevents him from being able to build his dream machine, which is enormously frustrating for him. He still has a lifetime of machine knowledge in his head, however, and a capable following online, so he’s done what he can to enlist others in supporting the potentially world-transforming project. You too can help.

+The $150, 12″ Swing, Metal Lathe/Mill/Drill Project

+Get involved at opensourcemachinetools.com

This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 37, page 24.

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Paul Spinrad is a broad-spectrum enthusiast, writer, maker, and dad who lives in San Francisco. He hatches schemes at http://investian.com.

View more articles by Paul Spinrad


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