Powermatic Model #3520 Lathe
by Terry Cain


Powermatic Model 3529

I should start by explaining that I have been a production woodturner for twenty years. A production turner makes architectural and furniture elements on a lathe. I only say this because the last ten years or more has seen the expansion of artistic turning of bowls and vessels, sculpture really. I admire this kind of work but rarely attempt it myself. Not that I do not appreciate it, quite the contrary as I love art and consider myself an avid vessel collector mainly in the pottery realm. My job however requires turnings in a different set of rules, that being economic and timeliness as well as a quality form and finish. Different rules of production on the same machine.

At around the turn of the last millennium "speed turners" were fairly common, every mill shop had a couple. These were guys who could chuck wood, look at a drawing and make shavings fly like a snowblower. All guided by eye and a couple of caliper measurements, they would produce stairways and balconies, widows walks and gingerbread by the horse drawn truckload. The lathes were overhead lineshaft driven with wooden beds and cast iron stocks with babbit bearings needing constant oiling. The operators generally went home from work with an oil slick up one side of them and down the other and their hands callused and shiny from steadying long slender turnings by hand . I worked in a shop where there was but one of these guys left, "Fritz" was/is a good lathe man. Balusters and trim came out of his area of the shop smooth and perfect, all with just a skew. It was here I learned that the lathe was a necessity for a complete millworking shop and that it required a good many years of practice to master.

So in the twenty years of turning in my own millwork shop I had an E.H. Sheldon wood lathe. A brass bearing lathe with beautiful castings from the floor up and a solidity not generally found on newer machines. Only three speeds, the lathe was designed for a "speed turner" doing center to center work. One could mount faceplates outboard but the size would necessitate slipping the flat belts to regulate the speed. I loved this lathe but It finally broke a shaft that necessitated replacement. That's how I got a new Powermatic 3520.

oscar at lathe
Shop foreman Oscar Arellano turning
barstool seats on the 3520
I ordered the new lathe from Barbo Machinery in Portland Oregon. It arrived on a pallet attached from the factory. The pallet is bolted to the frame of the legs like most other machines would except this lathe comes with adjustable feet for positioning the lathe on uneven shop floors. Unbolting the lathe from the pallet required sweat, cussing and time as you have to do all the wrenching from the underside of the pallet. Once free from the pallet positioning was easy. The feet supplied with the lathe are pretty well useless in my opinion. Especially since the dern thing is so tall at the centers, fully 45 inches off the floor. This has the effect of sitting at the dinner table with your plate in your chin. Shavings spray in your face and there is no escape. The old Sheldon measured 40 1/2 inches from the center to floor and was far more relaxing of a posture to operate. My six foot employee, used to the old one, wanted to build a platform to stand on but we resisted for now. Aside from the ergonomic problem I have encountered little other problems with the 3520 so on to it's attributes. Maybe I will torch the legs down someday if I cannot live with the altitude.

First off the fit and finish are not up to European standards for wood machinery. The Centauro hydraulic copy lathe in my shop next to the 3520 looks like it was designed by a guy who drives a sleek sports car and wears suits and shiny shoes to work. The 3520 designed by a guy who wears coveralls all day and drives a pickup circa the 60's, Rude Olsonik a master turner who I have admired since reading of Berea KY woodworkers in Fine Woodworking magazine (I don't really know what Rude drives). Fit and finish are functionally unimportant but when you plunk down $3700,00 for a simple machine you expect something to be polished. Dowdy is the style here, no goiters but lotsa funny protuberances in the location of levers and knobs etc. all functionally located however. My main irritation is the straight from the sand cast hand wheel on the tailstock, it terribly needs to be smoothed out just to not irritate the hand with every crank. The rest of the tailstock was engineered and tooled by artists and experts and leaves nothing to want, it's massive and precise. Overall the castings and machine work are exemplary for heavy industrial machinery and better in the case of the finely ground bed ways. The headstock which slides the length of the bed and the tailstock glide easily as does the tool rest holder, locking levers feel like they will last without breaking.  Curious the tool rest holder does not hold the tool rest at center of the spindle, in fact it holds it 5/8" below centerline, quasi dangerous if you forget to raise it. A defect I cannot say but I made a wooden doughnut to compensate. Certainly the new breed of mondo thick scrapers may need a tool rest below centerline so perhaps this was what they were thinking.

Speed control is electronic and adjusted via potentiometer, two speed ranges are changed with a belt giving more torque if needed on massive floor to ceiling faceplate work which this lathe will actually handle. I cannot wait to turn a 4 foot mirror frame screwed off on a plywood faceplate. The Baldor drive seems a tad overpowered yet extremely quiet and smooth, no significant heat is generated after hours of running. There is absolutely no vibration coming from the machine even when wood is mounted. The thing is so smooth that it is just amazing and a pleasure to operate.

More on the operation: When turning on a belt drive lathe with cone pulleys or anything where you have to stop the lathe to change speeds, you loose a little concentration of the work you are doing. With the 3520 your attention is on the workpiece and the machine mentally disappears. This is an extraordinary quality in a machine. You can focus on the object spinning with a new level of confidence devoid of mechanical irritation caused by a slapping belt or by trying to cut or sand at a speed which is not quite right. Simply turning a knob gives you the correct speed, silently and without hesitation. When you are sanding you can crank up the speed and let dust fly, stop to check your work and the lathe stops fast (fast enough to unscrew a faceplate if not snugged up). To reverse from full speed just hit the switch and the lathe stops and is full speed reversed just that fast. Productivity enhanced.

All in all this is a machine that works extremely well and worth every penny in my shop. Artistic turners may need more fit and finish or the sleekness offered by other manufacturers. Functionally a better lathe would be hard to imagine and I give Powermatic two blistered thumbs up for it's performance. I will grind the tailstock hand wheel smooth and file off all the razor sharp edges that the European manufacturer would take pride in doing themselves. A fine addition to my shop, wait till Fritz sees this one.