As a rookie team in 2014, Team 5216 held the belief that we could never be as successful as large school teams because of the gap in monetary resources between us. We were wrong. You can build a highly proficient lab without spending an inordinate amount of money and we would like to show you how. After hundreds of hours of careful research and several years of buying tools that would prove to hold up to the rigorous demands of an FRC lab, we would like to share what we have learned about purchasing inexpensive but still highly effective options. Our tooling choices are almost exclusively benchtop type designs. They are smaller, lighter, easier for kids to use, will be more than adequate for FRC fabrication, and can save you thousands of dollars over full sized versions of the same tool. These tooling options can allow you to do more in the lab for less money than you may believe. If you have questions about anything you see on this page, please feel free to contact us at Garberrobotics@e-hps.net and we will do our very best to help.
This was a huge purchase for us. Before we bought this model we had been crosscutting aluminum stock with a powered miter saw that was equipped with an aluminum cutting blade. Power miter saws with aluminum can be dangerous because of breaking blade teeth and kickback on shorter pieces. Our students were never allowed to use the miter saw and still are not. This horizontal bandsaw model from WEN (WEN 5 inch metal cutting benchtop bandsaw) comes in different clones from a variety of brands but we found the WEN had the largest vise and swivels to produce mitered cuts of up to 60 degrees. It is also a bench-top model, meaning it is not a space hog when it comes to labs with a limited area. Our kids use this all the time and it is a much safer option than a powered miter saw. You do not need a $2000 dollar horizontal bandsaw that takes up half of your lab. This WEN bandsaw might be the most used power tool we own, it is safe to use, and is incredibly powerful. You can buy yours here for about $260.
If the horizontal bandsaw is not the most used tool in our lab then our mini-mill must be. We cannot emphasize enough how many new opportunities open up to a team when they purchase their first mill. You can literally make anything with a milling machine given enough practice. This mill also doubles as our drill press and is always spot on. You can buy cheaper benchtop mills from other stores but we decided to go with the Little Machine Shop version out of California. It is a Sieg clone like other stores sell but has extra features you will not find on other versions like a brushless motor and the ability to take full size R8 collets. A used Bridgeport machine in good condition might cost $3000 if you search for one locally and are willing to wait months for one to show up, but can be impossible to move and will not be compatible with the 110v electrical in most homes and schools. This machine is 110v compatible and only weighs 176 pounds. It can be moved with 2 people and even taken to competitions. We suggest a tooling package to be purchased with the mill so you can start using it right away. The mini-mill is priced at $1150 and the tooling set at $240. If you are thinking of buying a huge drill press for $500 or more you should rethink your choice and buy this instead. We have a big expensive drill press we bought first, and it has not been touched once in the four years since we bought this mini-mill. We will most likely sell that drill press this summer to buy something more valuable.
A mill is a great tool. The only thing that makes it better is a DRO (digital readout). Our kids have gone from producing amateur work to near professional results this season with the addition of this machine in our lab. The DRO reads to the 10,000th of an inch and when properly zeroed is incredibly accurate. We have not had to over-drill or slot a single hole in our fabrication work since we started using this machine this past summer. This is the larger mill model sold at The Little Machine Shop and again is a Sieg clone with a brushless motor. We added the stand the mill bolts to as well. A used Bridgeport or clone with a DRO would likely be thousands of dollars more than this model and would have the same problem with voltage, weight, floor space, and moving it to a new location. The benchtop model we purchased costs $2660. We have also included a link for the optional stand.
A CNC mill does not have to break your bank. We bought another Little Machine Shop 3990 brushless vertical mini-mill and installed the CNC kit ourselves. We are using an old computer that the school had in storage to run the free MACH educators software. We use it to machine out custom brackets, bearing holes, and a lot more. The whole project cost less than $2500 dollars. We have included a link for the mill and the step by step instructions we used to convert it to a CNC.
Our lathe is tool that is not used as often as some of the others listed here, but it is one that helps us to make some of the most important pieces that are placed on robot each year. Its most common use for our team is to turn down the ends of 1/2 inch hex shaft to 1/2 inch round-stock to fit in brass bushings. This gives us the ability to rotate an intake without having to use a bearing that can wear out or freeze up. We also use it to drill out centers of hubs, turn down wheels for linear motion tracks, and create our own hubs and bushings of custom sizes. A lathe is not something vital to your lab at first, but after 3-4 years it can be what you need to get your team over the top. You could buy a full size lathe for thousands of dollars but you do not need to. We bought ours from The Little Machine Shop for $1500.
Bearing Press with Pneumatic/Hydraulic Jack and 1/2 inch Hex Broach The ability to broach 1/2 inch hex holes has changed the way we design our machines. We can make custom hubs, rotational stops, and mount anything we want on a hex shaft. This is great for making articulating game piece intakes, and it seems like we�ve made on e every year since we got this tool. We also now buy stock 1/2 inch round shaft collars and hex broach them ourselves saving about $2.00 per hex collar. This tool can pay for itself in broached collars after several seasons. We bought our 20 ton press from Harbor Freight for $150. You will have to use a 20% off coupon they issue monthly to get the better price. We bought the jack from Harbor Freight as well to eliminate the time and frustration of lowering the press by hand after the first season. It cost $128 from Harbor Freight with the same coupon. The broach came from AndyMark and cost $269. As long as you keep the broach straight up and down with slow pressure you will get great results. Make sure to use cutting oil as well.
Our table saw is older than our oldest mentor. We think it is a 1949 Craftsman. We have used it to cut aluminum, Plexiglas, but mostly it is for the construction of field elements. A good cabinet saw can cost thousands of dollars, but we bought ours on Craigslist.com for $25 and then built a plywood cabinet to bolt it down on. We extended the rip table so we can make cuts over 48 inches from the blade. The cabinet is made of 2 sheets of 3/4 inch plywood that cost about $25 each. We put ours on casters but you would not have to. Craigslist is littered with these old saws, some people even give them away if you will come and collect it. We guarantee you can find a similar deal near you. Look in the tools for sale section of your local site.
Our wire used to sit in a laundry basket that looked like a big bowl of colored spaghetti. This custom wire tree has made finding what we want easy and it was super cheap to build. It is made of 2, 8 foot x 8 inch x 3/4 inch pine boards and then painted. We borrowed ring stand poles from our science department and then put 1/2 inch shaft collars and 1/2 inch wing-nuts on the opposite sides to keep the poles in place. The entire project cost us less than $20 and organizes every scrap of wire we have.
We did not have one of these our rookie year and it was the first tool we bought going into year 2. If you hate filing cut aluminum edges by hand for hours on end, then this is the tool you need to buy right away. This is another machine that comes in a variety of clones but we bought the Performax model from Menards because it was the cheapest version that included the cast iron base instead of a plastic one. It has a toolless system to remove the belt and can be changed in less than a minute. It costs only $99 and is definitely the first benchtop tool you should buy if you do not already have one.
If you are looking for an out of the box grinder for aluminum stock this is not what you want. You are better off buying a flap sander attachment for a right angle grinder or for this bench grinder as aluminum will fill and plug the grinding wheels. You will need to redress the wheels constantly and they will wear out inside of a single season. We use our grinder for taking threads off steel bolts, sharpening steel tools, and flattening out welds. You do not need a giant standalone grinder that costs hundreds of dollars for FRC. Again, this machine has a lot of clones, but we went with the Performax version because it includes a work light for exactly the same price as the other versions that do not. Like all grinders, you will need to balance the wheels before you use it to prevent vibration. It costs $49 at Menards. Do not forget to buy a dressing tool to keep the wheels in operating order.
We now own a giant $3000 dollar Grizzly band saw, but you do not need one and we probably do not either. For the money, a 9 inch benchtop version will be all most teams will ever need. This particular saw that we recommend is manufactured for wood, but we have found that if you change the blade out to a 14 TPI (tooth per inch) blade that it will cut aluminum and Plexiglas stock with zero issues. It will not be the bandsaw of your dreams to rip down 1/4 inch thick aluminum stock for a 4 foot crosscut, but for tiny detailed inside corners we still use it over the larger more expensive bandsaw we own. You do not ever want to try cutting steel of any kind or thickness with this machine or you will kill your blade in seconds. There are several clones of this machine through various tool companies. We bought the Performax version because it was the only one that came with an included fence and miter gauge at a cheaper price than the others. Buy it at Menards for $129. We buy our blades for this machine at Harbor Freight as they seem to hold their edge the longest for $13 each. We would suggest buying 2 so you have a backup if you lose an edge on the first one, you will not have to wait days until you can get a replacement.
We own 4 of these and have them spaced out throughout the lab and every one of them is almost always in use. We use them mostly as a third set of hands for when we are working on different components. They are great for crimping connectors on to your battery cables as well. We absolutely abuse these things and they have taken every bit of punishment we dole out and they all still look like and function like new. We bought these Performax vises for 2 reasons. They were the right price and they come with a lifetime warranty. We broke one of the replaceable jaws 2 years ago and Menards replaced it for us with no questions asked. You can buy more expensive versions but they will not be any better than these. Menards carries them for $60 each. Do not be afraid to buy more than one, you will be glad you did.
We love using press fit shoulder bearings for rotational movement. The common bearings used by FRC teams that come in the Kit Of Parts are 1 1/8 inch outside diameter with 1/2 inch hex inside. When we go to compete lots of teams ask us how we cut our bearing holes and most assume we use our expensive CNC machine to do so. What we almost always use is a 1 1/8 inch drill bit that we put in our mill, but you could also use it in a drill press if you have one. You do not want to try and use this bit by hand as it is too big and hogs out too much material resulting in oval shaped holes. Use it in a mill and you will get CNC quality bearing holes at a fraction of the price with no need to program a more complicated machine. We bought the Drillco model after reading great reviews on Amazon and it has held up wonderfully after hundreds of holes the last few years. Keep it oiled and it will last forever.
Believe it or not, our school administration almost killed our program before it started because of what industrial shop tables cost to put in our lab. Those things can be priced at thousands of dollars per table, are often not as durable as you would like them to be, and cost hundreds more to ship because of their weight and size. Our mentors convinced everyone we could do better than the options they had researched. If you leave this page and steal even one idea for your own lab it should probably be this one. We invested in 2x4 Basics Workbench Kits. They are made of resin instead of plastic and are the only shop tables we have. They support 500 pounds or more of tools on each in our facility and are incredibly robust. They cost $60 for a set of four and you will also need to buy lumber to make your bench. The best part is that you can make them in any size you want and replace the tops as they become damaged. We went big and used full 8 feet x 4 feet sheets of 3/4 inch plywood. To make a two shelf bench that is 8 feet x 4 feet you will need 2 sheets of plywood and 8, 8 feet x 2 inches x 4 inches. The lumber will run you about $70. This puts you at a grand total of about $130 per table. We painted ours, added a center support, and plywood drawers for extra storage but they work great without these add-ons too. We bought our leg kits off Amazon but they are also available from other retailers. The 2x4 Basics Company also makes a variety of other products so do not be afraid to research their other options available.
We absolutely LOVE our Ryobi tools. They are robust, have lots of power, are easy to find in the lab with their bright green coloring, and are the most affordable cordless platform currently on the market. Ryobi literally makes a cordless tool for anything and everything you can think of. We use the drills and drivers more than anything else, but have also invested in some of the other fringe tools as well. The cordless fan is great at competitions to cool off motors with a short turnaround time between matches. The oscillating cutter is safe and effective for removing the ends of bolts that are just a little too long when placed on our robot. The hot glue gun has saved us in competitions more times than we can count by securing down wiring, cameras, Plexiglas, 3-D prints, and a lot more when we are in a time crunch. Do not waste your money on more expensive hand tools. If your team buys Ryobi you will be completely happy and never look back. We our all our Ryobi tools exclusively from The Home Depot.