Old Mill Drivel ? (II)

Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

I mentioned in the previous post that the Deckel milling machine was made under license by companies in various countries. Besides licensed reproductions, there were also illicit ones of course, but I haven’t looked much in that direction.

In searching for and looking at various Deckel FP-2 milling machines, I also took a long look at some of the various clones produced, in Germany and elsewhere, as it seems to me that some of these clones were every bit as good as the original. Not wishing here to describe all that I found, however I did find the Thiel 159 Duplex to be quite attractive:

I also looked at Thiel 158s, a previous model, as well, and even an uber-rare Thiel 160. However, while these appear to be great machines, and are mercifully free of giant connected electrical boxes, I have not come across one with much in the way of accessories, and parts are totally unobtanium. Besides, the Thiel is akin to the Deckel FP-1, while I came to eventually conclude that the larger work envelope of the FP-2 was what I needed to look at.

One thing I failed to mention in the previous post that seems worth of note now that I look at the above picture, is that the operating position for these mills. Unlike a Bridgeport where one stands facing the machine to move the controls, with the Deckel/Thiel type of design the operator stands to the side of the machine. In the above picture, if an operator were pictured, their back would be to the camera. I find this interesting in prospect, as I have not had any experience as of yet running a milling machine from that rear side position.

Another that looked at was the Alexander ‘Master Toolmaker’, produced in England for a spell:

From: lathes.co.uRk

Again, accessories and parts are as easy to locate as rocking horse poop. These are not abundant machines by any stretch. Also, these were copies of the smaller FP-1 machine, and, as noted in the previous post, I eventually decided that the FP-2’s larger work envelope was what I was looking for.

Another clone of note was made by the German company Maho. Though Maho was founded in the 1920’s as a maker of dividers, pantographs and similar drawing instruments, by the 1950’s they were making milling machines. Their clone of the Deckel FP-1 was the M-600:

from: lathes.co.uk

Their model which corresponded more closely to the Deckel FP-2 was the M-800, however it was even more of a beast at a 2000 kg. weight. Maho mills were a bit more heavily built than the Deckel, and one key difference, making them something other than a slavish copy, was that the milling head units themselves were the interchangeable component, and did not come attached to their own carrier beams atop the ram like the Deckel/Thiel machines. So, perhaps better described as a variant than a strict copy. They also had an innovative form of universal table which not only tilted and rotated but had a transverse feed screw giving the table 130mm of movement.

Like almost all the Deckel/Thiel clones it seems, there is little available in the realm of spares and accessories, and from my reading on the Practical Machinist Forum, I have formed a strong impression that Maho falls a bit short when it comes to the reliability of electrical systems on their machines.


One of the more intriguing situations in some respects was the licensing of manufacture by Riken in Japan. Under technology sharing agreements between Germany and Japan pre-WWII, some Deckel mills were, according to one Japanese page I looked at, were likely brought over to Japan on a U-boat in the late 1930s, which is not too long after the Deckel ‘FP-1’ design reached a point of maturity.

Riken is the sort of massive industrial entities, quasi-public, quasi private, that largely concentrated on petrochemical products. It was an industrial combine, referred to as zaibatsu in the pre-war years. One modern descendent, or arm of the octopus if you prefer, is a company most in the west have heard of, namely Rikoh, who make photocopiers and so forth. Riken founded Rikoh in 1936.

Riken made faithful copies of these early manually operated Deckel mills, initially the FP-1 and later, the FP-2 (from 1959). Despite the second world war and its devastating outcome for Japan, along with the privations of the post war occupation years, the company survived somehow, in various forms. Although Riken was dissolved as a private foundation by the Allies, by 1958, after the occupation ended, it was brought back into existence as a public corporation, funded by the government. And somehow, they kept producing milling machines, admittedly a very minor side line product in what has become a huge entity once again. Kinda like the Standard Oil story in how the octopus can regrow from severed tentacles I suppose.

It is clear that Japan gained the milling machine by way of Germany in the simple fact of the Japanese term for the milling machine, fraisu-ban (フライス盤). That term means nothing in English, as it is a transliteration of the German term for mill, Fräse, with -ban being a suffix meaning ‘machine’.

There were a few of these machines sold in the US, but really very few, and online I’ve come across only one example of the smallest size for sale, the Riken RTM-2 model, a model which directly corresponded to Deckel’s FP-1. I looked quite seriously at one for sale near St. Louis for quite a while, a machine which had a decent selection of accessories, and looked to be in very nice condition:

It’s an early 1970’s machine. The seller was a nice guy, a retired machinist, however getting detailed photos of the machine, let alone video of the machine operating, proved to be challenging. Not everyone, it seems, finds it easy to take pictures or video, despite the prevalence of smart phones and the like. Though I did come close to pulling the trigger on the purchase, in the end after much reflection I came to see – this, for the first time -clearly that the work envelope of that size machine was just too small for my needs.

Given the conclusion that the Riken RTM-2 was too small, I started searching for the next size up, RTM-3, which started out as the clone of the Deckel FP-2. Now these are not easy to find. They seem to be only three places on the globe where you find these in any number: Japan, Russia, and S. Korea, and in none of those places are these mills apparently all that abundant, though I base this assessment solely upon what I could find on the web, and for all I know there are vast numbers more. I also found mentions of examples in Australia and Ireland.

I’ve looked at a few Russian examples online, and the condition of these machines reminded me strongly of the sort of stuff one commonly comes across in the US, namely beat-to-shit, barely-maintained and filthy machines that seemed to have spent their lives in some sort of pit of hell. I have learned from some past experiences (aka ‘narrow escapes’) to be ultra-cautious when it comes to doing any business with Russians, so my looking at machines in that country, via discussion forums, was mostly in their vein of gathering information and nothing further. And I did learn some very useful things via that approach – more on that later.

The South Korean example I looked at was also in poor condition, so nothing fruitful was realized by looking there. While I can count to 10 in Korean, that’s about as far as my language proficiency goes.

Since I have a reasonable facility in reading and writing in Japanese, it seemed it was the easiest approach route – not that there is anything easy about the approach route!

I found two of the RTM-3 machines in Japan currently for sale. The first one I found appeared to be in pristine condition:

This is a 1986 machine, which, as far as I can determine, means Riken continued to make this model after the Deckel FP-2 production had come more or less to an end (the late 1970’s it would appear).

Further, the machine had a boxier modern look to it – I have since determined that this is some sort of a revised design of RTM-3, a ‘Mk. 2’ if you like:

Notice that there are no secondary electrical boxes, no glass scales and digital readouts for the axes, let alone a screen interface, as you would see on a German machine of the same vintage. The machine’s stellar condition comes about due to the fact that it came out of a technical college, where it was likely used for nothing more than for demonstration purposes.

The mill looked to be laden with accessories too:

In the foreground is the slotting head, behind it the high speed head, then the standard head, and behind that a part of the dividing head, a rotary table, and a universal table.

You can see that I have annotated the image with a couple of arrows and text, as part of my communication with the seller. Although the seller was not forthcoming in this respect except when questioned, my research and questions revealed that many of the accessories seen in the photo were incomplete in some way.

And an accessory which is incomplete in many cases is also non-functional. Also, the cabinet to store the accessories, which likely would have been purchased with such a lot of accessories, was nowhere to be found. Hence the pile of accessories you can see strewn about the floor.

The price for the machine started out at ¥2,000,000, or about $17,000.00. Soon enough that price dropped down, and at one point they were bandying around a number along the lines of ¥1,350,000, which is getting close to $10,000. I was thinking that was a decent price until I came to see the situation with the accessories more clearly.

As it turns out, my worries about accessories in regards to this machine may have been slightly less a concern than they appeared – more on that later. In any case, I decided to keep looking.

Do you ever find yourself, on a web search, way out in the weeds? Not just page 1 or 2 of results, but way down there, into pages where most of the results share only a word or two of your search parameter? Well, it was way out into the weeds that I found another Riken RTM-3:

I was not quite as pristine as the first one, but good signs were found in that it had original paint, and that all of the bellows which protect the ways were in good condition. If the bellows have been kept up, that is a good sign I have found.

The seller turned out to be pretty good at getting lots of photos for me, despite being in his 80s. I asked for video, but that was clearly a bridge too far. Fair enough.

Another view shows that this is what I would term a ‘Mk. I’ version of the RTM-3, and it was made in Shōwa 58, which corresponds to 1978:

This one actually has a DRO fitted, though only for 2 axes, and the readout is curiously placed on the opposite site of the machine to where the operator works. And in this view you can also see the two ‘stickshifts’, which are used to move the work table and the ram.

And, along with the machine was the accessory cabinet, here shown with some of the items removed and the upper drawer contents out of picture:

On the bottom one can spot the universal table, and above there is a slotting head, and the overarm carrier for horizontal milling. Not pictured is a Riken mill vise, a rotary table, a complete Riken-made collet set with the same design spec as the Deckel, and a few other goodies, including three optical centering microscopes. From all the photos I have, I can see that this machine comes with many, but not all of the accessories, and these accessories look to be complete, thereby being useable. My interest grew accordingly. The asking price for all of this is a reasonable ¥800,000, about $6400 or so.

The Japanese culturally are not known, at least among those who have gotten past any stereotyping tendencies and taken a honest look at it, for simply copying and producing a given item and be done with it, rather that forms only the starting place and the machine, though a process of continual small improvements, over time receives myriad small incremental improvements and becomes something unique. I have little doubt this is the case for Riken mills, but so much still remains unknwn.

The Riken RTM-3 evolved in a slightly different direction than the Deckel FP-2 it appears to me. Where the Deckel grew increasingly capable and yet dependent upon electronics, Riken machines remained if anything stubbornly anachronistic and ‘relentlessly’ manual in nature. Again, only from what I have seen. The machinist in St. Louis I mentioned previously, who also had a Deckel mill or two, mentioned a few improvements he had came across on the Riken, like a vibration damper being fitted to the vertical head, larger dials, larger t-slots in the work table, and so on, so I am curious to learn what else may have varied over time, as it is a window into how design evolves in response to how a machine is used and what the market demands.

Part of the reason for the anachronistic natured of these mills is that the Riken mill was for a long time, it seems, the mill of choice for technical college skill competitions in milling. And they wanted the operators to learn and be tested on a machine without digital readouts or programming of tool paths, etc.. Even today, though the machine of choice for those contests is now an Etsuki, it is still a test of using a manual milling machine and doing everything off of the machine’s hand wheels and their scales. Here’s a video showing what a portion of a milling contest looks like:

Like the projects undertaken in Japanese carpentry competitions, the items they make in the milling competitions are really quite difficult to execute, and then you add the fact that they compete under severe time crunch, and everything is done about as fast as a person can move, well, ‘insanely tough’ is perhaps the best description.

In case you may be wondering, given how scarce these machines are vis-à-vis my comments about the non-existent spares and accessory situation, why my interest in Riken’s RTM-3 mill deepened, well, I have a Russian forum to thank for that. I discovered that, according to people there who are familiar with both Deckel FP2 and Riken RTM-3 mills, that the accessories are interchangeable. I confirmed that looking in Germany at some dimensions of a Deckel accessory (the overarm support for horizontal milling), and once I had the info of the dimensions on the Riken overarm casting, I could see that all pertinent dimensions, right down to the millimeter, were identical.

Now, at this point, this finding remains provisional, perhaps speculative at best. Maybe those Russian forum guys were nipping too hard at their wodka (though I found a second forum reference there with the same claim), but it looks like there is a certain amount of accessory interchange, at least with models made in Japan that are of the ‘Mk. 1’ type. And I can’t think of too many compelling reasons why they would change some of those principal dimensions, especially given the investments already made in the patterns for castings , etc.. I can see that with extensive revisions to a machine, as appears to have been done with the ‘Mk. 2’ version, they may well have made more extensive revisions. Again, pure speculation at this juncture.

More to come – thanks for tuning in!

7 thoughts on “Old Mill Drivel ? (II)

  1. never knew if I had gotten through with my previous comments..your the man chris..I am praying for you.


    1. Hi Ward,

      good to hear from you! Hope you’ve had a pleasant holiday so far.

      once your first comment has been approved on this site, subsequent comments are posted automatically, so if you don’t see your comment, the issue likely stems from some hitch at your end. Hopefully there is nothing odd going on otherwise.

      All the best for 2020!!

  2. Wow, that is a thorough search you are doing and with reason! And then there is the logistics of getting such a massive machine shipped to you especially if you get one from overseas. I’m enjoying reading on your quest to find a replacement for your old mill, a piece of equipment I knew very little of until I started reading your posts. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Pascal,

      Funny enough, the cost of containerized sea freight can be surprisingly reasonable, even from items coming from the other side of the globe. I’m glad you have enjoyed this short series so far – thanks for the comment!

  3. Chris
    this is like the search for the white whale, except your machines weigh a measly two tons, not the 38 tons plus of a sperm whale !
    Good hunting !

  4. Dear Chris,

    Thanks for this – read your postings on Practical machinist, too. Great research and well presented.
    Do let us know how the RTM 3 project is going.

    I’ve a small shop making scientific instruments, and I’ve owned a substandard clone of an FP2 for 8 years. Even with the very second-rate build quality, the underlying design of the Thiel/Deckel originals still shines through -and at least I have learned to drive a manual mill on an ‘expendable’ machine. Your article is useful toward my looking out for a quality machine to upgrade to at sometime in the future.

    All the best, and happy machining.

    ps – I mill and turn wood now and then without much problem. It vacuums up afterwards leaving the machine looking very clean, and doesn’t make all that noise and dust that high speed joinery machines do. Having a few large diameter HSS end mills with geometry intended for aluminium seems to give me best finish and a good chip.

Anything to add?