Review By Dean Bielanowski  Robert Sorby Website -

Robert Sorby

Modular Tool Rest System

By Dean Bielanowski

I have always used the standard cast tool rest that came with my lathe in the past. It works well, but the metal is quite soft and you tend to suffer some small depressions and notches after a while using parting, and other square shaped tools. I also own a separate 4" tool rest for small spindle and pen turning, plus a home-made bowl turning tool rest out of pipe material for turning bowls of course!

The product we are taking a look at today is Robert Sorby's Modular tool rest system. It is fairly basic in function so this review will not be as long as our others, so let's get straight into the action!

Modular tool rest... What is it?
The system is comprised of two basic parts. The first is the tool rest stem itself and the second are the various assortment of crossbars available that fit the stem. Sounds simple enough...

Perhaps the biggest advantage to the system, apart from being modular, is the material used for the crossbars themselves. They are constructed from hardened steel, a much harder material than you will find in your run of the mill standard tool rest supplied with many new lathes. The hard material is much more resistant to damage and wear and certainly feels heavier and more solid than my standard cast tool rest.

"As easy as 1-2-3"
Robert Sorby claim the system is as easy as 1-2-3, and they are correct. To get going, you must first purchase a tool rest stem to fit your lathe. They are available in a number of diameters to suit most lathes - 1/2",5/8",3/4",1",11/8", 25mm and 30mm. Make sure you get the right one to fit your lathe!

At the top of each stem is a threaded bolt-type section that accepts the various crossbars available. Just underneath this are securing flats machined into the stem. These help the crossbars fit perfectly, as well as provide a surface to hook a wrench onto to tighten up the crossbar. I found that normal hand tightening pressure was sufficient, but if you suffer from any arm, wrist, hand problems, you might need to grab some tools for leverage. Just remember that the harder you tighten it, the harder it will be to remove again. Tighten it until it is secure, but don't go overboard!

And speaking of tightening crossbars, the system's scoring point is the range of crossbars available for the stem. Once you have the stem, you can add as many, or as few crossbars to your supply as required. Currently, there are 3 crossbars available in 4", 6" and 9" lengths, two bowl turning attachments - one for inside bowl turning, and the other for outside (external) bowl turning. For the sake of this review, I acquired the 9" straight crossbar and the internal bowl attachment. Sorby also make a box scraper platform that fits the system, although I have not yet ordered or seen one in action.

The treads are machined into the bottom of the crossbars and in both cases, a nice secure fit was achieved when attaching them to the stem.

In Use
Over the course of a few weeks, I used both the 9" crossbar and internal bowl attachment rests on the lathe for your general spindle/bowl type work. Since all crossbars in the range (apart from the box scraper) are created from circular steel rods, movement across the tool rest was very smooth across the entire length. Sliding the tool was pretty much effortless, as it should be. One consideration worth noting is that because of the crossbar's rounded geometry, I was not able to get as close in to the work spinning on the lathe as I can with my standard tool rest that is more square on the edge closest to the spinning piece. We are only talking an extra tool overhang of maybe a 1/4" here, so whether or not that matters to you is a different story. We all have different opinions on this sort of thing!

My other thought pre-use of the system was weather I'd suffer any vibration out toward the extremities of the 9" crossbar when cutting in that area. The stem really only supports the crossbar via the treaded section in the middle, however, in use I suffered no problem at all that would validate this theory, so I dismissed it just as quick.

The internal bowl attachment is very handy indeed. Without one, you must battle with large overhangs of your bowl gouge or scrapers which can increase chatter and make turning difficult, giving less than desirable results. Once you have hollowed out the initial portion of the bowl, simply unscrew the straight crossbar, and screw on the internal bowl crossbar and away you go. Your tool is now supported much closer to the work giving cleaner cuts and less tool chatter or knocking.

There is a limit to how small a bowl you can use the internal bowl attachment with, and this is roughly 3 1/2" if most of the inside had already been hollowed out. The "S" shape of the tool rest allows one end to have a smaller curve section than the other to provide some flexibility. There is probably no limit to the maximum bowl diameter, however for larger bowls (say 30" or wider) you will probably need to reposition the tool rest more often, which may interrupt a constant tooling run, and a smooth cut.

In terms of performance and ease of use... the system components performed as well as you would expect a good tool rest to perform. It is, after all, a rather basic component in the scheme of things.

When I first saw a picture of the system I thought... this is probably going to cost 3 times the amount of a normal tool rest. In fact, it doesn't. The stem component is quite cheap (under US$10), and you only need one of these. The components vary in price but average around $25-30 for the straight crossbars (depending on length) and just over $30 each for the bowl attachments. The box scraper is priced under $20. I compared the price of my 4" tool rest and the Sorby equivalent and the Sorby came in around 30% higher. However, if you consider that this equation has bought you the stem as well, the bowl attachment at $32 is a nice money saver as these can cost anywhere up to US$100 or more! You might be hard pressed to find a bowl turning rest of similar material and quality for US$32 elsewhere.

The modular tool rest system performed well, is cost effective if you purchase several crossbars (that's what it is designed to do!) and you can build up your collection of crossbars as the budget allows. Because you are only buying the material for the crossbar once you have the stem/post, you save on component prices. Definitely worth considering if you are just starting out in turning and have not yet acquired a range of different tool rests.

Robert Sorby
Modular Tool Rest Photos
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The 25mm stem/post, 6" straight crossbar and internal bowl turning attachment.

Simply start by selecting the correct stem for your lathe. You only need to buy this component once!

Here you can see the threads where the crossbar component(s) join to the stem. The flattened section of the stem allows a spanner to grip to tighten and releases the crossbars.

The straight crossbars can be used for spindle-type work, or for initial bowl turning steps.

Making an additional smoothing pass on the inside of a bowl using the internal bowl attachment. This allows you tool to get closer to the hollowed section of the bowl reducing tool overhand giving a better result.

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