Just Ask Jeff: Review: Ultra Tec Faceting Machine

Review – Ultra Tec Faceting Machine

Keep in mind that these are my personal opinions and experiences, other people may have different ones. I have used all of the faceting machines I review.

Almost all faceting machines have some problems. Major to minor, and anything in between. In other words no machine is perfect. I am going to tell you what I think, you can make up your own mind on what is or isn’t a problem for you. I am writing these articles as helpful information to faceters. The more a person knows about faceting machines the better decision they can make when deciding which machine to buy… Information is power.

Ultra Tec faceting machine

The Ultra Tec Faceting Machine

The Ultra Tec faceting machine is one of several machines that I generally recommend to people that ask me what I think they should consider buying.

Note: The other machines are OMNI (I sell and recommend these), Facetron, and perhaps Facette.

An Ultra Tec faceting machine has become one of the more expensive machines available $3380.00 (along with Facette which is more money $4495.00) and can be difficult for a person with limited means to purchase.

Once upon a time there was not nearly so large a price gap between an Ultra Tec and other machines like Facetron and OMNI (which is a new machine in the USA). The price gap used to be only a few hundred dollars at most and I felt that for a few hundred dollars most people should stretch a little bit and get a better machine. Well several things have changed since then, the price gap is now well over $1000.00 dollars (not a stretch any more, it is a huge leap) and the some of the other moderate priced faceting machines have made some quality improvements. Also there are a few new faceting machines in the moderate price range like the OMNI that should be considered.

There is some thing to be said about “you get what you pay for…” as the old saying goes, this is especially true when it comes to faceting machines. However, when the costs rise to well over 40% more than the nearest competitors that are at least reasonable faceting machines to start faceting with, well people need to take a close look and really think about what they want.

I think that people often need the option to start faceting at a less expensive level and as they learn and improve they usually want to move up and buy more expensive equipment as they get experience and can afford to. That is how this whole business works. I am not even sure that I can recommend any machine that is as expensive as Facette and Ultra Tec machines now are to entry level beginners. The reason is that there are much lower cost alternatives that are quality faceting machines and from a money and business stand point in my opinion most people would be better off taking the $1000.00 plus cost difference’s and buying quality faceting rough they can make money on.

I have an article and virtual tour of the Ultra Tec faceting machine factory in Santa Ana.
Take a look… “Here is a virtual tour of the Ultra Tec factory…”

That all being said I do like and recommend an Ultra Tec (I even said so when I was not selling them). If you have the money and can afford one or want to “move up” from an older machine an Ultra Tec is a quality choice. The fit and finish of an Ultra Tec faceting machine is very high quality. Frankly it is the best of about any machine I have seen. (the fit and finish includes things like how tight the joints are on the pieces that go together and the actual finish on the pieces) The finishes are clean (no machining marks) and anodized for protection from the cutting water and stone dust that always seems to occur during the cutting process.

Controls are clearly marked – Ultra tec faceting head and mast.

The actual etching, numbers on the mast and dial, are high quality (this is some of what you are paying for in the higher price). These markings are helpful during cutting, and really should be a standard on other machines (which surprisingly, they are not). For example, using the mast numbers you can get back to the same mast setting repeatedly with no problems.

Some machines use a decals for markings, which is OK, but it’s not nearly as nice as etching and decals usually fall off with age. I know of several well known faceting machines on the market with almost no markings on the mast in particular, which makes repeatability questionable with any degree of speed.

The knobs and dials are all clearly marked and well done. The only thing that I have noticed is that the white paint etching on the index gears does tend to wear off over time. The etch is still there, just the white paint tends to wear with a lot of use (fades with age too), making the numbers hard to read. This is a pretty minor thing, and easily fixed with a little fresh paint. But I though it was worth mentioning.

Some people may never have to repaint their index gears, but I cut a lot of stones and my machine gets hard use, especially my 96 index gear. If you find yourself squinting to see the numbers it is either time to repaint them or get your glasses checked.

Close up of Ultra tec angle dial and cheater.

At left is a picture of an Ultra Tec faceting machine head (the view is close up from the operators side).

Notice that the angle dial has markings for .1 of a degree and that it is fairly easy to guesstimate the angle setting to a pretty fine degree.

The angle in the picture is set at 39 degrees (39 degrees is lined up with the “0” above it). If you adjust the angle until the 40 degree mark on the dial is aligned to the white “1” mark (the markings in white above the angle dial) the angle will be set at 39.1 degrees. If you adjust the angle so that 41 on the dial lines up with the “2” the angle is set at 39.2 degrees. And so on. It is easy to get the angle to 39.15 by splitting the marks. This can be a little confusing at first but is easy once you understand the settings.

I like this feature, it’s both accurate and easy to use. Some machines do not have this ability. especially older machines. Being able to set your angle to this fine of a degree is not absolutely necessary (you can get by just rounding to the nearest angle, although it may necessitate a little tweaking to get everything lined up as you go along). but being able to set the angles this fine, does make life easier and more convenient.

Ultra Tec angle dial st at 90 degreesUltra Tec angle dial with a little slop.

One thing that I have noticed that tends to happen as the Ultra Tec machine gets some wear on it is that the spring on the angle dial (backlash spring, is what I call it because it keeps the angle dial from bouncing or stuttering, I am not sure what Ultra Tec calls it) wears and gets loose. The spring will stretch a tiny little bit over time as it is used and makes the angle dial a little bit sloppy. This is not really a big problem and can easily be fixed by replacing the spring, but it is a little irritating. I know a few people that have had this spring break on them, but I have owned several Ultra Tecs and never had one break. Loosen with use, yes. break no.

Note: I have talked to Ultra Tec about this and they actually designed the spring to help eliminate gear lash and wear, it is supposed to have a little slack. But like I said as the spring wears and the dial loosens up getting a little too much slop, at least for me. It does take a pretty long time (several years of use on my machine) for this to become a problem.

Ultra Tec cheater assembly

Another small thing that I have had happen as the machines gets some wear is the cheater (wheel) can turn by itself, when the index gear is being changed.

Note: On newer machine this problem has been fixed.

Basically this happens when the assembly is out of adjustment. I need to point out that this is not a problem with new machines, but I have had it happen a couple of times on used machines.

Left is a picture of the Ultra Tec cheater assembly, notice that the assembly is held on with nuts. (these nuts are what loosens up allowing the cheater to slip)

What happens is that the latch that you lift to change the index gear setting is spring loaded and is part of the assembly that the cheater is attached to. Sometimes when the machine gets some wear the screw/cheater assembly will turn when you lift the latch to change your index setting because the tension between the parts/nuts is not correct (it has loosened with wear).

This a very minor problem as long as you catch it and easily fixed. However it can drive you bonkers if you do not know that it is happening, because it changes the cheater setting and you cannot figure out why things do not line up. Usually when this happens you do not know that the cheater is moving, so you do not look for it and blame something you think you are doing.

Ultra Tec mast

Notice the handle on the faceting head that the Ultra Tec has… (far left coming out above the quill) This is a personal preference really, but I do not like the handle. I think that it gets in the way. Because of where the handle is positioned you cannot comfortably hold onto the stone when you are cutting. Which I think is critical. The handle is attached with a set screw and can be removed. Which is the first thing I did. Some people may like the handle and use it and if they do fine, but like I said it gets in the way of actual cutting to me.

I think that the handle can act as a lever on the piece of rough putting undue pressure on the wax joint holding the stone to the dop, if great care is not taken. Beginners especially, tend to be heavy handed and often knock the stone off the dop while cutting. Also being heavy handed wears the cutting laps faster. Because the person is holding onto the handle (if they use the handle), instead of the stone being cut they are not getting any feed back from the stone and are missing important information on what the lap and stone are actually doing. Feeling the stone is important to the cutting process.

Feed back from the stone while you are holding it (you should be) is a very important thing to have during cutting. You can tell how much actual pressure is on the stone (you are doing it yourself using your hand and have good feedback). You can feel how the stone is cutting. Is the stone bumping, smooth, fast, cutting faster on one side of the stone… what? You need to know. You will have a lot more control by using your hands instead of the handle. Like I said, each to their own but to me I think the handle could be left off of the machine.

Ultra Tec 96 index gear

Left is an Ultra Tec 96 index gear.

An Ultra Tec offers a wide range of quality index gears (as do most modern machines) and they are easy to change. There is a small set screw on the gear itself that when loosened, the gear will slide off (look in the picture above and you can see it). The little tab piece (above the index gear in the picture) is held on with a small set screw and must be changed when you put on a different gear. The teeth are different to match the index gear that it goes with. The whole process of changing an index gear only takes a few minutes and is easy to do. This is true of almost any machine by the way.

Pretty much all new faceting machines come standard with a 96 index gear and it is the one you will use the most (at least on my designs). I recommend that people consider buying 80 (5-sym designs) and maybe the 120 (5-sym and larger stones) index gears also because they are the ones people are most likely to need, when starting. There are some other gears that most faceters will want later on and some odd numbered index gears for unusual cuts. But they can easily be bought later, when you decide that you need them.

Note: On the new Ultra Tec index gers they are laser etched.

Ultra Tec motor and drive cone

Left is a picture of the Ultra Tec drive motor and drive assembly.

Ultra Tecs are direct drive, with no belt to vibrate and make noise. The motor is strong and has plenty of power. They use a rubber cone to that is adjustable (with a couple of screws) to the fly wheel for convenience. This system works well and I have never had a problem with it personally.

The only problem that I have ever heard about this system is that the rubber cone can develop a flat spot and make a thumping noise if the machine is left idle for a long period of time. The only other thing that I know about is that depending on what part of the country you live in the humidity may cause the rubber cone to shrink or swell slightly with the weather over time. That is why the cone is adjustable.

The drain hole in the rubber splash guardThe drain tube

The rubber splash guard that catches the swath and water run-off during the cutting process works well. The water drains through a hole in the rubber splash guard (top left picture) which fits into the drain tube on the top of the machine (right picture). Look in the picture above to the left of the motor assembly and you can see the drain tube and hose where it connects under the machine. This system works pretty well most of the time but it could be better, there is a flaw with it. If you do not have everything lined up and the drain tube just right, the water leaks out around the drain tube hole where the rubber splash guard fits into the tube on the faceting machine. You will end up with a wet working area and lap. More importantly the stand/box that the faceting machine is sitting on is wood (Oak wood on new machines which is better. On my machine which is older the box is particale board, water ruins it if it gets really wet) water damages wood if it is wet for any long period of time.

It happens to me once and a while, usually after I have moved the machine around (I have to stop cutting and wipe everything dry). I am busy cutting away and the next thing I know I am all wet. Usually my cat has been playing with the drain tube or I have bumped it causing it to back up. Or I forget to empty the drain jug.

I know people that have fixed this problem by putting a different tube in or connecting the splash guard a little differently. On older Ultra Tec machines they had a metal tub that fit tight to the splash guard and the water could back up in the splash guard but did not leak out onto the machine. This is not a big problem but again it is irritating.

Ultra Tec water tankClose-up of the metal to plastic joint

The Ultra Tec machine comes with a water tank (it used to cost extra believe it or not). It is not a very good design. The metal hose screws dircetly onto the plastic tank. The plastic tank (right at the bottom) where the metal hose screws on fatigues and cracks causing leaks sooner or later… Remember that you will be moving and adjusting the metal hose all of the time during cutting, changing laps and so on. When you move the hose it pulls and strains the plastic tank. The tank comes with the machine so you might as well use it, but I recommend an after market water tank once the Ultra Tec Tank breaks. Here is what I use

Design & Adjustability
The Ultra Tec machine is well designed and can be adjusted for squareness thorough out it’s cutting life. Some faceting machines cannot be adjusted and some have a little adjustment, but not enough to get the job done. As faceting machines wear over time sooner or later they all need to be adjusted, it is important that the machine that you buy has the ability to be adjusted as it wears.

A lot of machines do not have this ability, especially some of the older designs. The lack of the ability to adjust and tune the squareness of the faceting machine is a major limiting factor in what you can cut and how well over time.

Note: Adjusting a faceting machine should almost always be done by the factory, especially if the machine is under factory warrantee. Even if it is not under warrantee, if you do not know what you are doing you can cause more damage than you fix messing with it.

Ultra Tec has all of the proper adjustments to get and keep the machine in proper alignment. I am not going to go into this other than to say that they can be done, adjusting faceting machines is another article (probably several). The point is the machine is well designed for long time use. No cast parts that will wear out and not be adjustable. No glaring design flaws that you will have to just live with.

Dependability, Parts, & Service Parts and service are one of the main considerations that you should think about when you are buying a new or used faceting machine.

The Ultra Tec factory does recondition and retro fit older Ultra Tec machines to either get them in good working order or modernize them with the latest design improvements. Up grading an old machine is usually expensive, but it is cheaper than a buying a new machine. The main point here is that they do it and parts are available.

Convenience of getting service is also something that you should consider. By this I mean. The Ultra Tec factory is located in California, USA, they are easy to call on the phone if you have a problem or need a part. Plus it will be reasonable (not cheap, faceting machines are heavy and cost money to insure) to ship your machine to the factory for service and up grades as you need them.

Ultra Tec has been in business for a long time and is an actual “brick and mortar” manufacturer. They do their own machining work “in shop” and can control the quality (some faceting machines are farmed out, different machine shops do different parts, which can and often does impact the overall quality of the machine).

They are not working out of their garage, there are quite a few faceting machines made in garages, you might be surprised to learn how many. There is nothing wrong with this, but these companies are usually not as dependable and stable as an actual “brick and mortar” manufacturer… at least in my experience.

You can actually get a hold of someone and get some service from Ultra Tec because they are a real company with people there to help you. This is important, a smaller one or two man operation is limited in their service simply because of their size. Believe it or not, some manufactures are not very responsive to their customers for parts and service. Help from some of them is almost impossible to get, especially in a timely manner. There are several manufactures of faceting machines that I have tried to get service from unsuccessfully for months and even years without much success and especially not in decent time frame.

Getting parts and service on your faceting machine in a timely manner is not as easy as you might think depending on the company. I have always gotten reasonable service from Ultra Tec, although I sometimes wish it was not as expensive as it is on occasion (or as slow some times).

Note: While I have always gotten pretty good service from Ultra Tec, I know they are slow for some people (I have been told by more than one person)… Ultra Tec can be slow sometimes and do need to be reminded that you are waiting for your machine, usually a phone call or two helps things move along. They seem to have very busy peak periods of business and if you are trying to get your machine serviced during one of these times they can be slow. This is actually about the only complaint that I have heard.

They do not have a 1-800… number, which I think they should, I cannot imagine why they do not. On the up side, if you call during regular business hours you will always get someone to talk to.

Joe Rubin’s sons are currently running the business, Joe still comes in to the office but the son(s) are actually in charge of the day to day running of the business. So they should be around for a long time to come.

In conclusion, the Ultra Tec faceting machine one of the best quality in it’s price range, if you have the pocket book. Quality tools are always worth the money.

There are other machines that are nice and I will be reviewing them as I get the time and machines to use during the reviewing process (actually cutting on them).

Gram Faceting Archive of Information
This edited version of an article by the late Jeff Graham is part of a special archived informational series from Gram Faceting. Used with permission.