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Books for practical mechanical engineering

For anyone interested in the practical applications of mechanical engineering, here is a list of terrific books reviewed by Peter Glaskowsky.

I've mentioned the Homebrew Robotics Club here a few times. The club has an active mailing list. And when I found myself writing a lengthy post there over the weekend, I figured it might be of interest to the wider audience.

The post was in response to this inquiry from club president Wayne C. Gramlich, included here with his permission:

Can anybody point me a book that goes into design issues associated with assembling mechanisms out of bearings, axles, and gears? I'm looking for pretty basic stuff, like when to use a ball bearing, where to place bearings on a shaft, how to attach things to a shaft, etc. I am not interested in a book that tells me how to design a gear (or bearing), I just want to purchase those off the shelf.

My reply, edited a little for this post:


I have several different kinds of recommendations. All of these are books I own and have used.

Sometimes the best way to learn about a general topic is to see it applied to a specific purpose. So I'd like to start by pointing you to a couple of books aimed at race-car engineers and written by one of the best, Carroll Smith. These are the most pragmatic of all the books I'll be describing and contain a lot of information and advice I've just never seen anywhere else.

"Engineer to Win"
Carroll Smith
A great book. Pretty much a complete introduction to materials and structures for race car design. Most of it is highly relevant to robotics. A little dated (from 1984) but very little has changed since then that matters to us here. Even the few chapters on hydraulics, running a racing team, etc. will help put you in the right frame of mind for designing, building, and operating robots.

"Carroll Smith's Nuts, Bolts, Fasteners and Plumbing Handbook"
Carroll Smith
Another great book. Starts with the atomic structure of metals and proceeds quickly to a lot of very specific advice about selecting and using fasteners, including how to design structures that accept fasteners. Basically expands on three chapters on fasteners in "Engineer to Win," but I'm very glad I have both books.

I have a number of other books that provide overviews of mechanical design for specific applications. (Most of these are older books; I used to go to a lot of library used-book sales.) Here are a couple of representative examples, but I wouldn't recommend them unless you have an interest in these applications.

"Modern Marine Engineer's Manual"
Alan Osbourne

"Aircraft Layout and Detail Design"
Newton H. Anderson

Among the books I have that aren't aimed at specific applications, these stand out:

"Machinery's Handbook"
Erik Oberg et al.
A classic book, for good reason. Frequently updated, now on the 28th edition. I have the 22nd and 26th editions. A dense collection of data on literally thousands of topics related to machine design and manufacturing. Not one of the first books anyone should buy when getting into mechanical engineering, but certainly in the top 10. The current version is always a little pricey (currently $65.79 at Amazon) but slightly older editions are much cheaper and fine for most purposes unless you're pushing the state of the art.

There are also CD-ROM editions and a couple of companion books:

"Machinery's Handbook Guide to the Use of Tables and Formulas"
Erik Oberg et al.
Basically a book on how to use the handbook! Recommended.

Machinery's Handbook Pocket Companion
Richard Pohanish and Christoper McCauley
A shorter version of the handbook. I wouldn't bother.

"Mechanisms and Mechanical Devices Sourcebook, Fourth Edition"
Neil Sclater and Nicholas Chironis
I have the third edition of this book. It's basically just a big collection of mechanisms. Need to convert a circular motion into an elliptical motion? Select and apply an air spring? Assemble a sliding gear onto a fixed shaft? Over 2,000 diagrams are provided. The downside: the book often provides little more than a diagram and a few sentences of explanation.

"Detailed Mechanical Design: A Practical Guide"
James G. Skakoon
This book is written for mechanical engineers and does contain some formulas (which means it's somewhat pricey). But, in fact, you don't need to be a mechanical engineer or use the formulas at all because Skakoon explains what everything means in practical terms. For example, he gives the equation for deflection of a simply supported circular plate:

y  =    -3 * q * a^4 * (5 + v) * (1 - v²)
16 * E * t³ * (1 + v)

Complicated, sure, but Skakoon boils this formula down to the critical facts: that deflection is inversely proportional to thickness cubed and radius (or diameter) to the fourth power, and that a simply supported plate deflects four times more than a plate with fixed edges. And he reminds us that these exponential relationships mean that apparently minor manufacturing deviations can have substantial effects.

"Engineering Formulas"
Kurt Geick and Reiner Geick
This is a handy and super-dense little book. It covers all kinds of stuff, including math from arithmetic to calculus and differential equations, mechanical engineering, thermodynamics, electrical engineering, chemistry, and optics. It's very figure-heavy too, which makes the formulas easier to understand.

In terms of bang for the buck, your best bet are these free books from Stock Drive Products-Sterling Instrument (SDP-SI):

"Design and Application of Small Standardized Components (Data Book 757)"
Frank Buchsbaum et al.
Available as free PDF downloads at that link, and I see someone's selling a hardcopy on Amazon, too.

I have a 1983-vintage paperback edition. This book is also aimed at mechanical engineers, and also full of formulas, but it's still reasonably accessible with plenty of diagrams and explanations. In some cases the information is oriented toward the company's products, but mostly it's just good design advice. I mention the print edition because it actually contains more information than the downloadable PDFs, and the figures look a lot better than those in the PDFs.

Here are some other free publications from the same company, mostly catalogs, but some include selection guides and occasional application notes that come in handy too:

"Handbook Of Inch Drive Components"
"Handbook Of Metric Drive Components"
Various supplements, CDs, and catalogs

Finally, I recommend the works of Henry Petroski. He won't tell you how to design things, but he'll show you how people have designed things, which can really help you understand the design process, and especially, how it can go wrong. These are all good:

"Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design"
"To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design"
"Invention by Design; How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing"
"Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering"