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Aluminum Round Stock
Aluminum is an excellent material to practice on since it is inexpensive, cuts easily and takes a nice finish. I use it for most of my projects unless there is some reason to use another material, such as the need for extra strength.
In practice, there are many varieties of aluminum. During the refining process aluminum is mixed with specific proportions of other metals to produce desired characteristics of strength, weight, corrosion resistance and machinability in the combined metal, which is called an alloy. Many different alloys are available to meet specific needs, but '6061' alloy is a good choice for working on the minilathe.
You are unlikely to find 6061 or similar alloys at your local hardware store - the kind you find there
is typically very soft and gummy and does not machine well. To get the good stuff you will need to order from an industrial supplier such as Online Metals. MetalMart or Enco. A good starter supply would be 3' lengths of 1/8", 1/4", 1/2" and 3/4". Some of the online metal suppliers have kits that include a wide range of stock for about $100.
From some suppliers you must specify the length that you want, and they may charge a 'cutting fee' to cut the material to size. Other suppliers sell stock in fixed length of 2', 3' or 6'. Typically I buy aluminum in 6' lengths for diameters up to 1". Since the amount of metal in a rod increases with the square of the diameter, the price goes up steeply for larger diameters. To give you an idea, here are some prices from the 2003 Enco catalog for 6 foot lengths of 6061 round stock: