After a week off for my hand to heal from the aluminum burn, I got to descend into the dank oily depths of the machine shop. The shop was the darkest and grungiest place in the whole factory, with loud screechy noises and mean old guys with scary eyes. Definitely not the most inviting place for a swinging young bachelor like myself, regardless of my pursuit of rigorous on-the-job training. I continued running punk rock songs and cheap date plans through my head to drown out the negativity.
The smells of a machine shop are always distinctive, and this one stank of fresh and burnt cutting oil, and coffee, also fresh and burnt. The corner of the machine shop is where the company’s Bunn-o-matic coffee set up was located. I was hoping for some real coffee like I got in Germany, but most of the guys drank so much coffee and loaded it up with so much cream and sugar (hey, it’s free!) that they wouldn’t have known if they were drinking coffee made from pencil shavings. So, crappy Folgers or Yuban coffee it was, whatever was on sale. With half of it spilled on the hotplate or dribbled along the floor by half-asleep guys toting their personalized cups to their workstations, that quarter of the shop will reek of cheap, burnt coffee for the next 100 years, even if they tear the building down.
The tools in the machine shop were quite an assortment, including everything from an enormous old manual lathe with a six inch wide leather drive belt, flywheel punch presses, saws of every type, reciprocating shapers and drill presses to a fairly new (25 years!) six tool turret lathe that I liked to set up and run because you could spit parts out of it pretty fast. I won the admiration of some by using the tailstock on that turret lathe to push-broach a square hole into some brass hand wheels right after drilling, saving a lot of set up time and broken broaches on an overpowered press.
Finding new ways to do operations better and faster were my favorite things to do, but through this process, I found the machine shop Supervisor was padding operations for overtime and keeping his buddies on when we could really do without them. If I hadn’t been the boss’ kid, I probably would have had an “accident” with an airborne ball peen hammer or a flattened lunch box at least, had I ever been inclined to carry such a damn dumb thing.
I didn’t start right there at “the top” though. My first assignment was to grind the slag off of torch cut steel parts on an enormous belt sander so we could fixture and drill them. That thing got more of my skin than steel, but I did love making 6ft long spark showers on it. There I was introduced to the joys of breathing steel grinding dust without a mask, and that particular smell stays with you, for a long time, ick.
My next trial was learning how to sharpen a drill bit by hand. Some of the more advanced machinists had fancy little fixtures and tools to measure the grind, but I had to learn by measuring with my eyeball and then check with the fancy little tool to verify that my eyeball was correct. That was a good way to learn because our bodies have an amazing ability to measure things on their own. Thereafter, I always measured by eye, and verified by scale. I still do that with everything from guessing what a piece of meat weighs at the grocery store to reckoning the time by looking at the position of the sun in the sky, then verifying.
One of the most memorable jobs in the shop was setting up a Swiss screw machine with the little 5ft, 85lb. genius machinist, named Mel, who apprenticed in Thomas Edison’s shops. Yes, he was really old by the time we got to him. He never bragged, but the mastery in his methods and his amazing depth of knowledge made us think he probably taught Mr. Edison a thing or two. I persuaded him to set up an apprentice Machinist program similar to what he had done, and I was really nervous about the first day of my training.
I arrived early and waited until Mel the genius showed up and finished his third cup of coffee. He looked up, glared at me, got something out of his top secret, well guarded and booby trapped (really) tool box, and stalked over to me with “it” in his skinny little paw. In the gloom of that part of the shop, I could only make out that it was a thick, dark green book as he slammed it on the table in front of me. Machinery’s Handbook NINETEENTH EDITION it said on the front. He looked up from it to me and said, “Read it, and when you’re done, come talk to me about your training.” He turned on his heel and went off to work on his project. I picked up the little book and hefted it. It was only about 5×7 inches but 3+ inches thick and gave off an aura like an ancient artifact. As I opened it and started to “read” it, my gut churned. I turned from one chapter to the next, hoping for something interesting or good pictures, but no, it was bad, bad bad. There were full chapters on thread type and pitch (including the popular Whitworth threads!) and logarithm tables and fits and tolerances and my eyes went numb after about 30 seconds.
I set it down, took a breath and picked it up again, thinking if I flipped to the last page, I would see that it was a trick or hollowed out or something, but no, there was only an index in the back to better search out geneva wheels and gear hobbing secrets. It was drier than a 10 year old newspaper in the Sonora desert, drier than any martini ever made and possibly more befuddling. It was 2,000+ pages of crap I would never use and I knew then I would have to make a choice. Baffle him with BS or do the thing, and neither sounded fun.
Once I started digging in to it though, I decided it was all good because it is for reference, not reading or memorization. Nobody knows all this stuff, they just go to the book when they get stuck. I did really enjoy the section on strengths and characteristics of materials though, and dug deep on that. For a solid week I did as he asked and read it. I looked over the little green book and made up my own index of good stuff and CNN2K (Crap Nobody Needs 2 Know) noting the pages on tap drill sizes, materials and fasteners. Tools and feeds/speeds I would learn from the masters who actually told me to read the chips and sound of the machine and adjust.
I brought the book back to Mel one morning and said “OK, I’ve read it, lets go.”
He looked at me and said, “You read it, all of it?” with a wry grin on his face and his arms folded on his chest.
“Yep” I said, bold as anything.
“So what is the tap drill for a 7/8”-9 thread in 304 stainless, what machine would you use, what are your feeds and speeds, and would you cut it dry or use some cutting fluid? What tap would you use under what conditions? How would you de-burr it? Inspect it?” he asked.
“Well, let’s start here in materials and then go to tooling” I said evenly. I flipped to the section using my index, which he craned his neck over to see. To prove I had been paying attention to him in his little special ops shop, I discreetly turned the index over so he couldn’t see it as I flipped pages in the Machinist’s “bible,” just like he would do to me. I made notes and moved through the book again. A couple of minutes later, I came up for air and started to tell him the basics and also that to finish the job, I would need the input of the master to start at the right point to avoid breaking tools or the work piece or hurting somebody as that was a pretty big hole in tough material.
He stared at me for about five seconds, shook his silver coated head, mumbled “smartass” and walked off. An hour later, he invited me to lunch, and I was really shocked as I had never seen him consume anything but coffee. He just said, “Meet me back in here at noon,” and walked off. I got there early out of deep curiosity, but he had locked the door! I waited for my watch to hit straight up noon, and tried it again, and of course it was open. He had put a tablecloth on the 4ft x 8ft worktable and he sat on one side staring at me. I took the chair opposite him and just sat down, waiting for him respectfully. He pulled a bowl up from a side table and pushed it over to me. Soup, I could see. Great, I thought, summer in inland San Diego, it’s about 500 degrees in here with no AC, and you give me a bowl of hot soup for lunch. He says, “Go ahead,” and I grab the bowl and see it is kind of bland looking with some noodles and veggies and mystery meat. He plunks down salt, pepper, Tabasco and soy sauce with a little smirk he is trying to hide. I smell a rat here so I think quickly.
“May I please have a spoon for my soup?” I said.
He smiles and hands me the one he had hiding up his sleeve. I am thinking, “this looks really bland, and, how good can machine shop soup be, made by somebody who apparently doesn’t eat? And where the hell did he make this?” Watching him carefully, but trying not to be obvious, I make a hook with my hand and pull the condiments over. He smiles coyly. Hmmmm, OK. I grab the S&P to do a double shake, but he flinches as I cock my arm. Gotcha. I put them down and look at him again and smile. I look down at the soup, move it around with the spoon, move my face closer and sniff it, then finally take a small spoon full and try it. Not bad, not great, salty enough.
“Are you going to have some too Mel, or is this just your treat for me to start training with?”
Genuine smile this time. “You weaseled the first test, but you did better than me on the second one.”
“Whenever anyone applied to work at Edison’s shop, he would have them come in and, before any interview or talk, he would offer them the soup, very specific recipe. If the person tasted it before spicing it, fine, they were open to learn and probably good students. If they went right for the salt and pepper without tasting or even sniffing, they were know-it-alls and they got the bum’s rush out the door. I was a starving kid and didn’t even wait for a spoon and never put salt or pepper in soup anyway. You get extra points for asking for a spoon, but you will lose those points unless you show me the paper you were cheating off of with the Machinery’s Handbook test.”
I laughed out loud at that, and showed him my index. He liked my system OK, but still said it would be good to commit much of it to memory. I told him I believed it was only for reference, but he said “you need to know it for bidding jobs and showing the other machinists you are smarter than them.” So, I made a small compromise. I offered to memorize my index and asked him to teach me the rest. He stared at me again for about 5 seconds, then got up and walked off mumbling “smartass”.
I worked with Mel for about 5 months until he got bad sick and was out for several weeks. I learned more about critical thinking and how to approach a challenge than specific rote skills, and the rough edges of his quirky nature and crusty demeanor smoothed out some as we got to know each other better over coffee, fresh and burnt and soup, just right.
Photo courtesy of: Kheel Center