Makeshift Machinists


I really believe that a machinist who likes to see things, can find more solid enjoyment in some of the rough-and-tumble jobbing shops located in the woods, than he can in some high-toned manufacturing establishments, gotten up without regard to cost. The workmen turned out by such concerns are invariably of more value than those raised in nice shops.

* * * * A new man comes along and says he worked ten years in Hotchkiss’ shop. Now, Hotchkiss has the reputation of selling the nicest shafting known to the market. You want a man to turn shafting, and, of course, you ask this new comer if he worked any on shafting in Hotchkiss’ shop. He answers truly that he never did much else. You consider yourself lucky, and set the man to work.

You soon find that he turns the worst shafting in the world, and gets out about twelve feet a day. You go for the gentleman, and ask him why he can’t do some decent work and some reasonable quantity of it. He explains, in a very condescending manner, that if you want good work you must furnish good facilities. He explains that, when at Hotchkiss’, he used a special lathe with a wonderful carriage arrangement, carrying numerous tools, and with a centering and straightening attachment, and a burring rest for finishing to size. With this rig he turned a hundred and fifty feet of nice shafting in ten hours, and says he can do it every day in the week if you will bring him the apparatus.

Now, you know all about this kind of thing. You have been in Hotchkiss’ shop, and you know this man speaks truly. But you ain’t in the shafting business, and don’t propose to go into the business. You have shafting jobs now and then, and want to do the work fair in quality and reasonable in price. You don’t expect to do it as cheap as Hotchkiss does, who makes a specialty of it.

You see at once that this man, who was all right in Hotchkiss’ shop, don’t know anything about turning shafting at all. You hunt up a boy in the other end of the shop—a long-legged, long-headed youth, who has spent two years with you learning the machinist’s trade. He knows how to turn shafting, and you know it. You put him on the long lathe, and he gives you forty feet of shafting in ten hours, and it’s forty times as good as the machinist from Hotchkiss’ shop could turn. If your long-legged boy ever gets a job in Hotchkiss’ shop, Hotchkiss will have a rough diamond capable of high polish.

* * * * You give the new man another lathe and set him to boring pulleys. He bores about three miserable holes in a day. He finds no pulley-boring machine, no good chuck drills, no reamers, no nothing. He ridicules the idea of doing work without tools. He never looks at his own deficiencies, but looks at the deficiencies of the shop. He is a nice fellow, but is not smart enough to admire the men all around him, who, every hour in the day, are doing things he can’t do at all.

* * * * You tell the new man he is a failure on a lathe. You set him to key-seating some big pulleys. They must be chipped and filed. Does he go and get good, solid side chisels dressed, and does he lay a wide, straight edge in the hole and draw one mark to chip his key-seat to; and does he sit down on a block and send three heavy, nice, clean, straight, flat cuts through the pulley; and does he file five minutes and show you a nice, clean key-seat, out of wind and free from chisel marks, all done in forty minutes?

No; he don’t. He never cut a key-seat, and never saw one cut in this way. He was brought up alongside a slotting machine, and he is now five hundred miles from the nearest slotting machine. He knows he can’t do this job, and is smart enough to tell you so. This man is no machinist at all. He served a five years’ apprenticeship, and worked eight years in one of the best shops in the United States, but he is actually of less value than your youngest cub.

You put the case to him fairly; tell him you need men and like his looks, and that if he can point out any work in the shop which he can do properly, you will be glad to keep him. He feels badly; and after looking around, decides that he can’t do what the poorest men in the shop are doing.

He will do one of two things: If he’s a coward, without any coarse grit in him, he will abandon the “machinist” trade and tramp back to Hotchkiss and beg for a job on that shafting lathe. If he has the right stuff in him, he will start in and learn the trade. He has sense and experience and don’t need to commence just like a boy. He can start anywhere he chooses, at such wages as his work shows he earns, and increase his wages as he increases his value.

* * * * You go into one of these rough-and tumble shops and watch a man at a lathe. He whistles and sings and skylarks and smokes, maybe, and does a hundred other things which the high and mighty think ought to send a man to the penitentiary. But don’t that chap do the work, though! Don’t he earn and get good wages, and don’t the proprietor make more out of him every day than the high and mighty do out of three men who were brought up to use every modern facility, and who are stumped if one of the aforesaid facilities happens to get broken.

Watch this outre machinist as he works. He runs an eighteen inch lathe, perhaps, and the work brought to him might well be, and, in a better fixed shop would be, distributed among big lathes, little lathes, Fox lathes, planers, slotters, milling machines, cutting machines, drilling machines, screw machines, bolt cutters, gear cutters, etc.

But this chap does everything which is laid by his lathe. Some he does tip-top, some he leaves slouchy, but all of it is done as well as is required. He does this all the time. He lives on it. Every job he does is something he, or anybody else, never did before, but he does it all the same. This man is no mere machine wound up and set to running a shafting-turning machine. This shop isn’t a manufacturing concern with a system adapted to a special product.

This is one of my Simon Pure machine shops, doing job work, new and old, and this fellow we see is a lordly lathesman, a real machinist. You may set him down in any shop in the world where there’s a lathe, and a job to do, and he can do it. He will jump at new and better ways, but is not helpless in the meantime. He’s no baby. He’s a machinist, and he is worth money every day.

Oh, ye puny chaps that claim to be lathesmen! You only know one way of doing things, and that’s the way you were taught to do it. You only know how to do one job, and that’s the job you worked on while you were being taught, and you can’t do that job when you get in another shop away from home. Aren’t you ashamed to ridicule a poor, one-horse machine shop when every man in it is immeasurably your superior? Aren’t you ashamed to claim fellowship and equal wages with these sharp fellows, full of mechanical wit, who do work every day which you don’t even dare to undertake? You say they can’t do it well. You can’t do it at all. You don’t know how to tackle it.

* * * * Look at the job this lathesman gets. He is sitting on a casting and handling a connecting rod strap. It’s a rough forging for a strap to hold square boxes. You can’t see a bit of lathe-work about it anywhere, or a chance for any. Pretty soon he gets his present job done. Now he puts a miserable looking angle-plate against his face-plate, and sets this strap in some shape. He fishes a dirty piece of paper out of his tool box. This paper contains a memorandum of sizes which he took down verbatim as the foreman gave them. He goes to work, and in two hours, lays two hours of planing on the floor.

He has surfaced that strap nicely and squarely all over the outside. There’s one job of “lathework” done. There is but one planer in the shop, and that is too much crowded to be doing anything that can be done in any other machine. That same planer will stand still six months in the year, so it would be folly to get another, and thus be ready for a rush which never comes when you are ready.

* * * * Here goes for the next job. Twelve stubs about two feet long, one and three-quarters diameter, to have thread cut eight inches on one end. No turning, simply a thread to be cut. They belong to a bridge bolt job, and the bolt cutter has no dies for this size. Soon this job is done. It isn’t nice lathe work. Nothing to be proud of, but it is o. k. in every way. What next? He puts on a chuck and proceeds to chase out twelve hot-pressed nuts for these bridge bolts. Ough! how your teeth grit to see a lathesman having to do such a job. It’s a nasty job, but there’s no tap that size, and soon it’s done and off this chap’s mind.

* * * * Next comes some nice lathe work; a couple of valve stems and two or three small wrists. They are finished to the sizes given and nicely polished. He gets them done, and feels proud of them. Bless him, any lathesman can do such work.

* * * * Here’s a brass casting for a two-inch stop-cock, and by it lies the old one. It’s a repair job. The old one is bursted wide open. The plug is swelled, but not broken. Does a foreman come around and instruct this man how to do this job? No, sir. His orders were to “rig up that cock.” He takes the casting, chucks it, and in half an hour has a two-inch pipe thread chased in each end. Now he chucks crosswise, and you suddenly notice that this cock must be bored tapering. How is this fellow going to bore this hole? Will he go and get a nice taper reamer? I guess not in this shop. Will he fit up some kind of a reamer? Not be. He is fitting up an old water-cock, not making new reamers.

He’ll set the head of the lathe over, won’t he? No, he won’t. The head of the lathe can’t be swiveled. Will he set the Slate taper attachment over? Guess not, as he never heard of Slate; and don’t know what a taper attachment is. Will he use the compound rest? He may some day, when such a thing gets into the shop. Will he stick a wedge under the back wing of the carriage? No. He never heard of it, and is not so deep an inventor as to think of it just when he wants it.

Will he wrap a cord around his cross-feed screw-handle and tie it to his tail-stock, and thus get the taper? No, he has no time to invent this ingenious plan. Will he find a fancy little sliding-head boring-bar somewhere? Not a bar. Has he a mandrel which he can screw his chuck on, and thus do the job in the steady rest? No, sir. He won’t do any of these smart things, and he won’t tell you that the shop ought to have a Fox lathe for such work, and he won’t tell you how the Metropolitan Cock Company bore them out, for he don’t know, and, I am sorry to add, he don’t care. All he cares about is to lay that cock down on the floor and call it done, and as well done as is needed.

He whistles a very peculiar air in a very soft manner and turns his cross crank slowly to keep time. The result is a hole which is tapering, if it’s nothing else. It would have taken him just about as long to bore it straight. He takes the job out. Puts on a face-plate, and puts the old cock plug in the lathe. He chalks it and hammers the swells out, or in, rather. Then he sets his lathe over and takes a light cut over it. Then he marks a close fit in the cock, but keeps the plug large.

Now he goes to a vise and files the hole. It was tapering all right, but the sides were not straight. He files carefully but boldly, watching the tool marks in the hole, and trying the plug. Soon he is done with the filing, and, returning to his lathe, completes the fit of the plug. Now he grinds it in, and soon there isn’t a file mark or a tool mark in the hole or on the plug.

It is simply a first-class, water-tight taper job, quickly done in a third-class manner. He screws the thing together, and bounces the next job. Time on old cock, three hours and a quarter. You or I could not do it as well or as quick with all the cock-making appliances in existence. This man never fitted up a water-cock before. He is a machinist, and will hustle out any job you will bring him, and will do it as well as you want it done, and no better.

Extracts from Chordal’s Letters

American Machinist – January 17, 1880

—Jeff Burks

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4 Responses to Makeshift Machinists

  1. Alex A. says:

    I think this is true in many career paths. I started work in audit for one of the Big 4 accounting firms in a small office. Because we were small, no one specialized, we worked all kinds of projects for all types of clients. I came away with a wide variety of skills and knowledge. I have since worked with people from that same firm’s larger offices and they only knew how to do one thing, because that was all they had done their entire career and if the project deviated from the normal plan they were worthless.

    • Matt Merges says:

      Funny, I used to work in a Big 4 too (on the management consulting side) and had the same thought. Early in my career I got advice to become a generalist, and it has enabled me to experience a wide range of clients and industries.

  2. marvthompson says:

    Not only are the stories interesting and oft times thought provoking, the photography and prints you include are top notch. I loving zooming in on and studying the fine details. Plus anybody that includes a full frame large format chrome is all right with me.

  3. I hear Hotchkiss will not hire you if you say “He don’t.”

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