|The heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture - it was like entering the bowels of hell|
By the time Tinpot Thompson had finished describing the gruesome horrors of the metalwork shop, we were too scared to move. He went over and over all the ways to hurt or injure yourself: cutting your skin on sharp edges, scraping it on rough surfaces, hitting your fingers with a hammer, trapping them in pincers, burning your flesh with a soldering iron, melting it with molten metal, ripping off your scalp by catching your hair in a machine, or an arm by catching a sleeve, … the list went on and on. It was so terrifying that not a single one of us thought it amusing when he ended with “... and remember, before you pick up any metal, spit on it to make sure it’s not hot.”
The first thing you noticed about the place was the smell: sharp, bitter and pungent, a mixture of metal polish, machine oil, cutting fluid and soldering flux. It clung to your hair and clothes. You could tell when Thompson had walked down a corridor because it hung in the air behind him in an invisible cloud. You could follow it like a bloodhound. Sometimes you get a reminder from plumbers who have been joining pipes, or brass musicians. It brings it back: the heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture. It was like entering the bowels of hell.
There were lethal looking hand tools, lathes, drills, cutters, grinders, a blacksmith’s forge and anvil, and welding equipment with a Darth Vader face mask. We made feeble jokes about bastard files and horizontal borers, but most of us would rather have stayed with the lesser perils of woodwork, or, safer still, been allowed to do cookery or needlework. There would have been no shortage of girls willing to swap.
“We can make anything in this workshop from a spoon to a motorcycle,” Thompson claimed. Guess which we got to make.
We each cut the shape of a tea caddy spoon out of a brass plate, hammered out the bowl over a wooden form, and smoothed the edges with a file. Mine was such a jagged and misshapen catastrophe I decided to ‘lose’ it in the acid bath where, hopefully, it dissolved away to nothingness. Yet it was magnificent compared to my sugar scoop. That was made out of soldered tinplate and supposed to look like a box with a slanted opening. Oh dear! A three-year old would have done better cutting it out with blunt scissors and sticking it up with paste. I might just as well have scraped on the solder with a builder’s trowel. It was ridged and lumpy, and didn’t hold together very well at all. Thompson wrinkled his nose in disgust as he marked it, as reflected in my school report.
Everyone else’s work looked neat, smooth and functional. But I did have one minor success. It was a hammer. It turned out right because the lathe did most of the work. All you had to do was squirt milky fluid on to the cutting tool while turning a handle. Even I could manage that. I was not even troubled by the springy coils of ‘swarf’ that flew off like shrapnel, threatening to slice your skin to shreds. My next report grade leapt from Very fair to Fair.
The head consisted of a sawn-off rod cut with a couple of grooves and drilled with a hole to accommodate the handle. The handle was a longer, narrower rod with a non-slip grip pattern milled into one end, and cut thinner at the other end to fit through the head. I can no longer remember exactly how the head was fixed to the handle – it might have involved heat and expansion – but mine didn’t fall apart. I’ve still got it. You can see from the battered ends I still abuse it now and again.
Thinking back to that one year of metalwork, I find it surprising that, so far as I know, no one was ever seriously injured. There were a few minor cuts and scrapes, but the nastiest accident was to Tinpot Thompson himself. Ignoring his own advice, he picked up a piece of hot metal without spitting on it first, and burnt his hand.
The photograph of the forge is from pixabay.com, and is in the public domain