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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

New Month Old Post: School Metalwork

(first posted 21st November 2017)


Metalwork Forge
The heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture - it was like entering the bowels of hell

By the time Tinplate 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 none of us made light of it 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 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 knew when Thompson had walked down a corridor before you because it hung in the air behind him in an invisible cloud. You could follow it like a bloodhound. Sometimes, you catch a reminder from plumbers who have been soldering 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, powered 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 cooking or needlework. There would have been no shortage of feisty girls eager to swap. 

“We can make anything in this workshop from a teaspoon to a motorcycle,” Thompson told us. 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.

Year 3 School Report for Metalwork

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.

Hammer made in metalwork lessons at school

The hammer 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, it is 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 Tinplate Thompson himself. Ignoring his own advice, he picked up a piece of hot metal without spitting on it first and burnt his hand. You should have heard him swear!


The photograph of the forge is from pixabay.com and is in the public domain

29 comments:

  1. It's a fine hammer that could rival Mjolnir itself!

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    1. I'd rather walk up mountains than try to level them.

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  2. 'Very fair' made me chuckle. The hammer you fashioned looks sharp. Your final grade perhaps could have been more than 'fair'. :)

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    1. Maybe he marked me as fair and the lathe as excellent - it was the lathe that made it.

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  3. The added extract from your school report brings it all back to life. Not that I ever did metal work. Being in an all girls school meant the delights of woodwork and metalwork were forbidden subjects.

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    1. Even in the sixties, it was an odd subject to be doing in a grammar school, left over from earlier times. Boys dis woodwork and metalwork and girls did needlework and domestic science with no exceptions. I can think of several girls who gladly would have done metalwork and been good at it.

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  4. This is an excellant piece of writing! I felt I was in the workshop and could smell the chemicals and feel the heat. You certainly deserved a better grade for that hammer! Why you've even got the non-slip grip pattern in the handle and it is still a hard working tool for you after all those years.

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    1. Thank you. I think the pattern was cut by an automatic setting on the lathe.

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  5. Like Bonnie, I felt like being in the workshop (as an observer). The grades are confusing to me - wouldn't "very fair" be better than just "fair"?
    It must be nice to be using a tool that you have made yourself. Definitely never happens for me!

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    1. You mean that for all these years I've been thinking I improved slightly when in fact I got worse? I'm devastated.

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  6. I love that first paragraph. A Health & Safety Officer's worst nightmare.

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    1. That talk took up almost the whole of the first lesson. Put the fear of God into us. Two of three years later, metalwork was discontinued and the workshop turned into a pottery, although woodwork continued. I doubt they have done anything like that for many years now - it's all design technology stuff.

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  7. In the sculpture department of my college, I painted the end of a bit of iron bar a cherry red which faded to nothing about two inches from the end, and left it on the hot table. It stayed there for about 2 weeks.

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    1. A true work of art indeed but it should also have been covered in spit.

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  8. I guess that "Very fair" really means "Shit". I wonder why he was called Tinplate Thompson? Perhaps he was in a skiffle band and at weekends played his tin plate with a wooden spoon while singing "My Old Man's a Dustman".

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    1. Accompanied by Washboard Williams from domestic science, and Thimble Theasby from needlework.

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  9. There was no metalwork in my girls' school - not even woodwork. You could do some damage in the cookery class though, if you tried hard enough.
    And if you didn't injure yourself gutting and boning you could take your undercooked results home to poison your family.

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    1. Sounds like you have a good blog post there.

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  10. Sounds like my one year of doing Chemistry - we didn't have gas at home and I began and ended the year being afraid of the Bunsen burner. I too got 'very fair' which is about the most uncomplimentary thing anyone can say about you I think.

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    1. You must have had the same grading system as us. Chemistry I liked but that's another story.

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  11. The nuns didn't encourage us girls to do much beyond pray at regular intervals but I do remember making a wicker basket in the fourth form. It's nice to know that I can remember how to make another one, were it ever called for.

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    1. That's a useful skill but I can imagine it not being very kind to hands. We still use a couple of wicker baskets.

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  12. I really like this post,it reminds me of so many things. The smell of raw wool from the mill workers clothes on the Sammy Ledgard buses. Working in the foundry as a sculpture student at Leeds College of Art, making and tempering our own chisels. The garden trowel that our daughter made at school that I've been using for years.
    Your school report made me laugh. I threw mine away!

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary. That's a good one: Sammy Ledgard buses. When I moved to Leeds I think they had gone, having been taken over by West Yorkshire, but from earlier visits they were blue weren't they? Were your school reports that bad? I'd like to see a picture and a post about that trowel.

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  13. One of my near ancestors was a tin smith. The man was one of my father's several uncles, pure Irish. Still in the family are a couple of tin dippers he made, and a beautiful large brass pail. I don't know it's original use, but we kept it by the wood stove, to carry ashes out to the garden. From your description, I can see the work being done, in my mind's eye.

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    1. We are losing so many skills. Lots of people used to be able to make things out of metal, useful serviceable things, but now it's thought clever to be able to use a 3D printer. It isn't.

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  14. Fascinating, Tasker. Great workshop photo. Memorable Comments. The hard-beaten metal stuff of a Seamus Heaney poem.

    Over 30 years ago I explored an abandoned foundry in Larbert, Stirlingshire. It too had a pungent smell from long ago. It was a beautiful summer's afternoon, and the foundry was like a ghost in sunlight. As you say, the smell of a pipe being soldered brings it back.

    We were a nation of gigantic industry, machine makers, workshops, and small trades. Maybe only the craftsman and artist are left to celebrate the physicality of achievement.

    Last night on YouTube I watched several videos on the painter Howard Hodgson; a number of films on the Tateshots series; and then some promotional videos by Moscot, the makers of designer eyewear, New York.

    My fascination with the making of things never comes to an end. Watching buildings going up is a kind of theatre. Coronavirus stopped it all.

    My late father was a tradesman and journeyman. But he knew the complexity of trades that I'll never know. He left behind his many tools, a brass microscope, lathes, and a watchmaker's cutting machine.

    There's a Melvyn Bragg interview with Len Deighton on YouTube, part of The Lively Arts series for BBC TV. Deighton said he likes machinery, rarer than one may think. You do too. I hope you return to this theme.

    John Haggerty

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    1. Thanks for visiting again and reading, John. I'll look for those things on YouTube. As I said above, all these skills are being lost. They'll be in great demand if, God forgive, we get an even more serious virus than the current one.

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