Friday, November 23, 2012

Interviews with Journeymen 1

Perhaps ten years ago I really started to think about all the potential knowledge stored in the heads of some of the journeymen I have met and respected. It was around that time that I started seriously thinking about capturing some of this knowledge for the benefit of the trade in some other form than a balding head with a loud mouth attached to it.

Listening to Charlie and Doug tell stories and describe tricky jobs they had to do was a delight. Just listening to these guys spin a yarn would fill your mental toolbox with new things to think about and learn from.  The oral tradition is still strong in the trades. Many of the most valuable life lessons I have managed to absorb were learned in the cold dank recesses of a metalworking shop not from any book.

Engineers and scientists write books, give talks and publish papers so their discoveries and knowledge are accessible to their peers and adds to the craft as a whole. Trades people don't do that much writing in comparison. The internet has helped, but we lose valuable hard won life lessons each time one of these old codgers dies. This was recently brought to the surface again as a close friend died recently that was a master at his craft with an encyclopedic knowledge and memory to go with it. Everything he knew is lost now. All that remains for the apprentices seeking knowledge is to study his work output and try to glean some understanding from reverse engineering his finished products. This process is less than perfect and much more difficult than just asking the right questions when you had the chance when he was available.

What are the right questions? I cant really answer that fully. It depends on where you are on your journeyman's path. Half the battle is just knowing there are always questions that can be answered now and used to fill in the chinks in your knowledge.When you think you have all the answers then beware.

The subject of this article is an attempt to test drive one way of capturing some of this trade knowledge and experience so the trade grows and becomes stronger. My thought is not a new one but perhaps the subject matter is. I thought it would be interesting and beneficial to interview some of the journeymen I know and respect just to see what comes out of it. I know from my own experience that just listening to these guys is fascinating and educational at the same time. Like listening to the tribal chief around the campfire and passing some of that hard earned lore from generation to generation.

What follows is an attempt at the first journeyman interview that I hope grows into something useful. So please forgive me because I decided to test drive the idea on myself. What follows is an interview of me conducted by my wife. It was a little weird since she has heard all my stories a thousand times so we pretended that we didn't know each other for the interview. I think I might have even surprised her with some of my answers. Which goes to show you never know what you might learn.

If you like the idea let me know by commenting to this article. There are quite a few journeymen out there worth hearing their stories and experiences. If there is something you think I should ask then let me know.

Interview #1
Tom Lipton. Years of experience in the trades, 40. Specialties, Sheetmetal, Welding, Manual and CNC machine work, Mechanical Design, Shop management, technical writing.

How did you get your start in the trades? That's a long time ago. My dad got me interested in working in the garage with him on stuff. It just grew out of that I guess. How old were you then? Well the earliest thing I remember is working in the basement when I was maybe six or seven years old. The only thing I can nail a date on was when I learned how to weld.
You learned how to weld when you were six or seven years old? No, I was nine when that happened. I was scared shitless when I had to do it. That's probably why I remember it so well. Was your dad a welder? No, he was a chemist. He worked for Shell Development in Emeryville. You reminded me about that. I got a tour of Shell Development when I was pretty young. Definitely before I leaned how to weld. The place was so cool. All these really smart looking guys running around using some complicated looking mad scientist equipment. So, I have to ask, why does a chemist have a welding machine in his garage. Was he working on an invention or something? No, he had a little business in the basement making ceramic potters wheels for artist types. There was a part that needed a small weld on it to connect it together. Also back then any self respecting dad had a workshop in the basement even if all it was was a Shopsmith and a bench vise. Kind of an early American man cave.
Did your dad have a shopsmith in his workshop? He has a Craftsman radial arm saw that still scares the crap out of me. I don't know how those arm lopping saws got so popular. He also had a big Miller welding machine in the basement which is the one I learned to weld on. So would it be fair to say that your dad was the reason you got into the trades? I guess. He never pushed me that hard in the direction of the manual trades. One thing he told me from around that time that stuck in my head is a guy that could weld, and do machine work would never be out of a job. Did that influence your career? Not that I recall. The thing was we had this family friend that was super cool. He was a welder and machinist that built a boat and did commercial fishing. real mountain man stuff, in fact the welding machine in the basement was his. He was storing it there while he pulled up stakes and went to work on the Alaska pipeline. You have to remember that this was the age of the hippies and this guy was as far from a hippy as you could get. He built stuff out of steel and aluminum, not some hippy redwood burl crap. I can see you like the image this guy portrayed. Jeremiah Johnson with a welding helmet. Close. I wanted to be the James Bond that was in Thunderball.  What about school? Did you take shop class in high school or college? Yeah. In high school I thought I wanted to do electronics. The electronics teacher was such a pompous ass that I got out of it and went to metal shop. I stayed there the entire time I was in high school. I guess the metal shop teacher was better than the electronics teacher? When I was a freshman the metal shop teacher we started with was totally old school and a real task master. He made us file a cube of cold rolled until our hands bled. The files were so bad that when you found a good one you hid it so you could use it the next day. The couldn't give you guys some new files? It wasn't that at all. Mr Sly was old school and made you work for it. If you could do the job with a crappy file then a new one was a piece of cake. He was the same way with the hacksaw blades. If you asked for a new one he would run his thumb along the blade near the handle or the opposite end and say, "There's plenty of life left in this blade. Shorten up your stroke." What kind of things did you guys build in metal shop? Its funny but I can't really remember anything other than an aluminum meat tenderizer. We made these cubes of steel with a file and a square, and I think there was some of the classic lathe turned diameters that had to be spot on size. Typical high school metal shop. I was a teachers aide so I helped a lot of other students with their projects. What kind of equipment did the shop have? There were two welding area's. One for stick welding and the other for gas welding. It also had an aluminum foundry, a natural gas forge and anvil, vertical milling machine, and three Rockwell lathes. I just remembered we made a cold chisel in the forge out of O-1 or W-1 tool steel. It was octagonal which is a weird shape of tool steel you don't see too often even today. Do you still have it? I don't think so. I think I tossed it after trying to use it on something and it was way too soft. I must have heat treated it wrong. Did you get a job in the trades after you got out of high school? I already had a job. I worked at a motorcycle shop after school and then got my first real metal working job while I was still in high school. So you got a metalworking job while you were still going to high school? How did you get that job? Boy that's a tough one. I think it was some friend of the family long deal type of connection. It was in a different city so I actually had to commute some to get there. What kind of things did the shop build? Mostly wrought iron fences and gates. Lots and lots of pickets and small steel tubing. Every once in a while we would do something else like build a truck lumber rack. Were you able to learn anything there? Sure. You always learn something. The main thing I learned there was what a crappy boss looks like.The owner was a lazy jerk and bullshitter. He told me some stuff that turned out to be total garbage. Is that the main thing you learned at that shop? Pretty much. I did learn a couple of valuable things that I still use. One is how to space pickets out uniformly along any length really quickly and the other thing is how not to hold your arm when you MIG weld. How do you you hold your arm when you MIG weld? Out of the spray of sparks by tucking it in closer to your body. You learn real quick or you end up with scars to prove it. And yes I still have some scars from that place. Did they have any machinery there? A few things like an iron worker, a nice Kalamazoo horizontal band saw, decent welding machines, and a nice welding table on a hydraulic lift. How long did you work there? Maybe a year. I left as soon as I found another metal working job. In fact when I found the new job I didn't even bother to go and pick up my paycheck from the old place. My dad finally made me go back there and get it. Ouch, how did that go? It sucked. At first I thought he was going to let me off easy but then he let me have it. It was a lesson in facing the music. He waited until I reached out to take the check out of his hand before he laid into me. Where did you go after you left that place? I quit for a job closer to home. A friends brother hooked me up at a place that made four wheel drive accessories. I stayed there for a couple of years. Any unique memories from that period of time? I just told a story the other day about the owner of that shop. He had smashed his finger in between something and had a big hematoma under one of his fingernails. He had been whining about it for a few days and he finally decided he was going to drill through the nail to relieve the pressure. Youch! That makes my fingers ache just from your description. How did he drill it? It was great. He got the smallest drill in the set, a number 60 and chucked it in the drill press. On this drill press you had to change a couple of belts to change the speed. While he was changing the belts he banged the same sore finger in the guard of the drill press and was howling like a little kid. We were all cracking up. Was this guy a wimp or something? Not really, more like a melodramatic poser. He looked like one of the guys in ZZ top with his little cheap liquor store cigar, the kind with the white teeth gripper. This was all sticking out of a huge red beard. So what happened with his finger on the drill press? Oh yeah, he finally gets the speed set after hopping around for a few minutes and he proceeds to slowly drill through his fingernail dead center of the hematoma. The pain must have been intense. It took him a couple of tries to go all the way through. The best part was when he finally broke through. The internal pressure spurted blood all over the drill press. He let out a sigh of relief like he just finished having some great sex. What was the next  big learning experience for you? I wanted to work in an oil refinery. I was trying to get a job at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond. At the time I thought I wanted to weld full time and my dad worked there. When I was looking there they weren't hiring any welders. They needed operators with refinery experience. Did you start welding full time? In a roundabout way. I went to a vocational school to become a qualified welder. I could already weld but so many people asked me if I had any certifications I thought that it was necessary to get certified. Did you get your certification? Yes. Actually I ended up with several when I graduated. The school offered me a job before I graduated. That's pretty smooth. You got your wish to weld all the time. Actually it was a huge learning period in my career. We had to teach in the classroom as well as teach actual welding on the shop floor. When you have to show somebody how to do something three different ways you become pretty good yourself at demonstrating and explaining verbally. The classroom was the hardest part for me. What did you teach in the classroom at a welding school? There were different modules for the different kinds of welding. Each module had roughly a third that was classroom theory and book work. We taught blueprint reading, welding symbols, shop math, drafting. It was a lot of preparation for the instructors. Which one did you teach? All of them. We rotated through the modules so you ended up teaching everything. The shop math is the one I had the most trouble with. At the time I was pretty lousy at math. Did you overcame that deficiency? It was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned. I figured out that it wasn't that hard to stay ahead of the class and never ever give an answer to something if you don't know. That was the real lesson I learned teaching in the classroom. How many students were in your class? In one module there might be twenty to thirty students. Six modules, makes a hundred or more students per shift. There was a day shift and a swing shift. Two hundred plus students at any given time at six grand a pop to enroll. It was a major operation. We really burned some welding rod there. What other things come to mind when you think of your time there? Balloon tests and no fingerprints. Ok you got my attention on that one. Tell me about balloon tests and what you mean by no fingerprints. Was it some kind of criminal operation? (Laughs) No it wasn't criminal other than what they charged to attend the school. The fingerprint thing was from the TIG welding module. The more senior instructors would snag the better modules, and the TIG module was the best out of all of them. One of the things you end up doing a thousand times for each class is sharpening tungsten electrodes.
 The students contaminated tungsten's like drunken sailors drinking shots on shore leave. We issued them one at the beginning of the module but this quickly became so short that it was difficult to grind. The instructors ended up grinding a lot of electrodes. They get hot when you grind them and your calluses start to smooth over from rotating a hot cylindrical object between your fingertips. You end up with big smooth pads instead of fingerprints. That sounds painful. Its really not. You hardly realize its happening. At first it might feel hot but on the hundredth zillionth tungsten you can almost handle them red hot.  So I'm still wondering about the balloon test? The balloon test became a grand tradition for the incoming students in the oxy fuel module. The welding gasses can be dangerous so we used to do a demonstration with a small balloon filled with acetylene and oxygen. A small six or eight inch diameter balloon would break fluorescent lamps and knock the clock off the wall from the shockwave.  It was intended to make the students respect the hazards of the materials. One of my friends there used to relish doing that demonstration.  

I can tell watching this video that these guys didn't have the gas mixture quite right. When you get it right it is a much sharper sound and even more energetic. We actually got really good at doing this since we did it a couple times a month. How did the students react? Oh it scared the shit out of them. In fact it was almost too effective. In that module its really common when the torch pops if you get it too close to the base material or the torch tip is dirty. The normal pops had these folks shaking like leaves after the balloon test. It took a few days for them to calm down and realize the popping was normal.Would you say this was a pivotal place in your skill building? One of them. The school built confidence. Getting up in front of a bunch of guys, many older than you and showing them how to do things and have them thank you is pretty empowering. That early confidence was a great tool to put in my toolbox. So I would say the time I spent at the school and when I first got into sheetmetal were the real important times in my early apprenticeship. At one point did you switch to sheetmetal? I didn't really switch. It all happened at the same time. My first sheetmetal job was pretty humbling. I was a good welder which is how I landed the opportunity, but I sucked at sheetmetal. Its a good thing the first job I did as a sheetmetal worker was a huge welding job. What were you welding? They were stainless fuse enclosures. Hundreds and hundreds of them. 14 gauge three feet long, fifteen inches wide and maybe twelve inches across. The shop was filled with them when I started. Sounds boring. How did you feel about it? It was all new to me at that point. I just got in there and welded for months. The first couple were pretty rough but an English guy named Tony helped me early on. After that it was rock and roll. I was fortunate that I got that production job first. All the other guys in the shop didn't want to do it so there was no competition from the established guys while I got better flying under the radar. They also left me alone because it was a miserable job. By hanging in there and not complaining  I cemented a reputation without having to fight for it. Was your reputation that important there? Its important everywhere. Its how the pecking order is established. This was a union shop so there were different journeyman levels which each carried a level of respect and a definite pay differential. What was your reputation? Old school, hard worker, good welder, means what he says. Most of those I get. I know there is a story about "means what he says". You would be right. I told a guy I would hit him with a hammer if he put his finger on the steel table I was working at. He wasn't convinced the first time so I educated him a second time. Did you get in trouble for hitting him with a hammer? Hell no. He would have been more embarrassed if he went and went crying to the foreman than the pain of any hammer hit. His posse would have laughed him out of the shop. You hit his hand twice? No, the second time I hit him in the head but that's a story on its own. Do you ever wish you did something else? No way. This is the best thing I can imagine. The only improvement I can think of involves cheerleaders and a good Vietnamese restaurant next door that delivers. What skill would you like to have? That's a good question because so many things interest me. I guess I would like to learn more about precision grinding and EDM work. This is something I have not done very much of that's on my shopping list. What is your weakness? Some people mistake my enthusiasm for the trade for being a know it all. The truth is I don't like it when I hear people that should know better giving out bad, or misinformation. I feel its part of my duty to correct bad advice related to the trade. And let me tell you the web is loaded with it. When did you know this was what you wanted to do? I think it was in high school shop. Before that I thought I wanted to be a welder. Shop class opened my eyes to some other metalworking areas like machining. At what point did you not have to think about the basics? I'm not sure what you mean by basics, but I do remember a point where I didn't have to have my full attention focused on what I was doing just to do it. For example when somebody would ask me a question when I was welding and I could think about what they were asking and give them a meaningful answer without stopping. What is the first thing you notice when you go into a new shop? Smell. I always notice the smell. Every shop has a signature aroma to it. It is related to the cutting oils they use and the materials the shop works with and in some cases the food the shop people eat. The smells get blended together into a unique combination. Not always good by the way. Do you have a favorite material? It depends on what I'm doing. If its sheetmetal I like copper a lot because of its warm rich color, and its smell. If its machine work I guess I like 8620 steel. It produces the most amazing blue purple chips you have ever seen.  
 What kind of toys did you play with when you were a kid? The usual ones a kid in the sixties and seventies had. I had a Mattel helicopter on a rotating arm that I really liked. Also my mom gave me the saw off the aluminum foil box to play with. I ended up cutting into her furniture with it. The great part was she blamed herself. Duhhh, what do you think a kid would do with a saw and no adults around? How many tools do you have? A lot. Its one of the things I really like about the trades. Each trade has its own set of tools. I like the look and feel of all of them. What do your tools mean to you? When I look at my tools I feel unlimited potential and possibilities. They stimulate my imagination and desire to create things. Did any of the mentors you worked with ever give you a tool? Yes, Doug gave me an old English cross pein hammer that I really like and Charlie gave me all kinds of stuff but my favorite thing is a toolmakers microscope that he made before I was born.
 What other trades people impress you? All of them. I think there is something to be learned from all of them. None are inherently better than any others. I would add that I do have preferences. In your experience what is the worst task in this craft? What I really hate is being interrupted when I'm in the zone out in the shop by some human maintenance need. Human maintenance? What I mean by human  maintenance is having to sleep or go to the bathroom or stop to go to some kind of social function. Having to wear lots of protective equipment to do some icky operation is probably on the list also. What is your most favorable memory of a job or project you did? It wasn't a job it was an auction I went to. I spent four days crawling all over the Mare Island shipyard crafts shops. It was a historical event like no other you can imagine. At the time I would have killed for a better digital camera. As for actual jobs there are lots of projects I'm fond of with new favorites happening all the time. Probably one of the more recent ones I really enjoyed was one we called the death star.  
 What is the most negative memory of something in the trade? This interview. Just kidding. I don't have one yet. There are things I didn't like when they happened but they are all part of what I am right now. Without them I'm not sure what I would be like. Do you give back to the trade? I write about what I do so there is some kind of durable record of the knowledge. I also train young people by volunteering and giving talks about the work. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Buying the whole Mare Island shipyard and all its equipment before it got dismantled and inviting the best and brightest craftspeople from all over the world to come over and play. Second to that is what I have right now. I'm a pretty lucky guy.  
 Are there any historical figures you look up to? Probably Richard Feynman. He wasn't a metalworker but I think he is my idea of somebody that obviously loved his work and didn't care what anybody thought. He worked on things that interested him for the fun of it.  Do you have a motto? "Nothing too strong ever broke". I borrowed it from my friend Doug. If you had a chance to change something you did during your career what would that be? I would try to protect my hearing more carefully. I could have done better on that one. Never sell any tools or equipment.

If you had to condense any advice to someone learning the trade what would that advice be? Learn everything you can about everything you can. Your skills are your protection and the key to your satisfaction and security. If your young move around every few years so you learn how other people do things. Be humble. There will be plenty of time to be cocky. What is your favorite hand tool? Obviously you haven't seen my tool collection. I don't just have one I have two. The file and the hammer are probably my most favorite. Did you ever get a nickname? Not that I know of, at least none ever stuck. I never gave a crap what anybody thought of me. I cant do anything about what other people think, so I don't waste my time worrying about it.  Lots of guys I worked with got some pretty bad nicknames like my buddy laser beam. 
In your career what is the thing you are most proud of? An excellent question. I think it is when the my old mentor Doug said something to me that really felt good and made all the hard work worth it. I had recently finished a difficult compound shaping job for a kettle barbeque prototype. I was showing Doug some pictures of how I had attacked the problem. He told me I had really come far and was doing things he never got to do. He also said that he would have struggled with the job if it had been given to him. Keep in mind this is coming from a guy that built his own fifty foot sailboat in his backyard from the ground up. It swelled me with pride that he thought that much of my abilities.   
 If you had to rate your career how would you rate it? So far so good. I cant wait to see what happens tomorrow.


  1. I for one would be very keen to read these interviews, and think it's an excellent idea.

    A possible question: "In your career, what is the thing you are most proud of?"

    Really hope you do these articles.

    Many Thanks, and hope to see more soon.

  2. Hi Map,

    An excellent question to add to the interviews. Fortunately for this one I can easily add it in.

    Thanks for the great suggestion.

    Tom Lipton

  3. Those BBQ's are really impressive fabrication.

    I once worked for a Bulk Handling Equipment manufacturer. I used to develop the patterns of the components of the products and program them to be cut on a CNC Laser Cutter.

    One of the products of the company were IBC's (Intermediate Bulk Containers). These were basically square mid sections with square-to-round transition pieces on either end, which sat in a box section frame. I remember one pharmaceutical company ordered some 316 stainless ones with round corners, for ease of cleaning (very similar to the link below).

    This design required approximately an 1/8th of a sphere to marry up the square section and transition piece corners. In the end we used a form die to manufacture these pieces.

    If you find the time, I would be more than interested in how you fabricated those BBQ's. I am puzzled by the mid-section run of weld in each segment.

    Once again, Many Thanks.

    1. As an after thought, there is a reason I remember those IBC's. I had not been with the company very long, and the shop-floor foreman was a gruff old barsteward, who I (as I was quite young) was scared of. Having cut some patterns out on the laser in mild steel to trial, before we went in production with the stainless, his comment was "they don't look right". This had me worried as he had been a fabricator "man & boy". Even though we all feared him, everybody respected his knowledge and experience. Therefore I was nervous for the next couple of day while the fabricators formed and welded the patterns into shape.

      Once the fabricators had finished, we went and had a look, and much to my relief they worked out perfectly. The foreman, give him his due, turned to me and just said "well done", before walking off. I will never forget the sense of relief and pride I felt from those two word.

  4. Hi Map,

    Thanks for the great comments. To answer your question about the weld in the barbeque segments they are for shrinking the edge along the split line. I was inexperienced at compound shaping at that point in my sheetmetal career so I just divided the sections into sizes that I could control. Along the long edge there is a considerable amount or shrinking required to get the edge to lay on the buck. I just took out some pie sections to reduce the amount of material along the edge.

    Great story about the laser cut patterns. I have been in the exact same situation with the big chief and his laser like stare. Glad it all worked out.

    Tom Lipton

  5. Tom,

    I think the interview series is a great exercise, even if many skills the interviewee posses go untouched. Maybe the spirit of the individual can be preserved in some fashion for others to enjoy and learn from for some time afterward.

    I recently attended the funeral of a mentor of mine from my youth who was a gifted patternmaker and machinist. Many of the stories told at the service brought both tears and laughter to many, but I couldn't help feeling guilty when leaving for not recording more of what Charlie offered so it was not lost with him. I do carry many of the skills he taught me though, and I strive to not only grow them but pass them to others.

    Another question I'd like to see: "How many pounds of metallic objects end up on the top of the dryer when your bibs/jeans are washed?"

    OK, seriously: "What is your worst shop habit?"

    I am quickly becoming a constant lurker to see when you have posted something new. Keep it up!

  6. Hi J,

    Thanks for the nice comment. I will put up another interview shortly. I'm glad you like the idea.

    To answer your question about my worst shop habit it would have to be not closing a drawer after getting something out. Its bugged a few people over the years but nothing too serious. My dad used to get after me for not picking up the swarf piles that I had swept up with the broom. I guess I tend to sweep an area into multiple piles instead of pushing it to a central location for dust panning. Over the years I guess I forgot a few of the piles for him to find.

    Tom Lipton

  7. Hi Tom,

    I really enjoyed this post and all of your others. so far anything you have written has been professional and helpful! I could not help but get excited about this interview, I am 23 and I look forward to all I might learn before I am old myself! My great uncle died when I was 16. he was a chemical engineer for 3M and I feel I missed learning so much from him other then his lessons in his wood shop. Thank you for your posts!

    Brent Click

  8. Hi Brent,

    Thanks for the nice comment. Sorry to hear you missed out on your great uncle. Just remember these guys are all around you right now. You just have to keep your eyes open and see them for what they have to offer.


    Tom Lipton

  9. Late to the party here. Found your blog through Monkey Likes Shiny. This is an awesome idea, but will need to read and digest a bit before adding anything.


  10. I loved reading this article. There is no shortcut to wisdom or experience.

    In my early years I read the Model Engineer (the British publication), concentrating on back issues from about 1930 to 1960. The writers in those years could not walk into a tool shop and order what they wanted - they had to make everything, often with hand methods. I learnt so much from them.

    Our local EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Chapter organises what they call a "Talk Show", where people who have made their mark in aviation are interviewed before a live audience. We've had pilots who flew P51's in Korea, men who designed and built their own aircraft, men who flew iconic aircraft such as the Blackbird, British Lightning, Spitfires, French Mirages, etc. We've listened to the tales of men who averted certain disaster by their skill, men who have competed internationally in aerobatics and gliding, men who have made significant contributions to aviation safety, and men who have survived combat situations. It's an opportunity I seldom miss.

    Your idea has great merit.

    Russell Dold from Germiston, South Africa

  11. Hi Russell,

    I really want to do more like this. Video interviews are something I'm working on behind the scenes. Thanks for the comment.