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.
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.
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.
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.