Owning Your Own Tools – the slowly dissappearing age of the crafts in industry


NYTimes 7/31/2014

A New York Times article on July 31st about the looming labor stoppage on Broadway included a picture of workers ceremoniously carrying a chest of their tools out of a theater.  I was reminded of my days as a machinist.

In the 1970s, and far earlier, most machinists owned their own hand tools, mostly measuring tools (micrometers, depth gauges, dial verniers for the most part), small hand tools like files, scrapers, sharpening stones, and an array of small gizmos for performing a myriad of machinist wizardry. Some of these tools were created by the individual machinist to solve a particular problem or just fit the hand. I had a scraper fashioned from a file with a triangular cross-section that I preferred over most of the standard scrapers.

Stimulated by these memories I scrounged around and found a few remnants of my own tools.MMO's machinist tools

The two micrometers1  on the left resting on the oak boxes were inherited from my father. He never worked as a machinist but he did run a fairly large machine shop for a number of years in Fitchburg, MA. You can notice red paint here and there. This was part of my marking system that made it much easier at the end of the week to retrieve tools that I had loaned out to other machinists.

This practice of workers’ owning their own tools reflected the craft tradition in industry that had been resisted by corporations from their earliest days, most notoriously in US history in the breaking of the craft unions in the steel industry by Andrew Carnegie in the Homestead strike of 1892.2

Gerstner tool chest

borrowed appropriated from mytoolstore.com

The cabinet of choice back in my day was a wood Gerstner chest that cost around $300, expensive enough so that I never owned one, though I harbor lust for one in my heart to this day.

Every tool chest had locks for security and handles for easy moving. An old guy, Frank Scanlon, my mentor in the machinist trade, once remarked after listening to me complaining about the company we were working in, pointing to these handles, said, “Pick up your tools, Mark, and move on if you are unhappy.” At the time this was not far from a real option. Skilled workers were hard to come by and the economy moved smartly. In fact it struck me that another reason for the handles was that every really good machinist dreamed of opening their own shop. Given the technology of the day, a good line of credit or $20K would set you up with a Bridgeport3 and a lathe in your garage. A few contacts amongst purchasing agents and you were in business. It worked until the next downturn when you became easy-to-jettison excess capacity and orders dried up.

My tool chest was this  Craftsmen 3 drawer steel box in the image below. Mine was in better condition with the bright aluminum paint still in good condition. Fully loaded with all of my tools it weighed over a hundred pounds. A two person job to move it around. Serviceable but not a Gerstner.

3 drawer Craftsman tool chest

A couple of asides.

Frank Scanlon once told me something that has stuck with me. “The mark of a real machinist is that he knows how to fix his own fuckups.” This strikes me as a useful guide to knowing ones level of accomplishment in any field.

I grew up going into my father’s machine shop in the 1950s. I liked the machines, the oils, the metals, the smells and watching my father being so collegial with the machinists. When I went to work in the early ’70s in machine shops things weren’t much different. The computerization of industry was just beginning. Only the defense-aerospace industry had CNC4 machines. By the 1990s when I went back to consult in machines shops my familiar world had almost entirely disappeared. I might find one or two machine tools in the back corner of a shop that I could actually run. Although machinists still describe what they do as “chip making”5 the methods have changed so utterly to render me as useful today in a machine shop as a farrier in an auto garage.

  1. These micrometers and the vernier caliper over on the right were pretty handy at a time when tolerances of +/- .003″ and +/- .005″ were pretty common. These tools could reliably measure to this level of precision. Today it is typical to see dimensions of +/- .001″ and +/- .0005″ []
  2. It must be noted that the craft unions also caused problems within the larger labor movement because they resisted organizing unskilled labor which came to be the dominant element in modern capitalism []
  3. “Bridgeport” was both a real company headquartered in Bridgeport CT that built general purpose milling machines and a generic term for the same. []
  4. computer numerical control []
  5. referring here to the metal chips that result from machining processes. []

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