Why the Shop

I spend a lot of time in a shop. I consider myself a shop person.  But most of the people in my life are not shop people, with only a few exceptions.

I often think about how to relate to non-shop people about the shop. "Why do you spend so much damn time down there?", they ask. "You always come home filthy." "What's so exciting about screw threading of all things?"  "What's the point of endlessly tinkering?"

It's especially difficult to discuss, perhaps, because the shop is not generally a place I go to accomplish a specific thing. I might go there to work on one problem but end up working on the shop itself. Sometimes the tool I need is broken, so I spend an afternoon making a new one, or fixing the old one. The work is often non-linear; I work on what needs to be worked on.

Not many places are ambiguous in this way. A kitchen is for cooking; a classroom is for learning; a theater is for seeing shows. A shop can be for doing anything, and its purpose can change momentarily.  A shop is for working on things, but that includes the shop itself and everything in it.

Working in a shop can have a wonderfully self-reflexive feeling, of constantly re-examining the tools, the process, the shop--even the people in the shop, including yourself.

A shop is a place where all variables are in flux. A mill, for example, is so versatile that it could be used to produce a copy of itself*. When you're standing in front of a mill, the question is not "What is possible?" but now "What do I want to do?".
In the shop, the only limitation is you. It's up to you to decide what deserves your time and effort. It's a nice metaphor for growing up.

But why machine tools and screw threads and such?  What dispassionate things to study and to have strong opinions about.

There's a feeling I get after I've been using a lathe for a while. I don't mean any lathe, I mean one specific lathe, because each one is a little different. When I first start using it, I take my time flipping every lever, making sure I don't make some catastrophic mistake. But over time the lathe and I come to an understanding. I learn her idiosyncrasies, and she lets me know when I'm pushing her too far. After a few weeks, I'm flipping levers left and right. I know every control without taking an eye off the workpiece. I like to use the words sensual and intimate in describing this feeling. It's a little like raising a dog.

My old machining teacher liked to refer to using a machine tool like driving a car, e.g. "How do I drive this daggone mill?".  For my part I think of it more like flying an airplane.  It's more complicated than driving a car, but the possibilities are greater.  Pilots are an elite, sometimes cocky bunch, much like machinists.  Among those in the know, what they do inspires awe.

Machine tools are anything but cold. It honors me to include myself in a tradition that bears the mark of so many great people, including a few of my ancestors. It brings me closer to a history I don't fully understand yet. It gives me something in common with everyone who's ever made something well.

It's by learning to apply tools well that we have advanced our human condition. Our survival depends on knowing how to manipulate our world with tools, and on continuing to pass on that knowledge.

And by the way:
Besides being essential to everything we do, screw threads are, in one sense, a culmination of all human experiences. Their development is the result of many tiny decisions made by many people over many centuries. The most recent decisions were based on older decisions, which were based on yet older ones. That legacy goes back to the earliest humans. And without exaggerating, it can be said that screw threading standards have made fortunes and lost them.

In fact, every modern tool is a permutation of some simple, primitive tool. It was when we first started using these simple tools that we became technological--that we began a period of ever-increasing improvement upon what came before.

*This is theoretically true, but it's not something that happens often. It would require almost fantastical quantities of metal and time.  Some of the tools used to make machine tools are friggin' huge.

1 comment:

Dennis Throckmorton said...

I hear you. I remember the first time I realized that I could cut threads on a lathe. It seemed that anything was possible after that. It sucks hunting around a hardware store trying to find something that "kinda looks like this, but not really." It's much better having the tools to create what your mind imagines.