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Field Expedient

Once in a while I look at something in my shop and think, “Good thing Denny can’t see this.” Like recently when I had a batch of stems to turn for a club pipe and wanted them to be uniform but didn’t want to spend unnecessary time measuring. Denny — Dennis Turk, my machine tool restoration guru — might like the lathe form tools I ground but probably not the scrap of wood I bandsawed into a stop for my dial indicator making a field expedient DRO (digital read-out). OK, it’s an ARO (analog read-out). For each step I measured the first stem as I sneaked up on the correct number, set the dial indicator to zero, and ran the remainder to the same zero. I had a stop clamped on the ways for the X axis and a depth stop in the collet, so only one degree of freedom for each operation.

It actually worked, which made me feel all machinist-y, but it’s a bad location for such a rig, and someday I need either to install an actual DRO or make something to hold the indicator in front of the carriage where it won’t get hit by chips. “Well, you got away with it” is probably what Denny would say.


I haven’t been in very many pipe makers’ shops — only two, now that I think about it. Paolo Becker’s shop in the basement of his home in Rome was spotless, brightly lit, and dust-free, and his custom turret lathe would have looked at home in a dental lab. Denny would have approved. If you can imagine the boiler room of a steamer with piles of briar instead of coal you’d be close to the second one.


Machine shops lie along the same continuum from operating room clean to one big safety violation, and Denny’s shop pegs the clean end of the scale. Denny is a mechanical genius; he can put machines together in his mind and watch them run. I can’t do that, I put them together outside my body, clear an escape route, flip the switch and watch for sparks or smoke. I found Denny in an online machine tool forum when I bought a 1927 South Bend Junior lathe at an auction, then promptly tipped it over moving it and broke it all to hell. Denny had some parts I needed and was regularly posting unbelievable before-and-after photos of machine tools he had restored. He helped immensely when I bought my Logan lathe as a pile of rusty parts and embarked on the long process of trying to Turk-works it, except without tools or knowledge or experience.


That’s Denny’s milling machine in his home shop. He sent the pic to show me how he set up the DRO and pneumatic collet drawbar, but you can see the floor, that’s clean. And there’s a glimpse of storage bins on the opposite wall, those are tidy. Denny lives in Oregon, so it’s kind of a long trip, but I‘ve visited him twice and he drove East twice and stopped by. I think we had diametrically opposite reactions to each other’s shops; I was impressed, he was appalled. I remember him being particularly, ahh, intrigued by one of my bodgier fixes. When I started preparing for my PSO audition I was playing full time as a sub, and noticed an orchestra chair in a corner backstage with a big “X” taped across the seat. The frame had cracked and the X was to make sure it wasn’t used. I asked if I could have it. “I guess so,” said the stagehand. I took it home so my practice chair would be exactly like the ones on stage. I didn’t have a welder, so I cut two splints from 1/8” steel plate, and hose-clamped them to either side, materials I had on hand. While I always intended to fix it properly, it has never given me a spot of trouble. I could drill holes and bolt or rivet the plates on, but then the holes would be stress points. It was the first thing Denny noticed when he walked in the room and he was not reticent in his appraisal.



Of course, I saw nothing similar in Oregon; both his business, Turk Manufacturing, and his home shop were spacious, equipped with the best machines, ingeniously and logically laid out, brightly painted and spotlessly clean. My shop, not so much. I’d like a shop like that, and I took a whack at it when we first went into isolation. I cleaned, organized, fixed. I sorted my drawer of 5C collets so that I could go right to the size I needed instead of playing Where’s Waldo. Quite a bit of my shop, though, still looks like thereifixedit.com.


Field expedient solutions arise from a combination of need and haste, and sometimes a degree of thrift, but they don’t always suck. Like my chair, that thing is just fine. Someday maybe I’ll learn to TIG weld and make it pretty, or maybe not. Recently I had a bunch of nylon cord to cut for pipe bag drawstrings. When cut with a sharp knife, the cord frayed energetically. Yes, I could then melt the frayed ends, but it would save time and make a cleaner job if I had a hot knife which would cauterize as it cut and not create the little nylon pom-poms to begin with. To the internet!



Turns out even the cheap import hot knives are $75, probably an insurance thing since they’re basically soldering irons with blades attached and soldering irons are cheap. Anyway, HELL no. I drove a nail into a piece of scrap 2X4, ground it into something resembling an edge, added an alcohol burner I’ve had since high school, and Bob’s your uncle. Works even better than a hot knife would have in this application since it leaves both hands free, and with the spool turning on my clarinet peg stand (more field expedience) I can measure and cut a drawstring in three moves, ten seconds or less.


I don’t know how many pipe makers have fashioned a soft box for pipe photos from a big cardboard box with a yard or two of white fabric and some work lights. My rig looks terrible from the outside, but every time I’ve tried to make something prettier the resulting photos have been worse. Things that are equally functional and beautiful are sublime and I love them, but there are a number of things in my shop that are good enough for who they’re for, and I could spend a bunch of time making better-looking versions that work the same, or I could make pipes.


However, there is a line between a workable and durable if cosmetically challenged solution and a stopgap measure that has outlived its excuse of haste. The “Denny wouldn’t stand for this” thought struck me as, for the umpteenth time, I dragged the air hose across the garage to attach my blasting cabinet to my air compressor, draping it over the intervening motorcycle. I‘d been doing this for thirteen years and telling myself every time that I could and should do better. If Denny places a machine where an electrical outlet isn’t, he’ll run a circuit in conduit, not drag an extension cord around. His shops, it goes without saying, are comprehensively and neatly plumbed for air, so I decided to take care of this issue and get rid of the tangle of hoses once and for all. I just finished sweating the fittings and running copper tubing across the garage ceiling and trimming the connecting hoses to out-of-the-way lengths.

It doesn’t look like much, but that line of copper across the ceiling saves me a minute or so of setup and takedown every time I blast, plus that moment of self-reproach. I guess it’s a matter of where you start. If you begin every project or repair with the determination to make something that looks beautiful and professional you’ll have a shop like Denny’s, while if you’re happy and maybe a little surprised if it actually works you wind up with a shop like mine. To the right of the cabinet you can see the top of my slack belt sander which looks like The Grinch built it but it works. I made it out of black iron pipe and really should contrive something better than the wooden blocks and clamp holding the tensioning wheel. Maybe a good first project for the milling machine that should be arriving in a couple of weeks. But right now we’re getting stuff off the garage floor, and I suppose while I’m at it I might as well take care of the extension cord running the blast cabinet lights and dust collector.


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