The Joys Of Manual Labor

The world I in which I was raised is far different from the one our children and grandchildren inhabit now.  True, if one grew up in a big city the options for self reliance in living were certainly fewer.  Small towns, suburbs, and farms offered far more opportunity to learn to do for yourself than city living could ever afford.  Not that many people who lived in the cities did not have opportunities for manual labor, learning a craft, or work in a factory.  Now days not many factories are left in the big city, the real estate is to expensive to maintain and the wages too uncompetitive.  High rise buildings still need craftsmen to erect them and do the finish work.  And some of these workers actually live in these cities, union wages and city allowances make that possible.  But there are also pace restrictions to be considered.  How many apartments have large garages with space for workshops?  True, one can find suitable situations in the city if one wishes to spend the time searching, but most individuals who choose apartment or condo living usually don’t want such spaces.  The covered parking lot on the ground level is good enough for their automobile and there is very little maintenance one can do on one’s car these days.

Our schools no longer teach our young how to work with their hands.  Unless one is going into the trades, what would be the use.  Oh, we have specialized vocational training of sorts.  As one might expect, those employees who work for Orange County Choppers or one of the other reality shows where cars are restored or modified, have been to special training.  True, welding is easy enough to learn, that’s the old “wire” welding that uses electrical heat to bond that material in the stick attached to the electrode to the metal, usually carbon steel.  And any fool can cut steel with an oxy-acetylene torch, a little practice and “Viola”, you’re ready to do the simple jobs.  But consider construction a metal box, say one that is six inches high by eight inches wide by twelve inches long.  And say that you want to conserve weight so you choose thin sheet metal.  How would you start the construction.

Well you might produce a couple of drawings, the front, side, and top views.  Any though as to how layout the various pieces and cut them out of your sheet metal stock?  Ah, this calls for thought.  Now if we were working with wood we could cut each of the six sides individually and glue them all together.  Oh, but we want to open the box, Then don’t clue the top to the other five sides, just use a henge or two to connect the top to the box.  But metal usually can’t be glued and the sheet metal you are using is far too thin for weld, you would end up melting the sides at the corners.  Metal is very exacting when it comes to fabrication.  One could use a tab method construction.  First lay out all four sides with an extra space on the top, bottom, and both ends.  Then mark those extra spaces, you can scribe them with a sharp point.  Be sure and mark the corners as well.  Now, with a pair of tin snips (special scissors) notch the extra spaces in the form of a 90 degree vee, we’ll call them tabs, at the corners.  At the two ends, we will cut that bottom and top tap off.

Now we use a brake to bend those tabs at ninety degrees to the sides.  Oh, what is a brake?  Simple, its a hand operated machine where we can place the sheet of metal flat and one side will move up to 180 degrees back on the other side.  For our purposes, we will bend the bottom tab ninety degrees.  The top tab we will bend 180 degrees back on itself.  For the end tabs, bend on our and one in, opposite angles.  Now it is time to bend the corners to form our box, so that is three 90 degree bends.  Now we layout the bottom.  The bottom side will have tabs that extend beyond those of the sides.  We will also notch the corners by cutting out the squares.  The point is that the bottom tabs will be bend to receive the sides with their tabs at 90 degrees outward.  This box side will then sit exactly inside the upturned tabs of the bottom side.  Once we have correctly made our sides, cut and bent the tabs accurately, we can then take a small ball-peen hammer and gently pound the bottom tabs down against the side tabs so that the bottom in interlocked.  It you want to create a box capable of holding water, place flux on those tabs first, then hammer down.  Then you can take a soldering iron and solder to seal those joints.  You will also do the same for the one corner,  We want to solder the inside and outside tabs against each respective side.

The next operation is for the top of the box.  We could get real creative and make the lid with all sorts of tabs and a separate side so that it sits on top without falling off, but let’s keep it simple.  Lay out our sheet with tabs that extend beyond the sides of the box.  We are going to notch squares in the four corners and bend them back 180 degrees.  We don’t want sharp edges.  Then we will solder a henge to the top and to the back of the box.  It is all a fairly simple procedure but I can tell you that for a thirteen year old boy perfection is not possible the first time around.  Skills are learned and improved through practice.  You know that rectangular sheet metal duct in you house, the one you can buy at home depot?  The heating contractor (we didn’t have air conditioning then) would make the ductwork to size on the job.  Now it is all delivered according to uniform sizes.

Don’t get me wrong, metal working is not necessarily harder than woodworking.  Blind dovetail joints must be very precise and hand made, no machine exists that can do that work and even a router is useless.  The old practices took practice.  One learned by doing, by working alongside a journeyman or master craftsman.  It is hand-eye coordination and problem solving at its best.  Yeah, one can build machines and control them by computer, creating perfect products.  But it just doesn’t feel the same as when you create, from start to finish, that next project.  Even digging a ditch that is X number of inches deep, Y number of Inches wide, and Z number of feet long, and the whole ditch is exactly where it should be, well, even that is a skill. Don’t kid yourself, knowing how to use a shovel and pick to best advantage is something one learns by doing.  Yean, a ditch-witch is a wonderful machine but it can’t do everything.  Great for straight lines and hope no water or gas or electric lines are buried in its path.  Only the human hand on a shovel knows when it has hit something that needs extra care.

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